But when it came time to go back and renew the contract, too often Mr. Whittle struck out.
Today, Whittle Communications is radically restructuring and downsizing. Even if the moneymaking "Channel One," a daily 12-minute educational TV show with 2 minutes of ads, succeeds in attracting fresh capital, Mr. Whittle has clearly failed in his bid to be the quintessential marketing man of the 1990s.
Many early ad supporters-from Sears to Maybelline to Kmart-have nothing to do with the Whittle Communications of today.
Valerie Salembier, VP of student magazines at Whittle Communications a decade ago, echoed other Whittle supporters when she called him "one of the brilliant marketing thinkers of our generation, but it's clear that the properties that were successful in the '70s and '80s don't have the same constituency in the '90s."
"When he realized he could not get all the money he needed on an exclusive basis, he had to open it up. And once he did that, he started to get evaluated differently," said Michael Moore, exec VP-worldwide media director at D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York. "He became just another media avail."
Bob Mancini, senior VP-director of media services at J. Walter Thompson USA, Detroit, called the place-based media projects "brilliant conceptually. It's a way to mildly intrude on the consumer in a place where they would not expect advertising without any ill will."
The problem was always verifying the reach and scope of the audience, he said. When the initial flurry died down, people often began to ask harder questions.
But if vision was Mr. Whittle's forte, execution in the backshop was one of the threads that seemed to unravel some of the Whittle projects.
"His selling ability was his greatest asset," said one former top associate. "But there seemed to be an endless litany of back-end problems from dissatisfied customers."
Back in 1988, Mr. Whittle was boasting that his Special Reports magazines signed $80 million in ads through the first two years. He felt he was on the brink of one of the most successful media companies in history and sales of a half-billion in five years seemed within his grasp.
"No one today is as successful at launching magazines as we are," Mr. Whittle boasted in an interview with Advertising Age that appeared May 16, 1988.
Yet even then there were cracks. "A lot of that early buying [in Special Reports] was defensive," said DMB&B's Mr. Moore. "A lot of people bought into the concept because they were afraid if they did not, their competitors would dominate in the new media."
Indeed, the '80s seem a long time ago.
In the latest moves, Whittle has apparently bought some time with lenders behind a $100 million bridge loan-Bank of New York, Bank of Boston and Toronto Dominion. Even though financial sources say Whittle went into default in June when the company failed to make a major principal payment, financial executives say the company is back meeting interest payments in a newly stretched out loan agreement.
Meanwhile, the company continues to shrink operations.
Mr. Whittle said only that he "would not comment on arrangements we do or do not have with the banks" but insisted he hadn't defaulted.
Perhaps nothing will stand as a more symbolic representation of the vanished glory than Whittle's sprawling new corporate headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn.
Dubbed "Colonial Whittlesburg" by the locals, many observers say the $50 million structure siphoned off badly needed funds from other projects.
The company that once employed more than 1,000 people is now down to 625, and the building itself is hunting for a new tenant to fill up all the empty space.
Whittle was always a master of selling himself. When Time Inc. plunked down the original $185 million for 50% of Whittle Communications in '88, the thinking was that it would eventually exercise its option to buy the remaining half. Mr. Whittle personally netted about $40 milion in the deal.
Time Warner today is conspicuously absent from the financing behind the Edison Project, which is technically no longer an official part of Whittle Communications. Chris Whittle is still chairman of the company that plans to privatize public schools and run them for-profit, though Edison was quietly spun off as a separate company that is 40% owned by Associated Newspapers, 40% owned by Philips NV and 20% owned by Chris Whittle. He said the Edison Project has financing until January '95 and is looking for capital to roll it out in the fall of next year.
But as the failed negotiations to sell Medical News Network to Reuters Holdings show, new backers are increasingly wary.
Mr. Whittle, despite the downturns, still has his supporters. Doug Greenlaw, a former top executive who left to become president-CEO of Multimedia, warned: "Don't count Chris out."
One executive said that he felt Mr. Whittle "let his ego get in the way" of a potential deal with Reuters, which didn't want to keep Mr. Whittle as a minority partner. Meanwhile, Medical News Network went off the air last week.
"The mood is strange," said Latisha Cruze, a production assistant. "Most of the people are packing. Me personally, I'm depressed. I've been here since day one."