If pressed to give a short answer to the question, “How do you succeed in business?,” Dwight Tierney, a 1969 Monmouth College graduate and a co-founder of MTV, might choose the word “research.”
Tierney told Monmouth students that research was a key to the success of MTV and its sister Viacom network, Nickelodeon, and he also told the students how they can apply research to their own aspiring careers.
“At MTV, it was our job to know the customers, to know you guys,” he said while gesturing to an overflow crowd in the lecture hall of the college’s McMichael Academic Hall. “We tell you what the trends are. But the dirty little secret is, you told us, then we articulated it a month before you did. We always stayed ahead of the curve.”
That approach worked with the teenage and twentysomething demographic, and Tierney said it also applied to the primary viewers of Nickelodeon – kids.
“We did a lot of telephone research,” he said. “We’d call homes at 6:30 p.m. and ask the parents what their kids were watching. They knew their kids were being entertained, but they couldn’t tell us what it was. We were talking to people up here (Tierney’s height), and we needed to be talking to people down here (at Tierney’s waist). Our business quadrupled when we began talking to kids. Knowing your customers has always been the key.”
Tierney also explained how the students – many of whom attended the talk as part of MC’s “Midwest Entrepreneurs” senior capstone class in political economy and commerce – could experience success in the job market.
“Each of you has the unique selling proposition of you,” he said. “How are you branding you? What makes you unique?”
To stay competitive during an era when more college graduates are entering the work force than ever before, Tierney said mixing that branding with research would pay big dividends.
“Learn about the company where you’re interviewing,” he said. “Know more about the company than the person interviewing you. Then tell them how your skills will translate to their business.”
Back in the day of his first post-graduate job, Tierney’s skills might have been a match for his position, but he admitted a major shortcoming.
“I was hired by the admission office at Monmouth College,” he said. “I hated it, and I sucked at it. I had no passion for what I was doing. (Former admission counselor) John Wilbur came down to St. Louis and he fired me, and it was the right thing to do. But he also left me with something. He told me, ‘Find out what it is that you want to do.’”
Tierney returned to his native New York, where he followed his passion, seeking employment related to media, entertainment, TV and music. He was eventually hired at CBS, which he called the “Rolls Royce” of broadcast TV in an era when there were only three national networks.
Among the things that stayed with him from his time at CBS were the stories he heard from men who had been at the company since the 1940s and early 1950s.
“I learned a lot from them,” he said. “They were pioneers. Almost everything they were doing was new. And if they tried something that didn’t work, they didn’t let it stop them. They just laughed about it and moved on.”
That pioneering model, coupled with an interesting idea, led Tierney to do something of which his mother did not approve. With three children and a mortgage, he quit his job to follow a dream – the dream that turned into MTV.
Tierney explained to the class that in the late 1970s, music videos existed, but they were only shown to people inside the industry to promote bands for concerts and radio play, and they typically featured footage from live performances. There was a group of people who saw music videos as an art form, and they began to make concept videos. That led to an idea for a business – to put those music videos on TV.
“It was pioneering, just like those old-timers from CBS,” said Tierney of his career decision. “But I had to listen to my mother yell at me for being irresponsible.”
Showing creative concept videos to music fans was a great idea, but Tierney and his colleagues still needed two big breaks.
“Lo and behold, here comes cable TV,” he said before explaining to the class how that industry was born in a valley in Pennsylvania. An appliance dealer couldn’t sell his television sets in the valley because signal reception was so poor. Tierney said the dealer ran cable from mountaintop antennas to the homes in the valley, not with the intent of creating more channels, but simply so that his TVs would sell.
The other break came from getting MTV on the airwaves in New York City. Tierney said that in 1981, he and his colleagues predicted $7 million in advertising revenue, but brought in only $4 million. The next year, they again predicted $7 million, but sold only $3 million. They almost had the plug pulled on their fledgling network, but after those rough two years, distribution began in New York City, home of Madison Avenue.
“That’s where the advertising community lives,” he said. “In 1983, we predicted $7 million again, and we sold $14 million. The next year, we predicted $21 million and sold $42 million. And on and on and on it went from there.”
While research is definitely a key, Tierney might choose a different one-word answer if asked about his personal success – “passion.” It was missing from his Monmouth job, but he grabbed it with both hands at MTV.
“There were 26 of us when we started, and all 26 of us were entrepreneurs and risk-takers,” he said. “We all had passion and vision. We kept creating new businesses (such as Nickelodeon), and that kept us all creative and engaged. The passion stayed because we kept reinventing ourselves.”
In fact, said Tierney, MTV was reinvented so many times that it stopped being “music television.”
“The network is now reality and scripted TV, so a little while ago, they officially changed the name to MTV. It doesn’t stand for ‘Music Television’ anymore.”
Tierney was part of MTV and Viacom until 2007, when he took an executive position with New York’s Madison Square Garden. He retired from there at the end of 2010.
Tierney closed his talk by discussing his days as a college student. He told the audience, “You can’t be anonymous at Monmouth,” then gave two examples of why that’s a good thing.
“When I looked at a place like the University of Illinois with a lecture hall of 300 kids, I said, ‘That’s not me.’” Tierney also told the students about a communication professor, Tom Fernandez, going above and beyond the call of duty on his behalf.
“That’s what Monmouth was about,” he said.
In addition to the entrepreneur class members in attendance, there were also some special guests of the college – a handful of prospective students who were on campus for the weekend. They were impressed by what a graduate of Monmouth had accomplished and by the messages he conveyed.
“It was a neat experience, and it was very interesting,” said Corey Landers of Kaneland High School.
“It was pretty cool to be able to see a guy who had that much impact on our culture,” added Evan Stone of Lyons Township High School. “I really understood everything he said.”