Expert Thoughts

Why Marc Andreessen Will Win The Carl Icahn ‘Content Battle’

At a certain point, [Mr. Icahn]’ll overextend, by outright lying, or getting too vicious, and his campaign will live on, forever, as an example of activist investor hysteria.

Marc Andreessen (Screengrab: YouTube)

Marc Andreessen (Screengrab: YouTube)

Carl Icahn has launched an information war against eBay’s Board. Not finding traction in going after Scott Cook, Mr. Icahn has shifted his attention to Marc Andreessen, unleashing an onslaught of half-truths and fictions designed to discredit the venture capitalist. This kind of content-driven investment is what Mr. Icahn does

Mr. Andreessen isn’t taking it laying down. He’s responding, but with facts, quotes, and an eye on the forever. All components of a strategy that will ultimately yield victory. 

Mr. Icahn Thinks He’s Winning 

Remember, Mr. Icahn is a content marketer with obscene amounts of money. This means his entire strategy, the purpose of his business, everything, is centered on what he’s learned from today’s best digital marketers: manufacturing controversy drives page views, clicks, likes and ad revenue

Fueling the flames enhances your base of support as additional forces rally to both your side and your opponent’s. The optimal strategy, it would seem, is to manufacture the most controversy for as long as possible until you outpace your enemy. This is the genius of a content strategy. You engage with your audience at a level where their emotions touch on their livelihood, which ensures they’ll loudly declare their support. 

So far this is working. eBay and PayPal are notorious for being terrible at customer service. Yet, because of the public spectacle engineered by Icahn, Twitter is abuzz with supporters of both companies remaining together. Short term investors will step up to ensure they get their piece of the pie and nobody in Silicon Valley wants to be even remotely seen as not in full support of the top tier VC fund. eBay’s share prices are up. 

Information Wars Never End, So How Are They Won? 

This exchange between the two titans of private equity will be online for the rest of time, meaning that today’s information wars are fought in perpetuity. And this exchange of blog posts, tweets and press releases will shape perception, which will drive rallying behavior, forever. 

That’s the criteria for the closest thing to victory: How can your content be created and positioned in such a way that it will perpetually shape public opinion in a way that is useful to you

With that in mind, sometimes saying less is worth so much more. Let’s take a look at the two approaches to understand how Mr. Andreessen is already winning and why. 

Carl Icahn, Boxer 

Mr. Icahn is in this for the short term, looking for a boost on a single stock in a bounded time frame (before the investor meeting). His tactics reflect this—a series of short, fast, hard punches in rapid succession. 

Hence his fast and loose understanding of the sale of Skype. He knows the truth will eventually come out, but it’s irrelevant to the people he wants to come to him in the current news cycle. These are short term, active investors who aspire to be Mr. Icahn (or Gordon Gekko). 

Marc Andreessen, Judo Master 

For Mr. Andreessen to execute his venture capital firm’s strategy, he has to be a long-term thinker first and foremost. His world isn’t one of weeks or months of stock price increases. His is one of owning a meaningful piece of every billion dollar company to come out of the technology ecosystem for the foreseeable future. The April 2014 stock price of eBay isn’t a critical component of that portfolio. Icahn’s just a nuisance, and one that can keep punching, but the real play is much bigger. 

This is reflected in his strategy. Look through Mr. Andreessen’s responses. He’s offering up real, specific, linkable facts that lay bare Icahn’s duplicity, track record, and reputation. And it’s all presented cleanly with minimal commentary. This is a far cry from the norm of hiring a public relations ‘emergency response team’ with the result being blustering op-eds in major publications and hours of TV time. 

This minimalist approach is smart: 

  • Salient facts ratchet down the emotional component of the conversation, making it harder to generate outrage.
  • Not engaging with Mr. Icahn’s vitriol makes him seem like a bully. Mr. Andreesseen is one of the richest men in the world. Yet we’re still coming to his aid.
  • Pointing out Mr. Icahn’s factual inaccuracies makes him look like a hypocrite, or worse, incompetent. 

Ultimately, all of this means forces Mr. Icahn to kick up more controversy. Already, he’s re-engaging another target, namely eBay CEO John Donahoe. As it turns out though, this strategy has limits. 

Momentum Is Momentum Until You Trip 

To keep shaping perception of both the public and dBay’s shareholders, Mr. Icahn has to keep up his strategy of punching to generate controversy. And given Mr. Andreessen’s almost passive-aggressive response of minimal-engagement, Mr. Icahn’s going to have to up the ante to retain control of the news cycle. The conversation can’t turn into one of activist investors and numbers. It has to stay in the domain of personal malfeasance and rumors. 

But, with every punch, Mr. Icahn gets closer to undermining his content-driven strategy to transform corporate raiders into corporate saviors. At a certain point, he’ll overextend, by outright lying, or getting too vicious, and his campaign will live on, forever, as an example of activist investor hysteria

All Mr. Andreessen has to do is stay the course, for, as we can see, his base of support pushes back when he strays into engaging Mr. Icahn at the emotional level.  

Shlok Vaidya is co-founder at HomeFree America; advisor to 5by5 Studios, MixZing, and Archer Avenue; and is a former defense consultant specializing in information operations.

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