What Do Giants of Ad Industry Think About the Future? Anyone?

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William B. Ziff stood at a podium on the stage of the grand ballroom of New York's fabled Waldorf-Astoria hotel in 1992. The hundreds of people grouped around tables in front of him were there to celebrate as he accepted a lifetime-achievement award from the Magazine Publishers of America.

But Bill Ziff -- who took over the family business, Ziff-Davis Publishing, when his dad died in 1955, who battled cancer and came back to reinvent his company as a technology giant -- wasn't about to go easy on his audience.

Not for him a serene stroll down memory lane and a gracious bath in warm applause. Nope, Bill was going to give the gathered magazine executives a piece of his mind, tell them why public ownership and gigantism were harming the industry he so loved.

"When I started out, nearly the entire industry consisted of family-controlled businesses," started on shoestring budgets and run by owners who valued talent. "Business conversations with these people were not about money and finance. They were about publishing and journalism.

"That is certainly not the way things are."

Whether or not you agreed with him, you had to admire Bill Ziff on that day. He wasn't passing the baton softly, but thwacking it into the hands of the next generation, handing over with it words of wisdom and warning. (It must be noted that after he turned the company over to his sons, they broke it up against his wishes and sold it for parts.)

I thought of Bill Ziff last week as I sat in the same ballroom for the American Advertising Federation's Advertising Hall of Fame luncheon, bit into possibly the same cut of prime rib, and listened as the inspiring life stories of the inductees were book-ended by corporate commercials and acceptance speeches that failed to rise above harmless pleasantries.

This is not a slight against those honored at the luncheon; I wouldn't dare downplay their achievements, nor compare my resume with theirs. To the contrary, my disappointment is rooted in respect for the honorees, and my belief that leadership brings with it certain responsibilities.

Selfishly, perhaps, I waited in the audience for one more gift from these achievers at a time of earth-rattling change in the businesses in which they were pioneers. I wanted to hear their views of the media and marketing industries today, how the lessons they learned along the way could be applied as we move forward.

Time Inc. founder Henry Luce gets a free pass. After all, he died the year I was born so I wasn't expecting much in the way of a speech. But the other honorees missed an opportunity to teach us all something, and I am sorry for that. These were men celebrated for a reason, and I wanted a taste of their greatness.

Does Al Neuharth, who ran Gannett and founded the nation's first national newspaper, USA Today, believe print has a future? What does he think will become of daily newspapers in the digital age?

How about Robert L. Johnson, one of the most successful African-American entrepreneurs ever, who started BET in the early days of cable and later sold to Viacom for some $3 billion? What's his view of the lack of diversity in the ad business, clearly evident in a quick scan of the room? How does he view the splintering of the media business and the move away from broadcast TV as the primary ad medium?

Donald R. Keough spent most of his career at Coke, including more than a decade as president. What's his take on the declining popularity of colas? More broadly, does he believe it's possible to build and sustain global iconic brands in these fractured times?

Maybe I'm asking too much. But I want to know.

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