From setting the talking points in interviews to addressing negative publicity before it leaks, an effective communications agent can help build a troubled brand and save a CEO. After doing her job in Silicon Valley for over two decades, Margit Wennmachers has helped companies like Skype, Etsy, Facebook, and Amazon shape their public identity.
For Wired, Jessi Hempel makes Wennmachers the focus of an article, instead of letting Wennmachers be the one behind the article, to describe how communications agencies shape our perception of startups and their founders, and how communications works. As tech’s old reputation changes from a group of nerdy outcasts to a greedy power center run by sexist, gentrifying capitalists, she’s now helping shape the narrative of tech itself. She’s angling for something driven by the old maxim that “with great power comes great responsibility.”
Controlling the message of tech has become both easier and harder. In the early days, Wennmachers needed to hustle to put the firm’s founders at the center of tech conversations, which often happened in the pages of a short list of reputable publications. Yes, Andreessen Horowitz had a blog, but its most powerful ideas were conveyed by the traditional press. Consider Andreessen’s iconic August 2011 missive announcing that “software is eating the world,” which became the rallying cry for the generation of tech startups that followed. It was first published as an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.
That media ecosystem has now been upended and the path to success has changed. Wennmachers’ ability to push out a narrative no longer depends on having an editor’s ear. Andreessen Horowitz can advance its own editorial ideas through blog posts, podcasts, social media, and a newly launched YouTube channel independent of the media, connecting directly with people starting or building companies.
Its founders write frequent blog posts, and they have access to enough social channels that they no longer need a Wall Street Journal to push out their perspective. A former WIRED editor produces a regular podcast that is downloaded and listened to by a wide audience of aspiring founders, business people, policymakers, and tech enthusiasts. “The running joke of the firm is that we’re a media company that monetizes through venture capital,” Andreessen says. It’s a joke, but also an inevitable evolution of Wennmachers’ role—in which a communications lead begins to look much more like a media tycoon.