The first thing I notice about Meg Whitman is her hands. The former head of legacy tech giant Hewlett-Packard (HP), the CEO who took eBay from a start-up to a multi-billion-dollar e-commerce giant, and the one-time Republican candidate for governor of California comes across at first meeting just as you’d expect — confident, cool and in control. Classic blonde bob and conservative jewellery: check. Hyper-focused yet friendly: check. Firmly on her talking points: check, check, check.
Then there are her hands. She gesticulates as she speaks and my eyes are drawn to some intricate patterns in red. “Oh, don’t worry about my hands,” she says, at almost exactly the moment I’m worrying about them. “I was at an Indian wedding, and they had this thing where women would paint your hands [with henna]. This is 10 days old.” I have an inkling which wedding she’s talking about, and she confirms my suspicion without my having to ask. “I was at the Ambani wedding, yes,” she says, referring to the recent lavish Mumbai nuptials of Isha Ambani, daughter of Indian tycoon Mukesh Ambani.
This reminds me — though I hadn’t really forgotten — that Whitman is a global A-lister. I continue to marvel at her hands as we peruse the menu at Spoonfed, a low-key Hollywood café that she’s chosen mainly because it’s in the same building as her office. In this non-descript concrete block, Whitman has just launched Quibi, a $1bn start-up of which she is CEO (entertainment mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, her co-founder, is chair). The venture, backed by a host of entertainment, tech and finance groups, including 21st Century Fox, Viacom, Alibaba, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan, has the lofty aim of becoming the Netflix of the mobile generation, offering high-quality, bite-sized video content for millennials (and the rest of us) hooked on smartphones.
Los Angeles is a more interesting city in which to live and work than San Francisco, the only other obvious choice for the company headquarters. Hollywood these days is a mix of grit and glamour; Spanish-style bungalows near the office sit in varying states of repair, some overgrown with bougainvillea and lemon trees. Homeless people have pitched camps of tents beneath giant signs advertising new movies and TV shows.
Our café has a spacious garden, but the staff — who look, unsurprisingly, like moonlighting actors or musicians — hop to attention when I mention that I am meeting Meg Whitman, and they escort me to a reserved table inside, near the bar. “She usually ends up in here,” says the server, with a gleaming Hollywood smile. The place is nothing special, its menu filled with California comfort food (sliders, flatbreads, chopped salads), but half the tables already have “reserved” signs on them. This is a town that loves its power lunches.
Whitman is less an LA free spirit than a Davos woman, once mocked in the FT by my former colleague Lucy Kellaway for issuing one of the most “bone-headed aphorisms” of Davos 2016: “You can always go faster than you think you can.” Verdicts on Whitman’s tenure at HP are mixed.
On taking over in September 2011, she was thrust into dealing with the accounting scandal that resulted from the acquisition of British software group Autonomy; she eventually signed off an $8.8bn writedown in the value of the $11bn deal. A six-year investigation by the US department of justice into the sale of Autonomy led last year to its CEO at the time, Mike Lynch, being charged with 14 counts of conspiracy and fraud — which he denies. In her tenure Whitman cut HP’s debt — and large numbers of its staff — but was unable to create game-changing innovation.
Whitman is an endangered species in US politics: a moderate pragmatist who endorsed Clinton despite being a Republican herself, and says she’d vote for another Democrat, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, if he were to run for president in 2020
Her experience has left her with plenty of advice for CEOs struggling with nearly every kind of disruption — technological, cultural and geopolitical. “I think every big business needs to be thinking, ‘Who’s coming to kill me?’ Where are the big markets where, for regulatory reasons or just because things are being done the way they always have been, disruption is likely? I’d say healthcare is one.”
Big Tech, which she believes is having a values crisis, is another. “I can tell you from my eBay experience that sometimes you need to take the hard right, versus the earlier wrong,” she says, alluding to the tough decisions the platform had to take on whether to ban the sale of firearms and Nazi memorabilia (they did, though such sales are legal in the US). “I don’t run a social network and I’m not on the board of a social network, but I think they’re going to have to decide what they want to have on these platforms, and there will have to be judgment calls.”
In an age of corporate activism, Whitman thinks business leaders should be making more of those, anyhow. “I think that CEOs, particularly of well-known companies that have a big platform, need to say what they think. It’s time. Listen, you know, I endorsed Hillary Clinton [while at HP], and half my employees, I’m certain, were Donald Trump supporters.”
Whitman is an endangered species in US politics: a moderate pragmatist who endorsed Clinton despite being a Republican herself, and says she’d vote for another Democrat, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, if he were to run for president in 2020. She is baffled by America’s current polarisation: “It’s like the Hatfields and the McCoys.” She admires the young people pushing issues such as #MeToo to the fore, but shares the values of a previous generation when it comes to expectations and leadership style. “They are more ... holistic .. when it comes to things like work-life balance,” she says, tactfully, of the millennials. “My generation was just glad to have a job.”
A believer in middle-of-the-road compromise, she is passionate about policy issues (she chairs Teach for America, one of the top educational non-profits in the country). None of these qualities play as well as they once did. But they still have value in business.
Whitman had arrived a few minutes late, having just heard of the death of Jim Rogers, a friend and former Duke Energy CEO who sat with her on the board of the Nature Conservancy. The delay while waiting for her would have been the perfect moment for me to view a “Quibi”, as she calls the new company’s “snackable” videos, designed to be consumed in increments of a few minutes.
“You have all these in-between moments, and that’s what inspired the length of the content,” she says. “Very few people are watching long-form content on this device,” she says, holding up her iPhone. “They’re spending four to five hours a day on their phones, but they’re playing games, watching YouTube videos, checking social media, and surfing the internet. And although [people] pick up their phones hundreds of times a day, the average session length is 6.5 minutes.”
Whitman is, in some ways, an odd choice for a venture such as Quibi. She comes across as warm, professional, and utterly competent, but not creative. She’s got the tech chops
Whitman’s hope is that just as people now binge on hour-long episodes of The Crown or House of Cards at home, they’ll do the same on their smartphone while in the doctor’s office, or commuting, or waiting for a meeting to start. As Whitman puts it, “Every day you walk around with a little television in your pocket.” She and Katzenberg are betting that by the end of this year, we’ll spend some of our “in-between moments” watching micro-instalments of mobile movies produced by Oscar winning film-maker Guillermo del Toro orTwilight director Catherine Hardwicke, or stars such as Justin Timberlake interviewing Taylor Swift about the moment that made her realise she wanted to be a singer (seeing Dolly Parton at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, in case you were wondering).
I can see the logic, although the thought of clicking on yet another bit of instantaneous stimulation whenever I have some downtime makes me tired. Whatever happened to white space? There is certainly little of it in Whitman’s world. I’ve been allotted an hour on her schedule. But this is fine, because she is incredibly efficient. After a minute or two of chit-chat, she asks if I’ve seen the menu and beckons the waitress over. She looks at the menu for a few seconds before ordering a half-portion of chopped chicken salad, dressing on the side, no starter. I’m a bit disappointed, because this means I can’t get two courses. I settle for the grilled salmon served on roasted corn purée and a coffee with cream to help my jet lag.
Whitman is, in some ways, an odd choice for a venture such as Quibi. She comes across as warm, professional, and utterly competent, but not creative. She’s got the tech chops, between eBay and HP. But her last job at a content company was a brief stint as vice-president of strategic planning at Disney in the late 1980s. “I really didn’t want to leave,” she says. “I loved Disney and I thought it was the greatest job I ever had. But my husband and I have traded off careers over the entire 38 years we’ve been married, and he got a chance to run the brain tumour programme at Harvard’s teaching hospital, Mass General. He really wanted to go, and I really didn’t want to go. Sometimes in life you have to do things you don’t want to.”
She says this in the matter-of-fact way that underscores her reputation as a safe pair of hands — clearly one reason she was on the shortlist to run Uber back in 2017. “I have a little mental model for what makes great consumer tech businesses, and it’s way easier to be in a business where the trends are in your favour. I’ve done it both ways. At HP, there were gale-force winds.”
The wind was at her back at eBay, where she became president and CEO in 1998, presiding over a decade in which the company’s annual revenues grew from $4m to $8bn. “It’s hard to change consumer behaviour. We did that at eBay. We taught people how to buy in any auction format on the internet, how to send money 4,800km across the country and hope that you got the product.”
Quibi, she believes, doesn’t require that shift. “People are already watching a lot of videos on their phones. You just need to create a different experience.” She lays out how the company will optimise video for phones in ways that (she claims) will utterly change the viewing experience, and will leverage Katzenberg’s 40 years in the business.
I push back a little on this. It will certainly help to have Katzenberg calling in favours from stars and directors whose careers he’s helped to make. But do people really want to pay for content made by professionals, rather than get it for free from the amateurs who’ve turned YouTube into a cash cow for Google? And even if you buy the pitch, why spend so much money on content creation at the top of a credit cycle?
“You need scale to compete,” she fires back. “That’s the genesis of the Fox-Disney merger, for sure. And I think it’s part of the story around the AT&T-Time Warner merger, and I think you’ll see more consolidation in this industry.” I’d agree with that — but remain unconvinced that scale alone will help these brands compete with the tech giants leveraging data and the network effect.
Our lunch arrives. “That’s a very large half-salad,” Whitman says, eyeing the American-sized bowl of chopped chicken and greens warily. “That’s OK, though, because I won’t eat it all. You can see why I asked for half.” I dig into my salmon, which is nicely done and works well atop the corn chowder.
Whitman believes companies that are willing to bet big can succeed. She points out that the premium cable network HBO launched some of its most famous shows at the height of ad-supported TV, when existing networks were already making plenty of money on good content. “Nobody was complaining about the quality of television ... but HBO commissionedBand of Brothersfor what today is $30m an episode.” By creating an entirely new market niche of edgy, subscription-based drama, Whitman notes, HBO changed how we thought about the medium itself.
I’m still not persuaded. Yes, it does seem like short is the new long, and that millennial media consumption patterns may someday be the norm. Whitman likes to trot out the fact that even books are being consumed in short bursts, pointing to Dan Brown’s 2003 blockbuster The Da Vinci Code, which has 464 pages and 105 chapters.
Still, what’s to stop Google paying a bunch of smart people even more money to make super high-quality content at whatever length they like? “Well, I think a lot of the major tech companies have had trouble getting into content and a lot of the content companies have had trouble getting a platform.” True enough. As anyone who’s spent time in both Hollywood and Silicon Valley will know, the two cultures do not make for easy bedfellows.
My hour is almost up. There will be no time for one of those all-American desserts, such as “Mom’s Chocolate Buttermilk Cake” or a “Spirited Root Beer Float”. I tell Whitman I hope she’s forgiven Lucy Kellaway for her critique of her management-speak. She looks flustered for a moment and then says, “Well, the good news is that since running for governor, I don’t read any of this [media coverage].” Really, I ask, you don’t read articles about yourself? “No,” she says. “And I shouldn’t have when I ran for governor, because it doesn’t make you better ... it makes you more unstable.”
Her campaign, which was fraught with issues of negative advertising against her Democratic opponent Jerry Brown and accusations that she’d knowingly employed an illegal immigrant as her housekeeper, certainly won her plenty of bad press. Would she ever run again? “Never. Politics today is just a full-on combat sport. It’s nasty. You have to be a fighter. And actually, at my core, I’m not a fighter. I don’t love combat. Just think about how many successful politicians have been litigators.”
Whitman is probably better off in business, where qualities such as professionalism and efficiency have more value. Our lunch has clocked in at exactly 59 minutes and 16 seconds, leaving me a bit of time before the trip back to the airport. I could watch a short video. But instead, I put away my phone and opt for a walk in the California sun.
- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019.