September 2004 marked what could have been the true end of Martha Stewart as the ‘face’ of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. In a knee-jerk reaction to the legal woes of America's most recognized authority on the domestic arts, Sharon Patrick, the CEO at the time, led the effort to remove Martha from the pages of the flagship magazine that is the cornerstone of the company. Quite literally, the effort leaned toward removing Martha completely. All that would remain would be her name. With the redesigned magazine masthead it was apparent that the “Martha” in Martha Stewart Living was shrinking. Readers had to wonder, “Would she disappear totally?”
Margaret Roach, Editor-in Chief of MSL, wrote in her September 2004 Editor’s letter: “…This September is one of change for me and my colleagues at Martha Stewart Living, and change, though necessary and often a sign of new growth, isn’t always comfortable. It would probably be no surprise to hear my confession that I miss Martha’s monthly column at the front of the magazine this month, as I’m certain you do, too…” Margaret goes on to comment about Martha not literally being “in” the pages of Martha Stewart Living magazine saying, “… Martha’s inspiration and genius are the heartbeat of the magazine.” Can a company that was built on a personality survive without the personality? Sharon Patrick thought it not only could survive, but it had to survive without Martha. Martha was no longer a valuable asset. She had become a huge liability to the future success of the company. In short, get rid of her.
Two short months later, on November 11, 2004, MSLO issued a press release announcing the resignation of Sharon Patrick and the installation of Susan Lyne as the new President and CEO of the company. For a company that was on the verge of ruin through intense media battering and plummeting stock prices the business world was reeling at the news. This leadership change symbolized more instability. It symbolized a company that was floundering in the sea of bad press of its name, face and image. The public quickly learned that Susan was going to get to work, attempting to diligently restore MSLO and, happily, would be bringing Martha back as well.
In less than a month, December 2004, the first big announcement: Martha was returning to television with a new daytime show and the development of “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.” This was a huge announcement. It showed that the recent trend of “de-Martha-izing” the company was no longer the direction the company was taking. Martha was going to come back as she promised when she spoke on the steps of the federal court: “I’ll be back. I will be back.”
In the months that followed it was all good news for the company and for Martha. New business ventures, a highly successful daily show, and even the mediocre success of The Apprentice have brought Martha back into the everyday lives of those that trusted and relied on her in the past. Would this have been possible if Sharon Patrick were still CEO? Not likely.
While Patrick and others at the company had long said they were NOT distancing themselves from Martha, the person, it was obvious that was exactly the plan. Many of the regular magazine features (Martha’s Calendar, the “Remembering” column) were no longer present in the magazine. The new masthead of Martha Stewart Living showed a less prominent inclusion of Martha’s name. Everyday Food, which at the time was the newest title from MSLO, saw her name removed completely. Pictures of Martha throughout the pages of the magazines disappeared as well.Susan Lyne recognized the company could not live a healthy life without Martha being part of it. In a February 2005 interview with the New York Times, Susan Lyne commented that the company’s greatest asset is its library of video footage, recipes, articles and other content. She said, “The core brand is Martha Stewart, the brand. It is a corporate brand that we can use to launch a television show, a new product line, DVD’s, books, all kinds of things.”
MSLO’s vast library, with literally thousands of hours of video, more often than not features the woman behind the brand, Martha. The idea of repackaging the content into various opportunities could not be done with the exclusion of Martha. Suzanna Walters, chairwoman of the department of gender studies at Indiana University summed it up quite well, “There is no Martha Stewart empire without Martha Stewart.” With an August 2005 Gallup poll showing a 52% favorable rating for Martha Stewart, she was actually more popular than she was six years ago before there was a hint of legal trouble. With that type of rating (which our country’s president can only dream of) the company would be foolish to attempt to pull Martha from its visible ranks.Without Susan Lyne and Chairman of the Board Charles Koppelman, it is my guess that MSLO would still be floundering. Their keen business sense, knowing when to partner the brand with others and when not to, have led Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia on a course for great success. All of the new ventures certainly include its Founder.
For Sharon Patrick, of course, everyone wishes her well. She was a dynamic force as Martha moved to take control of her own company and her own name. Patrick helped orchestrate the company going public in 1999 and helped assume full ownership of the magazine by maneuvering to buy it back from Time Warner in 1997. Her assistance and her business savvy were certainly essential tools in the creation of MSLO. Despite her contributions, I can’t help but be thankful that she “stepped down for professional and personal reasons.” I’m not convinced that we would have as much Martha if she was still at the helm of the company.