CEOs not always as multiplatform as the content of the companies they run

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In the digital age, media and entertainment executives talk about the need to make content available in all forms and across all platforms. Ironically, those executives' attempts to cross over from a top job in one part of the industry to a top job in another in most cases have led to disappointment and failure.

So while content can flow easily across film, TV, computer and mobile screens, executive skills and success don't transfer as smoothly.

Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Michael Nathanson says that mirrors the hit-and-miss nature of Hollywood.

"This is an industry where failures happen more than successes," he says.

Still, the pressure to try something new and the tendency to underestimate the still-siloed culture of the broader industry continue to produce crossover executive appointments that take even insiders by surprise.

Remember when Randy Falco, who made a name for himself at NBC Universal with his Madison Avenue savvy, left the TV world a few years ago to lead AOL? A couple of weeks ago, AOL parent Time Warner admitted that experiment failed, tapping former Google exec Tim Armstrong as Falco's replacement.

The episode reminds me of the conflict-ridden years former NBC News guru Andrew Lack spent at Sony Music and then Sony BMG — his problems were heightened by an often tricky joint-venture structure) — and the mixed legacy left by former Warner Bros. superstar Terry Semel as CEO of Yahoo.

Those execs brought reputations from one sector of the media and entertainment space to a sector and company they never seemed to fit. A lack of understanding of the medium and differences in culture and organization were among their biggest problems.

"Depending on the specific job and individual, going from one (sector) to another in the industry can be very successful or a disaster," says William Simon, global sector leader for media and entertainment at executive search firm Korn/Ferry International.

He argues that an exec's ability to adapt is key, particularly when a job switch across industry lines means ending up at an organization of different size, market power, resources, pay scale and culture.

Hal Vogel, president of Vogel Capital Management and a former entertainment industry analyst, also highlights cultural challenges, especially when execs go from traditional media jobs to digital or vice versa.

"It's difficult to move across platforms because the cultures and norms are so different in each segment," he says. Vogel also believes the industry still trains people to concentrate on too narrow a job, adding, "Most execs are very narrow-focused and often don't/can't see the larger picture, even though they may be highly intelligent."

Another problem is ego. One industry insider says the long knives tend to come out more quickly when an exec from an outside field gets a top job, leaving overlooked veterans frustrated and more unwilling to help.

Overall, the most successful exec switches seem to be those where big names stay within their creative field but take a seat at the opposite side of the table.

Take Ron Meyer, president and COO of Universal Studios, who has become an evergreen at the company after a successful career in the agency world.

"He has this extraordinary ability to lead and direct talent and businesspeople alike," a skill that has served him as a seller of talent and content as it now helps him as a buyer, Simon says.

Paramount chairman and CEO Brad Grey is a similar case of an exec with a talent background, along with TV and film production experience, who uses those skills on the other side. (Some observers point to the culture clashes with his former partners at DreamWorks and reserve final judgment on his success.)

Grey also is responsible for one of the shortest-lived experiments in platform-crossing hires, moving former TV exec Gail Berman into Paramount's top studio job, where she never seemed comfortable.

Although News Corp. knows one didn't pan out, its recent executive shuffle includes a reverse-Berman of sorts as Peter Rice swapped his post as head of successful indie-film arm Fox Searchlight to head entertainment at the Fox network.

Simon calls the appointment an "ambitious move" but lauds Rice's creative vision. One of Rice's main challenges will be to adjust to a different development and production cycle, as well as the serialized nature of TV.

Gamemaker Activision Blizzard made the latest bold hire last week, naming former Yahoo COO Dan Rosensweig to run the studio that manages its hit "Guitar Hero" franchise. The rationale: Rosensweig's online experience could come in handy as the game's online and digital exploitation expands.

With the history of failures — and the rare successes — in moving executives, all eyes will be on Rice and Rosensweig, and whoever might be next.

Georg Szalai can be reached at georg.szalai@THR.com.
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