Networking With Mike Mohamad

NEW YORK Earlier this year, Mike Mohamad, a 35-year marketing veteran, took up a new post as svp in charge of marketing partnerships and new business development at A&E Television Networks, his home for the past 12 years.

Mohamad, who let a childhood pal talk him into studying art, has spent his career in-house and at agencies, creating promotions and campaigns for various media companies, including NBC, where he is credited with developing the peacock logo, and, most recently, the History Channel.

Now he aims to be the idea man for A&E advertisers as well as the network itself.

Q: Describe your new role.
A: Ad sales had been asking me to get involved for the last four or five years, in part to handle integrated marketing, which is very conceptual. I come from a creative background, and they wanted someone with major creative thinking to marry together what programming wants, what clients want and what sales needs. I’m the first to come into the department from the creative side. My job is to get inside a client’s head and understand his objectives.

What’s your favorite idea you’ve developed with clients since you started in this capacity?
The History Channel has a [documentary] called Into the Fire, which debuted last year. We partnered with the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co. [whose social mission is to support firemen for safer communities. The film was intended to raise awareness for the funding challenges the fire service faces]. An Academy Award-winning director, Bill Couturie, approached me with this project that had to do with fire. It was really interesting—examining the history of putting out fires. The music was great, too, with artists like Bruce Springsteen. Gary Sinise wanted to get involved because of his interest in helping firefighters. I took the project to programming. They liked it. They kept working with the director and decided to take on the project. And at that point, there was a whole sales platform in place. How we would work with the Fireman’s Fund to integrate their name, previews—all of that came together.

What are the fruits of your labor so far?
I can’t disclose numbers, but I’ve brought a lot of money in. Mainly it’s setting the tone; meeting with all the right people to get the engine going 100 percent. You can’t go out and talk to advertisers unless you have relationships with them. So, I am meeting with corporations, planners, entertainment agencies and ad agencies.

What did you learn in your previous roles that you have brought to this position?
I think it’s the ability to listen and act.

At work, what are you most passionate about?
Putting the deal together, because I’m able to bridge the gaps and I’m not stuck in my thinking. If I can’t do something one way, I figure out how to do it another way. So, it’s making the deal in a way that is happy for everybody.

Professionally, what has been your greatest achievement?
There are probably two or three and they fall in different categories: Save Our History, which marked the first time the White House got involved with an initiative created by a for-profit company. Making the peacock the NBC logo. Then there’s the deal I put together with Gallo Wines—partnering with them for the Biography series. We did a lot of on-air and off-air marketing, both consumer and wine trade. That’s the thing that got me started on integrated marketing six years ago.

Name your favorite project.
I loved the French Revolution campaign, which said, “For two hours it won’t kill you to love the French.” This was at a time when everyone was talking about changing French fries to American fries. And one day I walked into my office and all of a sudden had The French Revolution as a project that I had to market.

What’s the worst decision you’ve made?
I can’t think of an exact situation, but philosophically speaking, the worst decision you can make is over-promising.

What’s the smartest business decision you have ever made?
Leaving my job at NBC to go into business for myself [at Korman Mohamad Korman], because it made me understand how to think from both sides of the table.

So why did you sell your agency and go back to a network?
I wanted to focus solely on the creative aspects of marketing, which is what I love to do. Running a business in its entirety took away from that.

Who has had the greatest influence on your marketing career?
Fred Silverman [his boss at NBC and, later, his client]. He was probably the P.T. Barnum of our time. He thought bigger than big. He thought gigantic. And he criticized you if you didn’t come in with big, mind-blowing ideas.

Who has influenced you most creatively?
Probably Stan Dragoti, a director at DDB Needham. He’s a supporter of big-picture thinking. More importantly, he won’t allow negative thoughts into a conversation, because [they] inhibit creative thinking.

What is your dream assignment?
To have a clean canvas, without any caveats, where someone says: “Here’s my issue, here are my objectives, give me a solution.”

Given the onslaught of features-based news programming, how does A&E differentiate itself in the marketplace?
Well, first of all, A&E looks nothing the way it did five years ago. The Biography series is no longer on the Biography Channel. What we decided a few years ago was to reinvent it, because as the viewers of A&E were getting older, so was the demographic. We split it into three genres. We already had justice, which we thought we’d improve upon. We decided to get into real-life programming, which is a bit different from reality television. One of our new programs is called Paranormal, about college kids who investigate paranormal situations. We’ve also got a show surrounding drug and alcohol abuse called Intervention. Our real-life programming doesn’t get phonied up; it really speaks to what goes on in life. Then we decided to buy into top-of-the-line syndication drama and bought CSI: Miami and The Sopranos. Now we’re producing original dramas. The first one, called Andromeda Strain, is coming up. We did them before, but those weren’t contemporary programs, they tended to be British period dramas. What this has done has lowered the demo by 20 years, which makes it more attractive to advertisers.

As non-traditional media become the norm, how does the A&E network plan to meet those challenges?
By being open-minded. We’ll demonstrate this in the way we cooperate with our partners in investing in our product with us going forward.

Where do you get your inspiration?
My wife. She keeps me honest.

How did you get into marketing?
A friend I went to elementary school with convinced me to go to the High School of Art and Design, right here in Manhattan. He said: “Hey, we are best of pals, why don’t you just come with me, it’ll be a gas being in the city”. I sort of liked art and I said OK. We’ve been friends since—for about 50 years now.

What advice would you give to anyone just starting out in the marketing business?
Be open-minded and really listen, so you can meet those client objectives. And don’t be milquetoast. Fight for what you want. Don’t be afraid to be the one person in the room who doesn’t agree with everybody. It may not get you to the role of president of the company, but people will listen to your ideas—as long as they are not stupid.

Give me three words to describe yourself.
Humble, kind and arrogant about my work.

How do others perceive you?
I think of me people would say: “He walks softly but with a big stick.” That’s it.