AOL growth guru seeks to maintain integrity

CORPORATE CEOS TEND to be a flinty-eyed, self-protective lot, but lately quite a few have decided to put their manifestos, and egos, on the line.

Jack Welch, Sumner Redstone, Michael Eisner and both Jean-Marie Messier and Pierre Lescure of Vivendi have all published new books. Even Gerald Levin, the most reticent of the media masterminds, has now gone public with his personal creed and confessions.

Levin’s chosen forum is an opus in the New Yorker by Ken Auletta, and the upshot is a mind-bending mix of corporate saber-rattling and studied self-deprecation.

Its overriding message is that the AOL Time Warner leviathan, though less than 1 year old, intends to bury its competition by doubling in size every three years, taking exponential leaps overseas, buttressing margins and re-proselytizing synergy into a sort of corporate religion. Short-term, the name “Harry Potter” will be injected into every vein of the national bloodstream via the Internet, TV, merchandising, magazines and whatever, with the aim of building a franchise “bigger than ‘Star Wars.’ ”

To apply Levin’s lexicon, the company will wield its “leverage points” in exercising its sway over artists, advertisers, competitors and, most important, consumers. And if “leverage points” make you cringe, you’re clearly not man enough for the new media age.

HAVING SUMMONED ALL THIS UP, Levin also confides to Auletta that he never intended to become a CEO, that he considered himself more a professor than “a corporate type,” and that he actually considered backing away from the business in 1997 when his son, Jonathan, a high school teacher, was murdered.

Instead, Jonathan’s passing re-energized his sense of mission and toughened his spirit. “I’m more fearless, more of a missionary,” he told Auletta. “There’s nothing anyone can say to me, do to me, write about me, that can affect me.”

Reading Albert Camus, Levin said, inspired a new perspective whereby he views himself as though outside his own body.

“I’m actually on the outside, looking at it, analyzing it, thinking about it,” Levin reflected, adding: “I’m a pretty strange person. I really don’t care that much about what people think of me. I’m much more interested in analyzing things. … I’m a risk-taker. I’m willing to put everything at risk.”

These flights of self-analysis may provide ammunition for Levin’s corporate critics, who believe he’s put too much at risk in his zeal for profit. The corporation has cut 8,000 jobs over the past nine months to embellish its ailing margins. AOL alone laid off 10% of its workforce in August to meet financial targets. The magazine division offered buyouts to more than 500 editorial employees who were 50 or older, and even eliminated a fund to improve salaries of minority employees.

Some insiders complain that Time Inc. seems destined to become “just another magazine company,” as one executive put it. CNN, too, is being radically re-invented, while the movie studio has dedicated itself to the rule of market share, which translates to a relentless weekly drumbeat of releases.

AS A MESSIANIC MESSENGER of growth, Levin occasionally seems to deliver mixed messages. His friends insist that no other media mogul has a stronger sense of social and political responsibility and that he is thoroughly committed to maintaining the integrity of the sprawling media outlets that his empire controls.

But can this integrity be sustained under a tyranny of cross-promotion?

“If every part of the company has to serve every other part, there’s no incentive to talk about anything else,” points out Aurora Wallace of New York U’s Department of Culture and Communications. “We expect the media to do other things. To inform us. To provide social glue. If that glue is only about consumption, we are missing something.”

Levin doesn’t address these issues, at least not in this article. Like his fellow media moguls, he is less concerned with “social glue” than with the economic glue that can hold together his corporate leviathan, which has come together at an extraordinarily dicey moment in history. Yet possibly, these difficult times are uniquely suited for a man like Levin — a man with a mission.

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