Exec draws on outside experience to focus on consumer experience

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Time Warner Cable, like most of its cable contemporaries, is on the backend of a massive identity shift. Formerly made up of hundreds of local mom-and-pop video distributors, the cable industry is now one of national-scale multimedia corporations-and their marketing plans are changing to reflect a new level of sophistication.

Case in point: Last year when Time Warner Cable awarded Ogilvy & Mather, New York, its $65 million advertising account, it marked the first time the cable company had signed on with a big Madison Avenue shop. This month, the company's newly appointed marketing chief, Sam Howe, is readying its largest branding campaign to date-one that focuses less on the company's ever-growing roster of products and more on the consumer experience.

"Everyone talks earnestly about convergence, but it's really about marketing smarter to the consumer, making the experience more relevant," he said. Cable's self-described inside-outsider, Mr. Howe, 50, is drawing as much on his experience away from the industry as he does on his pedigree within it.

He started his career at a pair of Cape Cod radio stations but soon took a cable job with the now-consolidated Centel in west Chicago. In 1993, he moved to the U.K. to learn the phone business in a joint venture between Cox and several telecoms: SBC, US West and TCI-"our adversaries today," he said, showing a bit of his wry sense of humor.

`Shock treatment'

That job pitched him into battle with BSkyB and British Telecom-two monolithic organizations that he said provided him with a "beautiful shock treatment for competition." After leaving Britain, he sold ads for Turner and joined an Atlanta-based "dot-bomb," before consulting at Time Warner to launch its digital-phone-services.

"The British look at marketing differently, using phones to sell entertainment," he said. "Everyone has a telephone and a utility product is a great entree for a discussion with a household. ... Digital phone was a golden opportunity to bring all that U.K. experience to bear."

After a short while, Time Warner hired him to be the senior VP-marketing for the division.

"Sam's challenge is that cable now gives us opportunities for lots of new products-but you have to explain those products to consumers and explain to them why they need them," said Char Beales, president of Cable Telecommunications Association of Marketing. She says he's produced phenomenally good results in his most recent job: In June-at the time he was promoted to chief marketing officer-Time Warner's voice services division had signed up 614,000 phone customers at a rate of 15,000 a week.

No. 2 Time Warner Cable will gain another 3.5 million subscribers in the first half of next year once its partial buyout of Adelphia is finalized. The deal will also create more concentrated coverage in key areas, such as Ohio, Texas and southern California, underscoring that while cable is a local business at heart, it can also take advantage of the economic efficiencies of regional and national marketing-much the way its ever-more-formidable satellite and telecom competition does.

Mr. Howe is already changing the delivery of the message. Gone are the days of sending the same direct mailing to every home. Instead, "we're going to be doing a little more exclusionary marketing," he said, including database-oriented marketing, customer relationship management and heavier retail marketing through partners such as Best Buy and Radio Shack.

There may be bigger shifts than marketing plans at company, however, with financier Carl Icahn pushing Time Warner management to spin off the cable division and buy back $20 billion in stock. Last week, he announced he'd rounded up a group of investors to try to capture a seat on Time Warner's board. Time Warner Chairman Jeff Bewkes, meanwhile, told a group of investors the cable division is a "strong growth business" and the "strongest affiliate" of the company's content networks.

Just Asking

What's on your nightstand? Thomas Friedman's "The World is Flat"

What about your DVR? My two teenagers rule the DVR... and here's a harbinger of things to come: The other day one of them turned and said to nobody in particular "DVR is my life."

What do you watch when your kids let you at the TV? HBO for "Six Feet Under" and C-SPAN for its book programs.

So is everything you own as up-to-date as your DVR? I own a lighthouse in Maine, bought it when I was working at the Cape Cod radio stations. It's not a working lighthouse, though, because the Coast Guard has made a request to turn it off. With GPS it's become an artifact.

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