When he was just 12 years old in Dublin, Ireland, Dermot McCormack, EVP of Digital Media for the MTV Networks Music & Logo Group, learned some basics of innovation and business that he still uses today.
With help from his retail proprietress mother, he (somehow) convinced his school’s administrators to let him open a sweet shop so students wouldn’t have to leave the grounds on breaks. "I split the profit 50-50 with the school," McCormack tells Fast Company, "So I learned to look for opportunities in underserved markets and take care of your partners." He pauses for a second then adds with a chuckle, "Also, it’s always good to be in charge of giving out candy."
He’s still dishing candy, but both the product and the medium have changed. From music videos to reality shows, MTV Networks is a global heavyweight of the lighter side of pop culture, creating entertainment for television, online, mobile, games, virtual worlds, and consumer products. Since he joined MTV in January 2009, McCormack seized what he saw as a tremendous opportunity for the brand to stretch its legs in a post-Myspace era.
McCormack’s strategy was to systematically reorganize the digital team, then revitalize the digital properties by focusing on organic traffic growth, total social media integration, and forging a strategic partnership with Warner Music Group. In other words, McCormack explains, "It was about how we retool to grow our audience beyond the core TV property. No one had established themselves as go-to destination for content and storytelling around music beyond a download service or store. That’s what we did."
The result: MTV Music Group is now the web’s most visited online music destination with more than 61 million unique visitors, a 200 percent uptick in visitors.
Beyond talking numbers, McCormack’s vibrating with excitement for other digital properties. "How many people get to come to MTV and create their own award show?" he asks, referring to the recently launched O Music Awards, an award show dedicated to achievements in digital music. McCormack’s group also retooled MTV’s signature acoustic concert series Unplugged, a project very close to McCormack’s heart.
Explaining his most resonant memory of MTV McCormack says, "The seminal moment was when Kurt Cobain died and MTV was playing Nirvana’s Unplugged episode 24 hours a day." Now, his vision is to become "the next MTV" with new platforms to feed "the great need for the strong, passionate, human category called music."
A former engineer, McCormack insists the next part of MTV’s digital evolution will come from "the art and heart side." He sees music and pop culture as a landscape in transition and MTV and its parent Viacom as a bridge to a new digital world. "As we migrate to a multi-screen universe, we can be the first to the other side as a new form of media franchise. That is exciting."
McCormack’s shoring up that bridge with such new properties as POSTED to provide music fans with a one stop hub to find social media updates, and MTV Music Meter, a platform for fans to discover the top 100 trending bands every day, among others.
Has Pandora influenced how MTV wants its audience to discover music? Yes and no, maintains McCormack. "I think that we can do more. We have this hybrid view that music is very human and algorithms can only go so far." What Music Meter aims to do is blend the non-linear connections humans can make with the power of algorithms.
This "next best version of technology" that also captures social media conversations solves a problem for listeners in an era where massive quantities of content are delivered with no context. "Otherwise, you’d need a map and 48 hours in your day to parse it all," he says.
Besides providing the antidote to media overload, McCormack’s convinced MTV’s digital initiatives are going to support artists in a way that downloads can’t. "You are going to see a lot more direct communication between fans and artists who can, for instance, go on to raise $100,000 for a new album through social media. We provide a storytelling narrative that will benefit artists and fans." While many artists have the skill to write songs, now they’re required to be social media experts, too. "MTV can step in and enable connections," says McCormack, to do everything from sell t-shirts and concert tickets to simple Twitter chats.
Always focused on the business opportunities, McCormack notes that MTV can also bring advertisers in to be part of that emotional connection. Like U2’s partnership with BlackBerry, McCormack believes MTV can be a cross-channel space for advertisers to reach potential audiences.
"Timing is everything," says McCormack. "The turnaround has been amazing, but history is made by the right ideas executed well."