Exit Interview: Michael J. Wolf

Michael J. WolfFor years, you've operated behind the scenes influencing the media and marketing industries as a consultant and advisor to some of the biggest companies in the world. Why did you want to edit a magazine about the industry and what did you hope to get out of it?

It's a very exciting moment in the industry. There are so many different things going on in the business today that it was a good point in time to be able to put them all together, and wrap them into this one issue. I'm really grateful to the team at MEDIA magazine for allowing me to do this.

But why did you need a platform like a magazine to achieve that?

While we can all access articles and information in so many places now - across blogs, in newspapers, on video - there is something very powerful about putting it all together into an edited format in a single issue that has a narrative stretching across the themes. And the central theme here is about change and transformation in the media business. And every one of the stories in this issue has been carefully selected to fit into that overall narrative. And a magazine is the best form to do that.

What did it feel like to turn the tables? To be shaping the stories about media, instead of the person influencing those stories behind the scenes?

One thing I can say right off the bat is that creating great editorial is a huge challenge, and you can't help but go through the process and not appreciate how valuable this skill is, and how much I admire the people who do this every day.

One of the underlying themes we worked with in this issue came from Activate's manifesto about "hacking the org," and we started out using that concept in one context, and recent news events may have changed the way the marketplace thinks of the word "hacking" in regards to media. And we struggled with the appropriateness of using the word ...

But we stuck with it, though.

Yes, we did. But the point is that when we pick a guest editor for MEDIA magazine, we're intentionally trying to hack our org. We are intentionally trying to bring in outside perspectives and points-of-view to change the way we create a magazine. And that is the reason we asked you to guest edit this issue. In retrospect, what was that experience like for you, and why was it a good thing?

When you asked me to do this, you specifically asked me to do it with my vision. You asked me to do it in a way that is different than what you would normally find, and to bring a voice to it that was unique. In the process, we did end up hacking MEDIA magazine. The final product is great, but the process wasn't easy. And I expect that everybody in the media business is going to go through this, especially big media companies, as they begin refocusing on what they do, how they create their editorial content and experiences.

The "hacking" story is still playing out as we wrap up this issue, but why do you think people look at that term as a negative? Isn't it just another way of thinking differently about a process?

It is very difficult for big companies to change, and the word hacker is a way of describing somebody who figures out a way to break into the system in a way that wouldn't have happened otherwise. And that is something that people who run media companies need to be able to do. They need to figure out is there another way to operate? Is there another way for me to break out of the established system to build the next wave of my business? The word has both negative connotations, and I believe over time will have very positive connotations, as a number of companies look back and say, "I'm glad I did that. I'm glad I hacked my own organization." You know that old line, if it isn't broken, don't fix it? It needs to be modified to: If it isn't broken, break it anyway, and then fix it.

If you could tell our readers one final thing that would change the way big media and marketing companies do business tomorrow, what would it be? What last message would you like to leave them?

It would be that they need to leave one foot firmly rooted in the past, and remain true to what they stand for, but they also need to take a step in an entirely different direction. And that means a lot of experimentation - experimenting and reshaping the way they do business. Throughout this issue, we are talking about companies that are redefining their industries. And very large companies can stay true to what they are, while at the same time take steps to redefine their businesses. And it is either through new ways of marketing, or new ways of communicating with consumers, and new ways of using content and technologies to create new experiences for users and advertisers.

Throughout much of your career, you've been the guy talking in the ear of some of the most influential people running media and marketing companies. What can you tell us mere mortals in the media industry how the gods of the industry really think and operate?

I think increasingly the model is changing, and we now have a generation of leaders who are much more in touch with the content, and the programming themselves. I think they have gotten to be much more comfortable with technology. And most of all, they are listening. They are listening to people throughout their organization. They're not just listening to their marketing people. They are listening to their programming people. They are listening to their programmers - their Web developers. And they're spending a lot more time listening to the consumer. If you were to glimpse inside the office of a lot of the people at the top, I think you would see a viewpoint that has been really reshaped by what's happening in the landscape around them.

I'm loath to ask you about something topical, but there is so much going on at the moment, is it okay if I ask you if you have any advice to give Rupert Murdoch right now, what would it be?

I think I'm too close to that, but you are welcome to give him some advice.

We would be more than happy to. Maybe he'd like to guest edit an upcoming issue of MEDIA, too. Speaking of guest-editing magazines, now that you're a credentialed guest editor, what other magazine would you want to edit if you could?

I think one of the best jobs in the universe must be being the editor of The New Yorker, but there are a number of magazines that I'd be excited to be the editor of. They would be Wired, The New Yorker and probably, Vogue.

So basically, Conde Nast.

They do have the best magazines, but if I could pick only one, it would be to be the editor of Wired. There couldn't be a more exciting place to be thinking about the culture of media and technology.

Since you are now an expert editor, what last question would you ask Michael Wolf in his exit interview?

Would I do it again?

And the answer is?

For you, anything. I think it's where we started off. I think there is a real value in an editorial point-of-view and in editorial curation, and in putting together an entire narrative around a set of topics is important. That's where I began the process, and that's where I think I ended it. I'm very excited about what we've been able to do with this issue.

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