June 4, 2001
Let us now praise famous hucksters. Let us pay homage to the likes of David Ogilvy, Maurice Saatchi and Michael Robertson.
If you're a marketing maven, right now you're likely stuck somewhere between horrified and confused. Since Frederic Wakeman's deliciously over-the-top 1946 novel appeared, "huckster" has been the most damning term that can be hurled at an advertising person. It connotes everything empty, unethical and utterly promotional. Hucksterism seems to be the opposite of real value. To apply it to an icon such as Ogilvy, to compare him with a tarnished poseur such as Lord Saatchi, or to a tainted Internet entrepreneur such as Mr. Robertson -- horrors!
Selling the future
I'd like to offer an alternative definition. A huckster is a man or woman who can see the future and successfully sell it, long before the sheepish masses have the least sense that beyond the horizon lies something wonderful.
Consider the founder of MP3.com, Michael Robertson. When I first encountered him four years ago at streaming media conferences, he was the textbook definition of a huckster (then still a damning word to me). When he wasn't pontificating to brainless Internet journalists, he was huddling with executives from other Internet media companies -- most of them empty suits like himself. To any rational observer, they (Mr. Robertson, certainly) had nothing to sell. Most B2C Internet businesses simply had no rational value proposition that could support their valuations.
David vs. Goliath
MP3.com was an egregious example. Napster later proved digital delivery of music could be unusually appealing to consumers, but MP3.com had nothing like Napster's revolutionary peer-to-peer distribution technology. It had nothing, in fact, beyond a domain name that tied it tenuously to the digital-music phenomenon. Mr. Robertson blustered that he was assaulting the titans of the recording industry. But his was a Lilliputian war. He had created a Web site that would allow myriad "unsigned artists" a place to post their tunes, presumably to be discovered by a mass public bored with Limp Bizkit, Beverly Sills and the other recording stars foisted on us by the entertainment oligopoly.
MP3.com's offensive against the music industry was akin to Vantage Press, the vanity publisher, predicting it would topple the book business. But thanks to Mr. Robertson's indefatigable salesmanship and the gullibility of the business press and investors, at one point his company was worth many billions of dollars. I ridiculed their credulity and I scorned his slickness.
I've changed my mind. MP3.com's recent $375 million acquisition by Vivendi Universal helped me. Following Bertelsmann's investment in Napster, and an alliance among Warner Music, BMG, EMI and RealNetworks, the MP3.com deal is another indicator the hucksters were out in front of the incumbents -- far enough out that they could save the incumbents from their own sluggishness. Today, no one doubts digital distribution is transforming the recording industry utterly. However imperfectly, the MP3.coms fashioned the tools and infrastructure that are enabling the industry to survive this revolution.
Not an accurate view
It's true the Michael Robertsons of the world didn't have an accurate, or even necessarily a clear, view of the future. But they knew something was changing and were willing to put their lives in hock to ride along with it. If that meant selling something before it existed -- well, that's an occupational hazard of entrepreneurship and its customer base. In the 1950s, some folks bought Florida swamp that turned out to be worthless; others got land in Orlando.
That's why the comparison with Ogilvy and Saatchi is apt. With his elegance and urbanity, David Ogilvy seems the antithesis of a huckster. But he, too, started with nothing but a vision of what marketing had to do to be relevant to the post-World War II consumer. It was a vision with nary a bit of science or research behind it, and he sold it as relentlessly as a door-to-door insurance salesman. Lord Saatchi was less successful but his vision of globalism has proved a transformative innovation, albeit in the hands of others.
Like Mr. Robertson, Ogilvy and Saatchi both sold something they didn't have -- and the world caught up with them. Progress, it turns out, requires hucksters.
Mr. Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz-Allen & Hamilton.
Copyright June 2001, Crain Communications Inc.