A force for good

Bill Roedy is famous for growing MTV International Networks across the world; taking it from a tiny London outpost to more than 200 countries and 2 billion viewers. But his campaign to fight AIDS worldwide is proving to be his biggest battle yet

A force for good

When Bill Roedy was poached from US television company HBO to move to London and lead a tiny new channel called MTV in Europe, he was already beginning to get itchy feet. “I was ready for a change – even though I had this wonderful life with HBO, splitting my time between LA and San Francisco and spending a lot of time in Hawaii,” Roedy recalls. 

Having become embroiled in industry politics, HBO’s global growth had stalled, whereas MTV was just a tiny start-up in need of a steady hand at its helm. Roedy provided that, and much more besides. In 2010, when Roedy was still in the driving seat, MTV Networks International was a business that had revenues in excess of $1.3bn – not including merchandise sales.

But the glitz and glamour of TV was a far cry from Roedy’s humble beginnings. Born in Boston, he was raised in Miami by his mother, a single mother. “We didn’t have much,” Roedy says. “She worked as a rental car agent at the airport and there was no such thing as nannies or home care then so she would take me with her.” He jokes that it was this early exposure to airports that sparked an enduring passion for travel. His home, a converted church in North London, feels like a museum; a shrine to his travels with furniture, photographs, music and literature from faraway places in abundance.

Roedy says his meagre beginnings also inspired him to work hard and strive for success. “I think when you have a humble background, you want to break out,” Roedy reflects. “I didn’t then know about the other world of success and private schools, or any of that stuff, but I knew instinctively that I wanted to break out. I wouldn’t say that my childhood was unhappy, but when you’ve seen your mum struggle, just for basic things like having enough money for food, you want to do better.”

The main source of happiness in the young Roedy’s household was the television. “Even with the hardship that we had I can remember we’d all be gathered around the television to watch these shows. Even though the family had a hard time during the week, on a Sunday night, we’d all be laughing. It just clicked, I suppose, even subconsciously, that the television could bring happiness and lift the spirits.”

However, it was years until Roedy found that his future lay in TV. After school, he followed in his father’s footsteps and headed off to West Point, a military academy in the state of New York. It was something of a shock to the system, he admits. “I had lived a very free life and I wasn’t used to the discipline, so I rebelled. But I learned over time, too slowly perhaps, to navigate the discipline. This meant not fighting it, but going around it. Initially though I was always getting into trouble.”

Roedy credits his time at West Point and the subsequent years he served in the military with laying the foundations for some of his stellar business principles. “Even in my business philosophy, I encourage people to break the rules and be irreverent. At MTV, I tried to instill the culture of don’t accept no for an answer and keep fighting. I think that’s a key success factor, particularly in an entertainment business.”

Having left West Point just before his twenty-second birthday, Roedy was sent to Vietnam, where he became a second lieutenant. And his military career didn’t end there. After the war, he commanded three NATO nuclear missile bases in Italy. Roedy says having such huge responsibility in his twenties taught him to remain calm under pressure. “It teaches you perspective,” he says. “It’s hard to take things like secrets in business seriously when you’ve dealt with the codes which release nuclear weapons. When I went to Harvard Business School everyone was saying ‘it’s too much pressure’, but for me, it wasn’t that much.”

Upon returning from Italy, Roedy chose to attend the prestigious business school to do his MBA as a segue into a business career. His earlier musings about the power of TV resurfaced and working in the media seemed an appropriate foil to the intensity of his young military career. “When you work in public service, you dedicate your life. You’re working long hours to serve your country. I think after that I was ready to work in something that’s a little bit lighter, perhaps.”

During the programme, Roedy got a taster of working in TV by completing an internship at a small station to improve his chances of success in the media industry. “I knew I wanted to go into media, but no one would hire anyone with my background immediately. It was just too foreign.” This gave Roedy the boost he needed: upon graduation he was offered a job working for HBO.

There, he ascended the ranks quickly. He gained a reputation as a deal-maker and worked tirelessly to boost HBO’s distribution throughout the United States. One of his biggest deals was with TCI, owned by John Malone, who now owns Liberty Global, the world’s largest cable company. The long-term deal between TCI and HBO was signed on the basis that Roedy attended every single launch, of which there were three a month, often in tiny towns and cities throughout the US. Roedy’s criss-crossing earned him the moniker ‘Roadman’ amongst colleagues.

Having moved to LA to head up sales and distribution at the San Francisco office, Roedy was leading a comfortable life when MTV came knocking. But his entrepreneurial sense of adventure meant he accepted and moved to London to take the reins. “MTV had just set up a very tiny office in London, I was at the right age where I was ready to make a change, and it just intrigued me that we could make this into a global brand. So I started this entrepreneurial gig. It was a great ride.”

Roedy’s focus was on European expansion for the first three years, then he set his sights further afield, taking MTV to the world. Early on, he developed his famous mantra, ‘respect and reflect’. For he developed a distribution model that was something of an alien concept in the 1980s. Rather than rolling out the same product, the same channels, to every geography, he would set up each station as its own business unit, with local staff, showing local artists and so on.

“It’s not one cola and one burger,” says Roedy. “If you have one cola around the world, you have great scale. Likewise, if you have one television channel it’s the same. But then you start bumping up against not only language difference, but also cultural differences. So fast forward,  MTV then evolved into many different types of brands and products, and we did the same thing for our other channels. We even had local brands that were completely different: Viva was a local brand that started in Germany, TMF, the music factory, started in Holland.”

The new concept raised some eyebrows in the media and business worlds. “It’s more expensive because you have to customise, and also you lose the scale of being big. But I thought it was the only sustainable way forward – particularly in something so culturally important as television. The idea of having creative teams on the ground everywhere and actually designing a product that’s much different was quite radical at the time,” he explains. 

No market was off limits for Roedy. He took MTV behind the Iron Curtain and struck a deal to broadcast MTV in China. “In China they were very intent on the world knowing what their culture was like, so we got the US operation to distribute their CCTV-9 channel in hotels across the States, and in exchange for that, we were able to start a Mandarin MTV channel in China. In the end, everything’s negotiable,” he laughs. 

He may well be right. Roedy also did a deal with the Mayor of Mecca in Saudi Arabia that there would be a call to prayer on the channel five times a day in exchange for distribution. 

But, despite all of this intrepid deal-making, Roedy says the most challenging geography by a country mile was Canada. “They wouldn’t let us in,” he exclaims. “As Canada is so close to the US, geographically and culturally, they are always exposed to the TV culture of the US and they felt very strongly that musically they had to to develop their own market. They had a homegrown brand called Much Music,” explains Roedy. MTV eventually made its mark on Canada, but it wasn’t a fully fledged operation until 2006.

Roedy concedes that he may have taken the decentralised model for which he is famous too far. “Towards the end I think I counted 35 different award shows around the world, including MTV and Nickelodeon. They’re great shows because they bring in clients and they’re marketing machines, but we were so decentralised, there’d be 35 calls to the same artist, which was frankly just ridiculous, not to mention unsustainable.”

The pendulum has swung in the opposite direction since his departure, says Roedy. “I was just so passionate about having these products reflect local cultures… But now there’s a swing to bring it back to something that’s scalable. So the look of MTV now is the same all around the world. Shows tend to be formats of successful shows that have been hits, particularly in the US or the UK.”

Another central tenet to Roedy’s work has been sustainability. He was considering how businesses could operate more ethically light years before CSR made it onto board agendas everywhere. “I developed a mantra, ‘doing good is good for business’, which I feel very strongly about to this day,” he says. According to Roedy, there are four very good reasons businesses need to be concerned with wider issues. “If you’re a business you want to do good because it’s the right thing to do, but also because of your customers. If you put Coca Cola into Africa, you want more customers, so you want people to be protected from the AIDS virus. Also, you do it for your employees, because they feel better about coming to work and are more productive. If they don’t believe in any of those, and many businesses don’t, then do it for your brand.”

MTV was one of the founding members of an entity called the Global Business Coalition, with Roedy its chairman. “We worked so hard at aggregating the business response to AIDS, to begin with, then we added malaria and TB, and then over time all health, including diabetes.” As companies have increasingly developed their own CSR initiatives, the GBC is now being scaled down. “We put ourselves out of business,” Roedy jokes. 

Since leaving MTV Networks International as chairman and chief executive in 2011, Roedy has dedicated the vast majority of his time to continuing the work he began at MTV on global health. Although his repertoire has also expanded to work on initiatives battling other diseases, he has become a world authority on HIV and AIDS. And in 2005, UN secretary general Kofi Annan appointed him founding chair of the Global Media AIDS Initiative Leadership Committee. 

He has also worked with the Global Alliance for Vaccinations and Immunizations (GAVI), founded by Bill and Melinda Gates, since 2010. “Five and a half million lives were saved in the first ten years, and 370 million children were vaccinated. In the next four years, a quarter of a billion children will be vaccinated and 4 million lives saved,” he says matter-of-factly.

He also remains chair of the Staying Alive Foundation, which he started at MTV, is on the board of amfAR, another AIDS organisation, and has just been asked by Goldie Hawn to join the board of an education charity. 

And that’s not all: Roedy soon decided it was time to get back to business. His interests now include a spot on the board of Moshi Monsters (founder, Michael Acton Smith, was our very first cover star back in August 2012), Zumba, Ping4 and private equity advisory boards of TowerBrook and ClearVue.  

Is it good to be back in the saddle? “Yes, I’m thrilled to be back. I love the entrepreneurial world. Nothing’s more exciting. Nothing’s more intense,” he says. Bold words coming from a Vietnam vet who’s rubbed shoulders with everyone from Kylie Minogue to Fidel Castro. There are certainly no plans for this man to take up his pipe and slippers just yet: “Retirement is a dirty word,” he jokes. “Next question.” 

Roedy has many mantras and clues to business success, which he tries to disseminate amongst the entrepreneurs he advises. Number one on the list is adapt or die. He explains: “This is important now more than ever, because the world changes so quickly. Time is compressed.”

“When I graduated from college, everything that defined my life didn’t exist. The emerging markets, the BRICS, did not exist. The AIDS epidemic did not exist. Cable TV largely did not exist. HBO did not exist. MTV did not exist. Google, the internet, none of that stuff existed. It intrigues me that everything that has defined my life really came about after I became an adult. I think you can take that by a factor of at least ten now because things develop so much more quickly.” 

Which leads Roedy to a conclusion. “In order to thrive in this world, you need to be adaptable. I quote Darwin: ‘It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.’ That’s the key to success.” 

To read more about Bill Roedy’s approach to business, pick up his book What Makes Business Rock, published in May 2011, by Wiley.

Hannah Prevett
Hannah Prevett

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