Commentary

Is Martha Stewart Living?

It’s Women’s History Month, bitches!

I kid -- but so far the first week of March seems to have been less a celebration of female progress and more a free-flowing attack on various 50-foot women.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg got savaged in the press for being a self-serving elitist even before the release of her new book, “Lean In.”

And Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer was roundly criticized for her “boy’s-club-style” decision to end telecommuting at the long-troubled tech company. (For my take, see last week’s Mad Blog.)

Indeed, the subject of female power -- and how to use it properly -- elicited so much one-note vitriol in the press last week that there was nowhere to go but up. So after two surprisingly biting (and bitchy) articles in the New York Times about Sandberg’s primer for female career advancement, Lean In, the Sandberg book got a favorable review in today’s paper of record.

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And since Mayer’s shot heard round the world -- the Yahoo announcement ordering all hands on deck -- other major businesses such as Best Buy followed suit, which would seem to affirm some of Mayer’s executive know-how. (One thing that would immediately have alleviated some of the backlash would have been the announcement of a company-wide nursery, so that Mayer is not the only one with that privilege. Such a move would have made her appear less imperious and/or oblivious.)

Still, after many years of trying to make inroads, and a dearth of female leadership at the top, it seems that working women want to see themselves -- or something of their own struggles -- in the leaders who do emerge. If these executives fail to measure up, or show themselves for the distinctive (and flawed) individuals they are, they get attacked in the press and online.

Then again, as Sandberg acknowledges in her book, most women are too busy getting through the day, juggling, to be part of the noise.

And then comes the nonpareil: Martha Stewart. At 71, she comes from Sandberg’s and Mayer’s mothers’ generation. And there really is no one like her. She has none of the self-doubt that Sandberg talks about countering. That’s how she could risk sounding megalomaniacal by calling her company “Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.”

Still, despite all of her hard-won success, she does seem pretty adept at her own brand of self-sabotage. Her stubbornness seems to be her Achilles heel. (Well, in light of her empire building, let’s call it her stretched Achilles tendon.)

Like Steve Jobs, Martha completely built her own company from scratch. She was never fired and exiled like Jobs, who used that time away from Apple to start other businesses and come up with the loose prototypes for the winningest products the company ever made: the iPod and iPhone.

Still, in 2004, Martha was sent away to the Big House on charges of insider trading. Most were incredulous that the domestic doyenne -- who built an empire on the sacredness of home and family rituals, with such exacting standards of taste and propriety -- ended up serving time in prison, when she easily could have pled, paid a fine, and avoided it. Still, she Martha-ed on in prison, collecting eggs and knitting, and came back and resurrected her business.

However, despite the jokes about her time in prison giving her “street cred,” her time away inevitably did plenty of damage to her brand. That, plus a bad economy and lots of newer competition, the tremendous losses inherent in print publishing, and having a brand mired in the ‘90s did further damage.

Her latest court battle is versus Macy’s, the retailer that allowed her to elevate her products out of K-Mart with an exclusive contract. Macy’s promoted the attractive blonde perfectionist as one of its stars, and sold $300 million worth of her home products last year.

Macy’s is now suing Stewart for the side deal she made with JCPenney, which ended up investing $38.5 million for a nearly 17% stake in Martha Stewart Living, and offered her Martha Stewart boutiques within the larger Penney stores.

While talking about saving the masses from “ugly polyester,” her attitude on the stand, as reported this week, was hard to believe: a Blanche DuBois-ish sized capacity for denial, crossed with a Marie Antoinette-ish oblivious coquettishness. 

“My brand was as strong the day I emerged from Anderson [prison] as it was the day I entered,” she responded to the Macy’s attorney.

 The Macy’s attorney was trying to prove that competition from another store could reduce demand for Martha Stewart products at Macy’s, so he asked a mini-skirted Stewart, attired in tasteful camel-colored separates, if someone buying a knife set at one store would be less likely to go to the other end of the mall and buy another knife set from another store.

Martha shook her head no. She said the person would just look for the best product, period. When he rephrased the question and asked her again, she responded: “They might have two houses. They might have two kitchens.”

Yes, and let them eat cake with special silver MSLO dragees on top.

Perhaps this proves that we have made headway, in that female heads of companies can appear as blindered (and possibly cray-cray) as men. Her tone-deafness is almost poignant.

But with the stock dropping, and such betrayal and double-dealing coming from the person whose name is on every item, sad to say, it looks as if Martha Stewart might be history. 

12 comments about "Is Martha Stewart Living?".
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  1. Nina Lentini from MediaPost Communications, March 7, 2013 at 7:42 p.m.

    Babs, you nailed it. Ego.

  2. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, March 7, 2013 at 7:43 p.m.

    @Paula-- Just boggles my mind that she was dumbfounded that Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren was furious with her and sued her!

  3. Edmund Singleton from Winstion Communications, March 8, 2013 at 4:54 a.m.

    Women have come a long way, not so fast Buddy: A panel on network television will have only one woman, with dyed hair, false eye lashes, and greasy lips. Under the desk find shoes that are altering their posture, not far enough yet, baby...

  4. Patrick Di Chiro from THUNDER FACTORY / Di Chiro, March 8, 2013 at 10:39 a.m.

    Barbara, isn't it funny and fitting that Martha has thrown her lot in with Ron Johnson, the former Apple retailing wunderkind (and fellow egomanic) who single-handedly is tanking JC Penney. Martha should remember that loyalty counts for something -- even in the dog-eat-dog business world. Her best move would have been to continue dancing with the "one that brung her" -- that would be the stylished coiffed Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren. Of course, I am enjoying this latest soap opera from the Queen of All Media! Ah...the wonders of Karma.

  5. Rob Frydlewicz from DentsuAegis, March 8, 2013 at 11:40 a.m.

    I'm glad to read Best Buy has done away with telecommuting. I'd imagine that assisting a shopper on the sales floor from home can be a challenge!

  6. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 8, 2013 at 11:42 a.m.

    She may have said she was dumbfounded. Did dumb conveniently find her or did she conveniently find dumb ? Dum dum dum dum dum, dum dum. Is she going to hook up with Trump for her next move ? Picture those 2 alone in a rubber room. HA !

  7. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, March 8, 2013 at 1:41 p.m.

    @Patrick-- yeah, Ron Johnson has tried all sorts of dramatic changes, not one of which has worked. But he's still there!
    @Paula-- Remember that Martha had her own brand of Apprentice show, which tanked!
    @Edmund-- it seems to me that since the early 2000s, there are fewer and fewer women in top positions.

  8. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, March 8, 2013 at 1:42 p.m.

    One more thing-- due to her sheer perfectionism, her products are all actually very good. Nicely priced, and very good. But her monomaniacal micomanagement is a problem!

  9. Susan Breidenbach from Broadbrook Associates, March 8, 2013 at 2:53 p.m.

    Actually, the feds could never make the insider trading charge stick. They couldn't get the ImClone exec and neighbor who was supposedly the source of her inside information to roll on her during his plea bargain negotiations. All the feds got Stewart on was obstruction of justice (a.k.a. "felonious fibbing").

  10. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 8, 2013 at 7:59 p.m.

    Her products are pretty good. Aye and there's the rub.

  11. Meagan Phillips from Goodby Silverstein & Partners, March 9, 2013 at 5:35 a.m.

    "a Blanche DuBois-ish sized capacity for denial, crossed with a Marie Antoinette-ish oblivious coquettishness."

    I agree but wonder if she's felt she'd had to take on that persona to survive. I agree I love her brand and still like her products so I'm on board for whatever.

    The Macy's story was such a slap a slap in Macy's face though.

    Women's History Month, Bitches!

  12. Kenneth Hittel from Ken Hittel, March 11, 2013 at 4:55 p.m.

    I still proudly wear my "Free Martha" tee-shirt...

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