Commentary by Scott Donaton


Out of the Slam and Back on the Stage: Can She Pull It Off Again?

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This was at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, and the place was lousy with faded icons.

In the lobby, Mr. T, wearing a muscle shirt and about 20 pounds of gold, aimed to look menacing but landed just

Scott Donaton, editor of 'Advertising Age.'

north of ridiculous. In the dining room, Larry Flynt tried for powerful, his bulky bodyguards fidgeting nearby, but appeared merely anachronistic.

The gentleman across from me at lunch, who qualifies as one of the dozen most powerful buyers of media, asked a question that's on millions of minds these days, from those of power brokers on both coasts to housewives in the flyover states:

"What do you think Martha's chances are?"

Odds of a comeback
I wasn't sure if he meant her overall odds of pulling off a comeback or the chance that her planned Mark Burnett-produced TV shows will succeed, but the two things are completely intertwined in my mind, so I gave him the only honest answer I could. "I have absolutely no idea."

At which point he reached across the table, a grin spreading over his face, and shook my hand. He obviously felt the same way. Although for him, it's more than a parlor game; he'll likely wager some portion of his clients' budgets on the answer, and clients these days (you may have noticed, dear reader) aren't too tolerant of bad guesses.

Martha is just days away from blinking into the sunlight outside of Camp Cupcake on her way back to the Bedford, N.Y., estate where she will serve out the house-arrest portion of her sentence. The rehabilitation of her image is already fully under way. There's a new column to pen for her namesake magazine, two TV shows and countless other projects.

One year ago
A year ago, my answer to the Martha question was

Photo: AP
Martha Stewart is just days away from her release from federal prison.
short and confident. "She's toast," I said. "It's over. She's not coming back."

Oh, me of little faith.

I was convinced Martha's wild ride had come to its inglorious end, that Kmart needed to box up the merchandise, the TV cameras returned to their dust covers, the magazine left to slide slowly into oblivion. And Martha, down the road, would stand around the lobby of a Beverly Hills hotel in cut-off shirt and gold chains, hoping to be noticed.

I began to doubt my judgement about six months ago, after I shared my well-worn view with one of the most revered image crafters in the history of spin. He looked at me evenly and said simply, "Just watch."

A compelling second act
When Mark Burnett joined the image-rehab team last fall, I realized there was a good chance that Martha would get her second act, that it could even -- gasp! -- be more compelling than the first.

The most important realization, however, was that what I felt about Martha (and, having spent some time with her and much time observing her over the years, I had my opinion) was irrelevant to her comeback. It's women who will determine whether her lucrative brand franchise will regain its value, and there's growing evidence that many women believe she got a bum steer in the male-dominated business world and are eager to give her another shot.

Martha's two images
Success will ultimately be in the execution, not the strategy. Mark Burnett has yet to produce a dud -- on a side note, the very human The Contender will be a huge hit so buy your ad time now -- but there has to be a first time. Right? It will be a challenge for him to reconcile the softer image she will need to project on her new daytime show with the tough-as-nails taskmaster she'll likely portray on the planned Martha version of The Apprentice.

Martha will also always trail a whiff of scandal, and there remain many people who think she got the comeuppance she deserved and would delight in seeing her tripped up. But I can't deny it any longer. Martha's next act is about to begin, and it's going to be riveting.

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