Yet another depiction of Adam Neumann’s chaotic reign of WeWork has entered the mainstream, this time featuring Jared Leto with brown contacts and false teeth. For those with an AppleTv+ subscription, WeCrashed is currently halfway through its release, the fifth out of eight episodes premiering tonight. However compelling you may find the miniseries, when art imitates life, the message is clear: Adam Neumann is not fading into obscurity. For the company he founded, you would think that the unrelenting fascination with its meteoric rise and cringeworthy fall under Neumann’s leadership would wreak constant havoc on their PR team, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
What’s particularly interesting about how Neumann is referenced in the media is the fact that he’s never just “Adam Neumann.” It’s always “WeWork Founder Adam Neumann,” “Ousted WeWork CEO Adam Neumann,” or simply “WeWork’s Adam Neumann.” Even if he wanted to, Adam Neumann can’t sever his affiliation.
In an interview with CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin at a New York Times event last November, a deflated Neumann spoke of his relationship with media scrutiny. Two years after he had stepped down as WeWork’s CEO, Neumann had not made any public statements about his departure for almost two years after the fact. “It became very apparent that anything I would say, or anything I would do, was just going to attract more attention to me,” he had said. “I made a very conscious decision not to speak.” While Neumann was trying to convey that he didn’t want to rock the boat on WeWork’s recovery, he may not have realized just how pervasive his association with a company he previously plunged into disarray would be.
Neumann’s time at WeWork is constantly reported on as an embarrassing failure, yet WeWork the company soldiers onward. Yes, there were a plethora of scandals: poor corporate governance, spiritual gimmicks that were awkward and tone-deaf, and the infamous frat-boy ethos as the alcohol flowed during every “Thank God it’s Monday” meeting. Yes, there was a serious mess that needed to be cleaned up, a mess that resulted in dozens of lease cancellations and thousands of WeWork employees losing their jobs (a fact often brought up as Neumann exited the company with his hefty payout). Yet despite WeWork’s tumble from a $47 billion valuation to near bankruptcy in Neumann’s final six weeks, WeWork sprung back.
Instead of WeWork gearing for a full rebrand and tearing away any trace of Neumann, the company returned to its roots. In its restructuring, WeWork shed its other ventures, like WeLive (its co-living experiment), WeGrow (its exorbitantly expensive early childhood education program), and its investment in not one, but two coffee creamer companies.
Since Neumann’s departure, Sandeep Mathrani, who had salvaged mall giant GGP from one of the largest real estate bankruptcies in history, was ushered in as CEO. Compared to Neumann’s frenetic energy, Mathrani was a subdued number-cruncher. A mild-mannered breath of fresh air for WeWork’s staff who had tiptoed around Neumann’s eruptive behavior.
Then the pandemic hit.
When the COVID-19 virus shut the world down, a company that rents out office space wasn’t in the most enviable of positions at a time when people were largely forbidden to show up to the office. WeWork had only just begun to lick its wounds, so the pandemic theoretically should have been the finishing blow. But as we know, the exact opposite happened, and part of the reason for that is because of the mess Neumann had left behind.
Because WeWork was forced to reposition themselves after Neumann’s departure, they had unknowingly outfitted themselves to ride the storm of one of the worst viral outbreaks in human history. “WeWork’s upheaval meant that the company was already made to be agile in order to avoid destruction before the pandemic,” wrote Rani Molla of Vox Recode. “But the company’s perseverance is also a testament to the strength of the flexible office market, a real estate sector that focuses on short leases and move-in-ready space, in addition to coworking.”
We could, and should, chalk WeWork’s resilience to Mathrani. But with all of the infamy associated with Neumann’s role in WeWork still swirling around in the echo chamber, it’s fair to say that Mathrani’s success still gets eclipsed. When Marcelo Claure left a vacant seat on WeWork’s board, Bloomberg had speculated that Neumann could fill the seat, even though bringing Neumann back would create a PR nightmare. Fraser P. Seitel, one of the leading public relations experts in the U.S., had told Propmodo that getting Neumann back was a ludicrous idea. Seitel insisted that WeWork needed an influential leader on the board who could yank the company out of Neumann’s shadow. Surprise surprise, it was just announced that Mathrani, Neumann’s antithesis, had slipped into the seat.
The torrent of media coverage and Hollywood’s obsession with the entire WeWork fiasco has illustrated an inconvenient truth: “Adam Neumann” is not a household name. “WeWork’s Adam Neumann,” however, is. We can rhapsodize on the many dramatic ironies that that exposes, but it’s an uncomfortable situation for both Neumann and WeWork, who both just want to move on. But what’s interesting is that WeWork never goes out of its way to divorce itself from Neumann. In February, Mathrani sat down for an interview and credited Neumann for WeWork’s relevancy. “He created this co-working environment with flexible spaces,” Mathrani said. “For what it’s worth, he built a great brand. WeWork is synonymous with co-working, and it’s synonymous to the level that most companies that compete with us buy our name on Google.”
Even WeWork agrees that fully rebranding WeWork to get away from Neumann’s influence was not a tangible strategy to rehabilitate the company. Instead of a rebrand, WeWork’s focus on building and improving upon its core flex space product to better meet the needs of the modern worker has largely been successful and has enabled it to partner with a broader workforce, or at least that was the context provided to Propmodo.
It’s clear that WeWork is not the woo-woo company parading as a tech unicorn that we see on WeCrashed. This is in contrast with the references to “WeWork’s Adam Neumann.” But just as Mathrani had said, the company continues to profit on the clout that Neumann built, despite the myriad of scandals that surrounded it. WeWork’s success is largely attributed to the company refocusing on its energy (albeit not in the way Rebekah Neumann espoused) on its original model, which is aesthetically pleasing flexible office spaces. Take the summer camps and the pseudo-philosophical mottos away, and what’s left is a company perfectly positioned to suit the post-pandemic world. We may not want to admit that it’s because of Adam Neumann, but for the company he founded, that seems to be the case.