Tim Cook in Sun Valley: a big deal for a new king

Rich, famous, powerful people hang out with each other all the time, and usually talk shop when they do. So why might it matter that Apple CEO Tim Cook is making his first-ever appearance at Allen & Co.’s Sun Valley media conference, a high-profile, closed-to-press, annual retreat for leaders in technology, media, banking, and government?

First, Sun Valley has a longstanding reputation as a place where big, industry-changing multi-billion-dollar deals get made. as this Bloomberg video recounts, it’s where Disney reached an agreement to buy ABC and ESPN in 1996, and where YouTube’s whirlwind romance with Google began ten years later. if DirecTV and Viacom reach a programming agreement sooner rather than later, it may be because both company’s top executives are here.

Cook’s predecessor Steve Jobs himself rarely attended the Sun Valley retreat, popping up in 1999 and 2005 but largely keeping out of sight. After all, despite its reputation, a conference filled with chatty executives is a lousy place to strike a deal if you want to keep it a secret. With Cook promising just months ago that Apple would “double down on secrecy” on product development, turning up at a highly visible conference during a slow summer news month seems like a funny way of keeping that promise.

We had 30 years to get to know Steve Jobs Cook, though, is not Steve Jobs. Jobs didn’t need to pop up at summits like Sun Valley for his peers to know who he was and what he was about. even when Apple was a much smaller company than it is today, Jobs had already been a well-known public figure and one of the dominating personalities in technology, business, media, and culture for a quarter century.

Cook’s challenge is quite different. not only is he leading the biggest technology company in the world without the benefit of a well-established personal backstory, he’s guiding Apple through a series of crises in public perception, from labor troubles at Foxconn and state and federal antitrust lawsuits over e-book price-fixing to one patent lawsuit after another. Remember, Sun Valley isn’t just a place for tech and media executives to chat up each other, but key figures in government and politics, too — a continuation of Cook’s efforts to mend and strengthen Apple’s relationship with Washington, D.C.

In short, Cook’s continued public presence helps Apple maintain good relationships with key stakeholders and business partners, its high regard among the retail-buying masses, and reassure investors that Apple is steering the consumer electronics industry from the top.

It’s a very old, established mechanism of power. The king isn’t the king just because he inherited the throne and controls the mechanisms of government. He’s the king because the people, from the nobility to the commoners, get to see his body, watch him put on his vestments, witness his coronation and other rituals of power. The more that happens, the more we all believe it, even if we pretend we don’t.

So strategically, Cook is playing this just right. He’s meeting with all the right people, he’s letting himself be seen, courted, and photographed — and for now, at least, he’s keeping his mouth shut.

That doesn’t mean he’s standing pat. Executives at Sun Valley say that this year, media companies seem more willing than ever to consider aggressive new deals with technology companies. “The industry is coming out of this hibernation period of the last couple of years,” Slingbox co-creator and Amazon board member Blake Krikorian told Bloomberg. “More of the content owners and networks are looking to play offense.” even Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes, who once seemed completely determined to kill Netflix just to watch it die, has reached a kind of détente with CEO Reed Hastings.

This means that deals that just months ago seemed impossible are less a matter of belief in miracles than good faith trust between partners. There’s widespread speculation that Cook may be in Sun Valley to strike an Apple TV deal with a cable operator. Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes compared an Apple / telecom video partnership to the breakthrough deal Steve Jobs struck with AT&T to launch the iPhone.

Apple as cable partner or competitor?

“It will probably be a lot more painless than everyone thinks,” Bewkes told the NYT’s DealBook. another possibility? Apple could play the role of a cable or satellite provider itself, paying affiliate fees to TV channels the same way Comcast, Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, or Verizon do. Bewkes floated that possibility to Bloomberg. After all, Time Warner doesn’t own Time Warner Cable any more; it doesn’t matter whether Apple competes with or partners with the cable companies so long as HBO gets paid either way.

Anything is possible, if you’re in the room. and sometimes, it’s equally important in these industries to present yourself as the kind of person who is willing to be in the room and consider those breakthrough possibilities. That’s how the industry changes; that’s how what was impossible becomes real.