Last week brought us the the news that Judy McGrath, Chairman and CEO of MTV Networks, had resigned.
I’ve known Judy for a little over 11 years and admired her for many more. We met in 2000 when I sold my company Mischief New Media to MTV Networks. We’ve been friends ever since.
Yes, I was friends with my boss.
That sometimes made it more difficult to have debates and disagreements… and we had many as I was a big pain in the arse back then. I actually thought all those television channels were there to promote our websites and mobile products. But that was the culture that Tom Freston, Judy and the rest of the management team fostered.
What many don’t realise about the history of success of MTV Networks is that culture is the key ingredient. It’s a different kind of place. It’s not something you see in a spreadsheet or budget. It’s a respect and admiration for creativity. A non-elitist management style at all levels. It’s a love for pop in the best sense of the word.
It’s easy to devolve into gossip about other explanations for her departure, who will leave next or any kind of intrigue. But what gets lost in that nonsense is the kind of person Judy is and the mark she had on the company, pop culture and really anyone who crossed paths with her. So when I think of Judy I think lots of things:
- She started as a copywriter 30 years ago when she moved from Scranton, PA.
- 30 years later she leaves a company that may be valued at $30 Billion dollars, MTV Networks is the large share of Viacom.
- She is 30 for 30.
- She knows almost every name that walks the halls.
- She is the creative beacon for the company.
- She is kind.
- “Judy is a punk” (thanks to The Ramones)
- She is Irish.
- She loves Neil Young.
- If a new band was in town, you were likely to see Judy right there on the general admission floor with the rest of us.
- She is a great mother and wife.
- Judy is a fan. Of movies, music, art, literature, you name it.
- She sent me matzoh ball soup from the Carnegie Deli once when I was home with the flu.
- She hates to talk about herself, but is a great storyteller. Family, MTV folklore (The Axl Rose VMA stories were my favourite).
- She is a loyal friend.
- She championed women in the executive suite unlike any other CEO that I can remember.
- Even when you left the company to pursue other opportunities, she always made you feel part of the MTVN family.
- She cares and has time for everyone.
- She was always a great left of centre.
- A CEO yes, but also a Chief Creative Officer and guardian of the brands.
- She is a trend spotter, trend magnifier and champion of creative risk-taking.
- Judy game me chances that others wouldn’t.
- She believed in me.
- She is my friend and mentor.
A lot of her staff and colleagues say it best:
“To be creative, you have to focus on the creative, and that’s the way she always ran things for us,” said Tony DiSanto, who until early this year was MTV’s head of programming. “We were shielded from a lot of the business and were allowed to focus on the creative, which is what MTV is all about — taking chances and shedding your skin and trying things out with every new generation.”
“Judy always made the atmosphere at MTV rock ‘n’ roll,” said Liz Gateley, an MTV programming executive until earlier this year when she left to form a company with Tony DiSanto. “She knew how to hang with the boys and the girls, music artists, and always got along with everyone. But she also was MTV’s moral compass — you knew if Judy saw a show and thought it was too racy that you’d stepped over a huge line. She cared deeply for the brand and its ability to touch youth in important ways.”
“Judy is the last of the original team at MTV. Although she began as ‘the writer’ on the team, Judy has had more impact on MTV than any of us,” said Bob Pittman, who recruited her to MTV and who now serves as chairman of media and entertainment platforms at Clear Channel. “From the beginning she created the language that set the attitude that was MTV. Over time, she did the same with the on-air look, the programs and the network overall. She brought those same values to the creation of the culture of the company and how it did business with the creative community, advertisers and partners. And she did it all with grace and great success. She was the keeper of the vision.”
“Judy virtually wrote the book on how to brand a television network,” said Mark Rosenthal, a former MTV executive who worked with McGrath for 22 years and who now runs the Current TV channel. “She reinvented those networks multiple times. She broke them when they weren’t broken, so they could be reinvented in order to stay fresh and alive.”
She truly is loved. So much so that last night, just hours after her resignation, hundreds of family, friends and staff (past & present) poured into Ink 48 in NYC to say thank you and celebrate her. The Roots rocked the joint. Bono, The Edge, Stephen Colbert and others stopped by to give her a hug.
If you recall, when Tom Freston left the company thousands of employees lined the lobby out into the street to cheer and send him off in grand style. I can think of no better way for Viacom and it’s employees to say thank you for a stellar 30 year career. What a classy move that would be. A torch passed with thanks is a wonderful thing.
Judy leaves the best group in place. Doug Herzog, president, of MTV Networks Entertainment Group, Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks Music & Logo Group and Cyma Zarghami, president, Nickelodeon & MTVN Kids & Family Group are all awesome and creative business leaders.
Viacom will go on, companies do that. They announced they won’t replace her, but the plain and simple fact is Judy McGrath is not replaceable.
For now, I hope she goes on a trip with her family, takes a deep breath and digests what she has accomplished. I am excited to see what Judy does next. I can see her back running a company or doing pro-social work on a global scale.
Whatever it is…what a run. The sequel will be even better because Judy McGrath f*cking rocks.
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