MTV Music Television: Cable TV Marketer of the Year

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By the summer of 1997, MTV was in trouble. Ratings weren't what they used to be, and the network had lost the buzz factor. Worse yet, tie-ins with marketers were being done so clumsily that "it started to erode the cool," says Allan Broce, then MTV's senior VP-marketing and on-air promotions.

But word had come down from Judy McGrath, president of MTV, and Harvey Ganot, president-advertising sales worldwide for MTV Networks, that the tie-ins could not go away -- they just had to be done better.

"Summer is when the advertisers go hog-wild on MTV," says Mr. Broce. "By the summer of 1997 the ad tie-ins were clunky and shameless." But "we really hit our stride again this summer," says Mr. Broce, who left MTV in September to join the New York-based Hungry Man agency. "The tie-ins had become much more integrated again, and that's better for advertisers and viewers and thus, ultimately, better for MTV."


Erosion of the cool has not only been stemmed, but reversed: MTV is dope, once again. Ratings are up, and a whole new generation wants -- and is getting -- its MTV. Furthermore, MTV, which practically invented marketing for cable channels, has returned to the forefront of edgy, effective promotion.

For these reasons, MTV is Advertising Age's Cable TV Marketer of the Year.

One need look no further than this year's "MTV Video Music Awards" to see how the channel has been revitalized. The promotion for the September event was fresh, classy and, as in the best of MTV's promotions, integrated seamlessly into the zeitgeist of the occasion.

"The `Video Music Awards' is our defining event every year," says Mr. Broce. "Our Super Bowl."

MTV executives also wanted a big show with which to end the millennium. Someone suggested they take a look at the Metropolitan Opera House as a possible venue for the awards.

"We saw it, and thought it was a beautiful place," says MTV General Manager Van Toffler. "And we thought for sure they'd never let us in. Then we thought, well, if they are stupid enough to say yes, we're coming in."


Securing the Metropolitan Opera House led to one of MTV's most memorable promotions: Having rock and pop stars such as Madonna and Britney Spears and Ozzy Osbourne dress up as famous characters from various operas.

"To superimpose Eminem or Kid Rock in that environment was such a contradiction we thought the imagery would be something people would talk about," says Mr. Toffler.

Those images were the basis for a major print campaign and posters that are already collector's items. But that was only the beginning.

"We started off the on-air promos with just a simple tag of the date: 9/9/99," Mr. Toffler continues. "Then Allan or someone had the idea of using the Beatles' `Revolution No. 9' and not telling viewers what [9/9/99] was. Next, we told our viewers that they were going to see something they've never seen before: rock stars, hip-hop stars and r&b stars in the Metropolitan Opera House. Finally, we started talking about which stars would be there. The whole idea was, if you were in our demo [12 to 34], you had to be there."

"In years past we'd do a marketing partnership with one or two of the sponsors of the `Awards.' This year, we really ramped it up," says John Shea, MTV's VP-strategic programming.

MTV did partnerships around the show with AT&T Corp., Best Buy Co., Ford Motor Co., Levi Strauss & Co., M&M/Mars and Sega of America.

"One of the things the sponsors wanted was a way to build their relationship with the show and make it more than a media buy," Mr. Shea explains. "What we wanted was for them to do that, but as a result of that borrow some of their real estate off-channel to promote the show."

Ford, for example, chose the "Video Music Awards" to kick off live commercials for its Focus car line.

Levi's used it for outdoor ads featuring Mark McGrath and Sugar Ray toasting best new artist in New York's Times Square.

"Levi's also did, with us, an eight-page advertorial in Rolling Stone and two three-page ads in Spin and Vibe," Mr. Shea recalls.

Also in the mix were alternative newsweeklies, major radio, in-store materials in Federated Department Stores' Macy's stores.


AT&T was a major participant as well.

"With [AT&T], we created a dedicated `Video Music Awards' spot that featured their spokesman, David Arquette, running around trying to find the show," says Mr. Shea. "Those spots ran on Fox and the WB as well as MTV."

A lot of the promotion around the "Video Music Awards" and the channel in general in the last year "has been about putting the M back in MTV. To make sure that in everything we've been doing on the promotion side -- especially off-channel -- music has never been far away," says David Cohn, senior VP-marketing. "We've gone back to basics. Music is what's essential to this brand."

Besides the club nights in New York, MTV ran a number of radio station promotions for the "Awards" show. One attention-grabbing maneuver in New York was to temporarily rename streets to honor artists -- as in Chris Rock Way.

Mr. Rock also was featured in on-air promotions meant to be humorous parodies of the many "Blair Witch Project" parodies popular at that time.

"Our producers really went to a new level in the promos for the `Video Music Awards,' " observes Christina Norman, senior VP-on-air promotions for the channel.

While the "Video Music Awards" is MTV's big annual event, it is by no means the only reason MTV has come back big.

"Total Request Live" has helped refocus the channel on music videos, and, with Times Square as a backdrop, built a huge following.

"Making it live, and with the Times Square setting, we've been able to build a sense of urgency into checking into MTV daily," says Mr. Toffler. "The viewers sense that whether it's a movie star or TV star or musician, they all feel the need to make MTV an essential stop along their way, so the audience never knows what they're going to see. And it's live. That's helped create a fulcrum around MTV."


Plus, MTV has responded to its viewers desire for interactivity.

"Viewers were telling us their relationship with MTV was very personal, and that what they wanted was even more connection with us -- literally `a brand for me,' " says Betsy Frank, MTV's exec VP-research and planning. "They wanted more ability to communicate with us, and they wanted to see themselves or people just like them on air."

Thus, MTV developed "Fanatic," in which an MTV fan gets to meet his or her favorite star. "Real World," set in Hawaii, became bigger than ever this year. Furthermore, focusing on the convergence of TV and the Internet, the channel developed the new show "WebRiot."

And MTV rediscovered how to take chances.

In June, with the help of Fallon McElligott, New York, the network launched the truly bizarre Jukka Brothers ad campaign.

"We wanted to send a signal to people who might not watch a lot of MTV that at its soul MTV is a little bit weird, a little bit different and a lot about music," says Mr. Broce. "I can't say we had in mind four Finnish brothers watching videos in a converted outhouse, but that's what Fallon came back with."

The campaign was subtitled "a TV advertising adventure" and ran in print as well.

"Part of the original Fallon pitch was to treat your advertising campaign as an event," Mr. Broce says. "That we shouldn't apologize for it being advertising."

These days, MTV is apologizing for precious little.

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