Commentary by Scott Donaton


Failed Media Baron Cranks Up the Marketing Machine for Edison Schools

By Published on .

"Chistopher Whittle, the 54-year-old founder and chief executive of Edison Schools, sat in his stylishly simple Midtown Manhattan office and pondered what his critics have said about him. That he is
Scott Donaton, editor of 'Advertising Age.'
extravagant. That he exaggerates reality. That he promises more than he can deliver. Maybe in the past, allowed Mr. Whittle. ... But not at Edison."

The above was the opening to a New York Times story published May 25.

"Chris Whittle has sprung to life. The chairman of Whittle Communications has just ... been told his company today seems to have fallen far short of the promise it showed five years ago. He's out to prove otherwise."

This appeared in Ad Age nearly a decade ago under the headline "Whittle moves to show critics they're wrong."

Sales wizard
Any media or advertising observer who caught recent coverage of the challenges faced by Whittle's for-profit school venture has to be reminded of his days as a media baron in the making. This sales wizard was once characterized as the "Henry Luce for the '90s." But his act quickly grew thin. By 1992, Ad Age questioned whether he was "a mere master of self-promotion" who ran "an arrogant company prone to promising more than it can deliver." By 1994, with his company being broken up and sold for

parts, Ad Age declared that his ambitions had "clearly failed."

There are, of course, second acts, even third and fourth acts, in American lives. But after reading about Edison, and particularly Whittle's defense of its ambitions, it's difficult not to conclude that his second act is eerily reminiscent of the first.

Whittle, who shelved political ambitions and launched Edison to influence education from the private sector, was hitting walls back in 1993 when he failed to raise $750 million, part of which was earmarked for the schools venture. Whittle Communications was downsized and its place-based media properties such as Channel One and Medical News Network went up for sale. Whittle himself was left with Edison, for which he had ambitious goals.

School reform
Today, the Times calls Edison "a lightning rod in the debate over school reform." That's a label Whittle surely appreciates; he's energized at the center of controversy. The challenge now, as it was then, is to deliver.

According to the Times report, Whittle predicted that Edison would be managing more schools by now than it is. In a story in Ad Age a decade ago, we wrote, "Whittle has shown a tendency to overstate company potential." The Times also mentioned concerns about his spending similar to those voiced when he built a lavish headquarters for his media company. "They've missed the difference between first class and obscene," a former Whittle executive charged at the time.

And, once again, Whittle is seeking cash -- this time to finance Edison's expansion. "I have a pretty good track record on raising capital," he told the Times. In 1992, a vocal critic said of Whittle, "He's obviously able to attract investors, but in terms of building a business and keeping it going, he has a lousy track record."

Plans fall flat
What most caused me to realize some leopards never change their spotted bow ties were the statements in the Times that remarked on his relentless optimism. Even as his media company faltered, Ad Age wrote that "Whittle ... refuses to admit his visionary plans have fallen flat."

Edison's ultimate success or failure won't impact the businesses Ad Age covers as the fortunes of Whittle's media group did. But I'm glad my kids don't go to schools under Edison's management. Or that air Channel One, for that matter.

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