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A legendary music publicist’s foolproof method for making long-term decisions

Georgia Frances King
Singer John Cougar Mellencamp waves to the crowd in Chillicothe, Mo., as he arrives on stage to perform at the farmer's rally, May 7, 1986. The three-song concert was held in the parking lot of the Livingston County, Mo., FmHA office. Local farmers have occupied that site since March 17 to protest the policies of the county FmHA supervisor. (AP Photo)

During the 1970s and 1980s, if you wanted to make it big in music, you went to Howard Bloom. As their publicist or manager, he worked with Prince, Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Bette Midler, Aerosmith, Queen, Billy Joel, Billy Idol—pauses to breathe—Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and David Byrne. He launched the careers of AC/DC, KISS, and Run DMC. His autobiography is even called How I Accidentally Started the Sixties.

Many of these household names are still as famous today as what Bloom made them moons ago. How did he do it?

He thought of their careers as long-term investments, not one-hit wonders.

In this interview, which took place at Bretton Woods 75, Bloom discusses his approach to making decisions and careers that last. This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Quartz: How do you encourage people to make long-term decisions?

Howard Bloom: The ultimate two things that bring a long-term view are a family business and a very specific form of family business called a dynasty. Those propel people toward long-term thinking. The father of the Kim family—Kim Il-Sung, the one who had been trained by Stalin, basically—obviously had a long-term view. He taught a set of techniques to his son, who passed it down to his grandson, who is using it now: a set of tools for absolute totalitarianism. Trump is trying to establish a dynasty. He would be very happy if one his sons or his daughter were elected next, and after them another Trump, and after them another Trump. But these are not the ways we want to achieve long-term accountability.

If you don’t have a dynasty to tap into, how do you create a culture focused on long-term goals?

Think of Sun Tzu’s day [the ancient Chinese military general, and the author of The Art of War]. Sun Tzu was advocating strategies 35 years down the road—but in those days, the average human had a lifespan of 38.5 years. So he was advocating a multigenerational strategy. Multigenerational thinking was a part of the culture.

How do you do that? Well, I ran two companies. I got to establish the entire gestalt of one of them. And it was always long-term thinking. If you were a rockstar, or a budding rockstar, and you wanted to come and work with me, I would always ask you what you wanted to be doing in 15 years.

Actually, this happened with John Mellencamp. He got a call from Heinz Ketchup. They’d just used Carly Simon’s song “Anticipation,” and they wanted to have John’s “Hurts So Good” as their next song. And they were offering John $1.5 million dollars. Today, that’s pocket change, but back then in the 1980s, that was real money. So John called and said, “What do I do about this?” And I asked him what he wanted to be doing in 15 years: Do you want to be collecting money on your investments, or do you want to be in front of an audience? And he said he wanted to be in front of an audience, singing. So I said, “There goes that deal—just say no.” And he did.

Why did you encourage him to say no?

I explained to him that his audience was kids who feel that they are so tiny, so infinitesimal, that nobody even sees them. You speak for those kids. You are out in the wilderness, you go to the gates of the city, and you raise your fist and you say, “I have a right to an identity—even if you won’t let me in.” Now if, if he took that ketchup commercial, he’d be on the other side of the gates in the city. He’d be a gatekeeper. He’d no longer be able to speak on behalf of those kids. So that was it.

What about if you’re a private business? If you’re in the C-suite of a Fortune 500 company and you want to engender long-term thinking, how do you do it?

That’s an easy problem to solve: You have an obligation to establish or reinforce a brand. And a brand is a multigenerational thing. Look at Kleenex, look at Heinz Ketchup, look at Mars Bars, look at any of the companies that Warren Buffett owns. Warren Buffett looks for multigenerational name value, as he knows that’s one of the most important things that a company possesses.

Well if you’re the head of that company, you have to know that the most important thing you possess is something you got from a long line of corporate ancestors, and it’s your job to make sure that name brand, if anything, is stronger when you leave than when you arrived. If you take that Warren Buffet mentality, your stock price is going to depend on that.

Can you apply that thinking to governments? That a leader can think of their country as a “brand,” and try to extend it? Because Trump certainly doesn’t think America is the same brand as Obama did.

No—Trump has an appalling idea of what America is!

 Democracy is a multigenerational project. So, we have something that’s called democracy. We’re very aware of the fact that democracy is a multigenerational project, and that it could disappear at any time. But Trump doesn’t seem to realize it could disappear at any time. [Bloom pauses.] No, actually, that’s not true. I get mailings from the really right wing every day—Tea Party, stuff like that. I’m constantly riding the currents of these things, and they’re constantly talking about traders and liberty. So they do have a long-term sense—it’s just blinding them to what’s going on with their own choice in candidate.

When you’ve got these long-running brands like democracy, you’ve got a long-term view built into the system. And even the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States are long-term brands. I’m a Democrat, so I’m very aware of what the brand of my party is, and what it’s going to accomplish in the long term. And if I were a Republican, I would probably feel the same way. We’re aware of a lot of multigenerational threads.

 

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