Why It's Still Your MTV, According to Judy McGrath

CEO Talks About Logo Redesign, 'The Situation' and Why MTV Networks Isn't Seeking Online Acquisitions

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- No one has seen more changes to the MTV brand than Judy McGrath. The CEO of MTV Networks started with the network in 1981 as a copywriter and eventually ascended the ranks to her current position in 2004, where she has seen many different iterations of the network and its programming even as fellow pioneering executives such as Tom Freston and Robert Pittman have come and gone.

Judy McGrath
Judy McGrath Credit: MTV
One of those changes came as recently as last week, when MTV unveiled the first major on-air update to its logo in its 28-year history. The redesign was met with mixed reaction. "I don't think what they did is wrong," George Lois, creator of the network's historic "I want my MTV" campaign, told Ad Age. "I think what they did is strategic. And it just proves to me that MTV is dead."

But the new look also received a positive response from some fans, who took to Twitter to voice their approval:

@MUDEO: "Noticed the new MTV logo while watching Jersey Shore. Nice, short, and stout, on the bottom of my TV. Love it."

@Andrewhochradel: "@MTV Your new logo and redesign is amazing. Minimalism at it's best. I'm a huge fan of the Helvetica use and the new logo. Good job."

Ad Age caught up with Ms. McGrath for an exclusive Q&A about the future of the MTV brand, the company's digital strategy and the Catch-22 of "Jersey Shore."

Ad Age: This is MTV's first formal change to its logo in 28 years. Why was now the right time?

Ms. McGrath: We have tweaked and redesigned and morphed and poked and loved this logo and changed it almost every year for dozens of years. To me, the basic bones of the logo and the secret sauce that made it iconic are still there, but as we've moved on to many platforms and newer audiences, we've always been about the generation of the moment.

We've actually changed the logo a couple of times, but this is the one really getting attention. We've had a lot of logo changes recently -- Nickelodeon just recently went through a redesign of their entire logo, VH1 has done it, but I recognize why we're talking about MTV and I respect the design change, but it's still at its heart about the audience, about music and popular culture, and the bones of the great iconic brand that it is and clearly on-screen, whatever the screen is.

Ad Age: It's worth noting that "music television" is no longer a part of MTV's logo. What role do you see music playing in MTV's current on-air brand as well as company-wide properties?

Ms. McGrath: Technically speaking, the "music television" part has not been there for about two years off and on. That said, I think as you see the way this logo evolves you will see Beyonce, who we're crazy about, in it as well as the cast of "Buried Life" as well as teen moms from "Teen Mom" as well as young adults in "Made." It's going to always encompass whatever this of-the-moment brand is about. It will never exclude music because we never excluded music from the heart and soul of MTV. I mean, when we put "Remote Control" on the air this sort of loving and loathing thing started then. I think the conversation around MTV, the cultural impact of MTV, is always part of what makes it a relevant and lively brand. It's still not a typical brand and it never will be. I think that's a sign of health.

Ad Age: How do you currently define the MTV brand as it relates to its target consumer and place in the cultural zeitgeist?

Ms. McGrath: I think it's always been the forever-young brand, always about the rhythm of being young. Sometimes that means music at the forefront, sometimes that means something pro-social, like the current campaign about digital abuse and coming forward, sometimes it means the cast of "Jersey Shore." It has never been a brand or something that has grown with whatever audience was there in the past. We're always about a window and a mirror and looking forward. It's pioneering, stimulating, sometimes controversial, always talked about -- it's about young-adult culture, always has been and always will be.

Ad Age: The "I Want My MTV" campaign was one of the most identifiable image campaigns of the '80s, or of the 20th century. Do you think MTV needs another large-scale image campaign to get its new look and logo across?

Ms. McGrath: I always thought the most important word in that "I want my MTV" campaign was "my." That's what I think this logo really does. The on-air promotion and marketing talent part of MTV's DNA has always been a real important part of the secret sauce for many of our campaigns on air and off air. Even if it's one for "America's Best Dance Crew" or a campaign about the audience with music from MGMT, I think you always feel the pulse of that work when you touch MTV.

But I don't feel the need for some giant off-air image campaign. I'm a great, huge admirer of George Lois, and his grandson actually goes to school with my daughter. She asked me if I knew him the other day. ... He set us on a path of being vibrant, ever-changing. It might've been full of animation in the early days, now it's full of people and musicians. So I don't think we need a giant image campaign off-network, but if they wanted to do one I'd say, "By all means ..."

Ad Age: What has MTV's fan base said to you about the new logo?

Ms. McGrath: I think we've always been in a really great place -- even when it comes to the logo. When you look at the tweaks and what's happening on Facebook, the audience being the ultimate arbiter of what's authentic about this, they overwhelmingly love the change in it. I think that's another example of how we participate in the social community today. We have great partners with MySpace, Twitter, you name it -- we have found organic ways to work with them. We incorporate them into our research and we look at this as a fantastic time to be a fan. I'm very confident MTV is in the middle of all that.

Ad Age: We've seen News Corp. spin off some of its biggest digital acquisitions in recent months, including Photobucket, as MySpace sinks to some of its all-time lowest user numbers in years. MTV was once accused of missing out on the MySpace bandwagon when it was on the block in 2006. How do you feel about your place in the social-media stratosphere these days, and should we expect any acquisitions from you in 2010?

Ms. McGrath: Regarding the acquisition of MySpace, Jason Hirschhorn [MTV's former chief digital officer and new co-president of MySpace] is in the lead now and one of my favorite thinkers and people. If anyone can figure out the direction for MySpace he will. I always thought it was a great brand and acquisition, I look forward to seeing what it becomes.

When people ask me what the next MTV is, though, I say it's always MTV. We are with Twitter, with Facebook -- we will be with whatever is next. If you look at the water-cooler moment of Kanye [West] and Taylor [Swift at the Video Music Awards"], I think we're perfectly suited to live happily in that cultural space.

We're doing great organic growth. Viacom's got over 100 million uniques a month. We have some terrific acquisitions like Addicting Games, which came through the Nick group and is starting to come over to MTV. I think if you look at the work the Comedy [Central] group does with Jon [Stewart] and Stephen [Colbert] online, MTV's deep, rich music experience online, we've done a great job with our portfolio of brands in an organic way. So I don't see any major acquisitions in 2010 at all. Our goal is to partner and grow what we got.

Ad Age: "Jersey Shore" has become one of MTV's biggest hits in years despite some advertiser sensitivities. Why is that an important property for MTV and its brand right now?

Ms. McGrath: It's never really about a single property, although I love the conversation about "Jersey Shore." We launched it along with "Buried Life," "My Life As Liz," "Teen Mom," "16 and Pregnant," lots of things that are very diverse that have resonance. I think its fantastic to see Snooki and The Situation enter the dialogue from the president saying they don't watch it to whomever it is debating it. The cast is very proud of who they are and proud of the show. I think I stand by "Jersey Shore" as much as I stand by the recent work we've done in recent efforts, like what we did with Hope For Haiti.

Ad Age: That's right. Didn't George Clooney call you as you were simultaneously planning your own benefit concert?

Ms. McGrath: MTV was immediately stepping up ready to work, developing plans when my assistant said George Clooney's on the phone. And I said, "Yeah right, that must be Van [Toffler]" or somebody else. But George recognized that MTV worldwide would be the perfect place and young people would rally around this, do the most good and raise the most money. All the artists came, MTV, VH1, CMT all stepped up and showed music really does play a role with us still.

Ad Age: How is the MTV brand holding up globally? Will this new logo take shape in other territories?

Ms. McGrath: Globally we're on the same path too. We have a design studio that works out of Milan doing some great work. We've seen some cultural things like people putting a condom on the V from MTV. It's really thanks to George [Lois] and Frank Olinksy [the original logo's designer] and all the early pioneers who've left a really fantastic mark and done a lot of great things to keep it relevant.

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