In his new book, House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time, Martin Kihn puts his profession under the microscope. Kihn, a former Emmy-nominated writer for VH1's famed "Pop Up Video," holds few punches in his often laugh-out-loud dissection of an industry that is, as he says in his book, "a locus of transients, Bedouins, nomads, and people just passin' through."
What was your real motivation for becoming a media consultant?
When I started thinking about going to business school, the first thing I noticed was that the average starting salaries of consultants was $111,000. When my wife, who is a musician, saw that, she said, "Writing is great as a hobby, but isn't this better?" As the head writer for "Pop Up Video," my salary was only $1,500 a week. I was starting to feel like less of a man. The good thing about the business world is that there is no shame in saying that your motivation is a bigger salary.
You are particularly critical of both Harvard Business School graduates and former McKinsey and Co. consultants, groups you think rule the world. Why?
My main beef is that Harvard didn't admit me and McKinsey didn't hire me. The funny thing is that everyone in the industry applies to both. The rejects like me are often overly sensitive to being blocked from entering the inner circle. It's like you acquire a halo effect and clients love it.
You include a dictionary in your book to help decipher all the jargon that consultants use. Are there any specific terms that truly annoy you?
There is one that drives me insane: "leverage." I never heard it used before I got into the business. People use it as both a verb and a noun. Just the other day, a guy said to me, "We need to leverage our leverage." A great example of when a consultant can mean everything and nothing at the same time.
If small business owners can't trust consultants to help solves problems in their business, who can they turn to?
Small businesses that hire smaller, specialized firms can work out very well. The main benefit of working with them is that they know something you don't know and they can help you when you're stretched beyond capacity. The real scams happen when consultants are brought in for big, ambiguous strategy projects where the client doesn't know what they want and the firm doesn't know what to do. Strategy consultants are sort of good at everything, but not very good at anything.
Kihn continues to work as an advertising consultant and lives with his wife and Bernese mountain dog in upper Manhattan.