Article by Greg Lindsay
Advertising Age  |  September 2005

A Marketing Reporter’s Journey Into Airworld III

A three-week daily series.

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PART 12: BRAND BENEFITS OF A NON-PLACE

And Preparing to Meet the Real ‘Terminal Man’
September 27, 2005

PARIS—I wanted to prove on this trip that Airworld is a closed system—that it’s possible to circulate through it endlessly, just like the germ-laden air that circulates through the airplanes and airports that is Airworld. We like to think that airports are connected to the cities they serve, but in reality, Airworld faces inward, increasingly connecting airports only to each other, and to the ecosystem of brands flourishing there.

Airports are “non-places,” a nice bit of academic jargon that describes their ultimate interchangeability. This is what makes them so hospitable to brands. As far as passengers are concerned, airports have neither a real past nor a future, just a continual present that reliably offers a consistent set of choices—flight schedules, duty free, fast food—day after day after day. Airworld is, in a sense, a single, giant franchised operation.

Of course, airports’ human operators don’t like to see things this way. As the employees of local or regional governments (whether that be the city of Denver, or the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey, or BAA, Heathrow’s parent), their duty is to keep the airport firmly tethered to home. It’s when an airport is about to achieve critical mass and escape –- to become what Rem Koolhaas has dubbed the “Generic City” –- that local establishments imported from the neighboring city begin to appear. They might be locally famous cantinas, museums, German beer halls and dives, not to mention the boutiques selling Native American jewelry and offerings by local artisans. Koolhaas likened these attempts at anchoring the airport to “a drastic perfume demonstration—photomurals, vegetation, local costumes give a first concentrated blast of the local identity (sometimes it is also the last).”

As in any good branding exercise, the city’s attributes are boiled down to an essence that’s memorable, portable and can be consumed before the final boarding call. Detroit’s mall-like expanses include outlets of the Henry Ford Museum, the GM Experience, a store selling Motown Records nostalgia and enough University of Michigan and Michigan State clothing to outfit alumni for a lifetime. Here in Paris Charles de Gaulle, there is a branch of the famous Parisian restaurant Maxim’s, and if I were to have dinner there tonight, would I be able to say “I have dined at Maxim’s”?

An integral part of the structure at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, the Sheraton is a building shaped like a cruise ship. That, in a nutshell, is the paradox of visiting Charles de Gaulle but not Paris. Is anything I’m consuming here –- the brie-on-baguette sandwiches, the Bordeaux at the bistros –- authentically “French”?

Even the most unique outpost is transformed, sooner or later, into a reliably franchised brand. While in Denver, I met the manager of a store named Colorado West. It sold the aforementioned Navajo jewelry alongside fringed jackets and vaguely Southwestern art objects. “We’re passengers’ last shot to buy a piece of Colorado after they’ve come down from the mountains and before they leave,” he said. But Colorado West is just one link in the chain of airport retail assembled by Minneapolis-based CBR, which owns similar outpost concessions there, in Chicago, Cincinnati and New Jersey (the latter are simply called Jersey). While visiting Dallas-Ft. Worth’s new international Terminal D this summer, I spoke to the owner of La Duni, a local institution that had chosen to open its second branch here in the airport. “It’s the perfect opportunity to experiment with a more fast-casual concept,” he told me. “It’s a chance to expose our brand of food to an entirely new audience.”

But sometimes the real world does bleed into Airworld in organic, unintended ways. The hotels on the outskirts of Airworld all begin to blend together (some would say this is their charm), but there is a distinctly different character to the few hotels connected to the airports themselves. They are extensions of the terminal itself –- an air pocket perfect for sales meetings or board meetings or taking depositions, a neutral site adjacent to everyone and absent of distractions. At the Westin Detroit Metropolitan Airport, which has its own dedicated security gate to and from the terminal (and where I was a guest at a drastically reduced rate), I wasn’t surprised to see that Home Depot would be occupying the conference facilities in force the next Monday, but I was amused to find a Muslim wedding banquet in progress when I arrived. Women in ceremonial dress in streamed through the lobby, past the plasma departure information screens and the boarding pass printers, down into the ballroom.

On other occasions, I was told, couples have chosen to say their vows in the hotel’s atrium before adjourning to the basement, performing the ceremony before a copse of bamboo trees after the bride had made her entrance by riding the clear glass elevators down to the lobby in full view of the guests. It wasn’t that they were keen to be married at the airport (the Westin is the first luxury hotel to open in Detroit in years), but I wonder if the roar of takeoffs rattling through the ducts has ever disturbed anyone’s “I dos.” Just married in Airworld –- why not?

I spent this past Sunday at my desk in the Sheraton Charles de Gaulle (where I was the hotel’s guest), writing and watching the ebb and flow of Air France 747s to and from the gates. Like the Westin, the hotel is an extension of Airworld, not an escape from it. It’s an essential piece of the infrastructure -– resting atop the train station that leads to Paris, and its oval-shaped mirrors the elliptical terminals on either side of it. It was designed by Charles de Gaulle’s master planner, the architect Paul Andreu. One of the definitions of a “non-place” is transience -– no one really belongs to the airport –- but as I watched the sun move across the sky on Sunday and listened to the dull rumble of takeoffs through the double-paned glass, at least for one afternoon Airworld felt like home.

Two weeks into my stay here (in Airworld, not the hotel), I have lost seven pounds (five of them water, I’m convinced), gained a persistent cough and switched from a diet of turkey sandwiches to a diet of brie. And I have a confession to make about why I’m here in Paris. It isn’t to visit outdoor media giant JCDecaux on its home turf. It’s to find him –- Mehran Karimi Nasseri, a.k.a Sir Alfred, a.k.a The Terminal Man, who’s been living here for 17 years.

Before I left, whenever I described my airport project—that I would eat, read and even sleep in the terminals –- the person’s response was always along the lines of “Oh, you’ll be just like that guy in The Terminal,” as if three weeks of sleeping on concrete (and, more often than not, in hotels) could compare to the good chunk of his lifetime spent on a red bench in the basement of Charles de Gaulle. If we are all subconsciously aware that airports are “non-places” not meant for human habitation, then he was the exception that commanded our attention. I had to meet him. And I knew where to find him.

My first night at the airport, I caught a shuttle bus to the concrete doughnut of Terminal 1, which sits more than a mile away from the more modern Terminal(s) 2. His red bench, salvaged from one of the terminal’s defunct restaurants, was easy enough to spot, as it was covered with more than a decade’s worth of FedEx boxes, McDonald’s paper cups, and salvaged luggage. He was reclining on that bench when I approached, as if perched on some luxurious divan.

“Sir Alfred?” I asked, careful to keep a respectful distance.

He nodded. “Yes,” he said, with a toothless smile.

I hadn’t known what I would say to him, and by default, I fell back on cliche.

“I’m an American journalist. I’ve come a long way to meet you ...”

PART 13: SLEEPING WITH THE TERMINAL MAN

My Paris Airport Encounters With Sir Alfred Mehran
September 28, 2005

PARIS—On my first night at Charles de Gaulle, I went in search of The Terminal Man—the real person whose predicament inspired Steven Spielberg’s 2004 movie The Terminal. He wasn’t hard to find, as he spends every day, all day, for the majority of 17 years, sitting on a red bench in the lowest level of Terminal 1, one of the most out-of-the-way pockets in all of Airworld. Through sheer persistence, and with the help of his refugee status, which immunizes him from removal, he has become part of the airport itself.

Back in Chicago, an American Airlines representative had assured me that The Terminal “could never happen now,” but au contraire, here he was, unbothered by police or Aeroport de Paris staff. Even Terminal 1’s ongoing renovations, which have closed a third of the enormous concrete ring, couldn’t manage to expel him. He simply moved his belongings—his bench, his FedEx and Lufthansa cargo boxes, his mismatched set of discarded carry-on luggage—a few notches around the ring and settled in again. He will manage to outlive this building, or at least its interiors.

It was if he was waiting for me—he was reclined on his bench, his eyes alert, and dressed in the same manner I was, a windbreaker over a polo, as a guard against the chill. I had brought an offering, McDonald’s French fries, which he eats every day along with his usual Filet-o-Fish. “Thank you,” he said, and motioned for me to place them on a small table he had appropriated from one of the cafes. I sat on one of two chairs. His voice was soft, tremulous. I wondered how often he spoke these days, and whether he was slowly forgetting to say the words. It didn’t help that English was at least his second language. He shook his head at a microphone-equipped iPod—no tape recorders—and so his quotes in the story represent the best I could decipher them.

I tell him I’m a journalist, that I’m spending three weeks living in airports, that I’ve read his book—at this point I produce it from my bag—and his blank expression finally fills with some interest. “Is that the new edition?” he says, and begins paging through, looking for errors, maybe, or refreshing himself on his own history.

The story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri is a sad one, and has been told many times already in newspapers, and best by Michael Paterniti two years ago in GQ. It was tragic before he ever landed at Charles de Gaulle. Born in Iran during the reign of the Shah, he was 27 years old when his father died and his mother confronted him: “You are not my son,” she told him. His birth mother was a British nurse who had worked with his father, a surgeon at the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., and they had had an affair. Now he was dead, and his mother—no, not his mother—would send him to study in England, where he could look for his mother, his real one. As he wrote in his diary, “I am standing in the main room of someone else’s home in Tehran and I do not know who I am any more.”

Before he hands his memoir back to me, he opens it to a page, points to a passage and says, “Yes, I wrote that.” The passage described his fast-forward accounting to his lawyer of how he came to be stuck here, and so I’ll share it: “So while Monsieur Bourget smokes his pipe, I relate my story: how I left my home, and went to the University of Bradford in England; how the money stopped coming; how I returned to Iran; how I was arrested; how I was released; how I went to England and claimed asylum; how they refused; and how I was refused asylum in the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and France. And finally, how I came to Charles de Gaulle without my passport and got on a plane to England, and how they sent me back.” Along the way he threw away his Iranian exit visa, while claiming he’d been mugged. Later, he obtained refugee papers from Belgium, which he mailed back to Brussels before one of his attempts to enter England. He caught the attention of France’s top human rights lawyer, Christian Bourget, who spent nine years retrieving Nasseri’s papers from bureaucratic limbo, only to watch him refuse to sign because the signature needed was that of “Mehran Karimi Nasseri,” and he had become someone else after all those years at CDG: “Sir Alfred.” That man is still sitting on the bench here.

Why are you still here, Sir Alfred? Do you not have a visa yet? “Yes, I must get a passport and visa,” even though there has been one waiting for him under his former name since 1999.

“We have to arrange it with our film company, and DreamWorks.” Dreamworks?
I didn’t understand what DreamWorks had to do with any of this; had I mangled the question? I asked whether he had the money he would need to travel one day thanks to DreamWorks and The Terminal—he was rumored to have been paid anywhere between $275,000 and $1 million for his life story as protection from a future lawsuit, and then there were royalties from his memoirs. “Yes, I have credit from the film—recently, and in the past.”

So where will you go when you’re finally free?

“Yes, we have reserved for Hollywood, Europe and Scandinavia…”

Later, I laughed picturing him, passport in hand, showing up at DreamWorks’ offices demanding to know why there hadn’t been a sequel, or where his share of the DVD gross was. And when Spielberg refused to see him, he would simply resign himself to waiting in the lobby. And waiting. And waiting…

In real life, there have been sequels. A Kenyan man camped out in Nairobi’s airport for more than a year before finally being granted his wish this past July for British citizenship. A Palestinian refugee spent seven months sleeping on the floor of Prague’s airport until the Czech government granted him asylum. When I was at LAX, the airport’s director of public relations told me the stories of three Vietnamese men who had recently spent months there searching for a way to re-enter their home country. Two found flights to Cambodia, crossed the border, and were immediately arrested. The third set up shop in LAX for another month, accepting handouts and continually praying, before he too, caught a flight to Asia and was never heard from again. There is also a woman at LAX, I was told, who in the wake of 9/11 arrived from San Francisco and spends her nights in Terminal 1, sleeping standing up and with her eyes open. When airport police asked why, she said she was afraid—she wanted to be in a place filled with people and security. I looked, but I never found her.

We are fascinated by them, by Nasseri, and by The Terminal, because in each case they stand in opposition to Airworld’s basic condition—that everyone within it is in transit to somewhere else. Their refusal to cooperate illuminates the otherwise invisible processes that govern how airports operate, how we are absorbed through the membrane of security, how we consume in an effort to make ourselves comfortable, how we are continually on the clock for an on-time departure. Unlike The Terminal, where Tom Hanks’ character finds a job, makes a home and has a brush with love (all in nine months, before his victorious arrival on U.S. soil), Nasseri has survived here by becoming a silent part of the terminal, ignored, and thus unmolested.

I ask if he still receives visits from journalists like me. His memoir implies that one of us is always plopping themselves down, but “no,” he says. “Not anymore. I’m afraid because I should leave.”

When, Alfred? When will you leave?

“Very soon ... or later.”

I’m out of questions. My heart is beating fast; I’m sweating for the first time in a week of climate-controlled environments. I thank him and ask to take his picture. He refuses. “No pictures. No video cameras.” He asks my name, and where I’m from. “You write in America? In London?” I write down my name and Advertising Age’s on a page of notebook paper, along with my e-mail address if, by some absurd chance, Terminal 1’s renovations include a WiFi network and one of his future possessions happens to be a laptop. From the look on his face, it’s the first time he’s seen one—he’s been here since 1988, after all.

As a consolation prize, I ask if he’ll sign my copy of his book. Yes, I want it as a souvenir of this pilgrimage, but part of me wonders if he can really still write his own name. To my shame, I underestimate him—he signs it “For Greg, Sir Alfred Mehran,” and dates it correctly without a moment’s hesitation. My hero worships also pays off—he agrees to a portrait, and wriggles a bit in his seat to show his good side. I’m pressing my luck at this point—I have everything I could have asked for from this trip, and it’s only my first night in Charles de Gaulle. I thank him, and back away slowly. I’ll be back, I think. After all, I’ve only just got here.

Two nights later, I’m in Terminal 1 again, this time with my luggage. My flight to Singapore isn’t until the next afternoon, but I had checked out of the Sheraton that morning. If I’d stayed another night, I would have gone to ground in my room, just as I had Sunday, while Sir Alfred had another dreamless night’s sleep on his red bench. I could either hide in Airworld’s lap, or sack out on my air mattress halfway around the ring from him. In between us, a homeless man (a non-permanent resident) slept on one row of benches, while a pair of Asian boys who might have been on my flight amused themselves with a Sony P2P. I speak no French and knew no one. I already knew how we’d pass the night—the cleaning staff would buff the floors, the submachine gun-toting troops in full camo and berets would patrol, smoke, then patrol some more—and we would sleep. For one night, Nasseri and I would share a sliver of his existence.

I have questions prepared this time. I’d run his name again through Nexis during the interval between my visits, and it seemed he’d given his last interview only a few weeks before. At the end of the interview, when the Paris correspondent for The Jakarta Post had asked if he had anything to say to the people of Indonesia, he answered: “I’m not mad.” Word had finally gotten back to him that he was a case study now, a living, breathing icon of post-modern confusion. So was he? Didn’t he have to be? It didn’t seem to be a subject up for debate. The Hamlet question—is he crazy or pretending?—wouldn’t seem to apply when the argument for sanity is that he’d be better off living out his days here, in CDG’s cellar.

When morning comes, the guards roust us all for our flights, but Nasseri just sits on his bench, his hair wet, washing his face carefully with McDonald’s napkins. From somewhere within the piles of bags and boxes he has produced a tiny radio he is listening to when I approach to ask if he’d like anything for breakfast. I sit down at his table again a few minutes later with a croissant and espresso for each of us. He’s still chewing when I start in with questions again—I’m some demented fanboy who can’t restrain them. The first one is technical: has he mastered the art of sleeping in terminals? “Naaaah,” he says. “This is good,” patting the bench, “but there is always too much noise.” The announcements here are prefaced with a few notes that sound like a chorus of angels, then give way to a musical tone. I laid awake for an hour last night being lectured on the smoking ban.

“Alfred, you told your last interviewer, ‘I’m not mad.’ Has anyone ever accused you of being mad?”

His eyes go wide, and he leans back on the bench. “Maybe medical services. ... He become dead; he become mad –- medical services ...”

When was the last time you stepped outside?

He shakes his head. “Years and years ago.”

Do strangers ever visit with you? He shakes his head.

Do you ever call out to anyone? He shakes his head.

Do you want company? He shakes his head.

“They identified American parents, the gendarmes did,” he offers. This is new, if true. “The gendarmes identified me.” Wait, did they find your parents, or did your parents find you? “I don’t you,” and the veil of incomprehension comes down.

Are you a practicing Muslim? Do you believe in God?

“God?” He laughs.

Do you know why you’re here? Do you know why I’m here to see you? Do you know why you’re famous? Why you matter? I’m trying to talk metaphysics, but either he doesn’t think that way or I can’t get the nuance across.

“To be identified,” he says. “Identification. A year ago, in June, I hear from filmmakers. They call by telephone, and we talk for 5-10 minutes. Then if I have papers, I leave.”

This is DreamWorks?

“Yes, Dreamworks.”

And then our conversations seem to rewind and repeat. “They made a movie, The Terminal… I had trouble by air. In France, they de-Anglicize me. By boat, by air ... that’s why I came here ...”

I pick up my tray, thank him, and go to leave.

“Good luck, Sir Alfred. I hope you can leave soon.” He nods, and after that, I don’t look back.

PART 14: JETROSEXUALS AND ASIAN OPULENCE

Marketing the Ultimate Luxury in Sky Travel
September 29, 2005

SINGAPORE—Ascending through translucent tubes in Terminal 1 of Paris’ airport, I head into what passes for heaven in Airworld: a dozen hours of nonstop pampering in Raffles Class aboard Singapore Airlines.

I had one stop left, Singapore itself, before the airline would carry me home on the longest flight in the world—18-something hours over the North Pole to Newark, and if nothing else, I’d be well-rested at the end of three weeks on the road. When it’s all over, I will have spent more time aloft on those two flights than during the rest of my three-week trip combined.

This visit wasn’t some boondoggle I’d stapled onto the end, but was actually a chance to brush up against the science-fiction version of Airworld that has sprung into existence in Asia. While airlines in the U.S. were laboring to build new terminals for under a billion, the governments out here spend three or four times as much just on landfill—the artificial islands reclaimed from the sea on which Osaka’s and Hong Kong’s airports were built. And if JetBlue, Frontier and Song represented the future of the low-fare-carrier model at home, then Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Virgin Atlantic and Qantas sit at the other end of the curve, battling for the full-fare business and first-class passengers on long-haul routes. Singapore Airlines is the most profitable airline in the world, in fact, posting a record net profit in its last fiscal year of $820 million. Although I’m certainly no expert on airline accounting, I can only imagine what tax and other advantages stem from the airline’s being 57% owned by Singapore’s government.

And Singapore Airlines, in turn, owns 49% of Virgin Atlantic, which I happened to fly to London in Upper Class—its typically cheeky name for a business/first-class hybrid offering. Virgin has perhaps the most clearly articulated brand positioning of any airline flying in the U.S. today, thanks in large part to the efforts of its advertising agency, Crispin Porter & Bogusky. (As for how I was able to afford all of this, Virgin upgraded me after I paid a nominal fare, while Singapore booked me for free without a second thought.)

But if I’d simply wanted to engorge myself on raw amenities, I might have ended up in Frankfurt instead, ensconced at the new $18 million terminal Lufthansa has built for its first-class passengers, who are ferried to their planes across the tarmac in a Porsche. Or I could have accepted Emirates’ offer of an upgrade to a “privacy suite” aboard one of its fleet of A340-500s, essentially enclosed seats that the airline paid $125,000 apiece to install.

“The key word is differentiation—between our competitors and between our customers,” Lufthansa’s vice president in charge of innovation recently told Newsweek. “We have to give those who are prepared to pay extra an extra-special product.”

While U.S. legacy carriers seem stuck in a race to the bottom in terms of amenities at home, they are increasingly betting that they will be able to keep up—using their vast route networks, multicarrier alliances and frequent-flyer programs—in the luxury arms race that is already well underway. Lie-flat beds, once the last word in first-class luxury, are practically a business-class commodity, and the next lines in the sand will be drawn when Singapore, Emirates and the other launch customers of Airbus’ behemoth A380s finally take possession of their custom-configured planes. The mechanized “SpaceBed” I napped in on the way here will likely be rendered obsolete when the first one lands here at the end of 2006. Both Airbus and Boeing expect 2005 to be a record year in terms of the number of planes ordered, thanks to overwhelming demand for fuel-efficient long-haul models.

While all of the airlines above are battling for “the business traveler,” only Virgin and Crispin have concocted an entire back story and rationale for their target customer’s existence. The “jetrosexual,” introduced two years ago as an obvious play on metrosexual, was the cornerstone of an ambitious attempt to not only cast the airline as the true inheritor of Jet Set panache, but also to invite the road warrior contingent of the so-called creative class to self-identify themselves as jetrosexuals, and thus side with Virgin. I’m not sure how well that’s working out for them—none of the fellow Upper Class passengers I chatted up in the JFK Clubhouse before our flight identified themselves as such, or even knew what it meant—but Crispin’s faux boarding passes inserted in magazines and similar work comprise the most distinctive airline campaign currently in circulation. More important, the actual experience lived up to the hype.
I really did find myself at the onboard bar at midnight for a nightcap while wearing my “Sleep Suit” pajamas and carrying on simultaneous conversations with a buyer for Marks & Spencer and an intellectual property manager for Diageo.

“Nobody’s really rooting for the guy wrecking his life on road. We wanted to find a way to get behind him,” said Jeff Steinhour, managing partner, director of account management at Crispin. “If they’re tied to their frequent-flyer miles somewhere else, then how can we break the back of that resistance, and have them approach this as an event, rather than as enduring six hours sealed in a tube?”

And while one would expect to find an airline’s biggest supporters drinking its wine in its clubhouse before a flight, the passengers on the flight that night (Flight 010, “The Suite Dream” you see in Virgin ads everywhere) raved about the airline in similar terms. “They’re innovative, they’re modern, they get it,” said Nicola Burden, the IP manager for Diageo. “It isn’t like [British Airways] where the staff is 70 years old.”

Comments like that must thrill Virgin’s chief executive/mascot Sir Richard Branson, whose feud with BA goes back decades, but even the outsider hired to rebrand BA’s first-class service in the face of challenges from Virgin and other carriers is willing to give the airline its props. “One thing that they have done, and BA has done, and other carriers have done is completely focus on the experience,” said David Melancon, president of FutureBrand North America, a unit of IPG. On FutureBrand’s watch, BA introduced lie-flat beds in business class and opened travel spas at Heathrow with Molton Brown-branded skin-care products.

“I have a mental picture of who the Virgin customer is, vs. who the BA customer is, because they’re both offering very consistent, high-quality experiences,” said Melancon. “BA is more traditional, and Virgin is a little less so, but they both do an amazing job. We diminish that by saying ‘That’s the European way,’ or ‘That’s the Asian way,’ in the case of Singapore or Cathay Pacific, but that’s bull, because what you’re doing is creating an experience. If you want to talk about what American carriers are doing, my grandmother used to have a saying about burning the furniture –- it may keep you warm for the moment, but you’ve burned something you need.”

Not that BA itself should be one to talk after its dispute with the catering service Gate Gourmet snowballed into a wildcat strike by crucial staff that led to nearly 10,000 passengers being stranded at Heathrow—a memorable experience, to be sure. More than a month later, there’s nothing but tea and coffee available on BA’s short-haul flights, a fact the captain apologized endlessly for during my shuttle run to Paris.

But still, I have better understanding of what he meant after a week overseas spent making new friends at Virgin’s onboard bar and being fawned over by the unreconstructed eye candy known as the “Singapore Girls” on my flight from Paris Charles de Gaulle. I’ll need that again tomorrow, when I’ll be sealed in a tube for another 18 hours before finally –- finally –- coming home.

PART 15: WORLD’S SECOND BEST AIRPORT TERMINAL

Zen Ponds, Garden Walks, Rooftop Pool, Movie Theater, Free Video Game Arcade
September 30, 2005

SINGAPORE—Don’t believe the date line. I’m not in Singapore. I’m Nowhere, and I have the absence of passport stamps to prove it.

I’ve spent the last 48 hours in the Transit Area of Singapore Changi airport. I’m in diplomatic limbo, neither here nor there, and fortunately for me, Changi was designed with limbo in mind. Airside here is a virtual theme park, with duty free malls, Zen ponds, rooftop gardens, free arcades and smoking lounges all crammed into an architectural blender switched on to purée. Changi is relentlessly over the top by American standards, but the airborne commuters used to long hauls over oceans and 10-hour layovers don’t even blink. (After complaining at the bar one night that American airports are hopelessly drab by comparison, the guy next to me sympathized with: “Yes, it could be worse. You could be stuck at LAX.”)

On my flight from Paris, unable to sleep because of the jetlag piling up on jetlag, I ordered up a description of Changi from the aircraft’s in-flight entertainment system: “While Changi’s legendary efficiency means travelers need spend the minimum amount of time in the airport, the facilities’ offerings include showers, gym and sauna, fitness centers, putting green, rooftop pool (a must) and Jacuzzi, hairdressing salons, laundry service, karaoke lounge, mini supermarket, movie theater, TV lounges, children’s play area, nursery, smoking room, medical centre and prayer room.”

And I intended to try them all.

It can’t be a coincidence that four of the world’s most renowned airports in terms of size and facilities—Changi, Hong Kong, Dubai and Amsterdam’s Schiphol—host four of the world’s top airlines (Singapore, Cathay Pacific, Emirates and KLM, respectively) and all have literally centuries of heritage as free ports, as independent nation states, or, in the case of the Netherlands, was once one of the world’s great maritime powers. To thrive in Airworld, all they had to do was reapply their historical skill sets. (And for a great examination of how Emirates did just that in Dubai, where its planes operate and passengers shop around the clock, check out Matthew Maier’s story on the airline in the October issue of Business 2.0.) In the 2005 installment of the annual Skytrax Survey Awards—which poll passengers in 80 countries—Changi was runner-up to Hong Kong for the title of the best airport in the world, while Dubai and Schiphol finished further down the list.

My own two days here have been a succession of Lost in Translation outtakes, beginning the moment I stepped off the plane, where a pair of Singapore Airlines hostesses met me at the gate holding a placard reading “Mr. Gregory Thomas Lindsay” (in Airworld, your name is whatever is printed on your passport) and who hustled me into the airline’s flagship Silver Kris Lounge for a shower. I liked the lounge so much that I stayed for 12 hours, eating, napping, writing and repeating, and watching the waves of in-transit business travelers roll in during Southeast Asia’s aerial rush hours.

When I finally staggered out of the lounge, I wandered through the duty-free boutiques until I heard a piano playing, of all things, “The Girl From Ipanema.” The pianist wore tails and segued into a Cole Porter medley while Australians barked into their cellphones only a few feet away at Sports Bar (not a sports bar, but “Sports Bar”), where all the chairs appeared to be made of half-deflated basketballs and soccer balls and the most popular beer wasn’t the hometown Tiger brand or even something regional, like Asahi, but Carlsberg, a brand whose home turf is Copenhagen. (It turns out that Carlsberg has a brewery next door in Malaysia.)

Everything in the terminal was like that—a copy of a copy or else carved out of its natural contexts. I watched a young Malaysian man toss pizzas at a Italian restaurant that advertised its branches in Naples and Rome. The piped-in music—and there is a constant sound track in Changi—isn’t just American pop, but only covers of American pop: anonymous rockabilly renditions of “Nothing Compares 2 U” or muzak versions of Enya (which is this close to being redundant).

Or maybe it was just me. My friend at the bar, Raja, was in transit between New Zealand and Johannesburg, and killing time before his 2:15 a.m. flight. “New Zealand, Hong Kong, Kuala Lampur, here—all more or less the same,” he said. “Only the currency is different, or one might be bigger, but if you blindfolded me, by the sounds I’d think I was still in New Zealand.”

He might be right, but the stores here accept four different currencies, at least—Singapore, U.S. and Australian dollars, plus the Yen—and you could conceivably pay in whatever the exchange rates favored that day. (Every store has those helpfully posted as well.)

I saved Changi for the end of this trip because if I was right—if Airworld really is a nation with its own internal coherence, then I could reasonably expect to find the same magazines on the racks here as I would at JFK, the same New York Times bestsellers being touted at the Hudson Books in O’Hare, the same Calvin Klein fragrances at duty free, and the same “Some Big Company runs SAP” ads mounted on the walls. And?

At the newsstand, US Weekly sat next to Star, next to their U.K. forerunners Closer and Heat. I had my choice of a dozen different international versions of Vogue (I bought Australian spin-off Vogue Living for Sophie), Fortune, Business Week, Business 2.0, Fast Company and the rest, the same as it ever was in Denver.

Midway through the trip, I decided that if our airports reflected the most important and vital thinkers of the age back to us, then the omnipresence of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Blink rate him as a modern-day Descartes. Following the same standards, Jim Collins (Built to Last, Good To Great) is Ricardo and Freakonomics is the 21st century’s Wealth of Nations. They were all here in force, too.

I finally broke down and bought a copy of Candace Bushnell’s Lipstick Jungle after seeing copies of it stacked at literally every Hudson branch I saw. That book was everywhere, if by “everywhere” you meant the airport.

Duty free was a sea of familiar faces—Burberry, Gucci, Prada, Hermes, Bulgari, Tag Heuer and Toblerone. ... I knew they’d be here, for if the luxury goods business has an Achilles heel, it’s the continued dependence on Asia, and Asia travelers in particular, to drive sales at home (wherever the brand might call home) and overseas. Hermes derives 48% of its sales from Japan and the rest of Asia. Burberry? 26%. Bulgari? 43%. LVMH? 30%. And it was from one of LVMH’s global chain of DFS-branded duty-free stores that I picked out a Paul Smith scarf. Revenues in LVMH’s “selected retailing” division (which also includes Sephora) grew 15% in the first half of this year, thanks to “sustained growth in Asia, benefiting from an increase in tourism,” according to the company’s report.

The “24-hour mini-mart” was actually the best stocked 7-11 I’d ever seen, selling everything from boxers to boxes of ramen to cheap, boxy luggage. Based purely on the size and prominence of its stands in the vice wing of duty free, one would think Jack Daniels is the native spirit of Singapore.

And while I didn’t spot any SAP ads, I only wish that JCDecaux’s Don Sperring could have been here to see to the massive TV lounge filled with Panasonic flat screens, or the free, Samsung-underwritten Internet terminals scattered throughout the airport. Or the Xbox arcade upstairs. “The future is already here,” William Gibson once wrote, “it’s just not evenly distributed.” Changi and its fellow Asian airports may have more than their fair share.

As for me, I never did find the karaoke bar or the putting green, but I did get a haircut and a massage and strolled through the sunflower and cactus gardens in the steamy mid-morning heat. And I’ll never forget how it felt to sip Singapore Slings (what else?) by the pool on top of Terminal 1, where the only sounds were of swimmers in the water and the white noise of parked jet engines down below.

By the time you read this, assuming you’re reading this on Friday morning, I should be passing within 1 degree of the North Pole, halfway through my flight halfway around the world. The 18-hour flight seems more like time travel to me than anything else—we’ll shed 12 time zones along the way and live an entire waking day inside a tube 40,000 feet above the most remote reaches on Earth. We’ll vanish in one place and reappear, just like that, at home only six hours after we left, according to the clock. It will have felt like three weeks.

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Advertising Age  |  June 13, 2005

Man vs. Man

Did marketing kill the Great American Alpha Male? The author sifts through the evidence.

For an upcoming issue of Maxim, the magazine’s editors phoned a who’s who of famed “tough guys” to rate the masculinity of the youngest generation of men. Turns out Merle Haggard, Evel Knievel, G. Gordon Liddy and Jack La Lanne are not impressed. They’re a Greek chorus announcing the end of Man as they’ve known Him: “We’re spoiled, we’re tenderfoots,” spits Haggard. We’re also soft, insecure, lacking drive and a clarity of purpose, and why the hell are we shaving our asses?

And those are their kind words. The rest of the interviews follow a similar and predictable vein: Today’s man is irresponsible; he’s happily let women wear the pants in relationships; courtship is outdated; soldiers aren’t tough enough and Viagra truly is a wonder drug.

Such are the twilight ruminations of the Great American Alpha Male. When Haggard, Knievel & Co. die, they and their generation will take the masculine ideals that forged them in the 1940s and ‘50s—that they must be husband, breadwinner, father and warrior—with them.

But Maxim‘s readers are not their heirs. Despite the playful “retrosexual” tone of the magazine and the ad campaign it concocted with Crispin, Porter & Bogusky last fall (which presented men as an endangered species suffering from a degenerative disease called “Mantropy”) the “lads” Maxim first championed on these shores live their lives with a degree of self-consciousness that G. Gordon Liddy would find unthinkable.

The very existence of Maxim—and of the massive media and marketing machinery that has sprung into existence in the past 25 years in order to instruct men on how to act and what to buy—is convincing evidence that contemporary young men have forgotten how to act “natural.” And that collective memory lapse amounts to an identity crisis for the American man.

It also amounts to a crisis for marketers trying to reach them. They have had to invest thousands of hours and millions of dollars in a massive exercise of psychoanalysis, which so far has produced inconclusive and conflicting results.

Consider the highly image-sensitive categories of men’s fashion and grooming, which posted combined sales of nearly $65 billion last year. While apparel makers keep wondering whether 20-somethings will take to suits they way their fathers did (or whether the blue blazer will go the way of the fedora), the metrosexual’s unquenchable thirst for moisturizer has propelled sales of men’s skin-care products into the stratosphere. No wonder Merle Haggard can’t recognize these guys.

Advertisers are also struggling to master the nuances and tone for speaking to a generation of men who filter masculine icons through a complex process of irony.

In Levi’s new and much-talked about Web commercial, “Uncomplicated,” G.I. Joe is metrosexualized via a thoroughly emasculating makeover involving striped shirts and chest waxings. He eventually strips and flees home to his trusted 501 jeans. Created by a team at McCann Erickson, it’s a funny broadside, but to hear a Levi Strauss spokeswoman tell it, it has nothing to do with manhood at all: “The notion is to pare back to what’s authentic and the most organic things you could possibly need.”

Still, the target audience only recognizes that impulse as nostalgia.

There is a rush by sociologists (followed close behind by trendspotters) to identify and define the next “natural” man. Buzzwords are already flying. Proposed successors to the metrosexual and lad include the “übersexual” and “New Bloke,” while “masculinism” and “M-ness” have been offered as terms for the identity crisis itself. But lost in the rush to solve young men’s identity crisis through consumption is the story of what happened to them and why.

Evolution

Defining and redefining “masculinity” is a complex enough task to keep gender-studies departments humming night and day. But there is a bit of consensus on how the inner lives of men have evolved in the post-World War II era, when they returned home from saving the world to two-car garages and suburban malaise. The social codes of the Greatest Generation, like those of the generations before them, would ultimately prove too oppressive to women, ethnic minorities and homosexuals. But they offered relief to white heterosexual males, who had a ready-made identity waiting for them at the onset of adulthood.

Upon the completion of his education, he was expected to promptly find work and marry, purchase a home and raise children. (To quote G. Gordon Liddy on the subject: “Men were more responsible. They did what it took to finish high school, go to college, earn a degree, get a job and keep it. They’d marry and stay married, provide for and raise a family, create a legacy and leave an inheritance of some sort to their loved ones.”) Then feminism happened. Women’s demands for choice—to marry when they wished or not at all, to earn an independent living from an equal wage, to have children with or without fathers—meant that men suddenly had to bear the consequences. The masculine archetype, which had carried men along with the momentum and single-minded purpose of a freight train, began to derail when confronted with the paralyzing freedoms of unlimited choice.

The first generation of men born after feminism is graduating from college and returning home in large numbers (40% of men under the age of 26 will move back in with their parents for at least a short period), deferring marriage until their late 20s, divorcing young and remarrying (giving rise to “the starter marriage”) and deferring fatherhood even further, into their 30s. A gap between the end of adolescence and the onset of adulthood has appeared in a man’s early- to mid-20s, a period in which no traditional markers of manhood apply and income is almost entirely disposable.

These men are left to piece together a male identity armed only with their wallets. What happens next is inevitable.

“The metrosexual appears at a certain time in a man’s life, when men in this age group are kind of clueless about what masculinity even means,” said Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology at State University of New York at Stony Brook and the author of “Manhood in America: A Cultural History.” His next book, titled “Guyland” and due out next year, will explore the inner lives of men from the ages of 18 to 26.

“The traditional agents of socialization—family, school, church and your peers—have receded,” Mr. Kimmel continued. “By the time you graduate college, you’re supposed to be automatically socialized, and you’re supposed to be such a media-savvy consumer that you don’t get sucked in by advertising. But what are the agents of socialization now? There aren’t any! So you go back to peers and to the media again, and now you have metrosexuals and guys living in cities who have done their best to recreate their former frat-house lifestyles.”

Mr. Kimmel’s conclusions uncannily align with recent market research by the likes of Unilever’s Axe Deodorant team. Launched only three years ago in the U.S., Axe has already sprinted past Old Spice and your father’s other brands to the No. 1 position in the marketplace by targeting 18-to-21-year-olds with a cartoonishly virile campaign demonstrating Axe’s ability to drive women wild. “The Axe guy is confident, he’s comfortable, and every now and then, he needs a little boost,” said Kevin George, marketing director for the brand. “At that age, girls hold all the cards. We’re trying to give them an edge.” He added, “Guys in this age group know what they want out of life, but they’re just not ready to do it yet.”

But how could traditional socialization have disappeared so completely in just one or two generations after women’s liberation? Mr. Kimmel and his peers are quick to point out that today’s men are faster to form friendships with women and gay men than any generation before them—they have embraced, rather than resisted what had been the twin threats to their grandfathers’ and even their fathers’ manhood. While those old-timers fight to hold on to their last preserves (the golf course and other disappearing men-only clubs), their sons and grandsons have been raised to happily accept gender equality rather than resent it, even if it has meant groping for a new identity.

One of feminism’s aftershocks was the spike in divorce rates through the 1970s and into the early ‘80s toward 50%, when the men just now turning 30 were being born. A sharp rise in single-mother households (made possible for the first time by the feminist movement) went hand-in-hand with the divorce rate, and even today, in 90% of divorces, the mother retains custody. And five years after the divorce, over one-third of fathers see their children little or not at all.

“Some of these guys have heard from their single mothers that the ideal man is everything their fathers weren’t,” said Mr. Kimmel. “It also means they grew up without an immediate role model. The implicit conceit of dad as role model is no longer assumed.”

And the values dad implicitly passed from his father down to his sons—stoicism, selflessness and the acceptance of adulthood—should no longer be assumed by marketers, either. Lacking wives, children and the need to provide for them, his sons are selfish, not selfless. And they’re well aware of how they fail to measure up, of how the messages that resonated with him feel like lies when aimed at them.

Their brothers are the antiheroes of Chuck Palahniuk’s 1994 novel (and later the 1999 film) “Fight Club.” Jack (played in the movie by Edward Norton) is a proto-metrosexual with a weakness for Ikea furniture; Tyler (played by Brad Pitt) is his preposterously masculine roommate and the Fight Club’s founder. The surprise ending is that Jack is schizophrenic; Tyler is his alter ego, a figment of his imagination. But that doesn’t stop Tyler from recognizing their plight: “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is what we need.”

Schizoid

The metrosexual was fortunate enough to have two parents. His father was a particularly biting gay British sociologist named Mark Simpson. His mother was Marian Salzman, buzzword-coiner extraordinaire (and now exec VP-director of strategic content for JWT). He isn’t especially loved by either of them.

Mr. Simpson, who coined the word the same year “Fight Club” was published, has always seen his brainchild as a radical, toxic break with prior masculine traditions. “It may seem slightly deranged, or self-aggrandizing, but I’m increasingly of the opinion that metrosexuality is nothing short of an historical epoch,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The ‘New Man,’” the popular name for sensitive ‘80s men in Britain, “was in fact an early manifestation of metrosexuality, as was New Lad, which was supposedly a reaction to New Man but was in fact a continuation of the same process.

“Both were inventions of marketeers and glossy magazines, both were commodified, aestheticized versions of masculinity. However, both were in varying degrees of denial: The New Man pretended to exist entirely for women; the New Lad pretended to be there for his mates (and performed an increasingly hysterical pantomime of heterosexuality—which sometimes seemed to be more about proving they weren’t fags than about being interested in women). Both were in fact manifestations of male narcissism and selfishness and isolation: That is, after all, what consumer culture faithfully delivers to us.

“At the beginning of the 21st century the process had gone so far and so fey there was no longer any need for denial. The metrosexual finally came out of the closet for what he was: a commodity fetishist, a collector of fantasies about the male sold to him by advertising.”

The metrosexual and the Maxim reader are as schizoid in their own way as Jack and Tyler in “Fight Club.” Portrayed in the media (and portrayed in the opening of this story) as the battling claimants to the empty throne of manhood, they’re actually the same man, reassembled in slightly different configurations where one set of brands is swapped out for another.

And both have been raised without fathers. “Males are being raised more and more by single mothers—and corporate capitalism,” Mr. Simpson wrote. “Boys are fathered by Nike, Sony, MTV. Boys are emulating their heroes, but their heroes are delivered to them by Madison Avenue, in a highly incestuous/eroticized package.”

(Firebrand post-feminist Camille Paglia e-mailed her concurrence on the subject: “Over the past century dominated by Hollywood,” she wrote, “it’s advertising and popular culture, not social reality, that have become the primary reservoir for cultural images of masculinity. What this means, of course, is that gender roles, for good or ill, have become creatures of shifting fantasy.”)

Ms. Salzman, who borrowed Mr. Simpson’s word in 2003 and used it to launch a thousand trend stories (including this one), has left the metrosexual behind in favor of intellectual offspring from a different marriage. She’s reunited with her former Euro RSCG colleagues and co-authors of her book “Buzz” to write “The Future of Men,” due out in September.

“The Future of Men” is a pop-sociology catalog of all the ways men have fallen from grace since feminism. Drawing upon everything from fallen sperm counts and the degeneration of the Y chromosome to the gender divide in college enrollment and dropout rates and the fat husbands/hot wives trend in sitcoms, Ms. Salzman & Co. have coined the term “M-ness” to describe the new, self-consciously constructed masculinity just beginning to form in the post-feminist era.

From Ms. Salzman’s perspective, today’s men are not only lost, they are losing a little bit more of themselves every day. “None of what they used to think is theirs is actually theirs anymore,” she said. “They are trying very hard to find something to hold on to. What room in the house do they own? What’s still theirs?” They’re in psychic shock and on the verge of cultural and biological redundancy—once women master the art of cloning, will there be any reason to keep men around?

While that may sound a bit apocalyptic, “The Future of Men” argues somewhat persuasively that men must redefine masculinity to incorporate traditionally feminine traits like nurturing and cooperation, and include a measure of deference for the females of the species.

The metrosexual, who was the first to break free of the masculine straitjacket, was a necessary first step toward Ms. Salzman’s new archetypes: the “New Bloke,” essentially a lad who’s comfortable approaching women openly as an equal; and the “übersexual,” an evolved metrosexual who has chosen from the smorgasbord of lifestyle choices and successfully channeled his narcissistic impulses into a personal style and credo that doesn’t change with the seasons. In the future, we will all be George Clooney for 15 minutes.

While not exactly a marketing handbook, “The Future of Men” does offer a handful of ad campaigns fully in-touch with their M-ness. The reintroduction of the Ford Mustang in a TV spot using a “Field of Dreams” motif starring a resurrected Steve McQueen covers all the bases: “Innocence. Father-son bonding. Mysticism. And pure Alpha male. All in one package. M-ness means men don’t have to settle for less.”

Mr. Kimmel offers a similar prescription. “Men should go home,” he said, to their wives and families and to a redefinition of masculinity around truly equal participation in domestic tasks and child care. Rather than ask their wives to “do it all” while they fade into irrelevance, American men need to engage with their families in a manner similar to their western and northern European counterparts, who already receive generous paternity leaves and other benefits. “Men in their 20s now are actively searching for an identity, and there isn’t going to be anything that actively presents itself. But men in their early teens now will have a history of more involved fathers.”

He assumes—as do Marian Salzman, Camille Paglia, and G. Gordon Liddy—that the youngest generation of men are an immature blip in the history of masculinity, or at least a transition period away from the remnants of Alpha Male-dom and toward an unapologetically softer and softer-skinned future. But what if that transition has already happened? What if the identity crisis itself has become a rite of passage on the way to becoming a man?

Jeffrey Arnett, a professor of human development at the University of Maryland, began investigating what he has since called “emerging adulthood” back in the mid-90s (which now appears to be the formative years for Generation Y). Mr. Arnett, who also edits the Journal of Adolescent Research, spent a decade interviewing college students and 20-somethings and publishing a flurry of papers in academic journals arguing that the malaise of Generation X heralded a new phase in psychological development, at least in developed Western societies.

“Emerging adulthood” recasts the masculine crisis as a subplot in a larger drama of what will become a repeated generational experience—men and women alike will delay the onset of adulthood in order to grapple with the bewildering array of choices about education, work, marriage and children. Thirty is the new 20, and emerging adulthood lies in between. Which means the real problem facing a generation of young men today is that they’re really still a generation of boys.

Endangered Species

When Maxim tapped Crispin Porter last year to rebrand the magazine for a post-lad existence, the agency concocted, with typical flair, a request to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to have men declared an endangered species. The creative team filed the paperwork last fall, and hasn’t heard anything since. But in a perhaps prescient ruling in the ‘80s—after the Wildlife Service had been taken to court to recognize a dwindling tribe of Native Americans as endangered—the judge ruled that Man is a domestic animal, not a wild one, and thus ineligible for federal intervention.

Asked if he personally needed the protection, David Schiff, the creative director who cooked up the scheme, laughed. “I don’t consider myself a man’s man. I consider myself an overgrown boy, which I imagine most men consider themselves to be. If you can take care of your responsibilities, I think you can stop worrying about it.”

Business 2.0  |  June 2004

What Makes Nick Tick?

The smartest publisher in the blogosphere says there's no money online. So why doesn't anyone believe him?

Nick Denton
Nick Denton won’t talk to me. I’ve been after him for weeks. But the man behind the wittiest, bitchiest, most irresistible weblogs going—the gossipy Gawker and Wonkette, the gadget pageant Gizmodo, and the smut aggregator Fleshbot—is shutting me out, claiming he’s overexposed. He’s so serious about not commenting that he’s ordered his stable of blog writers not to talk to me either.

To drive home the point, Gawker gives me the silent treatment. I—and my media stories for Women’s Wear Daily—had been a running joke on the site, which once sized me up as a former “parboiled-ham-in-a-suit” and relentlessly questioned my sexual preferences. (“Greg Lindsay Comes Out” was a headline last fall.) Gawker is so beloved in New York’s media circles that this actually made my friends jealous.

But now, clearly, I am unloved.

So I’m a bit surprised the morning I receive this e-mail:

From: Nick Denton
To: Greg Lindsay
Subject: Calacanis
Date: Tue,13 Apr 2004 11:16:27 -0400

Hey, Greg—not sure whether you’re still doing your business-of-blogging story. But here’s a possible peg.

[Jason] Calacanis has commitments for $4M from Mark Cuban and an Israeli investor, possibly Yossi Vardi. You didn’t hear it from me.

Like I told you, Calacanis is a much better business story than I am.

Nick

Could Denton be capitulating? Maybe his Calacanis gambit was a bid to pique my interest. Jason Calacanis, as you may know, was biggish during the bubble years as, among other things, the publisher of the now-defunct Silicon Alley Reporter in New York City. He’s the closest thing Denton has to a competitor these days. But as a blog impresario, he’s not a business story.

Denton, on the other hand, may be quietly figuring out the most vexing problem of new media—how to make it pay. That’s the more provocative scenario, anyway. Less interesting is the possibility that he’s simply manipulating me to write about him. After all, he’s an expert at getting the right kind of buzz, which helps inflate his properties’ value. And that could be the real endgame: finding someone to unload his business on at the right time. Sound too cynical? One of Denton’s first companies threw networking parties for dotcom naifs. And that one sold for millions at the top of the bubble.

Any way you look at it, you have to conclude that Denton is wily. Consider his blog business model. A decade ago, media companies sank untold millions of dollars into building and staffing websites. Most of them are still in the red. It turned out that most Net users don’t want to pay for content, so new-media publishers had to rely on the trickle of revenue that came from online ads.

Denton learned from that debacle and embraced weblogs, which are the LEDs of the media firmament: They require almost no resources to run. His mini media empire, Gawker Media, has no offices, no proprietary technology, and no full-time employees, yet it can attract audiences big enough to generate ad revenue. Better still, the “content” is virtually free, since it consists of little more than snarky comments pointing to other sites (mostly newspapers and magazines) that do spend money or time creating content. It’s so dumb, it works: Denton’s blog model is leaner than a George Foreman turkey burger. And it’s apparently already returning a modest profit—with the potential to deliver substantially more within a few years.

Of course, if it were that simple, everyone would be doing it. Denton, 37, has figured out a couple of tricks. By offering fame rather than fortune, he’s persuaded talented writers to work for him for less money than they’d make pulling cappuccinos at Starbucks. And he picks subjects for his blogs that are irresistible to the chattering classes—media, power, sex, and toys. In the end, it costs Denton a few thousand bucks per month for each site, in return for a monthly audience of about 1.6 million young, media-savvy readers. Several Internet user studies recently concluded that the total blogger audience is only 13 million to 14 million readers. Denton is skimming off the demographic cream—the influential chatterati.

How does he turn that cream into milk money? The revenues at his flagships, Gawker and Gizmodo, have nearly tripled since last fall, to about $6,000 a month each. Both are in the black, several Denton associates claim. Based on current rates and inventory, a quick calculation suggests Denton may be grossing about $250,000 a year.

Given the rate of growth, he could be taking in $1 million annually by next year—and that’s assuming he doesn’t add more sites. Naturally, he does plan to add more: Defamer, an L.A. version of Gawker, debuted in May with a buzz-provoking anonymous byline, and Denton is considering launching a travel blog.

“My guess is that Nick has been downplaying the size of the opportunity of blogging,” says Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist and blogger himself, “because he’s not excited about the prospect of lots of capital coming in and creating competition for him.”

It sounds ambitious for a man who has consistently talked down his own financial ambitions. So what really makes Nick tick?

Denton came from nowhere, although he wasn’t a nobody. Half-English and half-Hungarian, he was Oxford-educated and lucky to be in Budapest when the Berlin Wall fell. He covered the end of communist Romania for a London newspaper and parlayed that into a gig at the Financial Times through the ‘90s, eventually covering Silicon Valley. Then he caught the bug, having perversely decided that journalists were expendable. He launched a company called Moreover, whose goal was to aggregate on one site all the world’s news, disintermediating most of his former profession. (This is a theme; when I first met Denton before working on this piece, he promised that Gawker would commoditize my then-job of media reporter.)

Back in London, he began hosting dotcommer parties that grew so big, he and his three partners decided there must be a revenue stream in them somewhere. After throwing half a dozen events, Denton bounced between London, San Francisco, and New York, raising money for Moreover. His partners carried on with what became First Tuesday—a face-to-face network that connected entrepreneurs with investors over drinks—which they sold at the peak of the bubble, in July 2000, to the Israeli firm Yazam. Though no one involved will say how much, if anything, Denton made from the deal, the four partners and their investors got a reported $50 million in cash and stock in the combined company. Six months later, Yazam sold First Tuesday for a pittance and shortly thereafter sold itself to a company that ran manufacturing facilities in prisons using inmate labor. It was a valuable lesson.

“Nick understands the difference between valuation and value,” says one of First Tuesday’s co-founders, former Wired UK editor John Browning. “He’s perfectly able to say, ‘This is undervalued and worth investment,’ and he’s equally willing to say that the market is valuing this business at more than its underlying worth.” Denton’s modus operandi is to buy the former and sell the latter.

While negotiating First Tuesday’s sale, he was simultaneously trying to raise a decisive round for Moreover. He succeeded, finding $21 million, but stepped down as CEO in August 2001 in favor of someone with more salesmanship. He then left for London to care for his ailing mother. Moreover still slogs toward profitability today, having become little more than a search tool for publicists.

Well before he left, Denton had plans for a new kind of site: a blog built around gossip. In early 2001 he even asked Valley gossip queen Chris Nolan if she’d run it. She declined, and now recalls, “He knew then what his business model would be. He knew how much he wanted to pay. He wanted one person to blog gossip. He wanted to pay [the writer] $1,000 a month, with a set number of entries a day.”

As a sort of shakedown cruise, in August 2002 he launched his first blog, Gizmodo. Denton hired Pete Rojas, a gadget specialist he had met in the Moreover days, and started applying some of the techniques that he would later perfect. His insight from having read so many blogs during his downtime after Moreover was that blogging’s laws of popularity revolved around the frequency of posts, not the density. Readers wanted ever-quicker hits, not chewiness. Of course, tone and attitude were also key.

Elizabeth Spiers, a former securities analyst he had met at a party of bloggers in early 2002, had exactly the right bite for his gossip site. He liked her scathing prose, and hired her as editor at $1,000 a month. They launched Gawker in December 2002.

It scored instant points with Manhattan media types by sniping at the biggest targets, everyone from Donald Trump to former New Yorker editor Tina Brown. But Spiers’s breakthrough came within a month of Gawker’s launch, when she published “The Quest for the Perfect Coke Dealer.” The piece was a taped interview with an anonymous “Ivy-educated Wall Streeter in her late 20s” who railed about customer service in the narcotics business. Spiers quickly became the “it” girl, prompting showers of party and dinner invitations from the very people she mocked.

By last summer their relationship was becoming strained, her friends said. The two bickered incessantly—symptoms of a professional marriage heading for divorce. So when New York magazine gave Spiers a weeklong audition for a staff job in September, Denton replaced her.

He quickly launched two more blogs. First was Fleshbot, making Denton a pornographer-by-proxy with its hard-core links. Having timed Fleshbot’s debut for the day the Paris Hilton tape went wide on the Web, Denton earned another plug in the New York Times.

Wonkette followed in January, filling a niche that was genuinely underserved: scorched-earth gossip from inside the Beltway. Its editor, old new-media hand Ana Marie Cox (once the editor of the now-closed Suck.com), predictably roiled the locals, leading to the obligatory Times piece. This time the paper tut-tutted the site’s willingness to run just about anything, even rumors that reputable journalists had already passed on. Denton’s response to the paper and potential litigation: Bring it on.

The Gawker Media sites continued to race ahead. The only speed bump occurred at Gizmodo, where Rojas grew sick of working for the Man. It was Spiers all over again, with a twist: When Denton refused to give Rojas a piece of the action, the editor quit on a Friday and started a competing blog, Engadget, the following Monday. His 50-50 partner: Jason Calacanis.

Calacanis is late to the blogging game, or at least later than he was to the rise and subsequent overinflation of New York’s Silicon Alley. His strategy appears to be to exploit Denton’s weakness. Rather than paying bloggers a pittance, he’s partnering with them, letting them keep their sites and half the revenue generated by ads. His company is the Weblogs Inc. Network. Get it? WIN.

While Denton courts the media, Calacanis is busy trying to hijack the business-to-business newsletter trade with a convoy of vertically focused blogs covering business, science, entertainment, and tech. He wants to make his fortune through volume, by selling low-cost ads and sponsorships across what he hopes will be several hundred sites. He’ll also sell his own company’s blogging software (called Blogsmith) and use his blogs as rallying points to sell conferences and research. This was essentially the model behind Silicon Alley Reporter, which morphed several times after the bust before it was sold last year to Wicks Business Information, now a part of Dow Jones.

Perhaps Calacanis had the answer to the riddle of the Denton. As luck would have it, I ran into him at the semiannual blogger confab BloggerCon at Harvard this spring. I asked him about Mark Cuban and Nick’s e-mail.

Calacanis smirked. “I don’t ever answer that question,” he said. “Why would I want people to know I have money? Why would I want to legitimize the space?” Clearly, he and Denton were playing a game of chicken, each desperate to avoid the stigma of having touched off more hype and encouraged speculators to enter the nascent market. Yet, while Calacanis wouldn’t discuss his own plans, he was happy to assay Denton’s. “He’s going to keep the cash burn low, build a brand, and then flip it,” Calacanis claimed. And he wished Denton luck. “Whoever he sells Gizmodo to, two years from now, sets the bidding for Engadget, and whoever loses will buy Engadget for a higher price.” Two weeks later Calacanis suggested that Weblogs Inc. might one day be worth $30 million.

One thing that appears to be part of Denton’s game plan—and perhaps simply a faulty part—is Kinja, a blog-search site that debuted to great fanfare in April. Kinja had been Denton’s top-secret project for more than a year. Built by Meg Hourihan—who co-invented the breakout-hit self-publishing program Blogger and thus blogging itself as a mass medium—Kinja was originally conceived as a tool for marketers. It was to be an algorithmic divining rod that would scour blog links for trends. How much would Nike or Burger King or Sony pay to watch the tipping point happen in real time?

After only a few months in the lab, the Kinja team scrapped the marketing-tool angle. The project persisted as a kind of Google for blogs, and at launch, to no one’s surprise, the New York Times ran a piece about it. But so far, the thing has turned out to be an overhyped bust on par with “push technology.” Hourihan quit the day of its launch. Power bloggers eschew it as a weaker version of the programs they already use, the blog-gathering RSS applications, which keep tabs on hundreds of blogs at once. People new to the blogging world, of course, don’t look at it at all.

Not long after I receive my first e-mail from Denton, he sends another. “OK, you win,” he writes. But he has ground rules. I can’t use his words to further what he perceives as my agenda—i.e., whipping up a frenzy of big-money interest in what he has come to consider his sandbox. Not a problem, I say. Then he sets the terms of the exchange: e-mailed questions only, with final answers subject to approval. We continue to haggle, and finally he agrees to a telephone interview.

Denton begins by bemoaning my interest in his story. “I’m nostalgic for the recession,” he says. “There was no excitement, no interest on the part of venture capitalists or journalists. You could just plug away without the distraction of inflated expectations—or greed.”

But that’s over, I tell him. The excitement’s back; tech’s back. People do care. During lunch at BloggerCon, someone pointed out that it felt like InternetWorld ‘94 all over again—that blogging, while big, was about to get huge. The bloggers seemed to want it that way. They packed the room for a session on blogging as a business and decided that what they really needed was a blogging trade association. They were practically ready to form a union.

“People are starting to get excited—overexcited—about the revenue potential,” Denton concedes. But then he objects: “Who the hell knows how big blogs are going to be in 10 years? Right now, they are small businesses, but they get all this attention because the media is obsessed by media. A blog empire? That’s a joke. I’m not looking for outside money. Which is why I don’t have to hype the potential.”

I ask Denton what will happen to the next editor who decides he or she wants a piece. He explains that since he has no plans to take his company public, he won’t offer equity positions. “I’m a traditionalist: I believe that writing is a job and writers should get paychecks. It would be entirely bogus to offer people empty revenue-share promises or meaningless equity.”

So what’s he really after?

That’s easy, Denton says: Freedom. Freedom of the press. Freedom of speech. Freedom from the rules that bind our profession.

He insists that what’s in it for him is the thrill of having invented a media business that doesn’t behave like other media. His sites are breaking fizzy, glamorous scoops, spreading dirt, and reaping the buzz. He’s running a tabloid out of his house—and loving it. “We don’t have to kowtow to investors,” he says. “We don’t have to suck up to advertising. And it means almost complete editorial freedom—which shows in the exuberance of the sites.”

He starts to sway me. Media today is repressed and apologetic and not at all the woolly way to make a living it once was. It’s hardly fun anymore. Gawker Media is media acting out, unencumbered by the pressures of advertising or ethics. I get that, and it moves me.

But later, after talking to him, I run the numbers again. If he were simply looking for truly free speech, why would he need half a dozen sites? Why would he keep trying to grow Gawker Media? Why would he be so carefully trying to work me? I think back to Browning’s comments. For now, running a blog business is a blast for Denton; Gawker gets him into parties where he rubs shoulders with New York’s media elite. But once the thrill of invention is gone? After the crowds rush the door? Denton’s got an uncanny knack for knowing when a scene is over—and for finding someone willing to pay face value for his entrance ticket.


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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion.  He is also a partner at FutureMap, a geo-strategic advisory firm based in Singapore, a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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