Julie Roehm – marketing’s femme fatale

January 17, 2012

So Julie Roehm, femme fatale and arguably the only larger-than-life personality left in marketing, has managed to land herself a proper job again – as VP marketing at global software company SAP.

Unlike Jodie Fisher, the “marketing consultant” who brought down HP CEO Mark Hurd, Roehm really is a high-profile marketer. Glance at her CV (conveniently at hand on LinkedIn) and you will see that the past 5 years positively teems with starry advisory roles. Look a little further down the list, and you will note that she has held down some pretty senior marcoms appointments too, at Ford, Chrysler and Walmart. No trumped up “meeter-and-greeter”, no former reality-TV starlet, no bimbo she.

One thing – apart from the bottle-blonde big hair – that Fisher and Roehm do have in common, though: they are both tireless self-publicists.

To give the flavour, here’s an extract from Roehm’s personal website, written by an uncritical admirer at Hallmark:

You immediately know she is courageous, brave, in command.  When I tell her this, she smiles that trademark Roehm smile, mix of fine intuition, confidence, fierce focus and remarkable intelligence.  “Fearlessness is like a muscle.  The more you exercise it, the more natural it becomes to not let fears run you…that’s a favorite from Arianna Huffington.”

Clients seek her because she’s a warrior with a guru-like ability to feel and predict what makes consumers need, not want.  Believe, never doubt.  Buy, not browse.  Rev up, not idle.

Notoriously unafraid of controversy and a good, clean fight for the right, Julie is an intrepid, yet infinitely calculating innovator.

Strip away the cringeworthy, obsequious tone and you can see why Julie would be highly attractive to an otherwise successful client suffering from lack of image self-esteem; and, equally, why she might be a bit of a nightmare to work with.

The “notoriously unafraid of controversy” bit refers, of course, to the only reason Roehm is known this side of the Atlantic. Her last full-time marketing job was as senior VP-communications at Walmart, from which she was ignominiously fired after 9 months. Walmart’s idea of conduct unbecoming might seem absurdly straitlaced in this part of the world. Nevertheless, Roehm was well aware of the risk she was running when allowing herself to be so extravagantly lionised by the Draft FCB top team flaunting their (oh so temporary) $600m account win; and even more so when she engaged in an “inappropriate” email correspondence with her sidekick Sean Womack.

Roehm simply doesn’t know what reverse gear is. Absence of fear stood her in good stead during her marcoms years in the motor industry, where some saucy ad ideas – like men standing around in urinals talking about the length of their trucks – actually managed to shift metal. But it ended up making her more “famous” than the brand she represented. After the Walmart episode she was unemployable for 5 years, though she made a good fist of going freelance.

Will things work out better at software infrastructure company SAP AG? Leopards and spots come to mind. SAP ought to know what it is doing: Roehm has already worked there as a consultant. Then again, the same could probably have been said of Walmart, with which SAP shares some repressed, correct, organisational values. I also wonder whether La Roehm’s personality is too big for the fishbowl world of B2B – a source of potential frustration for both sides.

Of one thing we can be tolerably certain, though: existing ad agencies need to be on their creative mettle. Watch out Ogilvy, which has held the global $100m SAP account since 1999. A review is sure to be on the way.

Who’s to blame for prostituting the integrity of the WSJ and TechCrunch? The internet

October 14, 2011

At first sight, there may not seem much connection between AOL’s recent dismissal of Michael Arrington, founder of TechCrunch, and a spectacular scam at the Wall Street Journal, which this week brought down its European publisher Andrew Langhoff.

Don’t be deceived. There is every connection. Not in detail, but in principle. Both executives were fired because they had prostituted editorial integrity.

It’s fairly evident that neither deliberately set out to do so. Rather, they were attempting to apply imaginative (and increasingly desperate) commercial solutions to a problem endemic in the news information business. Namely, the pernicious effect of the internet – the ‘free news’ junkies’ hourly fix – on traditional advertising revenue.

Arrington had to go because his cavalier attitude to conflict of interest put him on a collision course with Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief at AOL – who was rightly concerned about the impact of his heretical gospel on the rest of AOL’s news assets (chiefly the Huffington Post).

Although TechCrunch, which AOL acquired for $30m last year, is a respected news source, as a free blog it was badly underfunded by the low-yield advertising which was the only traditional alternative to subscription revenue. Arrington’s solution was to set up CrunchFund, a venture capitalist fund specialising in new technology companies. Which aspiring tech company would not trade exclusive stories with TechCrunch in the hope of coming into contact with untold Wall Street riches? Investors, on the other hand, soon came to recognise TechCrunch for what it was: an invaluable source of investment-grade information.

The problem was what happened next. Should TechCrunch journalists, to all outward appearances acting without fear or favour, be obliged to soft-pedal any clients who signed up to Arrington’s fund? The new funding paradigm soon became a very old-fashioned conflict of interest.

The WSJ/Langhoff affair also breached journalistic ethics, but in a rather different way. Officially, Langhoff was fired because he had signed a deal with Dutch consulting firm Executive Learning Partnership which resulted in a series of special reports considered in breach of the WSJ’s ‘unimpeachable’ standards of editorial integrity. In fact, this was only the half of it, according to The Guardian. Apart from trading too much prominence and name-checking, Langhoff also seems to have struck an interesting side-deal with ELP’s sponsorship money (ie, advertising revenue). ELP was to channel money (including, at a later stage, some of the WSJ’s own money) into buying a large number of heavily discounted copies of the European edition of – the WSJ. This action is not illegal nor, strictly speaking, does it break the Audit Bureau of Circulations’ rules (Why not? we should ask indignantly). But it is designed to deceive. Inflated ABC figures give advertisers the impression that the WSJ is a stronger media vehicle than it actually is, which helps to harden rates.

While denying some of The Guardian’s more “malign interpretations”, News Corp – which owns the WSJ through Dow Jones – has nevertheless conceded that Langhoff had to go because he had allowed WSJ to enter into “a broad business agreement” which could “give the impression that news coverage can be influenced by commercial relationships.”

If respected operators like WSJ and TechCrunch are getting up to such tricks, where does the rot stop? The answer may not be very comforting for the integrity of news values in general.

HuffPo + AOL = a deal that only adds up for Arianna

February 7, 2011

Some wit has smartly suggested that the only way you can make sense of Arianna Huffington’s bombastic claim to have created a “1+1 equals 11” deal merging The HuffPo with AOL is to translate the sum into Latin – numerals. To my mind, that’s too generous; and in any case, he’s got the language wrong. It’s all Greek.

Say what you like about Huffington, née Stassinopoulos, she knows a sucker when she meets one. No wonder she let Tim Armstrong, chief executive of AOL, uncharacteristically finish her sentences for her. She was mentally several steps ahead of him at the time, stitching up the terms of the deal. The key word is “cash”, as in $300m out of the $315m total paid for The HuffPo – all of it going to Huffington, her co-founder Kenneth Lerer and a few private investors.

You have to admire the minx’s cunning. Let’s look at what she is getting for AOL’s money. A massively generous market valuation for what is still regarded by many as an experimental and unstable publishing model; the instant access to the capital markets that comes from merging your enterprise with a public company; huge personal gratification as the newly installed president and editrix of an enlarged digital unit, bearing her name, with the potential for 100 million visitors a month in the USA alone (according to the New York Times). Then there’s the satisfaction of relegating that upstart digital publishing doyenne Tina Brown further down the Forbes Business List of Most Influential Women in America. And finally – O frabjous day! Callooh Callay! – a good part of $300m in the bank if it all goes belly up. Unlike that other upwardly mobile Greek of myth, Icarus, Huffington will never get burnt, thanks to a golden parachute. Win-Win or what?

Not so AOL. For whom, during it long and tortuous corporate history, the parts of the merger equation have always ended up being greater than the sum.

For sure, it would be unfair to compare the latest AOL get-together with what, after all, is one of the greatest merger disasters in corporate history – a merger which blighted both Time Warner’s and AOL’s fortunes for nearly a decade. Yet searching questions about whether the latest graft will take need to be asked.

All right, HuffPo (unlike Brown’s Daily Beast) makes a profit. It was $31m in 2010 and is expected to be $60m this financial year – which is not to be sniffed at. However, that profit has been earned off the back of a volunteer army of low-paid bloggers, who may not be too chuffed that they nowhere figure in the $315m picture. More seriously, content farms – of which HuffPo is perhaps the most illustrious example – are an unproven publishing model.

True, they are very popular with Wall Street just now. Demand Media, for example, managed to get away with an IPO that valued the company at a staggering $1.5bn late last month. But trouble may be on the way for Demand, and those who base their publishing model on a similar template. Google, vital for driving traffic to these sites, has declared war on them. Here’s what the great search engine had to say only a few days ago on the subject:

… we’re evaluating multiple changes that should help drive spam [search results, not email] levels even lower, including one change that primarily affects sites that copy others’ content and sites with low levels of original content.

… we hear the feedback from the web loud and clear: people are asking for even stronger action on content farms and sites that consist primarily of spammy or low-quality content.

I quote from the blog of Jim Edwards, who is something of an authority on the subject of content farms (– yet to grace our shores). The important point is that if Google successfully carries out its threat, billions of advertising dollars may simply disappear from these sites.

And where would HuffPo – or for that matter, Tim Armstrong and AOL – be then?

UPDATE 13/4/11: As predicted above, HuffPo bloggers have not taken La Huffington’s $300m cash heist lying down. She, her website and AOL face a $105m lawsuit from a group of contributors angry that they have not been paid a penny in the wake of the deal. The class action is led by one Jonathan Tasini, a writer and trade unionist, who has a successful litigation track-record. A decade ago, he brought the New York Times to its knees in the Supreme Court. Tasini alleges: “Huffington bloggers have essentially been turned into modern day slaves on Arianna Huffington’s plantation,” a colourful description of the economic principle underlying modern-day content farming.

Diller Newsweek deal promises to open a new chapter in Vanity publishing

October 8, 2010

When I heard that billionaire Sidney Harman had bought Newsweek for $1 (and $70m liabilities) I thought the old boy had lost his marbles. He’s entitled to. At 93, he’s old enough to be the weekly news magazine’s father (it’s 77 this year). How many times have we seen this kind of senile folie de grandeur before? Why next, he’ll be resurrecting the London Illustrated News, I thought.

It turns out the deal was a lot shrewder than it appears, if rumours are to be believed. These go back to late August, and the gist of them is that media mogul Barry Diller is planning to take a stake in Newsweek, combine its operations with online news aggregator the Daily Beast and put its content doyenne, Tina Brown, in charge of both.

Someone certainly needs to take charge of Newsweek, because it doesn’t seem to have any staff left. But what the “NewsBeast” plan is beats New York’s finest business minds. Two losses do not generally equal a profit. And make no mistake, the Daily Beast is – like Newsweek – a prodigious lossmaker. Diller is already supposed to have poured $20m into it, without visible effect.

Whatever the business plan, the rumours have now gained sufficient traction for The Guardian to give them an amusing new spin. What you might call Vanity publishing. It presents the maturing deal as a product of Brown’s manipulative charm and boundless ambition (not for nothing has she been compared to Becky Sharp). In her sights is the unbearable success of Oxbridge rival Arianna Huffington, née Stassinopolous, proprietor and editrix of the Huffington Post. Like Brown, La Huffington is an adroit social climber. Unlike Brown, who edited Tatler at 25, married former Sunday Times editor Harold now Lord Evans, then resurrected Vanity Fair, the New Yorker etc, Huffington is the media doyenne who rose without trace. Worse, she is number 12 in the Forbes business list of most influential women in America, whereas our Tina is “only” 25th. Most galling of all, the Huffington Post – built on a similar aggregator news model to the Daily Beast – is so far the more successful, with unique viewing figures of about 45 million a month and projected profitability this year. The Beast, admittedly launched later, seems to have nearly 3 million unique visitors.

If it were any industry other than media, such motivation would be inconceivable – even as a journalistic conceit. Let’s hope it’s not Diller (an apparently sprightly 68) who is losing his marbles.

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