This weekend, Steve Kandell at BuzzFeeᴅ took a brief respite from posting listicles of shit that makes you feel old to do a big #longread on ESPN sports business reporter and Boiler Room extra Darren Rovell. As usual, Rovell comes across as an unapologetic industry hack, someone who found his niche licking the boots of corporate sponsors ("Am I more likely to be on the side of pro-business? Of course") and who protects that niche like some kind of deranged mother falcon. And you know what? I get that. I get that Rovell figured out a voice for himself that stood out and is happily riding that voice to a handsome contract with ESPN.
That's not what sucks about Darren Rovell. The dopey stat breakdowns, the vigorous self-defense he wages via direct messages, the blatant CEO-humping: That's all fine. A man's gotta eat somehow. No, what sucks about Rovell is that be BELIEVES all this shit. What scares me about Rovell is that he will send out a tweet like this and be 100 percent sincere about it:
Cherished my conversation with @pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi yesterday. Can't imagine having to think about so many brands every day.— darren rovell (@darrenrovell) September 17, 2013
I worked in advertising for a long time (that's me branding myself as an expert!) and I've dealt with a lot of people in brand management and public relations, and I can tell you that there are a LOT of Darren Rovells out there. The reason I think Darren Rovell sucks is because he represents a specific breed of self-branding shitbag. He is the guy harassing you with a LinkedIn invite every five seconds. He is the motivational speaker with a handful of self-published books sitting on a card table. He is the guy clapping enthusiastically during the unveiling of a new Pepsi can. He is the guy rehearsing his elevator pitch in the mirror before heading out to the Holiday Inn Express breakfast buffet. He's THAT guy, and there are wayyyyy too many people like that.
In a sputtering American economy, there is a growing number of people who are so desperate to remain afloat that they will happily allow their humanity to be subsumed by whatever stuffed-crust pizza chain employs them. They buy in all the way. And Rovell is their champion. If you want to understand how companies like Enron and Goldman Sachs can become such inhumane, awful places, Rovell is the prototype. He is strictly about the brand—the face of the enterprise. Whatever shady shit is going on beneath that brand is simply a necessary evil to keep it all neat and spiffy. He is the guy at the power company turning a blind eye to old uranium being dumped in the local water supply.
"And maybe the word 'brand' is laughable to some people, but I think the people who are on the cutting-room floor in this industry are the ones who could not find their brand. ... My whole life is a strategy."
For Rovell, brand is God. A brand is a new form of the human soul, a kind of corporate immortality. Building and protecting that brand is a noble endeavor for Rovell, and that's fucked up. Because a brand isn't anything. It's just an abstract concept—a logo, a slogan, etc.—built mainly on lies and designed to cover up the fact that someone's trying to part you from your money. And yet in Rovell's mind all human events are reducible to their effect on some real or imagined market value. "Will Lance Armstrong's brand suffer?" Rovell asks. The brand trumps the person.
You can see this kind of brand worship in other places, and the average person instinctively resists it. When LeBron James sat down with Jim Gray for The Decision, that was a naked branding exercise, and people fucking hated it. When Nike ran that Tiger Woods ad featuring the voice of Tiger's dead dad, that was a naked branding exercise, and people fucking hated it. Most people resist that kind of blatant self-salesmanship, because there is such an inhuman quality to it. It's like watching a person becoming a 3D animated rendering of himself.
But Rovell doesn't recoil from any of this. He ADORES it. And so do the legions of nametag-wearing folks in penny loafers roaming your convention hall. That is what people can't stand about Rovell. He is the perfect embodiment—a champion, really—of the "corporations are people" culture, where press releases are scripture and where the success of your brand requires the donation of your very soul. In Rovell's eyes, a company like Pepsi is a kind of living thing—a constantly changing entity that takes in human brains and smashes them together into a larger superbeing. And his whole schtick is worshiping at the altar of that superbeing. Only it's not schtick. It's him, and I very much wish it weren't. That's why people hate Darren Rovell. Also, this:
"If you’re a fan today and you don’t understand the business, then you’re a bad fan. You will lose at the watercooler every single time."
That's just fucking douchey.