Gus Wenner: How Nepotism Will Make Or Break Rolling Stone Magazine


Nepotism. Just hearing the word brings to mind images of grotesquely powerful business bigwigs hiring an incapable child destined to run the business into the ground. It's a controversial and often volatile subject — one that grips the music news industry today as news broke that Rolling Stone Magazine founder Jann Wenner has hired his son, Gus Wenner, 22, to head the company.

Nepotism has its cons, about 60% of the time ending in a fiery crash and burn. Public meltdowns lead to extremely bad PR, and playing favorites can even legal hellfire in terms of unintentional discrimination cases. Since relatives tend to rotate into top-level positions, often without any training, it also leads to major morale problems with management. As Forbes aptly noted, "there's no ladder to climb when the top rung is reserved for people with a certain name."

But Forbes itself is an example of successful nepotism: Founder B. C. Forbes had it in the family through 3 generations. In reality, meticulously crafted nepotism can be an incredible industry advantage. In the case of Rolling Stone Magazine's Gus Wenner, criticism is expected. Not only is this position an unexpected promotion, but he also has minimal experience, working within the company for around six months, and he's fresh out of Brown University.

Nonetheless, as the founder and leader of Rolling Stone Magazine, Jann Wenner is known for his exceptional skill in recognizing talented people. While working on a website redesign project, Jann observed his son's skills. "You have to bring a disparate group of people together and get them to buy in to a project they don't own. To do that takes drive and discipline and charm, and all the things that show leadership." This assignment exemplifies a quality in new media that makes Jann's decision to hire his son extremely clever. New media allows youth to learn relevant skills with tremendous speed and understand the inner workings of an industry, while most operational functions can be learned quickly on the job. With his extended time around his father's company, Gus is arguably in the best position to represent the company when he takes on his position as a figurehead.

"Young people today are a lot more savvy than people were 40, 50 years ago," states Jann. "They’re better educated. And he's a college grad. I wasn't. He's grown up around me and the company. But there’s an inborn level of maturity and intelligence and smartness and ambition…"

Ultimately, there isn't much debate as to if there was a degree of nepotism in Jann Wenner's choice to hire his son. Certainly it exists, but deciding for better or for worse comes down to how the transition in leadership is executed. Nepotism may have opened the door for Gus Wenner, but his accomplishments let him walk through it.