How MTV Channels Innovation

The network doesn't need an innovation department, because creativity bubbles up from everywhere. One example: the birth of MTV World

With all of the talk about innovation, the creation of corporate innovation departments, and the hiring of chief innovation officers, it's worth noting that some companies with long track records of innovative product and service development have little to no formal innovation structure.

Take MTV. In its 25 years, the company has established the music video as one of the most bankable currencies in pop culture, put reality programming on the map, presided over the Heavy Metallization and Hip-Hoppification of pop music, and spawned numerous international editions.

Yet look at MTV's org chart, and you won't see any mention of the I-word. "We don't have a chief innovation officer," says Nusrat Durrani, MTV World general manager. "We don't even think about innovation formally as other companies do."

Lasting Advantages

Instead, the company has fostered a culture of innovation, an open and active environment in which new ideas are encouraged from a variety of personalities and perspectives. If a concept holds up to quantitative and qualitative business analysis, it can spawn a new venture no matter whose idea it was. And in fact, sometimes it's hard to tell.

MTV is notable but not alone in its emphasis on catalyzing innovation by empowering its people. Just think of Southwest Airlines (LUV), Ritz-Carlton, or Whole Foods (WFMI) as organizations reaping benefits greater than the sum of their parts in this way. As Harvard professor Clayton Christensen has written, an organization's values are among its most important sources of lasting competitive advantage.

An organization's culture may be the part of the innovation machine that is hardest to change, but the benefits to positive investment are huge and long-lasting—and even more difficult for a competitor to copy or hire away.

All Over the Map

MTV's culture of innovation stems, at least in part, from the network's eclectic hiring tendencies. One of the company's founders had been an importer of textiles. The head of MTV International is an Army man. And the chairperson of the company used to be a copywriter. As Durrani puts it: "we have a diversity of talent, backgrounds, and experiences. We bring these diverse experiences with us."

As for Durrani, he was raised in the Middle East by Indian parents and educated in India. His career spans businesses in India and the U.S., where he now lives. So it was no accident that when he learned of MTV's exploratory efforts to serve the growing Asian American community, he had a strong opinion.

MTV World began within the business development team, which had noted the growth in numbers and cultural significance of the Asian American market. To serve these audiences, the initial plan was to leverage MTV International's assets by bringing content directly from MTV India, China, and Korea to U.S. viewers.

Go For It

Durrani was working for MTV Interactive and had been brought into the MTV World planning process along with a group of staffers from around the company to vet the idea. And he disagreed with the initial concept.

The 20-something Indian American kid is different from his 20-something counterpart in Bombay, he argued, and that called for a unique hybrid. "You have to make a channel that's bicultural. As soon as the people involved in the decision-making heard that, they said: 'Of course.'"

For the next 18 months or so, Durrani had two roles: finessing the plan with the business development team and reaching out at night for input from his MTV International counterparts in Asia—and also his day job at MTV Interactive. By the time the team was ready to present the plan for MTV World, MTV's annual budget had already been set. But because the organization eschews hard and fast rules about how and when innovation happens, MTV World got the green light anyway.

MTV Desi, the first of the MTV World channels, went live last summer. Its aim is to "super-serve" Indian Americans born in the U.S. or raised here. The first-generation Indian American, according to Durrani, wants "old-school Bollywood and cricket culture." MTV Desi targets the bicultural kids who want the same experiences as other native-born Americans. They love Bangra but also Shakira; they've grown up with MTV but also Bollywood.

Team Poetry

In order to get going, a "pre-launch advisory council" included MTV staffers from News, Music, and MTV World, musical artists, and members of the greater Indian community. The team evaluated the market with demographic and behavioral research on Asian American youth using methods such as focus groups, house parties, and online surveys, and opened the floor to debate how best to serve them.

And though Durrani and MTV President Christina Norman finalized most decisions, just about every aspect of the new channel—including programming, packaging, logos, and the all-important music mix—was open to suggestion and discussion. Younger members of the production staff, for example, came up with the idea of featuring young spoken word artists, and this team continues to be involved in programming this content.

Collaboration extended across MTV divisions as well, and such cross-pollination was key to the development of MTV Desi, which draws roughly 15% of its programming from MTV India. The first video shown on MTV Desi, for example, was from an Indian Sikh artist. And this year, MTV India and MTV Desi collaborated on the simultaneous promotion of the Bollywood hit Kabhi Alvida Na Kahena (Never Say Goodbye).

Share and Share Alike

In addition, a behind-the-scenes documentary on Shakira's Bollywood-inspired performance at the 2006 Video Music Awards has been produced to air on both MTV India and MTV Desi. There are similar links between the various channels of MTV World (MTV Chi for Chinese Americans, and MTV K for Korean Americans) and the core MTV News operation. This interaction is usually not formalized; direct ad hoc collaboration is the principal conduit between MTV teams.

To help stir the pot, MTV's global operation regularly circulates notable regional programming to the other affiliates in the network. And MTV shares people, too. According to Bill Roedy, vice-chairman of MTV Networks and president of MTV Networks International, leveraging key executives across ventures has helped fuel and align certain initiatives. Jose Tillan, for example, manages both MTV's efforts in Latin America as well as the U.S.-focused MTV TR3S.

Lucia Ballas-Traynor, general manager of MTV TR3S, illustrates the linked-but-loose relationship between the core MTV brand and its local initiatives. "You take a global brand like MTV and what it stands for: everything music, youth, cool, hip. Regardless of the ethnic origin you have to start with that. Then you apply the cultural filter, which in the case of MTV TR3S is Latino."

Local Makes it Great

To keep each of its "cultural filters" intensely tuned to the local vibe, MTV's global organizational structure is deliberately decentralized. "Something we decided early on was to not export just one product for the world but to generate a very different experience for our brands depending on the local cultures," says Roedy. "The local teams have complete control over everything. Localization really helps with the innovation."

MTV President Norman echoes this intensely local philosophy of internationalization. "We are all tethered to the global mission of what MTV is, with autonomy. We are separate businesses, with separate P&L. We share a logo, a passion, an audience, and a focus. A person in India makes MTV India. That person is local, and that's what makes it great."

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