Pharrell Williams, one of the most famous rappers and music producers in the world, has been awarded the most prestigious job in fashion: creative director of LVMH’s Louis Vuitton brand. The fashion industry’s response: disgust.

Pharrell is not a fashion designer, nor does he have any experience, education, or background in fashion, design, textiles, or the marketing and distribution of fashion. The pinnacle job in the industry has gone to an outsider, leaving out those who have worked their way up through training.

Jo Ellison, the editor of the Financial Times’s luxury magazine HTSI, wrote that “… Williams’s appointment brings with it a tacit acknowledgement from a [$20bn-a-year-revenue fashion] house that has long promoted a narrative of savoir-faire and craftsmanship that, when it comes to customer engagement, celebrity wins out”.

The fast-track to success: online glory

On Instagram, replying to Ellison’s article, a former journalist for Al Jazeera, Tara Kangarlou, remarks: “A great piece by [Jo Ellison] that makes me once again think of the agonizing reality that in 2023 fame and followers have proven more important than education, skill and experience – a reality that affects everyone in many industries across the board.”

Shit, I mean she kind of has a point!

This isn’t the first time that fame and followers have led to a creative directorship. My memory brings me back to the summer of 2021 when a runner-up on Love Island called Molly-Mae Hague, then 22 years old, was made creative director of $600 million-a-year revenue fast-fashion retailer Pretty Little Thing. Leaving school before doing her A-Level exams so that she could focus on becoming an influencer, she seemed to have found the fast-track to success: online glory.

And Tara Kangarlou is absolutely correct: It’s not just the fashion world where expertise and talent is being left behind in favour of celebrity cult. I’ve already written about Kim Kardashian taking over private equity. Taylor Swift is now a film director. Serena Williams is now a venture capitalist. The list goes on and on. But I have to say, I find the fact that you have to become famous to do anything extremely concerning.

Example one. Just over a year ago, I was talking to a friend who was trying to raise his own venture capital “solo” fund. Although he was a successful founder with a unicorn (billion-dollar) exit, this was his first time investing. Traditional wisdom in this space says that, in situations like this, you should expect it to take between 12-24 months to raise a solo $10 million angel venture capital fund.

When I was asking my friend about his experience, he said he had massively messed up. The advice he would give someone trying to raise a fund, he said, is to spend 12-24 months working on building an online profile. Twitter. TikTok. Substack. Podcasts. Once you have an audience, you can raise the money really quickly. It really doesn’t matter how good you might be as an investor, when it comes to fundraising, it’s the number of followers that he seemed to think mattered more than anything else.

Example two. I am writing the blurb for a friend’s upcoming book publication. When I was chatting to his agent and publisher, they told me something absolutely insane: If you are not already famous, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you won’t get a book deal from a big publisher. I asked them to define famous. Hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, a million podcast downloads, tens of thousands of paid Substack readers. What the f…

In both of these examples, the reality boils down to the fact that fame and followers create what the agent I spoke to refers to as “the inevitability factor”. If a publisher’s goal is book sales, having a pipeline of hundreds of thousands of waiting fans accomplishes that incredibly quickly, easily and without much marketing budget.

If an investor’s goal is to exit large startups, having a pipeline of the best start-ups to choose from as well as being influential enough to move the market in your direction accomplishes that.

The message is clear: Don’t bother getting good at that thing you’re trying to do. Just amass followers. Because celebrity. Wins. Out. 

Only earlier this week, I sent this screenshot to a friend. I have painstakingly tried to figure out where I got it from, only for the internet to fail me. Nonetheless, here it is:

Here, by the way, is the Ted Gioia “State of the Culture” speech which is worth reading in full.

Between considering both Pharrell’s new creative directorship and whichever insightful person wrote this screenshot, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the markets for any content or goods that consumers can get their hands on (art, fashion, music, food, movies, make-up, sports) is demonstrating, for the first time and because of the network effects of its distribution platforms, “winner-takes-all” characteristics. Therefore, this “fame-trumps-all” behaviour kind of makes sense.

A few years ago, when I was (rather stupidly) driving twenty hours from Chicago to Boston during the first few days of the initial “oh shit there’s a global pandemic” lockdown, I listened to the famed CEO of Disney Bob Igor’s book The Ride of a Lifetime. It had just been released, and the overwhelming PR touted Igor as a hero of the creative industries. Everything he touched turned to gold! Legendary CEO. Legendary investor. Is there anything this man can’t do?!

Clearly, in a winner-takes-all market where the stakes are so high, a CEO’s gotta stick with what they know best. And pump that bad-boy franchise with every goddam dollar they can!

Snooze. The PR really annoyed me. Listening to the book, it was painfully obvious that Igor took what were initially incredibly creative production studios – and private equity’d them. In other words, he used M&A as a financial engineering tool to increase the Disney share price without actually creating any real value. Acquire and merge, strip back the creative excesses, lower Disney’s costs, pump out distinctly average movies to increase revenue. Share price up, creativity down. In fact, as research from Harvard Business School’s Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness (where I used to work) shows: this behaviour consistently destroys massive value. Value, in this case, being creativity.

Bob Igor is not a hero of creative industries. He is a hero of financial engineering. Ever wonder why there have been seven Marvel movies released over the space of only two years? Or why there are another nine to be released over the next two years? Why we are constantly watching the same movies? Listening to the same songs? Wearing the same clothes? Using the same Instagram filters?

Consider the fact that, as pointed out by Ted Gioia:

  • Disney acquired Pixar for $7.4 billion in 2006.
  • Disney acquired Marvel for $4 billion in 2009.
  • Disney acquired Lucasfilm—and the lucrative Star Wars franchise—for $4 billion in 2012.
  • Disney acquired 20th Century Fox for $71 billion in 2019, giving them control of everything from The Simpsons to X-Men.

“The Disney business, previously built on creativity and bold new ideas, was now just an umbrella for the regurgitation of familiar brand franchises. These tried-and-true stories are seen as sure-fire winners. Nobody ever needs to take a risk on something bold and original ever again,” Gioia wrote.

Clearly, in a winner-takes-all market where the stakes are so high, a CEO’s gotta stick with what they know best. And pump that bad-boy franchise with every goddam dollar they can!

The easiest way for a CEO to do this is to use every resource available to retain its dominant position or to out-compete incumbents. And that includes… installing a celebrity creative director; a celebrity investor; a celebrity writer; a celebrity CEO; a celebrity film director; a celebrity Broadway performer. More followers. More purchases. More revenue. More influence.

Unfortunately, this strategy is not without its mind-blowing detrimental impacts on society.

As I mentioned already, think about the fact that as we receive fewer and fewer creative inputs to our lives, especially through the proliferation of algorithmic curation, our lives go from looking like the interior of architect Gaudi’s first Barcelona house, to this rather nondescript design à la contemporaine.  

Our lives become booooring and formulaic, like the music we listen to and the movies we watch. Repeat and release. Repeat and release. Get rid of small, indie, or alt-genres. Mainstream only. Top hits only. Number ones only. AI curated. AI-generated. 

The other issue with this is, as I’ve kind of alluded to already, the fact that there are teenagers dropping out of school to become influencers. Last week I chatted with a friend who works in marketing and oversees the creative direction of a large multinational. The conversation turned to TikTok, which she showed me and Oh. My. God. 

The latest “craze” on TikTok is an influencer telling you “Here’s what I do in a day” and wow. These super-hot, ridiculously well-paid young things really should be having more fun than drinking some powdered breakfast, working out ten times a day, doing a lot of hair and make-up selfies, and eating organic kale. All I can say is, thank god nobody gave me a camera and an audience at that stage of life. My videos would look remarkably (and maybe concerningly) different! 

More than the fact that their lives look utterly dull, it genuinely feels like, in order to achieve stardom to unlock their career of choice, these influencers have no idea who they are or what they actually like. They all look the same. They all sound the same. They all post the same videos. If you get closer and closer to being the “best” of the “same” people, you unlock the next 100k followers. Their lives are commercials. The food they eat is algorithmically driven. The places they go are sanitized for anything that is not commercially supposed to be in the video.

The people they hang out with need to be the same people that they can do sponsored collaborations with. But “they” is not a tiny subset of superstars, in the same way, that “they” might have once represented the supermodels of my generation. No; “they” are the next generation of “us”, as in you and me, trying to desperately figure out how to get famous so they can buy a house or… afford expensive vacations to the Instagram hot spots where they can shoot more footage. Facepalm.

Maybe I’m a grumpy old person. Maybe everybody in the fashion industry are grumpy old people. Maybe, if we weren’t so old and grumpy, we would want celebrities upping the stakes for our winner-takes-all lives?

Well, maybe I don’t want minimalism. Maybe I want maximalism. More is more! Maybe I want to read books written by three-legged weirdos who have never heard of Elon Musk and aren’t on Twitter. God forbid. Maybe I don’t want to buy badly designed handbags with PHARRELL written across it for $800; I rather like my Foreign Affairs bag that I got with my subscription for free.

Maybe I don’t want to drink a protein shake for lunch after fasting. If I must be on a liquid diet, what’s wrong with guzzling wine before noon? No, I don’t want a six-pack, I don’t want to do yoga ten times a day, and I really don’t want to wear whatever $200 matching belly top pants combo you’re trying to sell me in order to achieve that. I don’t want to write down my feelings and recite my affirmations aloud so that I can feel my own self-love before I make my bed.

I refuse to watch another Marvel-meets-CGI movie. However, side note, the donkeys in The Banshees of Inisherin and EO deserve Oscars. Which, by the way, they’ll never get because the Oscars go to the same boring “highest box office hits” awardees every year.

Argh! My brain is slowly melting with the boringness of the beige future ahead of us. 

Jo Ellison, in her FT article, is unfortunately right.

Celebrity. Wins. Out.

But also, this:

Everybody. Else. Loses.