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Harvard Business Online

Memo to 20th Century Business

Posted on Edge Economy: May 25, 2009 4:21 PM

Dear 20th-Century Business,

You blew it. Instead of doing stuff that mattered, you ended up doing stuff like this:

"The Jonas Brothers sat backstage recently at the El Rey Theater here, politely answering questions from a small cluster of reporters about their new CD....

...The band's outside efforts include a line of branded energy drinks and starring roles in "Walter the Farting Dog," a movie for 20th Century Fox based on the best-selling children's book."

That's an amazing sentence. Everything that's wrong with 20th-Century business (and 20th-Century economics) is perfectly encapsulated in it.

It's the essence of dumb growth: spending millions to create a boy band with the half-life of a mayfly...all to push-market sugar-water and lowest-common-denominator flicks that fail to make kids smarter, happier, or better in any meaningful way. Welcome to the zombieconomy—want fries with that decline?

Yet, on the other side of the divide, we've got economists proposing, for example, the nationalization of credit.

What happens when we spend our government sponsored $1k on Jonas Brothers "branded energy drinks," which create absolutely no real value? We dig ourselves even deeper into the hole of value destruction.

Financial engineering cannot solve our economy's problems—because they're not financial problems. They are about toxic organizations and institutions failing to create authentic economic value. And the worst offender on the list is 20th-Century business.

Which brings me to the point of my open letter.

20th-Century Business, you're fired. The global economy has decided to let you go. Why? Because you turned out to be, well, a less-than-productive hire. You failed to live up to your end of an implicit but very real social contract: do stuff that makes people better off. Instead, you did stuff that trivializes, belittles, and enfeebles people.

You failed to do the meaningful stuff, and today the bill is coming due. What does that bill look like? It's not about numbers. It says:

The only viable solution to the zombieconomy is a better kind of business, built from the grass-roots up: a new generation of radical innovators that challenge and disrupt lame, brain-dead 20th-century business. The kind of business that, for example, push-markets toxic junk to kids.

Who are some of those innovators? We've discussed lots of them—Apple, Google, Tata, Threadless. What makes them different is simple. They are more profitable and valuable than rivals because, well, they do stuff that counts.

Because they do, I'd miss them if they were gone. Would anyone miss the rest of you? I'm not so sure. Maybe that's something to chew on.

Provided by Harvard Business—Where Leaders Get Their Edge

Umair Haque is Director of the Havas Media Lab, a new kind of strategic advisor that helps investors, entrepreneurs, and firms experiment with, craft, and drive radical management, business model, and strategic innovation. Prior to Havas, Umair founded Bubblegeneration, an agenda-setting advisory boutique that helped shape the strategies of investors, entrepreneurs, and blue chip companies across media and consumer industries. Bubblegeneration's work has been recognized by publications like Wired, The Red Herring, Business 2.0, and BusinessWeek, and in Chris Anderson's Long Tail, to which Umair was a contributor.

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