The Media Mogul’s Commencement Address

May 29, 2015

We are well into the swing of graduation season and sadly enough I’ve never been asked to deliver a commencement address (but I can dream, can’t I?). It just so happens that a friendly media mogul I know (not an oxymoron) gave me an advance copy of his upcoming address to the graduates, and I’ve been given permission to share it with you:

You know, being a media mogul isn’t all it was once cracked up to be (well, putting aside a few highly publicized pay packages, but what’s a few hundred million among friends?). We’ve got the intrigue of succession rumors at Viacom and CBS given the age and health questions surrounding its Chairman, Sumner Redstone. The CEO of Comcast, Brian Roberts, just suffered a very public defeat in the rejection of that company’s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. And the release of voluminous and often embarrassing email communications at Sony led to the removal of that studio’s longtime leader Amy Pascal. Of course above all, the swift and dramatic emergence of the Internet and online and mobile media has had a dramatically disruptive impact on traditional media, with much more to come. And yet, as I stand before this impressive sea of graduates ready to seize the future, the media world (however we choose to define it now) still has a lot of valuable lessons to impart.

“Content is King” is an expression often attributed to my fellow mogul Mr. Redstone, referring of course to the power of media’s actual product, its content. It has been invoked on behalf of many a media company to impress financial analysts, investors, and negotiating counterparts. But I would stretch its meaning just a bit to apply it to your own careers and pursuits. Facebook “likes,” Twitter “followers”, Instagram “buzz” and data-driven “sentiment” are all increasingly critical measures of business success. But no matter how many others may “follow” you, without a reality of great content standing behind the public perception of it, no amount of perceived value will endure. The Prince in “Into the Woods” seeks to apologize for himself by noting that “I was born Charming, not sincere.” But in the real world (and even that pretend one), the most valuable rewards are a response to the content of who you actually are, and how you act.

No one in the media business came up with the expression “Demography is Destiny” (it was a 19th century French philosopher named August Comte), but we may as well have created it. We’ve been driven forever by the need to understand who is consuming our content, where to find those demographically desirable audiences, and how to deliver them to advertisers. And the voluntary information sharing through social media and its analysis by data scientists is making those tasks easier and more efficient (at least the first two). But where demography is truly becoming destiny is in the growing richness and complexity of our population. We will and must move from a society of “tolerance” to one of “acceptance” and “inclusion.” From the media mogul’s perspective, this creates many wonderful opportunities for more varied media content, but far greater opportunities for all of us to open our eyes to the cultural cacophony that makes up the world of the 21st century.

Before I got into the media business the expression “Write for yourself first” always seemed kind of phony – I mean, at the end of the day, don’t we want and even need people to read, to see, and to listen to what we have created, and to like it enough for us to try again? Yet the most successful content creators find a voice within themselves that needs expression. You may never have any interest in writing a book, creating an app, or designing a building. But the notion of finding and expressing an authentic voice will be critical to your success in whatever avenue you pursue. Writing for yourself is not only about the product, but about the process. Come to think of it, one of media businesses early live event entrepreneurs, aka William Shakespeare, said it better than I can: “To thine own self be true.”

Finally, I close with immortal words of wisdom not from a media mogul, but from a famous media property. In perhaps the greatest motion picture ever produced and distributed by a major studio Paramount Pictures’ “The Godfather,” the loyal family lieutenant Clemenza tells his associate: Forget the gun; take the cannoli.” It’s a great line, but what does it have to do with any of our actual lives? Sometimes the biggest, baddest weapon at your disposal doesn’t suit its purposes any more. Sometimes a little sweetness will go a lot further than a big fight. I wish all of us in media moguldom could adhere to that a little more often than we do. Maybe you can show us how.

About the Author

Howard Homonoff is a media executive, management consultant, lawyer, and academic.

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