BUSINESS INTERVIEW: As executive vice president of digital media for MTV’s music brands, Dubliner Dermot McCormack is confronting head-on the challenges all media companies face in an ever-changing digital landscapeIT’S HARD TO know what to envy Dermot McCormack for most – his 17th-floor, corner office (the sign, in America, at least, that you have truly arrived) overlooking Times Square, or the fact that Bono has a nickname for him: Digital Dermot from Dublin.
To be fair, he has earned it. McCormack is now executive vice president of digital media for MTV’s music brands – including MTV itself, VH1, Country Music Television (CMT) and Logo TV.
“My job is to move these cable TV brands into new platforms, expand the brands, expand the audience and make money while I’m doing it,“ says McCormack – who is originally from Ballyfermot – as though this were easy peasy.
Few know quite as well as him, however, just how tricky the internet can be. An early pioneer of new media in the 1990s, McCormack was around for the dot com bubble (the first one, as some would argue). In fact, he was right at the heart of it.
Having moved to New York in the early 1990s (the day after he graduated from DIT Kevin Street with a degree in electronic engineering – “My poor Mom,” he says. “I never came back!”), McCormack was among those who built some of the earliest websites.
Eventually, he went to work in advertising for the hottest new things around at the time – a website callediVillage.com. (So early on in the web age was this that McCormack talks about having approached Toyota about web advertising before the company had any sort of presence on the internet.)
The iVillage group of websites still exists today, but you would be hard pushed to find any sign of the fact that, when the company went public in 1999, it was the biggest IPO in history.
Shares in the company peaked at just over $100 shortly after the initial public offering, before plummeting to almost zero two years later. In 2006, NBC Universal bought the company for roughly $8 a share.
McCormack – who had owned a percentage – made off like a bandit as soon as the IPO lockout period ended, however. Then, with a few quid in his back pocket, he co-founded one of the first online payments companies, called Flooz.com.
“At the time e-commerce was really taking off in a big way, and Flooz was kind of like a PayPal. In fact, we used to laugh at PayPal . . . Not so much later,“ he recalls. “You could send people money through email, basically. That was the idea. And you could buy things at places like Barnes and Noble and Restoration Hardware and Tower Records with your Flooz number.”
Flooz was an instant hit. Whoopi Goldberg starred in the TV commercials, and venture capitalists were falling over themselves to invest in what would surely be a huge hit when it would eventually go public.
“We raised tons and tons of money. I think at one point we were worth $200 million,” says McCormack.
It was around this time that he and his identical twin brother, Stephen, appeared on the front of Business Finance magazine, photographed as two powerful, serious-looking businessmen. (McCormack’s twin is the founder and CEO of Straywave media in Dublin, responsible for bringing you shows such as Fade Street and Dublin Housewives).
Framed, and hanging on the wall above his desk at MTV, the article was headlined “Two Brothers, Two Cities, Two Fortunes”.
“At least I still have two of the three,” he laughs, because Flooz.com’s success was not to last.
“We took her all the way down the other side to going bankrupt,” admits McCormack, candidly. “It had a silly name, but it was the right idea. It was probably just a bit early.
“And, actually, the business model was good. We just got taken out by fraud. I guess it’s a positive sign when you create a currency and someone wants to steal it,” he smiles.
Describing it as “a very painful moment”, McCormack then had to set about firing the 200 employees he had hired.
“And then you have to sell your conference-room table for about 10 cents on the dollar,” he says, recalling one of the lowest points.
Not so much burned by the dot com bubble as trapped in the house as it went up in flames, you might think McCormack would not have had the stomach to continue his love affair with the internet. But you would be wrong.
“All these people were leaving and going back to consulting – we used to call it B-to-C – because it was like, ‘This was over, it was a bubble’. But I disagreed. I still felt like this was gonna change the world. And I was the only person thinking that in 2000,” he says.
Rather than throw his own hat in the ring again, however, McCormack decided he wanted to learn about the business side from the pros, and spent the next several years working with the US cable television company Cablevision on its broadband projects.
“I liked the idea of going the cable industry, because the one thing they do know very well is business. They knew how to get $200 dollars out of your wallet every month, and they still do,” he says.
“I just felt there were a lot of business lessons to be learned. The new-media guys at the time, they didn’t seem to want to go somewhere as unsexy as a local cable company. But I did, and I wanted to learn.”
And that’s just what he did. Six years later, a former Cablevision colleague brought McCormack into MTV. And three years ago he moved into his current role.
For MTV, McCormack could not have come along at a better time. With the emergence of social media which, as McCormack says, had promised billions of dollars in revenue “and all sorts of things that never materialised”, the company was struggling to make its mark on the web.
“When I got here we’d seen a bunch of things that hadn’t worked, and everybody was at the end of their rope with their patience for these platforms. We had to start from the very beginning,” he explains.
“We really doubled down on social media. We hired a whole group, and put someone in charge of it. The PR people were in charge of social media when I got here! And now MTV has over 100 million likes on Facebook. We’re also the top media brand on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr,” he adds.
In August of last year, McCormack chalked up another major “win”, when, after teaming up with Warner Music, MTV became the most visited online music website – prising that title away from the Google-backed Vevo.
“So we beat Vevo and Yahoo and AOL. That was one of the first things we accomplished in the new regime and that gave the team confidence, and it gave management a little bit of confidence,” he says, proudly.
And the secret of McCormack’s success?
“We have little sayings like, ‘No amount of technology can make a bad story good’ . . . Ultimately, we’re storytellers. And no matter what device you have, no matter what screen you have or however many social media accounts, at the end of the day, what you want is a good character, and a good story. The Irish know this better than any nation in the world, I would say,” he explains.
So McCormack and his team have set about trying to tell those same stories in different ways with the “new crayons” the internet has created.
One of his latest – and favourite – creations is the O Music Awards (O for Online). Self-described as “celebrating the best in digital music”, these awards are doled out for things such as “Must Follow Artist on Twitter”, “Best Music Hack” and “Digital Genius”.
Now in their third year, the awards took the form of a 24-hour show this year, live-streamed on the internet, folloing The Flaming Lips on an eight-city, eight-gig bus tour through the southern states, from Memphis to New Orleans.
“So that’s the latest creative achievement from my team, and the great news working for a company like this is that there’s really no end to where you can go. That’s just an example of it,“ says McCormack.
“Remember, we’re the same company that brought you ‘Unplugged’. Before ‘Unplugged’ you never saw a rock band playing acoustic, or a pop-up video. What about Beavis and Butt-head and Jackass? So that’s the kind of company I work for, and that’s the legacy that we have.
“And I like to think that, somewhere in the mix, there’s an Irishman that’s taking up that legacy and pushing it forward into these crazy, fun places that won’t all work but hopefully – who knows? Maybe we’ll make history,” he adds.
Of his adopted home, New York, McCormack says it is still a place that welcomes Irish people with open arms. He also believes it is still a place where Irish people can succeed as he did, having arrived here on J1 visa just over 20 years ago, with “some romantic notion that I wanted to be a writer”.
Of his success, however, he says he can really only pinpoint one thing that helped him get where he is today.
“It sounds obvious, but I really always have to get back to the working hard thing. That’s just a requirement. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s a guarantee if you don’t do it . . .
“And I think it’s also helpful to somehow find yourself in a place where you really know what it is you wanna do,” he says. “Eventually you have to have a vision of what you wanna do and then you have to be unstoppable.”
For McCormack, that place was New York. And his vision took shape with the advent of the internet.
“It was almost like I didn’t have a home until came along. But now I could use my technical expertise and my creative leanings. This was the early 1990s, and I basically just fell in love with the medium,” he explains.
“But, I will say this: you learn more from failure than you do from success. So I learned a lot . It wasn’t a pretty thing, but I do think you learn a lot and it builds character.“