In 1981, Judy McGrath was a copy writer for Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment, working on projects such as the “Devo Goes Hawaiian” campaign. Eventually, she would rise to the top of one of the world’s most recognizable media brands, Viacom Inc.’s MTV Networks.
“I was happy in the magazine business [at Condé Nast Publications, before MTV], but the concept of building a brand around music from scratch was worth the risk of leaving, and cable was the emerging platform and a nascent business as a targeted alternative to broadcast,” she said. “It was really taking off, and like all young people, I wanted to be where the action was. I got lucky.”
Lucky and timely. The fledgling music network was launching and McGrath felt the pulse of a vibrant and relevant new brand of television, MTV.
“When I met the unique people of MTV, we were all hoping to invent something new. It was a great underdog moment when we launched this brand, and we spent a lot of creative energy working with smart people to build the brand,” she said. “And 25 years later, it’s still beating.”
MTVN now consists of 121 channels that reach more than 44 million households in 169 countries in 23 languages. And for six consecutive years, MTVN has been named “World’s Most Valuable Media Brand” by Business Week. Much of that success can be attributed to McGrath’s creative stewardship.
McGrath’s journey to chairman and CEO has been satisfying because of her passion for music and what it represents.
“I’ve always been obsessed with music and with people who have a feel for the times and know what the next interesting thing will be in popular culture,” she said. “As you might imagine, MTV is the kind of work environment that feeds those needs.”
And feeding the needs of an expanding and wildly popular network was the perfect match for McGrath, said Oxygen Media chairman and CEO Geraldine Laybourne.
“She is an extraordinary person, working her way up from an on-air copywriting position and understanding the audience MTV attracts,” Laybourne said. “She’s been able to keep the creative spirit alive at MTV and puts that ahead of everything else. Many people have stayed at MTV their whole careers because of that. She just has the gift of understanding the skills that each person brings, and she doesn’t conform.”
Nor does McGrath stand idle when it comes to social causes.
“The 'Choose or Lose’ campaign brought home for me the power for social change. All of our efforts to infuse the MTV brands with pro-social campaigns have really been defining moments for me, and for viewers and consumers everywhere,” she said.
McGrath’s efforts have expanded to include global efforts to stop the AIDS epidemic and several other pressing issues.
“She has attached MTV to causes very skillfully, including Farm Aid, Choose or Lose, Center for Disease Control and others. She’s used her creativity and talent to make these issues come alive for a generation, and she has been doing it for 26 years. She’s a woman with hopes for the world,” Laybourne said.
Many of those hopes have translated to awards, including a Peabody Award for Choose or Lose and Emmy Awards for the “Fight For Your Rights” series, which included “Take a Stand Against Violence,” “Take a Stand Against Discrimination,” and “Protect Yourself,” an AIDS awareness campaign on MTV.
As for MTVN parent Viacom’s employee diversity and social initiatives, McGrath at the annual Walter Kaitz Foundation Dinner last month gave the credit to Tom Freston, her longtime mentor at MTVN who had recently stepped down as Viacom CEO. After he left, Viacom’s top brass reached out to make sure McGrath would stay. Last week, she told The New York Times that she had no intention of leaving MTVN.
“I’m motivated, challenged and excited by anything addressing the political process and I want [MTVN] to be socially relevant,” said McGrath. “I champion and support all of our pro-social campaigns, on and off the job. And I support my 12 year-old daughter, who is very interested in the topic of global warming, certainly a definer for her generation.”
Where did McGrath’s support come from early on? “I’ve learned from so many brilliant and talented people over the course of my career, and I’m still doing it. At Condé Nast, inside MTV Networks, from my first employer, my hometown local radio station — I couldn’t begin to name them all,” she said.
“And I’ve always taken inspiration from musicians,” McGrath added. “Oh, and from my mother, who long ago said to me as I was starting first grade: 'The nun isn’t always right. You have your opinion. Stick to it.’”
McGrath has stuck to it long enough to have created one of the planet’s most diverse organizations. “What she’s done for diversity requires a very diverse organization. She’s done a great job to make sure diversity is well represented in her company, and it shows,” Laybourne said.
Also apparent is McGrath’s wild enthusiasm not only for MTVN’s future but for the young generation fueling it.
“When you spend your career in the business of engaging young adults, it is truly thrilling to follow the way they interact with media today,” she said. “As the most diverse generation on the planet, I see many exciting opportunities to expand our brands to the global audience. And, I look forward to a new generation of leadership who will dream up some more amazing ideas.”
Of the Hall of Fame honor, McGrath said: “This is a real testament to the talented creators, producers, researchers and sales and marketing people who come to work everyday at MTV Networks, people who throw their passionate selves into everything they do. I’m very lucky.”