Brand-name intellectuals

Books | How those at the top establish and maintain their profitable presence
by Daniel W. Drezner
Posted 9/29/18, 11:46 am

Daniel W. Drezner’s The Ideas Industry offers an amusing analysis of how ideas spread and pundits become brands. He portrays intellectuals competing for the attention of wealthy benefactors, in the process adjusting their ideas and demeaning themselves as proximity to power offers seductive opportunities. These merchants of flighty ideas give us witty remarks and TED Talks that fit the formula for standing ovations, but thoughtful analysis becomes less important than hitting green rooms to feed big media beasts.

The Ideas Industry was on the short list for WORLD’s 2017 Book of the Year in the Understanding America category. In the following excerpt, published courtesy of Oxford University Press, Drezner describes how market-savvy foreign policy public intellectuals such as Niall Ferguson, Thomas Friedman, and Fareed Zakaria established and maintain their brands. —Marvin Olasky

Much like other markets with network externalities, the modern Ideas Industry can be competitive and simultaneously skew the rewards to those at the top. As in other superstar economies, those who can attain the highest rank in the Ideas Industry will command a disproportionate share of the rewards. Book advances are fatter, television appearances are paid, and the conference swag improves dramatically. They become more than just intellectuals; they become brands.

Indeed, it is striking how much the public profiles of foreign policy intellectuals like Friedman, Zakaria, or Ferguson rely on the terminology of branding. One of Friedman’s longtime friends told the New Yorker, “What I appreciate in Tom, and what I think is maybe his greatest skill, is he’s tremendous at what advertising people call positioning, or branding. He’s created a brand for himself.” Friedman would concur. A core argument of his biggest book, The World Is Flat, is that to thrive in the global economy one needs to be “special,” a unique brand like Michael Jordan, because such people “have a global market for their goods and services and can command global wages.” Friedman is hyperconscious about his own brand; he will tell other writers if they fail to ascribe the provenance of Friedman’s neologisms to Friedman.

Ferguson has displayed similar marketing savvy. In a skillful display of synergy, five of the books he wrote in this century were designed from their inception as television documentaries also featuring Ferguson. The Guardian described his 2011 book Civilization as “a book of a TV series of a university course on the rise and fall of the west.” Eric Alterman has criticized Ferguson severely but nonetheless conceded that “Ferguson, perhaps more than any other academic of his generation, has built an extremely successful intellectual brand for himself.” As for Zakaria, one former colleague at Time noted, “This guy is his own brand.” Zakaria’s successor at Newsweek, Tunku Varadarajan, wrote that “he is as much a brand as he is a journalist: he has ‘inc.’ in his veins.”

Intellectuals expend enormous effort to develop and sustain their brand. As a 2012 New York Times story about Zakaria noted,

Not that long ago, getting a column in Time would have been the pinnacle of a journalist’s career. But expectations and opportunities have grown in the last few years. Many writers now market themselves as separate brands, and their journalism works largely as a promotion for more lucrative endeavors like writing books and public speaking.

The financial benefits of this strategy are significant. Brand-name intellectuals can crack the top tier of the lecture circuit and sign with a speakers bureau. Such bureaus can enable someone to deliver variations of the same speech multiple times for a princely sum. Foreign Policy’s Katie Peek concludes that, “a few keynote addresses are all it could take for one to jump into a new tax bracket.” According to Fortune magazine, the speaking fees Thomas Friedman collects have helped boost his annual income “into CEO range.” Fareed Zakaria earns in the high five figures for his speeches. Ferguson went so far as to relinquish his academic sinecure at Harvard Business School—though not his other academic affiliations at Harvard—because the rewards from public speaking exceed business school salaries. When I asked Ferguson what motivated him to write for a public audience, he responded immediately, “I did it all for the money.”

Intellectuals expend enormous effort to develop and sustain their brand.

The superstar economics rewarding those at the top creates a powerful incentive to stay active in the Ideas Industry. Those rewards are lucrative enough to foster the professional and financial dreams of an entire underclass of underpaid intellectuals. The modern marketplace of ideas now resembles the market for acting: a few celebrities making millions, and many others doing other menial jobs and dreaming of making millions.

Of course, those rewards have other effects as well. Esquire’s Stephen Marche reported that Ferguson receives between $50,000 and $75,000 per speech. Ferguson told me he gives, on average, one of these speeches a month. As Marche wrote, this kind of revenue stream affects one’s intellectual arc.

The entire economics of Ferguson’s writing career, and many other writing careers, has been permanently altered. Nonfiction writers can and do make vastly more [money], and more easily, than they could ever make any other way, including by writing bestselling books or being a Harvard professor. Articles and ideas are only as good as the fees you can get for talking about them. They are merely billboards for the messengers.

That [speaker’s fee] means that Ferguson doesn’t have to please his publishers; he doesn’t have to please his editors; he sure as hell doesn’t have to please scholars. He has to please corporations and high-net-worth individuals, the people who can pay 50 to 75K to hear him talk.

To stay in the superstar rank, intellectuals need to be able to speak fluently to the plutocratic class. In the case of Friedman or Ferguson, this is unproblematic. Businessmen adore Friedman’s writings on how technology and globalization transform the global economy. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has said that he is in awe of Friedman’s intellect, and he is hardly the only corporate mogul in that category. Venture capitalist John Doerr described Friedman as “the most cited thinker in business conversations.” Similarly, Ferguson told me in an interview that he is a “classical liberal” whose corpus of work is extremely supportive of free markets and a robust American foreign policy. Both Friedman and Ferguson are thought leaders who truly believe in the ideas that also resonate with the movers and shakers of the modern Ideas Industry. For less confident public intellectuals, however, it is not so simple. If they want to make potential benefactors happy, they cannot necessarily afford to speak truth to money.

If they want to make potential benefactors happy, they cannot necessarily afford to speak truth to money.

Another effect of intellectual brands is that superstars have to expend considerable effort to maintain their status. Those at the top garner an outsized fraction of opportunities in which superstars are asked to speak and write a lot more than anyone else. If they decline such offers repeatedly, however, their status can decline as well. More than one participant of the Ideas Industry has told me about the pressure that they feel to constantly produce more think pieces and accept speaking offers in order to maintain their place in the intellectual food chain.

Friedman, Ferguson, and Zakaria might be superstars, but they are extremely busy superstars. Like their plutocratic peers, they work hard to earn their income. In addition to his New York Times column, Friedman has written five books and hosted at least three documentary television series. In 2013 he launched, with the Times, his own Davos-style conference, called the Friedman Forum. Every profile of Friedman stresses his indefatigable work ethic.

Like Friedman, Ferguson has taken to converting his books into other media outlets. He has also been prolific in his public commentary, with a weekly column for the Daily Telegraph as well as other columns for the Financial Times, Newsweek, and other venues. A 2007 Harvard magazine profile of Ferguson noted his prodigious workload during his career, including: “eight meaty, weighty books, and has another two in progress; hundreds of scholarly articles, tumbles of introductions and book chapters, and an assembly line of regular columns and op-eds for American, British, and German newspapers, all while editing the Journal of Contemporary History.” He subsequently founded Greenmantle, a macroeconomic and geopolitical advisor firm that employs seven full-time employees. In 2012, when Ferguson permanently relocated to the United States, he told the Daily Telegraph, “I’m over-industrious, so I don’t feel quite such a deviant in America as I did in England.”

As for Zakaria, Varadarajan’s praise of him also covers his workload:

Zakaria … is insanely successful by the standards of his profession: he has a TV show to which few people of any prominence would refuse an invitation, plus columns at Time, CNN.com, and the Washington Post. He also writes academic-lite books that presidents clutch as they clamber aboard planes, and gives speeches at—it is said—$75,000 a pop.

When I interviewed Zakaria, he explained how he divides his days between crafting his Washington Post column, preparing for his CNN show, and his other responsibilities. He acknowledged that he hasn’t yet found the time to write the longer essays he wants to for The Atlantic. He has simply been stretched too thin.

Most people who wind up as intellectual superstars do not just snap their fingers and take on all of these jobs at once. There is a slow accretion of opportunities that are hard to refuse, until one is overextended. The process can lead to one of two outcomes. If the intellectual continues past practices, then he or she will inevitably become overworked from mounting obligations. In this situation, the superstar continues to write and research everything as if nothing has changed. The increased demand, however, can cause the intellectual to self-plagiarize or slack off as a survival tactic. Ferguson has admitted to this in interviews, telling the Washington Monthly that his books on empire could be described as “edutainment at best.” He told me, “I think overstretch is good.”

There is a slow accretion of opportunities that are hard to refuse, until one is overextended.

The other outcome is that a solitary intellectual becomes a brand manager with subordinates. To be sure, professors, think tank fellows, and management consultants frequently rely on research assistants. Nevertheless, a brand-name intellectual can require a staff—and most people who are good at being intellectuals are lousy at managing subordinates. It becomes all too easy for a superstar to outsource research to assistants. To run his show and to write his column, for example, Zakaria has a staff of eight people—and he takes great pride in doing most of the research for his column himself. Ferguson hired a full-time researcher, as well as a “cottage industry” of bright undergraduates, to assist him with his research. Comparable superstars can choose to delegate research and writing tasks to coauthors or research assistants.

Outsourcing research and writing tasks is a natural shortcut for intellectual superstars to meet the Ideas Industry’s demands. But such delegation increases the probability of errors seeping into published work. If small shortcuts or errors are not caught the first time a writer uses them, they become crutches that pave the way for bigger shortcuts, which then become cheats. It is rare for a public intellectual or a thought leader to willfully commit plagiarism or fraud. But there have been enough intellectual scandals in this century for a familiar narrative to emerge: a confusion of notes, or a miscommunication between assistants and writers. Corners are not cut, but perhaps they are rounded.

From The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats Are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas by Daniel W. Drezner. Copyright © 2017 and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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