Ken Auletta Turns His Eye Toward Ad Industry

The Veteran Reporter Interviews, and Is Interviewed by, Rance Crain

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Ken Auletta and Rance Crain interview one another.
Ken Auletta and Rance Crain interview one another. 

Ken Auletta is writing a book about advertising because the advertising business is in the throes of disruption, and disruption is something he likes to write about.

He came by the office to "pick my brain," as he put it, and I must say I enjoyed the process of observing how another reporter tries to pry the most out of the person he's interviewing.

The trick is making the other guy feel like he's having an interesting conversation, and I think I asked him as many questions as he asked me.

For instance, I wanted to know about other stuff he's written on disruption, and Ken said of his 11 books the two that most centered on disruption were "Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way," published in 1991, and "Googled: The End of the World as We Know It," published in 2009.

"I could probably make the argument that several others were about disruption," Ken said, including "World War 3.0," which covered the Microsoft antitrust trial and showed how the internet would disrupt the company, and "Greed and Glory on Wall Street," which covered how the traders were displacing investment bankers and coming up with new ways to lure investors.

And we talked about how Netflix is turning the network TV model on its ear. I got the feeling that Ken wants to write about how both outside and inside forces are playing havoc with the traditional client-agency relationship and what new forces will emerge. We talked about how everybody's doing native advertising and you don't need agencies to lead the charge.

My sense is that Ken wants to figure out a plausible scenario that will still be developing when his book comes out and that he can also write about in his New Yorker articles. He added he hasn't written an article for the magazine since last August because he's been so busy immersing himself in the ad world.

Ken pressed me about whether advertising was as interesting and colorful as it once was. He thought it remarkable that The New York Times didn't have an ad column anymore. I told him my view was that advertising isn't as creative or colorful today because it's now big business, and practitioners are less likely to roll the dice like they used to in the old days.

We both agreed that Super Bowl ads weren't very good this year. We both remembered the one from Colgate about saving water, but Ken wondered whether the ad would get me to buy Colgate toothpaste. I said no, but I must admit the ad did get me to turn off the faucet a little quicker. That's a lot more than most advertising gets me to do.

Ken had an interesting way of getting me to say more precisely what I mean. I brought up one of my favorite topics, about consumers being the same people as voters and displaying the same fervor against establishment candidates and establishment brands. I said that voters were very angry about the way things were going in the country, but then Ken asked me if they showed the same anger against companies that marketed the brands they buy.

I had to admit that consumers were more skeptical than angry, but drastic changes in their buying habits are still being made.

I met up with Ken again in Miami, where we both attended the 4A's conference. He was there to interview Martin Sorrell of WPP, so I got a chance to talk to him further about his views on reporting and interviewing.

One of the problems of today's journalism, Ken believes, is that form dictates content. So the form -- give me a headline, give me a lead, give me 500 words -- determines its content. It's difficult in that context to establish any rapport with the person being interviewed, who fears that you're going to take a snippet of what he or she said and blow it up into an embarrassing headline.

In Ken's line of work, books and lengthy articles, his job is to be a good listener, so the idea is to get people talking about themselves and their organizations. "If you have lots of time and space, as you do when you're writing a book, it's just not one interview, and your task is to demonstrate that you are really interested in what they do and their company's mission."

As the interviewer, don't try to show off how much you know or talk about your own life and career. "You can't ask questions if you lack humility," Ken said, because then it appears as if you already know the answers.

Too many journalists get full of their own importance by pontificating on cable TV news shows. "I turn down a lot, but I also do a lot," Ken admitted.

His interview with Martin Sorrell was not conducted under the best of circumstances and was governed by Ken's "form dictates content" mantra. Sir Martin was in London and Ken sat alone on the stage at the conference. The 4A's audience could see Sir Martin via a video hookup, and Sir Martin could see Ken -- but Ken didn't know he could be seen.

His first question was intended to "loosen him -- and the audience -- up," Ken told me after the session. He recounted how Donald Trump likes to talk about who he'd like to punch in the nose. "Who would you like to punch in the nose?" Ken asked. Sir Martin answered he didn't want to punch anyone in the nose, but added: "I think it depends on how this interview goes." So Sir Martin was on the defensive from the get-go.

And very guarded in his remarks. When Ken asked about kickbacks, Sir Martin said flatly that rebates, as he called them, don't exist in the U.S. "I don't see the point" of the question, he added.

He maintained that WPP has "a high level of transparency" when it comes to financial deals its agencies engage in. He said WPP agencies act as principal in buying premium inventory, and clients can participate or not. "We are transparently not transparent," he remarked.

When Ken brought up the hostile-workplace and gender discrimination lawsuit against the former CEO of J. Walter Thompson, Sir Martin was quick to add the word "alleged." And he emphasized that the former JWT CEO, Gustavo Martinez, had not been found guilty "in a court of law" but only in the "court of public opinion." He kept telling Ken to be more "precise" in his questions.

Sir Martin, it seemed, was ready for combat. At one point, he lambasted Maurice Levy, the head of Publicis, for saying that the allegedly misogynistic and racist behavior at the heart of the lawsuit was a "one-off." Maurice, he said, "has a habit of ignoring the facts and not letting the facts interfere with his analysis," Sir Martin contended.

When Sir Martin's answers dragged on or went off in different directions, it was hard for Ken to rein him in because of the lack of eye-to-eye communication. But still one person at my table thought Ken got more information out of Sir Martin than he had anticipated.

So even though a half-hour video interview wasn't the ideal venue for Ken, he managed to extract some newsworthy material, namely to get Sir Martin to comment on the harassment case and to confirm that Erin Johnson, the JWT communications chief who made the complaint, is welcome to return after her leave of absence.

At the end of his interview with me conducted in the friendly confines of my office back in New York a few days earlier, Ken took out his iPhone and took my picture. I asked him why he did that. He said he did it for descriptive purposes. "If something is distinct about the subject -- like he doesn't shave," Ken said with a grin.

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