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Cruelty Rewarded: Michael Wolff Adds Adweek to His List of Failures

Michael Wolff would love this story, if only it were about someone else. The firing of Wolff as editor of Adweek has got all the ingredients he loves most: the proud rise and hubris-laden fall of a prominent media figure, sex, ugliness and just the right amount of snark and unfairness to start a catfight. Here's how he would tell it:

A clue to Wolff's character emerged in 2009, when the "bald, trout-pouted" 55-year-old was caught sleeping with a 28-year-old intern at Vanity Fair. His wife kicked him out of their Manhattan home, but not before joining him in an attempt to evict her 85-year-old mother because they wanted to sell the apartment she lived in. As you can tell, he's a charmer.

If you think abandoning your wife and cashing in on your "batty" mother-in-law's home is cruel, it turns out this is par for the course.

The first of many failures
Wolff came to fame when he published Burn Rate in the late 1990s, a book that charted the comically inept efforts of venture capitalists and other investors to cash in on the worthless new media dot-com that he owned. As the company bled money, he asked his staff to take a cut -- three months without pay. Then he wrote himself a check for $70,000 and left -- for Tuscany.

Since then, Wolff has been failing upward. He got himself a column at New York magazine, writing about the media. This, he believed, qualified him to stage a buyout of the entire magazine, along with Mort Zuckerman, owner of The Daily News and Donny Deutsch, the former ad agency chief. The bid failed, naturally, and Wolff left that gig, too.

He recycled his New York experiences into a book titled Autumn of the Moguls, about media owners such as Rupert Murdoch and Barry Diller et al. The tome was distinguished by two things:

  1. The abject lack of access he had to his subjects (in one chapter he manages to spend only seconds with financier Steve Rattner, simply to exchange pleasantries; in another he fails to meet Martha Stewart entirely).
  2. His prediction -- in 2003 -- that Rattner, Murdoch etc. were all at death's door, and thus their empires would shortly totter. Needless to say, they're all still going strong. Unlike Wolff.
He then landed at Vanity Fair, which for many journalists would be the ne plus ultra gig: Lots of money and only one thing to write each month. But somehow he was tempted last year by Prometheus Global Media into taking a job he was uniquely unsuited for: running the decidedly unglamorous, nuts-and-bolts trade publishing operation that is Adweek.

Barely concealed contempt
"Uniquely unsuited" isn't an opinion, it's a fact. Here's what Wolff told me he believed about the ad agency business in 2003 when I interviewed him for Campaign: He said agencies are "run by people who know nothing about advertising. The idea that you will be able to get great work out of disparate agencies across the globe is just ridiculous." Those "know nothing" global agencies are, of course, in rude health. (You can see more of Wolff's barely concealed contempt for the business in this column he wrote for Adweek about how awful the Cannes ad festival is.)

As the magazine's former managing editor during the 1990s, I know how Adweek's business model works: It churns out enough detailed information about the ad biz to require ad execs to buy subscriptions to it and to require marketing services companies to buy advertising in order to reach those executives. That model requires the magazine's reporters and editors to write about some pretty obscure stuff: job switches by minor creative directors; account reviews at Midwestern insurance companies; acquisitions of mid-sized ad boutiques you've never heard of. The fact that this information is badly chronicled elsewhere is how the magazine derives its value.

Wolff, however, knew better. He closed two sister magazines -- Brandweek and Mediaweek -- and lost the subscribers that went along with them. Then he had Adweek cover the stuff he was interested in: Rupert Murdoch and other sexy figures in media. This was a war he was bound to lose because mainstream media already covers that stuff; who is going to pay Adweek to cover it also? (Also, what was it about Brill's Content going out of business that Wolff didn't understand?)

To his credit, Wolff redesigned the magazine to make it look more exciting. But in a digital age, doubling down on the print product was a fool's errand.

As the months went by, I discussed Adweek with ad agency executives high and low over lunches, drinks and dinners. They all told me the same thing: Wolff seems to be making the magazine a more lively read, but "lively" is not useful to someone who most needs to know whether Burger King is happy with Crispin Porter + Bogusky.

Kicking a corpse
Ultimately, Wolff's cruel streak surfaced again. In March he wrote a hate-filled elegy for Elaine Kaufman, who ran the restaurant Elaine's on the Upper East Side. Although Kauffman was unable to defend herself, being dead and all, Wolff began kicking the corpse of this "loud, stupid, uncomprehending woman":

She would slog through her restaurant, Elaine's on the Upper East Side, like a punch-drunk prizefighter, or a low-class madam, or public-house wench vastly past her prime, more threatening than hospitable, muttering discordant and guttural oaths, and, given her size, taking up far more space than the front room in her narrow establishment could afford.
Her crime? She ran a successful club room for famous New York media folk. Media and advertising walk hand in hand in New York, and some have not forgiven him for this act of cowardice. His ability to alienate people was one of the reasons he was let go.

The Elaine piece appeared in GQ, raising the question of why he was giving red-hot editorial to a magazine he did not work for. Even his Twitter wasn't commited to Adweek: It promoted Newser, his web site, not the trade magazine he was supposed to be promoting.

Note the trend here: It's yet another failure in a string; yet another paycheck for screwing up. Doubtless he will land on his feet. Pray it's not near you.


Image by Wikimedia, CC.
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