Playing underdog yet again, McCormick defends the Web

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It's easy to ridicule a dot-com stock that's trading at $1 a share. And with so many former highfliers now trading at or near or below that level, it's even easier for skeptics to scoff at predictions these companies will redefine the business landscape.

Of course, as Doug McCormick likes to point out, cable TV was dismissed in the same way in the mid-80s-by naysayers who then held on to their jobs just about long enough to choke on their words. McCormick spent 17 years at Lifetime Television, rising through the sales and marketing ranks, and he remembers clearly what it was like to be thrown out of ad agencies by grizzled media directors with no interest in buying what he was selling. Now that he's running iVillage, he says that experience-and the persistence he adopted to deal with it-comes in handy.

"There are strong corollaries between where the Internet is now and where cable was 15 years ago," McCormick said during a recent lunch at Michael's, the midtown Manhattan media hot spot. "Certainly the vilification is equal. The entrenched media doesn't want this to happen."

"Most of the people in this restaurant," he added, swirling his fork to encompass a room filled with magazine, book and film executives, "would be very happy to have this hold off until just after their watch. After all, if you've already put in the swimming pool. . . . "

At Lifetime, McCormick was sent off to Columbia for his MBA and then moved over to general management. He became CEO in 1995, and although he was widely credited with dramatically growing the network, he never quite escaped the criticisms that came with being a man in a woman's world. In 1999, he was forced out (and replaced by a woman).

You'd think the experience would have soured him on women's media; you'd be wrong. McCormick took some time off to travel and to get married. He also started a consulting company and joined the board of iVillage, a struggling women's Web site founded by Candice Carpenter. In April of this year, with iVillage's earnings prospects looking bleak, McCormick was named president. A few months later, he succeeded Carpenter as CEO; she remains as non-executive chairwoman. That announcement came alongside reports of disappointing second-quarter results.

The third-quarter was, well, less disappointing. Revenue more than doubled to $20 million, with a net loss from continuing operations of $16.2 million. The loss was actually much greater when two write-downs totaling $103 million were factored in.

Despite the heavy flow of red ink and the weak stock performance, McCormick remains convincingly upbeat. Just a few weeks before the lunch, he had taken out his checkbook and acquired 25,000 shares of the company's common stock. He is now predicting profitability by the second half of next year, reachable, he says, by continuing to grow revenue and cut costs. "It's at its lowest point right now," says McCormick.

McCormick, who has an easy smile and commanding physical presence, has always savored the role of underdog. He sold independent stations against networks, UHF against VHF, cable against broadcast. A songwriter before he became a businessman, he fancies himself a creative. And his role now is to marshal that creativity to sell a new medium against an entrenched one. McCormick, at 50, says he's up to the challenge, ready to work harder now than he did at 30-ready, unlike many CEOs, to hit the streets still to make sales calls.

"There's a need," he says, "for someone to answer back these critics who say Internet advertising doesn't work." He's talking about the lack of a strong Internet trade association, but it soon becomes clear he will take up the role if no one else will. "My job," McCormick says, "is to sell the Internet as an ad medium."

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