The Player: Handler sees Virgin Mobile as doing it all for the kids

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Howard Handler has had some great gigs in marketing for a guy who started out as a brand manager at Quaker Oats Co. resurrecting Mikey for Life Cereal. For starters, he helped launch MTV hits "Beavis & Butthead," "The Real World" and "The Jon Stewart Show"-"how could I not have fun?" he mused.

As the first chief marketing officer for Virgin Mobile USA, a joint venture of Virgin Group and Sprint Corp., Mr. Handler, 41, hopes to continue having fun, saturating himself in the 16-to-24-year-old demo that Virgin seeks to own.

Virgin Mobile launched a pay-as-you-go wireless service in the U.S. more than six months ago with partner Sprint PCS. Since its launch last July, Virgin signed up 350,000 subscribers, 245,000 of them in the fourth quarter, according to Sprint's end-of-year results reported Feb. 5. The prepaid service gives Virgin's target consumers flexibility and lets them avoid things like contracts, hidden fees, fine print and confusing calling plans. Virgin's partnership with Viacom also enables it to offer popular interactive content like "Ask Ozzy" and "SpongeBob's Deep Sea Thought of the Day."

"[Wireless] is a very noisy, very confusing category with no one looking after the consumer," Mr. Handler said, adding, "You have very big, very clumsy companies that are more interested in technology than they are in consumers and there are classic levels of consumer discontent." In particular, he said, "The younger audience is under-served."

Taking a swipe at wireless giants such as AT&T, Cingular and Verizon Wireless is par for the course for the newest entrant in a hyper-volatile category. Mr. Handler's task at Virgin will be to keep the brand fresh and relevant, something he learned throughout his career.

rare exec

After Quaker, he ran merchandising and marketing for NBC's "Saturday Night Live," followed by jobs at the National Football League, MTV and most recently, as CEO of Burly Bear, the college-targeted cable network that was acquired by National Lampoon.

"He's a rare marketing executive in that he thinks very strategically ... with a classic marketing sensibility coupled with entertainment, big idea and out-of-the-ordinary ways of promoting whatever brand he's working on," said Sara Levinson, president of Rodale women's publishing group, and Mr. Handler's boss at MTV and the NFL. "He's got his finger on the pulse of pop culture better than just about anyone I know."

Mr. Handler likens the Virgin brand to Volkswagen's arrival in the U.S. in the `60s. "Volkswagen shows up with something refreshing, simple and fun. ... Virgin is a courageous, inspiring 21st century brand." Mr. Handler and his team plan to take advantage of the Virgin brand's high-voltage equity across its units. "You'll see the Virgin companies working together in some unique new ways," he said.

Fast Facts

Name: Howard Handler

Age: 41

Now: Chief marketing officer, Virgin Mobile USA

Challenge: To build the foremost relationship in wireless with 16-to-24-year-olds.

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