In Shakespeare, the first thing you do is kill all the lawyers. Everywhere else, the first thing you do is fire the marketers.
That’s been a time-honored tradition in Hollywood for decades. Remember when New Line’s Bob Shaye canned his long-time head of marketing, Russell Schwartz, the guy who’d rolled out Peter Jackson’s $3 billion Lord of the Rings trilogy without issue but somehow a couple of years later couldn’t make manna from the muck of Shaye’s own passion project, The Last Mimzy?
It doesn’t matter if the shows the marketers are asked to parley into hits are actually, technically, horrible. Which brings us to Netflix, where the long knives have been flashing since even before that disastrous earnings call a couple of weeks ago.
By then, high-profile Chief Marketing Officer Bozoma Saint John had already been gone nearly two months from her $4 million-a-year gig, just 22 months after leaving Endeavor to take the job.
When Saint John’s departure was announced, few thought much about it. After all, the charismatic Saint John had moved in and out of a string of high-profile marketing gigs with Pepsi, Beats/Apple Music, Uber and Endeavor over the past eight years. Netflix rather proudly flaunts its demanding workplace culture. Maybe she just had another big hop planned after deciding Netflix wasn’t to her taste any more than was Uber’s.
But then came those earnings, with Netflix’s first declines in subscriber counts in a decade, and 10 times more losses expected in this quarter. Maybe that’s why Saint John departed without an obvious Plan B. And more importantly, that’s definitely why everyone else started rethinking what they’re doing in the Streaming Wars.
The industry-wide glee over a brutal comeuppance for a cocky, wallet-busting competitor is palpable, even if it’s affecting everyone else, as well. Budget reductions, cancellations, fewer project greenlights, even a longer lifespan for legacy cable and broadcast operations are back on the table, along with job cuts, and maybe not just at Netflix.
So, of course among the first to go after Saint John were more marketing people, some 25 just-hired members of her most notable initiative, the fan-focused website Tudum, which putatively promised its writers editorial independence but never quite embraced that utopian ideal.
The cuts were concentrated on a section of the site focused on “culture and trends” that insiders described as underperforming, always a death knell for continued employment under the company’s long-held policy of “Be No. 1 or be out the door.”
The site’s quirky name mimics the two-note audio mark that plays when you launch Netflix. These days, it might as well signify recurring notes in the opening of Chopin’s Funeral March.
Even for employees who survive the company’s budget reconsiderations, there’s lots to be anxious about, particularly those who took much of their compensation in stock options rather than pay. Taking the options option made sense when Netflix shares sold for close to $700 in November. With prices at $190 apiece on Friday (down 42% just since April 20), that gambit looks like one for pawns more than queens.
Meanwhile, the rest of Bozoma’s brainchild appears safe(-ish), though given how things are playing out, it still seems a bad time to buy an expensive new house on the Malibu shore. Will there be changes with the unit behind Netflix’s many awards campaigns, for instance?
Grabbing more Oscar nominations than anyone else this year was impressive; going 1-for-27 in Oscar wins considerably less so. But is that outcome due to not-quite-good-enough marketing, or not-quite-good-enough Oscar contenders?
That issue has further sharpened as accounts have surfaced about the internecine warfare that sent long-time scripted programming chief Cynthia Holland out the door in the fall of 2020 in favor of international and unscripted head Bela Bajaria. At the time, many headlines termed Holland’s departure “shocking.”
Holland’s decline and exit is the original sin, to some Netflix creators’ thinking anyway, in the decline of the service’s programming quality. For years, Holland controlled the power to green-light projects, with the development taste and talent relationships to make it work.
But Ted Sarandos, now the co-CEO, expanded the green-light power to multiple people, part of a strategy to dramatically increase programming to replace expected losses of licensed shows such as Friends and The Office. Bajaria saw her star rise precipitously as she found the kinds of global hits needed by an international service.
Holland, meanwhile, clashed with Sarandos over declining quality control as the pipeline swelled to 40 production centers around the globe.
Regardless of how much those conflicts mattered in creating the current situation, it says a lot that people are re-litigating a two-year-old office fight. And it’s true that the marketers can only do so much when they’re tasked with promoting way too many shows, with way too many of them not particularly interesting. Regardless, Netflix has reaped the fruits of Sarandos’ strategy, and now must dig out.
That second part may be even more difficult to pull off.
The good news for Netflix in a spring filled with bad news: the average chief marketing officer’s tenure with major brands was just 40 months in 2021, so there should be plenty of experienced candidates to replace Saint John. After all, the first thing we do in Hollywood is fire all the marketing people, even if we’re making crap shows.
David Bloom of Words & Deeds Media is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based writer, podcaster, and consultant focused on the transformative collision of technology, media and entertainment. Bloom is a senior contributor to numerous publications, and producer/host of the Bloom in Tech podcast. He has taught digital media at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and guest lectures regularly at numerous other universities. Bloom formerly worked for Variety, Deadline, Red Herring, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications; was VP of corporate communications at MGM; and was associate dean and chief communications officer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Bloom graduated with honors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
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