There’s no such thing as a merger of equals

NewsweekBeastAdweek reports the merger between Newsweek and The Daily Beast is a steaming pile of sh*t. As  is the case with most 'mergers of equals', this one is anything but.

It started out well, though. One unnamed departed editor told Adweek, “Initially, a lot of us were really excited.” But now, says Adweek, former staffers say the newsroom is “…in a constant state of turmoil, uncertainty and confusion.” No surprise.

I was part of a multi-agency merger of equals back in 1992. Earle Palmer Brown scooped up four or five of us simultaneously promising that, although we'd lose our individual firm names, we'd still have full autonomy. The first indication to the contrary came two weeks later. I was attending a firm-wide, 40th anniversary retreat in lovely Bethesda, Md., when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was our human resources manager. He pointed to a spot in the distance. “See that guy with the moustache? He's your new boss.” When I asked what had happened to the old boss with whom I'd negotiated my contract, the human resources guy shrugged his shoulder and sighed, “Oh, he'll be gone in three months. He just doesn't know it yet.” Nice.

I've also witnessed countless mergers of equals as an agency partner. None went very smoothly. Some management teams really tried. Others merely went through the motions. And, then there were the unmitigated disasters. I remember visiting the headquarters of the 'loser' in one merger of equals and thinking it must have been like touring Hitler's bunker in May 1945. The halls were empty. The survivors shuffled along staring blankly ahead and, when we held a morale building workshop we listened to one horror story after another (up to, and including, one very senior executive who told us she was tossed out of her office and told to find the first empty cube).

One key reason mergers of equals fail is the cultural disconnect. At Newsweek, staffers are going nuts because as Tina Brown herself was heard to say, “Oh, I'm causing all sorts of trouble. I'm changing all the features in the last hour (before going to press).” What a fun gal! I know first-hand how much staffers detest 11th hour changes on a big presentation, so I can only imagine how the merged equals react to a steady diet of this type of drive-by management.

It's rare to find a marriage of equals. It's even rarer to find one in the business world. Here's betting the merged Newsweek/Daily Beast sputters for a year or so before either folding or sold at fire sale prices. It's the AOL-Time Warner of 2011.

4 thoughts on “There’s no such thing as a merger of equals

  1. That’s the beauty of remaining independent, Julie. I know as soon as Ed or I sell to Omnicom, WPP or another holding company, all bets are off and all promises suspect.

  2. I once worked for a company that was bought and sold twice in one year. The morale pep-talks were a waste of time because no one believed anything management said at that point.
    In fact, the president of the company told me himself that my job was safe — exactly 6 months before I was laid off!

  3. Thanks PEngelinNYC. EPB had many aspects of ‘Office Space’ in it, including efficiency experts who just showed up one day without any explanation and started interviewing senior managers one-on-one to determine how we spent our days. They disappeared and absolutely nothing changed. Great stuff.

  4. A great piece that brought back memories (some painful). Of all the EPB memories that stick out the most, K think of having to move from office to cubicle ever month or so. I felt like Milton in the great satire “Office Space,” when smug Bill Lumberger eventually moved him to the basement and took his red stapler away.
    You did leave out the “merger of equals” most commonly associated with the term: DaimlerChrysler. That’s what CEO Jurgen Schremp called it – especially for the billions of Euros/Dollars of shareholder value lost.
    A few weeks ago, the Times did a fawning profile on Tina Brown and the method of her madness. And ironically, Newsweek seems somewhat invigorated by it. But at what price? You’re absolutely right that these endeavors – especially when led by “celebrities” or the hot-shot idea person of the moment — usually turn talented people into walking zombies.