What Makes Business Rock
On my first day in our small office on Mandela Street in London I sat down behind my desk and wondered where to begin. After spending about an hour getting settled I asked the temporary secretary assigned to me to find some paper and pens. That seemed like a practical way to get started. She disappeared and I decided to get a cup of coffee. As I poured myself my first cup of coffee on my first morning as managing director of MTV Europe, Howard Smith, the head of distribution, came up to me. He frowned as he said bluntly, “We just lost Greece.”
We lost Greece? “What does that mean?” I asked. It meant we were in serious trouble, Howard explained. We were using a terrestrial frequency to transmit our signal in that country and, for reasons nobody quite understood, apparently the Greek government had decided to take it away from us. As he informed me, at that point Greece accounted for almost half our total distribution. Worse, our biggest advertiser, the Inter-American Life Insurance Company, had a Greek affiliate. Without Greece, we would lose that business.
I had been there an hour and already half our business was gone. I suspected that had to be some kind of record for failure. I was stunned. I loved Greece, especially Greek food, but why did it account for half our distribution? And our audience was the young people of Europe; why was a life insurance company MTV’s largest advertiser? What I could not have known at that moment was that the only truly peaceful hour I would ever enjoy had passed. For more than two decades after that we fought through at least one crisis somewhere in the world every day.
When I officially became managing director in February 1989, MTV Europe was in turmoil. The channel had begun broadcasting in August 1987, and appropriately, the first video broadcast was Dire Straits’ anthem to MTV, “Money for Nothing,” which boasts, “You play the guitar on the MTV.” The office was on the third floor of a converted factory building on a narrow cobblestone street that even London’s cab drivers, who knew every street in the city, couldn’t find. Five people had shared one desk and one telephone. “Welcome to madness,” was their morning greeting and it fit. When I walked in the door MTV Europe wasn’t close to being a business. We had less than a million subscribers, most of them in Greece and Holland, which was the only European country with a viable cable transmission system, and total advertising revenue of only a few hundred thousand dollars. And while MTV was a sensation in America, a survey done in England found that only 6% of people in the UK had ever heard of it, and that percentage was even lower on the continent. I quickly discovered there was no cable infrastructure in the rest of Europe, so we had no real distribution. The concept of pan-European advertising didn’t exist, so we had no viable ad market, we had no long-range strategy in place and we had a very small staff. Although our office was in London, we weren’t even on the air in the UK. In fact the British were quite chipper about the fact that we weren’t wanted. I remember sitting on a panel with several media experts who explained condescendingly to me, “We have the BBC, one of the greatest institutions in the world and three other channels. Why would we possibly need more channels, especially one from America?”
I responded optimistically, “I happen to believe in the notion that competition makes everybody better. You’re keeping your audience in a cage. If you really believe what you’re saying is true, open the door and see what happens. If they really love you, they’ll see the rest of the world and then come back to you.”
They didn’t buy that argument for a minute.
“What Makes Business Rock” by Bill Roedy is published by Wiley priced £18.99