Gerry Laybourne, former television exec for Nickelodeon and Disney and founder of Oxygen, sits down with Bob Pittman, Chairman and CEO of iHeartMedia, for the latest episode of “Math & Magic: Stories from the Frontiers of Marketing.” Known as the "Fairy Godmother of Nickelodeon,” Laybourne discusses how she turned a not-for-profit network geared toward preschoolers into a billion-dollar cultural phenomenon.
When Laybourne, a former teacher, first came on board with Nickelodeon in the 80s, she kept a notebook of things she would do differently when, someday, she got to run the network. It was Pittman, then running parent MTV Networks, who promoted Laybourne to her eventual role as President and invested in her idea of a team-centered workplace and a network for preteens and young teens with content truly geared toward its audience. Laybourne fondly remembers what Pittman said to her upon her promotion: “I don’t know what you can do, but let’s see.”
“Nothing can be better than that,” says Laybourne. “Just a straight on challenge.” She says she then took the team of roughly twenty employees that worked for Nickelodeon at the time for their first-ever team meeting, discussed what they knew about the network, what was working, what wasn’t working, and what they wanted their new vision to be. “We needed to be a rebellion,” she says. “We were taking back Nickelodeon for kids.”
Her vision was to create a network that was the first to truly be “on the side of kids.” She felt kids’ television routinely condescended to children, and her background as a teacher taught her that if you “truly listen” to kids and “you treat them like they’re really smart… you can create some really interesting stuff.” At the heart of her mission was to “connect to kids and to connect kids with their world through entertainment.”
Her idea struck gold. By the time she left Nickelodeon in 1995, the network was worth between $8 and $10 billion, more than all of Viacom is now.
When Pittman asks her why it worked, Laybourne says, “We literally had nothing on the air that hadn’t been tested with kids… you really had to like kids” to work on her team. “We learned together. We had a collaborative process.” She also took a lesson from MTV at the time to “really focus on the audience and what they want.” She adds, simply but profoundly, “You don’t have a brand unless your audience tells you you have a brand. It’s a relationship with your audience.”
When asked for one piece of advice for others in the business, Laybourne replies: “be serious in learning and fun in working.”
For more on rebranding Nickelodeon, her time at Disney, beginning her own network, why she thinks podcasting could become a great medium for children, and her insights on being a pioneering woman in an industry run by men, listen to the episode here.