Creative management key to success in digital future

Executive panel: No risk, no reward

Networks must be able to manage creative risk and move on from creative failures if they are to thrive in the digital era, some of its most senior proponents argued Monday.

Speaking ahead of the International Emmys at a panel on the role of content in the digital age, HBO co-president Richard Plepler said company heads set the tone for the rest of the organization, on occasion with damaging effects.

"Look at Disney under (Robert) Iger compared to Disney under (Michael) Eisner. If you have a creative culture that brooks no dissent, then you are going to have a problem," he said. "That's exactly what happened at our place (Time Warner); you could not have an honest conversation under (former AOL Time Warner head CEO) Gerry (Levin). The situation changed drastically under Dick (Parsons) and Jeff (Bewkes)."

Plepler said management that is not prepared to back risk soon feels the impact. "It affects the creative process in the most deleterious way — if the creative windows are not open, the results are there to see," he said.

NBC Universal chief digital officer George Kliavkoff said that media organizations have to structure their business models to minimize the cost of failure.

"Failing is OK, but (programmers) have to be able to fail fast and inexpensively and be able to move on," he told the panel, moderated by Quadrangle Group managing principal Josh Steiner.

Kliavkoff also said that organizations should get into early-stage investments in digital businesses and allow executives access to the perks that are routine in the private equity and venture capital environments.

Pointing to the Peacock Equity Fund, a joint venture between NBC Uni and parent company General Electric, Kliavkoff said the business unit "placed a lot of small bets" on new digital ventures.

"We are trying to create a culture at NBC to grow new businesses and allow executives to take an equity stake in those operations," he said.

Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments head Richard Sarnoff said the venture capital model places different demands on executives.

"There is a financial imperative and a strategic imperative," he said. "We need a breed of executive that understands the company very well but has also internalized the internal-rate-of-return thesis of venture capital investment."