Widely acclaimed as the best series finale in television history, the last episode of “Newhart” had Bob waking up in bed next to his wife. That is, Suzanne Pleshette, his wife from his first sitcom, which had been canceled 12 years earlier. The entire ten-year run of “Newhart” had — you see — been just a dream.
You wonder if Time Warner Chairman Jeff Bewkes woke up this week and rolled over to find former CEO Anne Moore on the adjacent pillow. Because the Jack Griffin era — over after just five months — must have seemed little more than a dream to Time Inc. and the rest of the media world.
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It’s often been said that big, traditional companies like Time Inc. move slowly (Disclosure that I’ve worked with both Time Inc. and Meredith, Griffin’s previous longtime employer, over the years), so the speed at which they abandoned Griffin and his mandate for change was all the more stunning. I don’t know Jack Griffin personally and don’t have any insider knowledge of the palace intrigue, but to see a legendary media company going through this very public personality crisis is troubling. In case you missed the story, here’s a quick chronology:
- After many years at Meredith Corporation, including a major five-year reinvention of its publishing group, Griffin was hired by Bewkes to work similar magic at Time Inc.
- Once at Time Inc., Griffin made some strong moves (streamlining management, bringing on IAB CEO Randall Rothenberg as the company’s first Chief Digital Officer) and a few missteps (letting the talented Kirk McDonald get away).
- After just five months, Bewkes decides he’s seen enough and unceremoniously pulls the plug on Griffin. Days later, Rothenberg does a 180 and goes back to his post at the IAB.
What does this say about Time Inc. and its appetite for reinvention? One would hope this is not just a case of entrenched company lifers using their considerable survival skills to thwart change, but it’s hard not to see it that way. Last week Advertising Age published some rather whiny anonymous comments from Time Inc. insiders about Griffin’s “style.” Apparently he brought in consultants who called current practices “stupid” when “actually some things we were doing were pretty smart.” There are scattered reports that he may also have hidden executives’ gym clothes and pushed a few employees into their own lockers and held them there against their will. The whole affair sounds so petty, especially when the challenges and opportunities Time Inc. faces are so monumental.
Nobody at Time Inc. is asking my opinion, but exercising the nuclear option on Griffin’s reign sends an unmistakable signal to the media and financial world. Right or wrong, the interpretation will be that the company will only tolerate change at a manageable, incremental pace. But those are just not the times we live in. Time Inc. doesn’t need a gentle steward, it needs a fixer. After this whole operetta, will it ever be able to recruit another fixer? And will the next one have any better chance of creating an appetite for change?
Those with opinions or insider knowledge of the situation, send in your comments.