Tuesday, March 13, 2007

eSapience - Think Tank or Plain Old Flack?

I read with great interest Peter Howe's recent article in The Boston Globe on a lawsuit that Cambridge think tank eSapience is mounting against Hank Greenberg, the fallen from grace former head of American International Group (insurance). My interest stemmed from the combination of juicy element - lawsuit over non-payment of a big, fat $2million consulting bill - and the mention of outgoing MIT Sloan School Dean Richard Schmalensee's, eSapience's Senior Advisor. (I'm a Sloan alum, and, while I don't think I ever took at course with Dick when I was there in his pre-dean days, I do remember him as an affable and engaging presence.)

From the eSapience site, we learn that the company (or should I say organization, since their address uses the more academic - and less commercial - dot.org designation):

...is a new media and research entity that shapes the debate on issues that intersect law, economics, and policy.

The firm's core expertise is in designing and executing highly targeted strategic policy campaigns in support of high-stakes business issues facing the world's leading organizations. Through its global network of academics and other public intellectuals, the firm publishes leading journals, organizes high-level strategic briefings and closed-door sessions, and creates a variety of other on- and offline venues which assemble the key participants in policy discussions.

All well and good - and definitely high tone - to focus on "strategy policy campaigns in support of high-stakes business issues facing the world's leading organizations." Quite another thing to find someone to foot the bill. Thus, the rather low tone wrangle that eSapience finds itself in with Hank Greenberg.

Here's a take from Peter Howe's take (which, in its sub-head, characterizes eSapience as a "Cambridge PR shop", which may be a fair assessment, but which I doubt jibes with eSapience's self image). Anyway, I give you Peter Howe:

They were hired, they say, to buff up the sullied reputation of one of the nation's best-known billionaires, insurance giant Maurice "Hank" Greenberg.

Now, the image-makers at the high-end Cambridge communications firm eSapience Ltd. are suing Greenberg's company for allegedly refusing to pay a $2 million bill.

A key executive of eSapience is no less than the dean of MIT's Sloan School of Management.

Howe goes on to detail Greenberg's troubles as he battled criminal and civil charges (fraud, insurance and securities violations) brought against him by then NY State AG Eliot Spitzer. (Criminal charges were dropped, but several of the civil charges remain - and Greenberg remains fighting them.)

But enough about Greenberg, already. I'm a lot more interested in what eSapience was doing for him.

Just what Greenberg's firm hired eSapience to do will be a key issue of contention in the suit. Schmalensee and top academics from the University of Chicago and from University College London, also eSapience officers, say they were called in to boost Greenberg's profile through events like an insurance industry seminar last September at the St. Regis Hotel in New York. Greenberg was invited by eSapience to give a keynote address to 50 top insurance executives, according to the lawsuit.

Schmalensee and eSapience executives set up a new think tank, the Barbon Institute, specifically to provide a credible-sounding new platform for Greenberg to give the image-rehabilitating speech at the St. Regis, the suit says.

The article goes on to say that eSapience worked on trying to get an article in the New York Times that basked old Hank in a kindly light. Not to mention hiring John Sedgwick to ghost-write Greenberg's autobiography, which they apparently failed to find a publisher for. No surprise there. If I were going to pick up a book by and/or about Hank Greenberg, I'd prefer one about the Detroit Tigers slugger and baseball Hall of Famer - not the disgraced insurance mogul. (I'm yawning just blogging about the unrealized bio of Hank AIG.)

eSapience describes itself as "a content-driven enterprise built around a set of relevant issues that ultimately determine the direction of market economies."

Sometimes there's a disconnect between how we'd like to see ourselves and how the world views us. Cambridge PR firm. I doubt that this is how eSapience sees itself. Is risking that this mantle sticks, is being surrounded by the not-so-glowing aura of out-and-out floggery, worth the $2M that they claim Hank Greenberg has stiffed them for? Or should they just give it up the academic scrim and call a dot.com a dot.com. (The url appears taken but is unused.)

I'm sure that Dick Schmalensee and the other brainy guys running eSapience really want to be content-driven. Well, as we all learn in business 101, business is business. Like every other business, this one - whatever its lofty aims - is revenue driven. Nothing wrong with that. After all, Dick's the dean of a business school, not the divinity school. If you want to be purely content-driven, I guess ya gotta blog.

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