When your CEO isn’t New York Times worthy

Remember the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine Bennis, running low on contraceptive devices,
Nytimes1 had to decide which boyfriends were and weren't sponge worthy?

The episode came to mind recently when we were fired by a client CEO whose story, despite our very best efforts, was found by reporters at the 'old, gray lady' not to be New York Times worthy.

Never mind that we had scored tons of superb placements in outlets such as Fast Company, general business press, vertical industry and trades. The narcissistic CEO felt his epic tale should be splashed across the front pages of the 'print' edition of The Times. Aside from feeding his Mt. Everest-sized ego, the Times hit was uber critical to the CEO because the other power players in his social circle also routinely appeared in the paper. So, he HAD to be there or else.

Unfortunately, the Times editorial staff disagreed (no matter how many angles we tried). And, since we failed to produce the seminal Times hit, we were summarily discharged.

The CEOs self-aggrandizing misbehavior reminded me of the stereotypical typical dotcom founder who, armed with a freshly-minted Stanford MBA, a me-too business model and millions of dollars in venture capital seed money insisted his mug be front and center on the cover of BusinessWeek. His CMO henchwoman (they were almost always henchwomen, BTW) would nod her head vigorously and add, "How could they not put Halsey on the cover?" Well, nine times out of 10, the professional journalists laughed off the pitch as not being cover worthy and the henchwoman would discard us like yesterday's newspaper.

All of which reminds me of a superb observation the legendary Manhattan PR wizard Howard Rubenstein shared with a PRSA audience many years back. When a prospect or client CEO demanded to be on the front page of The New York Times or the cover of Fortune, Rubenstein said he'd let out an exasperated sigh, lean over, pull open his desk drawer and produce a toy gun. “You want to be on the cover of Forbes? Fine. Go murder someone and I'll get you on the cover of Forbes.” I think that sums it up beautifully.

Stanley Bing's book "Crazy Bosses" contains a hilarious chapter about the care and feeding of self-absorbed, narcissistic maniacs who believe the sun rises and sets with their every move. My only addition to Bing's pearls of wisdom would be to determine expectations BEFORE a relationship begins. If you run into the next George Steinbrenner who needs his ego stoked with one front page feature after another (and you believe the actual news value akin to what Lindsay Lohan was served for breakfast in the L.A. County jail, walk away). Tell the prospect he or she isn't client worthy.

5 thoughts on “When your CEO isn’t New York Times worthy

  1. Nice. Very nice. I wish I had a dollar for every self-absorbed CEO who thought his or her mug belonged on the cover of Fortune. I’d be able to start my own foundation.

  2. When I was a mere underling, my client (who was 15 years my senior and well up the corporate ladder) met with me one-on-one to inform me that the agency would be judged ultimately on whether I procured hits in both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal; anything less, he assured me, and the campaign would be deemed a failure and the client-agency relationship would be imperiled. What was fascinating about this, beyond the self-aggrandizement, was how he selected the low man on the totem pole for his message; to be sure, when I subsequently relayed his message to my supervisors, they simply laughed it off with, “Let’s hear him say that to us.”

  3. Howard Rubenstein’s story reminded me that, some time ago in a pitch meeting, I had a prospective client assert that he wanted the front page of the L.A. Times (for which he and his organization were not worthy.
    I smiled and asked, “Are you dealing crack?” He got the message — we did not win the account.

  4. Narcissism isn’t limited to individuals, Frank. I remember representing Sony in their halcyon days. Talk about a no-win situation for a PR firm. Sony was so enamored of their rock star selves that they’d ho-hum a major profile piece we’d just placed on their behalf, saying, “Of course it’s a cover story. We’re Sony. They have no choice but to put us on the cover.” But, woe betide the agency account executive who failed to get Sony included in a major industry round-up piece. Then, they’d descend on you faster and with more machine guns blazing than a Mitsubishi Zero on December 7th, 1941.

  5. I know two of these pathologically narcissistic head cases personally — they are my in-laws. The MIL is former CEO. If I told you her name, you’d say, “Who?’