The Root Cause

So it is no secret to anyone who knows me that I happen to like creativity.  Hell, I sometimes even consider myself slightly creative.  It is also no secret that I am likely to either drone on about or rail (I suppose that depends on your interest level and opinion) against the state of creativity here in America and what we tend to find “good” on a large scale.  To be fair, I’m not a film/music/art/theater/literature critic.  Just a guy with an opinion…and a computer…and access to them internets.

So what the fuck happened?  Why are our giant media companies so hell bent on jamming pure shite in our eyes and in our ears?  Insert Howard Beale screaming “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” from the movie Network.  But really, what happened?  Well, I’d like to take a stab at what I think the core issue is; all media companies are, to be frank, bitches to two things, data and the bottom line.  They gotta meet them quarterly earnings…or else…or else…or else, they’ll have to fictionalize another group of books for the NEXT quarter.

Oh, I know, I know, “Dang nabbit Keith, you sure to seem right cynical about all this capitalistic deliciousness.”  Quite the contrary, I am an optimist…an optimist with an opinion…and a computer…and access to them internets.

So really, where does this whole “bitch to the bottom line and data” theory stem from?  Why are organizations so beholden to that?  Well, I can’t say for certain, but in a recent article by Rana Foroohar entitled “Driven off the Road by M.B.A.’s” from Time Magazine, she posits that it may in fact come from one Robert Strange McNamara.  Seriously, his fucking middle name is STRANGE.  Well, that is just plain…odd.

For those that don’t know, here’s the Coors Light biography on Robert McNamara.  McNamara is the guy who was the first non Ford family member to serve as president of the Ford Motor Company, he created the format that drove us deeper into Vietnam, he became the head of the World Bank, and in what should be NO surprise, was a graduate of the Harvard Business School.  But my real issue with him, as Foorhar points out, is his idea and driving philosophy that “if you can measure it, you can manage it”.  And to some extent that is true.  In fact, I don’t disagree with it at all, BUT it can NOT be the driving force or the mandate to run a company, especially a creative company.

Now I know what you are thinking, “But Keith, come on, data mining, data analysis and data management are imperative to today’s modern corporate economic environment.”  And to you, I say, horse shit.  Yes, there is a place for that stuff in every company and you need it.  The companies that now rely so much on that information were built on balls, brawn and IDEAS, with a focus on the consumer.  You know, the customer…the people that buy the shit.  Somehow, I can’t picture Jack Warner (founder of Warner Brothers Pictures) sitting through a presentation detailing how much more money they can squeeze out of their new picture if the analyzed the data and re-focused the ad campaign.  I picture that conversation going like this:

INT.  DAY JACK WARNERS OFFICE ON THE WARNERS OFFICE ON THE WARNER BROTHERS LOT.  THE YEAR IS 1941.

SITTING AT HIS HUGE OAK DESK, MR. WARNER CHOMPS ON A CIGAR AND TWO MARKETING DRONES SIT IN FRONT OF HIM WITH THEIR PRESENTATIONS AT THE READY.

DRONE NUMBER 1
Well, Mr. Warner we have some amazing data to look at here from our Tulsa office.

WARNER
Data? What the fuck are you talking about?

DRONE NUMBER 2
Well sir, we’ve taken a look at the numbers from this past weekend out of Tulsa and think if we can just re-cut the radio campaign, our data indicates we can get another four weeks of 75% full theaters in the south and southeast.

WARNER
Listen dummy, I don’t know what data is and I don’t give a flying fuck about this “data”.  I don’t give a shit about theater owners whining about their capacity.  Tell them that unless they keep that piece of shit movie for another two weeks, they will NOT be getting the new Clark Gable picture that we are about to release.  Yea, cuz that is going to fill the theaters at roughly 100% for about five weeks and MY “data” tells me that THIS is gonna be a fuck of a lot more money for everyone.
Oh you look skeptical, do you know how I know this?  Cuz I’ve seen the movie and it is good!  I know what people want and I want to give it to them.

DRONE NUMBER 1
Yes sir, but if you’ll just have a look…

WARNER
(Throws 100 dollars at him.)
Listen you little shit, there’s a hundred dollars, get the fuck outta my office and go start your own fucking studio.  And if you don’t wanna do that, listen to what I am saying.  The name on the entry way reads “WARNER BROTHERS STUDIOS”, not “TWO MORONS TALKING ABOUT DATA”.  I know what people want, because I give it to them.  Now get the fuck out of here and bring me back some useful information, like the new blonde’s tit size.

FADE OUT.

Can you picture Ahmet Ertegun sitting trough some data presentation?  No, he’d be out in a bar listening to music and trying to find the next big thing.  Can you picture William S. Paley sitting through something like that?  Can you picture Richard Branson sitting through that?  Of those mentioned, the only possible candidates may be Branson and Paley, but only if Branson were in a coma and I am still not entirely  convinced about Paley.

At this point you may be saying to yourself, “OK, interesting read Keith, but how does McNamara fit into all this?”

Well, if indeed “you can measure it you can manage it” is the credo that McNamara is to be known for, so nice to see that Harvard M.B.A. can have such legs.  I suspect one of the first things he learned was this mantra.  Now, where else do we see a shit ton of Harvard M.B.A.’s residing?  If your guess is in leadership positions of any number of large multinational publicly traded companies, reward yourself with some ice cream.  And ALL large media companies are owned by even larger multinationals, who are bitches to the bottom line.  So, that shit trickles down the corporate rung.  Is it really that far of a leap to say that the data management philosophy McNamara espoused is responsible for “Two And A Half Men”?  Nope.  Is it hard to make the leap that this philosophy has made every development and business minded creative person HYPER aware of their responsibility to tow the corporate mandate?  No.

Now look, money drives all business and that piece of shit show “Two And A Half Men” is a juggernaut for CBS and at least it is a scripted show.  Trust me when I say, that is the ONLY compliment I can come up with.  The big old McNamara philosophical fuck stain on television is reality television.  Let me re-phrase that, “reality” television.  It’s cheap to produce; you don’t have to pay actors 1.3 million dollars an episode.  So as a network, you have analyzed the data (ratings – please don’t ask me how fictionalized those are) and determined that more of these unscripted shows will yield  better return.  You see, if it is successful, it’s a cash cow, if it fails, you have not lost that much dough.  And THIS will present you as a true corporate man who is there to serve the lord god almighty himself, the CEO of the corporation.  And you serve him by keeping your numbers down and you keep your numbers down by measuring and analyzing your data sources.

What television developers SHOULD be doing is looking for exciting and new creative talent and nurturing them to a point where they CAN get a show of their own or serve to help make a struggling show better.  I am literally waiting for the series “Animal Big Brother” where you stick a bunch of cats in a house, videotape them, and then the winner is voted on by people who watch it.  It’d be like a 42 minute YouTube clip…wait, that actually sounds good, I gotta write that down.

The best and most horrific example of this is NBC’s gigantic aborted fetus that was the Jay Leno Show at 10p.m.  Now, what they will tell you is that show was profitable.  It probably was, but good fucking god almighty, AT WHAT COST?  That network is STILL struggling to rebound from that.  So yea, they may have had a profitable show in the most coveted dramatic time slot in television, which they DOMINATED for roughly 20 years.  But they have spent the last two years trying to find their way back.  And think of the shows they have produced, then purchased, then aired that then failed.  If I had to guess, all in, probably close to 200 million dollars for that one time period.  Did they make 200 million dollars off that Jay Leno show in five months?  No…fucking…way.  And they are still a long way away from re-bounding.

So was the bean counting worth it?  Not from a long term financial perspective…and you will note, I left out the public relations nightmare.

Oh and the movie studios?  They are worse than the fucking networks.  If a movie is not animated, based on a comic book, a re-boot, a TV show, a sequel, a Oprah book club choice or some other gauge of incredible banality or mediocrity, then the movie will not get made.  “Oh, come on now, that’s not fair.  Tons of indie films are made all the time.”  They’re not indie films dummy, all those indie studios you are thinking of to prove me wrong have shingles on MAJOR studio lots and are DISTRIBUTED through the majors.  In short, the indies are FINANCED by the majors.  “Well, not entirely.”  Absolutely true, not entirely.  But enough that the term indie needs to be removed.

And there are some terrific independent film makers out there who screen their own stuff, who find different ways to disseminate their craft.  Now THAT is indie film, not the latest Mirimax or Studio Canal release.  So what is the McNamara philosophical fuck stain on the movie industry.  Virtually anything directed by Michael Bay.

Oh and lastly, the beloved and beleaguered recording industry.  Oh my oh my.  Is pirated music and illegal downloading the only reason record companies are failing faster than a hooker with cold sores all over her mouth offering five cent blow jobs? No.  Again, all of the major labels are owned by large multinational organizations and as such are bitches to the bottom line.  Fuck creativity, fuck talent, FUCK forward thinking, I need this album to MOVE and I need the new Adele song to close out “Grey’s Anatomy”.  Actually, that’s not fair to Adele, she has talent and is proving it.  I’ll let you pick your own sub-par pop song for that illustration.

The real reason labels are failing so miserably?  They lost sight of the two things.  One, nurturing a stable of artists and helping them develop and two, they lost all sense of shit detection.  The most alarming thing about the recording industry is that it is run NOT by Harvard guys or M.B.A. guys, hell sometimes they aren’t even high school, let alone college, graduates.  I am fairly certain Jay-Z learned his business acumen hustling crack or weed and then eventually his own music.  And Jimmy Iovine?  Come on, that guy has the best rock and roll ears I can think of.  But for the love of Christ, won’t someone just slap these people across the face to make them come to terms with the fact that having an artist sell consistently and steadily over 10+ years will eventually reap more money that whatever piece of shit Katy Perry is screeching this week.

And that says NOTHING about the long term benefits of having prestige artists on your label.  Over time, you won’t even have to go out and find good acts, if done correctly, they will come to you.  I mean, today, who would you rather sign with Universal Music Group or Chess Club Records (home to the amazing Mumford & Sons)?  If you answered Chess Club Records, reward yourself with some ice cream.

So what is the McNamara philosophical fuck stain on the music industry?  The current state of the industry itself.  It is the one of the three that I would suggest a complete and total overhaul and re-alignment to the things that matter.  And what matters in music is not data, it’s not airplay, it’s not marketing, it is the music.  And until the heads of labels figure that out (and I honestly don’t think they will, they want to keep the fat paycheck coming by continuing to blame everyone else) the state of the music industry will continue to slide downhill.

“Oh now, come on Keith.  Surely you can’t be saying that Robert McNamara is responsible for ALL of this?”  Correct, I am not saying that.  What I AM saying is the particular business philosophy that he championed, “if you can measure it, you can manage it”, has spawned a generation of people looking to claw their way up the corporate ladder by proving their data prowess and proving their worth to their respective companies (again, my emphasis is only highlighting TV, Film and Music) at any creative cost.  Literally and figuratively.

There is a place for these data people in every industry and it is working WITH the creative champions within the organization, not dictating to them.  Artists are never good right out of the gate and not every first album, movie or TV show is going to be good.  If anyone cares, Elaine Bennis from Seinfeld was an after thought added only after the pilot was shot and it was determined they needed a woman’s voice.  Artists need guidance and objective analysis, not number crunching.

McNamara did many things in his life and in taking a cursory look at his life; I’d say he may have operated at about a 50% good and 50% bad ratio.  The bad is some of what I just wrote about and here are some of the good things:

*In 1968, as the head of the World Bank and at the annual IMF and World Bank Group meeting he said that countries permitting birth control practices would get preferential access to resources.

*In his thirteen years at the Bank, he introduced key changes, most notably, shifting the Bank’s focus towards targeted poverty reduction.

*He issued the Equal Opportunity in the Armed Forces directive, which dealt directly with the issue of racial and gender discrimination in areas surrounding military communities. The directive declared, “Every military commander has the responsibility to oppose discriminatory practices affecting his men and their dependents and to foster equal opportunity for them, not only in areas under his immediate control, but also in nearby communities where they may live or gather in off-duty hours.”

*In early November 1967, McNamara’s recommendation to freeze troop levels, stop bombing North Vietnam and for the US to hand over ground fighting to South Vietnam was rejected outright by President Lyndon B. Johnson. McNamara’s recommendations amounted to his saying that the strategy of the United States in Vietnam which had been pursued to date had failed.

I’ll borrow Deborah Shapely’s closing statement from her biography of Robert McNamara: “For better and worse McNamara shaped much in today’s world — and imprisoned himself. A little-known nineteenth century writer, P.W. Bornum, offers a summation: `We make our decisions. And then our decisions turn around and make us.’”

Robert Strange McNamara, visionary or jackass…or both?

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