From Harvard MBA To Head Of MTV's Empire: Bill Roedy’s Road To Success

Bill Roedy built MTV from the ground upwards and retired as its hugely successful CEO. The Harvard MBA shares his secrets to success - and views on MBA degrees for today's entrepreneurs.

A blank expression formed on Bill Roedy’s face as he stepped away from the podium and microphone. After the calm of his impassioned speech at the EntrepreneurCountry Forum, the annual entrepreneurship event this year held in London’s Mayfair, there was a hubbub of tears and despair.

Bill, the former Chairman and CEO of MTV Networks International who helped build the company from the ground up, had come to talk TV success to a delegation of industry leaders and entrepreneurs – but for five minutes the only thing on his mind was a tearful start-up entrepreneur pleading for his help.

“Ultimately, these decisions have to come from your heart,” Bill says calmly. The woman in the audience had just been offered an attractive job – at the expense of closing down her four-years-running start-up. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she broke down. She sought Bill’s advice.

He paused, gazing into the audience for a time. “You have to be practical sometimes… you can come back to it,” he responds, his delivery compassionate. David meets Goliath? It certainly was. “I worked in the military for 11 years, I knew it would not be my lifelong career.”  

Bill’s business these days, however, is retirement. It has been about four years since he stepped down from the helm of the TV giant, but he seems to have no intention of staying away from the entrepreneurship scene.  

His executive career had started at HBO, where he was vice president for 10 years and was hailed as one of the pioneers of the United States’ cable television industry.

Bill joined MTV in 1989 as chief exec and managing director of MTV Europe. He was upped to chairman and CEO of MTV Networks Intl and under his leadership, the team built from scratch a global operation of 200 channels, 20 brands (including MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central) in 200 countries.

MTV reached a potential audience of two billion people and launched the most channels in the history of TV. And he has an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Yet he began his career in the military – albeit in a role of considerable power. “The other job I had besides that [MTV] was commanding nuclear missiles. The Army doesn’t encourage entrepreneurship when it comes to nuclear missiles,” Bill laughs.

He had more power back then, he says, but with entrepreneurship the highs “are euphoric” and he doesn’t think there’s “anything higher in the food chain”.

Bill, who received a raft of awards including the Business Leadership Award presented by former U.S President Bill Clinton, swam with the top of the TV biz’s food-chain. The years of innovation and market dominance are evident.

MTV, he says, created the “short attention span” – as well as some of the world’s most recognizable programs in the form of Jackass, South Park and, dare I say it, Jersey Shore. “We’re proud of this groundbreaking programing which truly changed the world,” Bill jokes.

The empire is built now and he has retired a happy man. He has made mistakes, he admits – focusing too much on the “local” and not taking advantage of scale. Some argued he went too far and didn’t get a return, yet MTV commands billions of dollars of market value.

Bill wouldn’t be happy until MTV was in every household. “The mantra I had was creative, aggressive and relentless,” he enthuses.

He grew up with a single mother in difficult circumstances. For William H Roedy the kid, it was tough. “Single mom; no money; we had depression issues; addiction issues, and the weeks were tough,” he says.

Yet TV provided a light in troubling times. “But at end of every week I remember sitting with my mom, grandmother, great aunt and my sisters, watching TV on Sunday night, and observing them laugh. They were happy,” says Bill.

“And I knew then that, wow, there’s a lot of power in television. That’s when my love affair started.”

MTV’s rise has been phenomenal. The company’s brand value is worth more than $5 billion. For Bill, that meant years of hard graft and stormy seas. “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy... we live in a hyper-change world and disruption is everywhere. Adaptability is so key,” he says.

He had to break the rules to break into the big leagues. He recalls an advertising stunt involving a certain drinks brand. “Innovation only comes from risk taking – you learn more from failure than from success. Check your phones right now, break the rules,” he calls to the audience. Most of them already were, of course – tweeting about his talk, no doubt.

Bill’s sometimes-criticized strategy was to be local, but also to go global. TV channels in 200 countries isn’t a bad achievement, but his mantra was to start on a local scale. You only need to look at the current industry campaigns to see that Bill was way ahead of the game.

Part of his successful leadership style comes from the military. He says he learnt a lot from that 11-year career, some of which was spent commanding the world’s most deadly weapons, and he believes in a small-scale company attitude. “Large business creates bureaucracy and in a creative world, bureaucracy is a creativity killer,” says Bill.

He never takes no for an answer and says to make business rock, you need to master technology. “We’re living, arguably, in the greatest revolution since the industrial revolution. And it’s not over,” he says.

Using MTV to do something good was important to him too. “We have many issues at MTV, but the one thing that united us was fighting the issue of the global HIV and AIDS epidemic,” says Bill.

In 1998 he was named Ambassador for UNAIDS and he has addressed the UN General Assembly on several occasions regarding the pandemic. He was a founding member and chair of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS from 1998 to 2002, and currently serves as Chair of the Advisory Board.

In 2005, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed him founding chair of the Global Media AIDS Initiative Leadership Committee. And Mary Robinson also appointed him as an Envoy for the Global Alliance for Vaccinations and Immunizations in 2010.

Bill helped set-up the MTV Staying Alive campaign, which produces content that delivers vital HIV prevention messaging, and provides funding for young leaders to run HIV-awareness and prevention campaigns. He continues to work for Staying Alive in retirement.

Fifty per cent of his time since retiring has been spent on global health issues, he says. Since stepping down as CEO of MTV, Bill has worked with two UN secretary generals and the Bill Gates Foundation.

When he came out of university, he says, nothing existed back then which eventually defined his life – chief among those things is the Internet. His delivery on the MTV front is confident, composed and has the audience captivated. Shift away from asking him about his successes, however, and he answers questions cautiously.  

Bill is no doubt proud of all MTV has achieved, so what about his background? How has a Harvard MBA contributed to his mega-success? “It’s an enriching experience, obviously. Harvard teaches you the language, and teaches you discipline and how to approach a problem,” he tells BusinessBecause.

He admits it can “set you back” financially and says that people didn’t question education ten years ago – “the more the better” back then. “I think it’s an indulgence, but a great indulgence. What’s two years in the scheme of things? It’s not that long,” says Bill.

The business school's branding helps, he says, but he doesn't say an MBA is essential. Is a business education relevant for today’s entrepreneurs? He offers a cryptic response:

“Are you going to tell Gates or Zuckerberg to go back to school?”

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