We live in the media age. Unfortunately. Success is measured by photo ops, interviews, YouTube, TikTok. Certain professions thrive on media exposure. Politicians need daily media exposure whether the situation warrants it or not. John F. Kennedy was the first telegenic president (1960). Since then, we have had to suffer the likes of Nixon, the two Bushes, and an assorted group around the world. Putin’s media exposure is minutely planned, projecting the ‘HE MAN’ image. The showbiz stars consider it a necessity. The most recent trend among the female stars is more and more exposure. Great. Salma Hayek has caught on. So has the ageing beauty, Kareena Kapoor. Sports stars are big on endorsements (Wasim bhai, Boom Boom Afridi, etc.). The world is awash with influencers, hidden persuaders, brand ambassadors and TikTok stars like Hareem Shah who seems to have penetrated the inner sanctum of Islamabad.
The corporate world, earlier a bastion of propriety, has also been battered by this phenomenon. In the corporate world success is measured by the balance sheet – ROE (return on equity), ROA (return on assets), EPS (earning per share), Current Ratio, Stock Index. One should always take a cold, balanced view of corporate success. However, driven by various personal, professional and financial prerogatives, corporate profession is becoming ‘show boys’. In 1963, while a high school student in the USA, I witnessed the launch of the first ‘Ford Mustang’ by Lee Iacocca. Success upon success made Iacocca a corporate legend. Media went into a frenzy. Iacocca was declared as ‘Presidential’ material. Soon ‘Ford’ fell on hard times. Hank Greenberg was another corporate star, partially created by the media. Greenberg was chairman of AIG – a large insurance conglomerate. He was so busy promoting himself that he took his eye off the ball. AIG partly initiated the 2008 financial meltdown. The Solomon brothers and HSBC (the world’s ‘local’ bank, now exiting some countries). Sir Richard Branson is an entrepreneur I have had considerable interaction with. I have in my ultra-small library all his books, personally autographed. Starting from the mid-1960s he has been the maestro of playing the media. Eventually, the ‘Virgin’ brand became omnipotent. Brand extension was stretched to the limit. The central focus was on Richard Branson. It is not easy to quantify his net worth. Many years ago, the Economist did an investigative article on his group of companies. Let’s leave it at that. The Rothschild family of Europe has always operated behind a curtain. Currently, the family’s net worth is estimated at US$300 billion. Some investments are public knowledge. Others are passive. No showmanship. No media exposure. Amacio Ortega of Spain, of the Inditex textile group (Zara, Massimo Dutti etc.), leads a simple life. Net worth US$65 billion. The late Swedish business magnet Ingvar Kamprad of the IKEA chain was quiet and unassuming. The recent scandal of Carlos Ghosn of the Renault – Nissan group (now also Mitsubishi) is a case study in the dangers of self-promotion. Ghosn, true to his Lebanese DNA, was brash, overbearing and arrogant. The Japanese culture pushed back. When in jail, he asked for an extra pillow. Request denied. He eventually fled Japan in an escape operation that cost US$10 million to set up.
The Palo Alto valley of California (the Silicon Valley) is known for its start-ups and innovation. Also, for its seams. Most recently, the “Theranos” seam has been in the limelight. This start-up was pioneered by Elizabeth Holmes. Theranos purported to offer blood testing in 90 seconds as opposed to the conventional 2-3 hours. Elizabeth was the darling of the media. Magazine covers, TV shows, celebrity status. Big investors came on board including the Walmart family and late George Shultz (a former secretary of state). Then the bubble burst. Ms. Holmes is now under trial. A case worthy of investigation by Sherlock Holmes himself. The case pertaining to the Sackler family, Purdue Pharma and opioids is even worse – approximately 1 million deaths.
Pakistan has had, and continues to have, its share of corporate ‘show boys’. I can’t mention too many names. Most of them are my friends. The greatest case study on media overindulgence pertains to BCCI and its founder, Mr AHA. Mr AHA could not quite figure out what his job description was – was he the chairman of BCCI, a messiah for the third world, a philanthropist, a vowing ambassador, a Mr ‘Fixit’?. At the annual BCCI jamborees, he used to talk about a spiritual balance sheet. Mr AHA pioneered the art of crisscrossing the Atlantic in two corporate jets – the lead jet and a following reserve jet. This practice soon caught on and became the ultimate corporate status symbol. Recently, a certain gentleman in the UAE, Mr AN, who mismanaged a Private Equity group, has been in the news. Mr AN thought he was Icarus. But he, too, flew close to the sun.
(The writer is a former Executive Director of the Management Association of Pakistan)
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021