Media executive Tom Freston may be best known as the former head of Viacom and one of the early executives at MTV. But unlike the typical corporate executive, Freston says his unusual path to the C-suite and a focus on creativity helped him guide a portfolio of youth-focused brands. From the early days of the cable revolution to his more recent work with Bono’s One Campaign and Vice, those lessons on how to foster creativity and create a workplace culture are translatable to any modern day businesses.
“I never aspired to be a mainstream guy. I never aspired to be a Fortune 500 CEO and I felt that a lot of our businesses were successful because they always had whiskers on them. They were never mainstream,” Freston said in the latest episode of the “Math & Magic: Stories From the Frontiers of Marketing” podcast hosted by iHeartMedia CEO Bob Pittman, a longtime friend and fellow MTV pioneer. “I never wanted to be a traditional businessman in my soul and I still don’t,” said Freston.
From Mad Men To The Sahara
That spirit, and a willingness to take risks, prevailed when Freston left a job on Madison Avenue when he was moved onto a toilet paper account. He instead took a trip across the Sahara Desert that eventually led to him creating a textile and clothing business in Afghanistan. The unraveling of South Asia would later bring him back to the U.S., where Freston said his overseas adventure proved useful in a new way as he led MTV and Viacom on a mission to build a cable television empire. “The confidence that I had built from my years living in Afghanistan and India was very transferable because I knew we could go anywhere and do anything,” Freston said.
A podcast with two MTV pioneers wouldn’t be complete without some delving into the music channel’s famed history. When Freston returned from Asia and heard the idea of a video-based network, he said he quickly realized it was “one of the great ideas,” even though he’d been living without TV for years. “We got paid nothing. It was the early 80s version of the startup,” he recalled.
While Pittman noted in the episode that MTV was the first cable network to turn a profit, Freston has largely seen his strength as a creative and content-focused manager. “I would never talk business,” he said looking back. “We would never talk about revenue or how much we were off our budget and we would celebrate our creative triumphs and that would reinforce that we are a creative organization.” That culture, as well as a bit of good timing, helped MTV grow from 7 million to 80 million subscribers and allowed Viacom to launch new channels like VH1, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon. “Because we had these networks, there was a lot of room for experimentation. Everything we made didn’t have to be tightly organized. So there was a lot of room for improvisation and innovation,” said Freston. “If you have a hallmark for that, people want to step up and follow it. So you just try to have good standards, provide guardrails for people and celebrate risk.” He credits a 21 year-old MTV staffer for coming up with the concept of “Yo! MTV Raps.”
That willingness to bend helped when the video age began to fade by the early 1990s. “The music video format was beginning to wane and, as we were bigger, our audience ratings on which we sold advertising was beginning to crater. And unless we put some spikes in there we would see ourselves on a road to oblivion,” said Freston. “We couldn’t just innovate it by shuffling the music mix or changing things, that was clear. We tried everything. We couldn’t just play the top 10 videos all day long.” So in came long-form programming, the birth of MTV News, and eventually some of the earliest reality TV shows like “Real World”—created largely because the network simply didn’t have the budget to hire writers to create scripted dramas.
Social Purpose Campaigns
One of the themes of MTV through the decades has been a series of social purpose campaigns. Freston says they did it because they knew the causes were important to young viewers, but he believes there are bigger benefits to such moves. “I also knew it was extremely important to the employee base. Employees would feel better about working there if they knew we had some kind of social purpose associated with what we do,” he said. “It also legitimized us in the eyes of advertisers that wouldn’t come near us, like American Express.”
Now as he reinvents himself with a third career as a media counselor, to a list of clients that includes Oprah Winfrey, and returns to Afghanistan to help that war-torn country build its first television network, Freston told Pittman he believes a lot of what goes into spotting a good idea is instinctual. But he also thinks when working with youth-focused brands, good managers also recognize they need to recruit allies. “If you’re trying to do things in the youth culture, who are you going to hire that has their ear to the ground? Because it’s a young world, and no matter how up-to-date you think you are, you’re really out of it,” he said.
Also on the “Math & Magic” podcast, Freston explains why he thinks Facebook is the “Frankenstein monster of our age.” Listen HERE.