It’s not often that I’ve used this space to review or comment on business books. But the blend of industry perspective and salacious beach reading found in Ken Auletta’s Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else) is irresistible.
Auletta, longtime communication columnist for The New Yorker and author of Three Blind Mice and The Highwaymen, attempts to frame the collapse of the modern advertising business over the past two decades of technological displacement, radical shifts in media consumption and the shape-shifting and land-grabbing by technology platforms, consulting firms and media owners – the aforementioned Frenemies.
I say he attempts it because Frenemies is ambitious but flawed. It’s also absolutely indispensable.
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What makes the book so readable is also what limits its perspective. Auletta anchors his narrative on a handful of big personalities – then-WPP head Martin Sorrell; GroupM architect Irwin Gotlieb; R/GA founder Bob Greenberg; Facebook sales chief Carolyn Everson; and most heavily — and controversially – on MediaLink CEO Michael Kassan. (Full disclosure: My company Upstream Group has featured MediaLink executives at our events, and I have spoken at a MediaLink internal meeting.) Reviewers have called Frenemies “DOA: Dated on Arrival” because Sorrell was pushed out at WPP prior to publication. But to me a bigger issue is that Auletta relies on the Great Men school of history; in a search for the modern-day heirs to Burnett, Bernbach and Lois, he tells his story through mostly older white men (Full disclosure: I am one.) Everson, in her mid-40s with two decades of business experience as the book was written, is too often described as mentee and protégé. While the featured subjects are noteworthy, none seem to really fill the shoes. Or perhaps that’s just the point: advertising companies no longer have people’s names on the door.
What the book does extremely well – and what makes it required reading for younger executives in our industry – is to conjure up the disarray and displacement of today’s advertising establishment. You get a clear picture of the absolute free-fall that holding companies and agencies are experiencing. It’s a story of recrimination, confusion and customer abandonment that many in the industry have failed to see fully even as they’ve lived through it. Like the proverbial frog in the pot, they’ve not fully felt the heat as it’s gradually increased.
This displacement and disarray prepares the ground for Kassan, who with no small amount of help from President and COO Wenda Harris Millard, has made MediaLink the glue in the fractured, fragmented world of media, marketing and communication. Kassan gets far more ink in Frenemies than any of the other protagonists, and in its pages – as in the industry – we find MediaLink at the center of every meeting and the heart of every deal. If Frenemies comes across as Kassan’s biography, it’s not an uncritical one: Auletta presents him as a mashup of Chicago’s Billy Flynn and Tom Hagen from The Godfather. But perhaps the prominence of a character like Kassan – a fixer in a broken world – speaks volumes about the state of advertising today.
Perhaps that’s the point.