By Tony Samson
TV interviews of businessmen used to be drab. The set was dull, a gray background with the program title: None of your Business. Only the red necktie of the interviewee splashed color to the scene. The two talking heads cover such topics as GDP, fire insurance options, talent retention programs, and the cost of lost productivity from traffic, given various assumptions — Are you riding in an ambulance?
Business shows have switched gears and taken a page from glossy magazines (now mostly online) with their soft coverage of beauty queens, feuding sisters, and celebrity chefs. CEOs and tycoons have become media subjects getting a more casual treatment.
It may have been the annual listing of the 10 richest tycoons (or a list of the Top 1,000 taxpayers) that turned wealth into a celebrity game although they always have been, but now with more details.
CEOs, who don’t own the companies they head and cannot be classified as tycoons, also get their celebrity turn, usually through concerted PR efforts on their birthdays or company anniversaries. They are known by their initials, like IOU.
The sheer size of a business empire elevates its high-profile executives. Corporate metrics like revenues, market cap, profits, and net worth are disregarded because they’re too hard to follow. (Try saying EBITDA) They are also volatile and not always disclosed. It’s enough for a company to be described as among the biggest for its CEO to be accorded celebrity status when introduced as a wedding sponsor — he is the owner of the nationwide tire vulcanizing chain, “U Blew It.”
One determinant of fame is visual ubiquity. A business with many branches in different parts of the country qualifies, especially when it has a distinctive logo, like a bumble bee. Thus, owners of food chains, motel networks, or a line of apparel featured in big billboards become more of celebrities than an investment banker or the CEO of a tech company — we are in the Internet of Things (IOT). That’s interesting, Sir.
Maybe because business achievements like tripling of shareholder value are too abstract for the celebrity hounds to appreciate, it’s what the CEO can buy, whether companies or private jets, that seems to impress.
Interviews of CEOs now tend to be lifestyle-oriented and shot “on location”: the plush boardroom adorned with expensive art works, the executive gym, and the helipad are juxtaposed with towering buildings under construction and a ride in a helicopter. These are all video-taped with the chug of the propellers in the background — Is that a man-made lake down there?
Hobbies need to be unusual. (Reading Victor Hugo in French is dismissed as pretentious.) The obsession is not limited to collecting big sculptures just outside the lobby of the head office or joining triathlons, or training for one. Causes and advocacies are also declared. Prevention of child abuse, protecting an endangered species (old employees), promoting safe sex (no video needed), and turning rivers into additional transport hubs. These now define the CEO — What legacy would you like to leave?
The business scenarios of the executive conducting a meeting (at the head of a table and doing hand signals as his minions take notes) or gazing out the window looking for a cumulus formation have nothing to do with success in business. The leader may mention his management style of accessibility (My office is always open… though I’m not always there), and the introduction of a paperless culture — except in the genderless toilets.
Still, there are news segments, especially in business channels, that do away with the lifestyle questions and jump right into numbers — Your cash flow has been shrinking in the last three quarters, can you still maintain your dividend rate? However, the background is livelier — pie charts, outside scenes of pedestrians rushing to Starbucks, and the trading floor.
The CEO doing the Zumba in the gym works well for a female subject. Pole dancing is usually reserved for movie celebs.
The “day-in-the-life” portrait of the CEO now favored in TV features goes for the soft side of business. Still, the rule on high media profiles still holds: “The more celebrated the executive, the less sterling the numbers become.”
Of course, anonymity does not also imply wealth. It just means nobody knows who you are… which is not bad.
Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.