dialogue with Mika Salmi


Viacom has faced its share of criticism in recent months for lagging in the realm of digital media. The executive faced with changing that perception is Mika Salmi, named on Nov. 1 to the new post of president of global digital media at MTV Networks. Formerly founder and CEO of one of MTVN's latest acquisitions, Atom Entertainment, he is now charged with driving the digital agenda for 22 brands from MTV to Nickelodeon as well as more than 100 Web sites worldwide. The Hollywood Reporter's digital media editor Andrew Wallenstein spoke with Salmi about his strategic approach to the job last week during a one-on-one interview at the LA Games Conference.

The Hollywood Re- porter: What attracted you to this job?

Mika Salmi: When I sold my company, I didn't even think about this job. I really liked MTVN's approach during the M&A process, the people and the fact they had multiple brands, which is what we wanted to do at Atom. During that process, I got to know (then Viacom CEO) Tom Freston. He started talking to me about filling this role. Then I started thinking about it, and the transformation the media business has been undergoing for the past year, year and a half. In my career, I've been involved in a lot of different kinds of transformations. That's what excites me. I like personal change, business change. I started meeting people at MTV Networks, and they seemed serious about change. If you asked me 10 years ago if I would have accepted a job at MTV, I would have said no way. Ten years ago, the Internet first started hitting ? that was the exciting thing. But this is the exciting thing that's happening in media.

THR: Do you think it is fair that Viacom has had a perception on Wall Street that it is lacking a superbrand online, like MySpace or YouTube?

Salmi: Wall Street would love it if we could just roll everything up and call it "X." It would be an easier communication message. But Viacom has the leading entertainment presence overall on the Internet in the U.S., in September according to ComScore. It's the largest distributor in the world of mobile content. If you look at what the consumer wants, they are less attracted to portals. The attraction of YouTube and MySpace, it hasn't been people going to the home page. It's not necessarily about the portal mentality. It's about people giving people what they want. Viacom's approach is right, which is to target demographics and markets. Wall Street wants a singular answer, but I don't think that's the right approach.

THR: MTVN has such a multiplicity of brands; does that become a challenge in and of itself?

Salmi: Part of my task is a coordination role. There's a lot of great things happening not only in the U.S. but worldwide. There's this really great MTVN application in the U.K. called Flux, a user-generated content TV channel. There's interesting mobile stuff happening in Japan. It would be fantastic to find the best-of-breed stuff within the company, outside the company or develop it ourselves and implement it. To figure out a way to coordinate that across the company, the task isn't to bring everything together but to coordinate and respect the fact that all these brands are decentralized. We're not going to have a digital ghetto: This is a broad media company. But it's not very efficient to be broad if everyone is doing the same thing.

THR: How big a role will gaming play with MTVN and the entertainment industry?

Salmi: I look at their competitors. I happen to know Fox pretty well, NBC Universal and Turner (Broadcasting), which has a pretty good games effort under way ? they're trying. Disney has a pretty strong games effort under way. But Viacom is the one that really has taken some steps in the games world, (with such acquisitions as) Xfire, Shockwave, Gametrailers (and) AddictingGames. They've got popular games on the MTV, Nickelodeon sites. The core thing about games is the time (consumers) spend. Video, you watch it once, twice maybe. A video game you play 10, 100 or 1,000 times. It's a different level of involvement, you keep playing it over and over, you engage the consumer. I come from Atom, so I'm a huge proponent of games, and Viacom is really ahead of the curve. The question is how do they continue on that path.

THR: Why did you choose to sell Atom to MTVN?

Salmi: We were fiercely independent, we were resisting a lot. We had come to a turning point in our evolution where we were thinking about going public. We were large enough and had enough revenue and a good enough growth rate to do it early 2007. We needed to do something to go to the next level. The public market thing wasn't sitting well with any of us. Coincidentally, we started having serious discussions (with Viacom) in the May-June time frame, and that made the board assess whether we should be acquired. We didn't set out to get acquired, but we knew that we had to do something in the next year.

THR: Will you be focused more on organic growth or acquisitions?

Salmi: I think there is definitely acquisitions you will see, but it's both. It's whatever will increase our audience size, revenues, applications, Web sites or technologies that will deepen the engagement of the consumer.

THR: Now you've got a seat at an establishment media company. Are they receptive to big changes?

Salmi: I think they understand the need for change. I discuss a lot of what I want to do, and everyone seems to be on board. I saw the head of MTV programming the other night, Brian Graden. I talk to him occasionally, he's a TV guy through and through. I asked him, 'What do you think about now, what the next hit show will be?' He said, 'No, I'm worried about digital.' That was the start of our conversation. It runs deep, (this notion of) what are they going to do in that area. It's good news, but it's also a little bit pressure to figure out what to do.