NEW YORK — With his trim dark suits, gold cuff links and erect bearing, Philippe P. Dauman projects a sense of dignity and reserve that some in Hollywood regard as just this side of pompous. One industry insider called him "the quintessential New York suit."
Dauman, 53, who just finished his first year as chief executive of the entertainment conglomerate Viacom Inc., is such a Manhattanite that he doesn't drive; he never even applied for a license.
In a business dotted with college dropouts and spike-haired hustlers, he's the brainiac takeover lawyer who entered third grade at age 6 and Yale at 16. His sport is golf, his venue East Hampton's posh Maidstone Club, but he's not much of a player and seldom breaks 100.
All of which may help explain why the cool kids love throwing spitballs at Philippe. Even his name bugs them.
News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch took a couple of sly jabs at Dauman last month at an investor conference in New York. Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, co-founders with Steven Spielberg of Viacom's DreamWorks movie studio, bad-mouthed Dauman recently for showing insufficient respect for Spielberg. In July, Google Inc. Chief Executive Eric Schmidt publicly skewered Dauman and Viacom at Allen & Co.'s retreat for media moguls in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Heading the list of Dauman's supposed offenses against coolness are, one, that he played a part in the ouster of the charismatic Tom Freston, architect of MTV, whom he succeeded at Viacom last year, and two, that he filed a $1-billion copyright lawsuit last March against Google and the new king of hip: its popular YouTube video-sharing site.
Dauman also is suspect because he holds the world record for getting along with Sumner M. Redstone, the crusty autocrat who built Viacom and looms Zeus-like from his hilltop mansion in Beverly Hills as executive chairman and lead shareholder of Viacom and its sister company, CBS Corp.
Cool or not, Dauman's 25-year relationship with Redstone, 84, is the key to his power at Viacom. It also increases the odds that he will be a force there after Redstone is gone.
Dauman once served as Redstone's personal lawyer and co-executor of his estate. He has been his strategist, secret agent, corporate troubleshooter, fellow board member and, now, top executive. With the circle around Redstone thinning because of ongoing conflict within his family, there may be no one closer to him than Dauman.
"He's very loyal, very hardworking, and suddenly, he's the last man standing," a New York media investor said.
For all Dauman's influence as overseer of such brands as MTV, Paramount Pictures, BET, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central, he has a relatively low profile. In fact, he cultivates the obscurity. According to his longtime business partner and right-hand man at Viacom, Chief Financial Officer Thomas E. Dooley, Dauman sees it as a competitive advantage to be overlooked and underestimated.
Time Warner Inc. Chief Executive Richard D. Parsons summed up the reason this way: "Sumner wants to be the straw that stirs the drink, and Philippe's very comfortable letting him." At the same time, he added, Dauman "has a very clear sense of himself. He has some steel."
Redstone, characteristically hyperbolic, gushed to industry analysts in August that Dauman and Dooley had "transformed Viacom," restoring financial and operational discipline after Freston's regime.
In Dooley's view, Dauman's most important action has been setting priorities for his lieutenants. Ratings for some key MTV and BET shows had slipped as managers let their attention stray toward coping with fast-changing digital media. Dauman and Dooley's answer was to assign certain people to concentrate on Viacom's online efforts while the rest refocused on core programming.
Another way Dauman showed his managerial acumen was in fence mending. From his first day, he moved to soothe emotions stirred up by Freston's ouster and fears of further bloodletting. In between personal meetings and follow-up phone calls with people at MTV Networks -- the part of Viacom most closely identified with Freston -- Dauman jetted to Los Angeles in a public show of support for Paramount chief Brad Grey.
The headlines said Grey might follow his friend Freston out the door. His loss would have been disruptive to a studio in the midst of a turnaround. In meetings at Paramount and a dinner with their wives, Dauman told Grey he wanted him to stay and promised the studio his full backing. "He's more than made good," Grey said.
The two men then flew with actor Brad Pitt to the Toronto Film Festival, still abuzz with news of Freston's firing. Independent film mogul Harvey Weinstein, aggressive and physically imposing, admitted to closing in on Dauman and exploding: "I'm really mad at you! I hated the way this came down! Tom Freston is my friend."
Today, Weinstein says he has no problems with Dauman. He has run into him in St. Tropez and elsewhere and considers him "a good family guy."