There is something very “secret agent man” about Denmark West. It’s impossible to interview him without stopping and starting the recorder several times as he tries to figure out what he can reveal about the new directions he’s pursuing on behalf of MTV Networks, where he is executive vice president of strategy and business development.
“You’re getting close to small explosives here,” he says, flashing a big smile, after about five too many questions. “I truly like the top-secret nature of the job.”
Before joining MTV last October, the 35-year-old held a similar post at Microsoft Corp., where his title was a real mouthful: strategic planning and investment governance manager and acting chief of staff for the Windows Client Division.
West says one of his proudest moments occurred when “my young hubris agitated the right people,” and he was able to present his ideas to Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, CEO Steve Ballmer and Jim Allchin, group vice president of platforms, concerning how to develop what eventually became Microsoft’s streaming-media team.
West says one of the defining moments of his career occurred when he was working at Brenner Securities, where he helped drive eight financial transactions in the media and communications industries. Among them was a deal involving Fox Broadcasting Co. “We eventually had to present to Rupert Murdoch,” West says. “And I remember the clarity of his vision and the long-term nature of his approach.”
The “epiphany” that he wanted to work for a visionary led him to Microsoft, and in turn to MTV, he says, with a tip of the hat to Judy McGrath, MTV’s chairman and CEO, as well as Tom Freston, co-president and chief operating officer of MTV’s parent, Viacom Inc.
McGrath says West was the first person she interviewed for the position he took on last October. Right from the start “I just thought he was the one,” she says.
She certainly responded to West’s pedigree — which also includes schooling at Harvard University and a childhood in Detroit, which has been so important to the American music scene.
McGrath also took note of his ability to think out of the left and right sides of his brain with equal facility — calling on technical and creative concepts with ease. “He’s a clear thinker, and I find that he can read a room, and figure out what amount of information is needed for people to make the right decisions. He doesn’t overwhelm them.”
Linda Stone, a former vice president of corporate and industry initiatives at Microsoft who worked closely with West, says he “can make tough, solid business decisions. But he operates in a very win-win diplomatic way.”
It’s no secret what West likes about MTV. At Microsoft, he was working on the cusp of new technologies. “What’s really interesting now is that upon that infrastructure you now have the ability for brands to develop businesses.”