Lunch at Michael's with Courteney Monroe, National Geographic Global Networks CEO

By Lunch at Michael's Archives
Cover image for  article: Lunch at Michael's with Courteney Monroe, National Geographic Global Networks CEO

When Courteney Monroe moved to New York at the age of 21 to begin her career, her father presented her with invaluable advice. The delivery method was old school – a hand-written note on a yellow legal pad – but his suggestions on how to succeed in business remain relevant today. Courteney shared her father’s timeless wisdom with Jack Myers and me over lunch at Manhattan’s Michael’s restaurant. At the top of the list were such tips as, “The latest you should ever be to a meeting is on time,” “Dress for the job that you want, not the job that you have” and “No one can ever deny great work.” Courteney recalls her dad saying, “You’re going to encounter office politics, bureaucracy, things that just don’t seem legitimate and fair. Just keep your head down and do great work.” “I’ve never forgotten that,” she said.

Courteney’s dad is still very much a part of her life now that her family has settled down in the same suburb of Washington, D.C. in which she was raised – an area her mom and dad, who were high-school sweethearts and remain together to this day, never left. Being back in her home town still comes as a surprise to Courteney after 22 years in the Big Apple. During that time the Williams College grad landed her first job – as an assistant account executive at BBDO – followed by a position in public relations for Solomon Brothers, the pursuit of her MBA at Wharton Business School (which took her to Philadelphia for two years), nine months in “a traditional post-MBA job” at American Express and then the beginning of her 13-year career in marketing at HBO, where she rose to the position of Executive Vice President, Consumer Marketing and Digital Platforms.

But, somehow, Courteney’s dad always had a feeling she would be back and made that known whenever they discussed his long-time season tickets to Washington Redskins games, a cherished family tradition. (“My grandfather had season tickets at Griffith Stadium, the stadium that pre-dated RFK,” she told us.) With Courteney and her brother both living in and around New York, her father, a lawyer, found himself taking friends to games or giving the tickets to associates. Courteney often suggested that he sell the tickets but he wouldn’t hear of it. “If you ever move back to Washington you would want them,” he’d say.

It wasn’t all that long ago when Courteney finally said to him, “Dad, I love you so much, but I’ve been in New York for 22 years. I’m never moving back to Washington. If you’re keeping the tickets for me, don’t hold on to them.” Fortunately, in another example of father knowing best, he never gave them up. Just six months after she suggested he do so, Courteney made the decision with her husband Mike to return to Washington when he was offered a new opportunity there. Now the Skins’ tickets are again enjoyed by the family, though Courteney’s young son has stunned them all by identifying as a Seattle Seahawks fan. “He’s not a Skins fan, which really breaks my father’s heart,” Courteney laughed. “But there’s still time. He’s only 11 years old.”

“I like being back,” Courteney said of her return home. It’s a lovely place to raise a family. I feel incredibly fortunate. But I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do work wise.” Courteney explained that she had no interest in leaving her job at HBO at the time of the move. “I thought I was committing professional suicide, because you don’t leave running marketing at HBO in New York to go to Washington without any job leads,” she said. She continued working for HBO for eighteen months, commuting between cities. “[HBO] would have happily had me continue, but I just decided having a full time job and a family is challenging enough under the best of circumstances. Having a full time job located in another city is hard. I felt like I wasn’t doing anything well enough, and I was missing chunks of time with my kids. That was not who I wanted to be as a mother.”

Then National Geographic reached out to her, and she has now been at National Geographic Channels (now National Geographic Partners) for four years. The first two were as Chief Marketing Officer; she added the title CEO in May 2014.

During the last year Courteney has spearheaded what she describes as a new vision for the primary network. “We’re striving to be the world’s leading destination for premium science, adventure and exploration content,” she explained. “The most important word I would emphasize that is new to our vocabulary is ‘premium.’ The US channel has only been around for 15 years and has a long history of event-level quality programming, but the last few years were really marked by wading in the waters of male-skewing reality with a strategy that was much more of a volume play with lots of original low cost hours.

“From my perspective the network has never lived up to the promise of the brand, either from the brand perspective or the financial perspective,” she continued. “We’ve had some shows that have worked, but not as well as others in the landscape, and I think that’s mostly because that’s not what people come to National Geographic Channel for. People come to us and expect us to have big, audacious, high-quality distinctive programming that makes sense for this brand. That’s what we’re focused on doing, so [now] it’s bigger budget A-list talent [and] big marketing campaigns.”

Accordingly, National Geographic Channel is currently developing programming with such Hollywood heavyweights as Paul Giamatti, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Darren Aronofsky. Its recent project with Morgan Freeman, the six-part event “The Story of God,” instantly became the highest-rated series in the channel’s history. Still Courteney said it’s a challenge to stand out in the current television environment.

“It’s so competitive,” she asserted. “There is exceptional content being made everywhere. The response to our strategy and vision from the creative community has been overwhelmingly positive. I think it is driven by a couple of things. No. 1, the brand. We’ve never been a port of call for these types of producers and filmmakers, and that’s really because we haven’t had the budgets to support their ambitions. Nor was their breed of premium programming our ambition. But now it is. We have the incredible backing of 21st Century Fox. [Fox Networks Group Chairman and CEO] Peter Rice has been very instrumental in opening doors for us. There’s a lot of talent within the 21st Century Fox family that we are able to tap.

“What we talk about a lot is the power of storytelling to change the world,” she continued. “We have an incredible portfolio of assets. But we are aligned with a real scientific organization, which is the National Geographic Society. I don’t think people realize that, because we are a joint venture, 27 percent of all of our proceeds go back to the Society and fund real science, real research, real education and real conservation. When brands support us they are supporting the National Geographic Society. We’re a media company with a purpose.”

Recent changes in the ownership structure of National Geographic Channels have made all of this possible, Courteney explained. “The channels have always been a joint venture, majority owned by Fox. The Society was a non-profit but also had the magazine, travel business and books division. [Last] November Fox invested $725 million in the Society and then brought under one roof in one unified media company all of the media assets that are National Geographic. Aside from the channels, part of this joint venture, which is called National Geographic Partners, includes the print and digital magazine, the books division, travel business, an events business and the ridiculously massive digital footprint.”

The forming of a new corporate culture has been “a fascinating organizational study,” Courteney reflected. “The channels have always been a blend, more akin to the Fox culture -- fast-paced, entrepreneurial, big thinking -- but now all of a sudden we’re one company. I only oversee the networks but what we’re striving to do as a leadership team is bring together the best of both cultures. The Society is dedicated to making the planet a better place, but we’re a media company first and foremost. The big swings that are part of the Fox culture, that’s what we’re trying to weave into the fabric.

“The most interesting competitive advantage we now have at National Geographic Partners is that we can go to GE [with which the channel developed last year’s “Breakthrough” series] or other partners and say, ‘Forget just the 30 second spot. Align with us across all of our platforms.’ For ‘Mars,’ our show that we’re doing with Brain Grazer and Ron Howard about the quest to colonize [that] planet, which is half scripted, half unscripted and a big six-part amazing event-level television series, there is a cover story in the print-digital magazine about the science of getting to Mars. There is a standalone book. There is a kids’ magazine that we’re doing. There is a speaker series.”

Getting back to the “massive digital footprint,” Courteney said, “We have over 250 million fans across all social media. For a brand that is 128 years old we have incredible engagement digitally with Millennials. We reach something like 35 percent of the world’s Millennials. We’re the No. 1 non-celebrity brand on Instagram.

“I keep joking that my goal is to surpass the Kardashians while I’m here,” she laughed. “Watch out, Justin Bieber!”

It’s a Lunch at Michael’s tradition to ask our guests, particularly media company executives, about any charitable work or altruistic work they do outside of their jobs. But it became immediately clear that much of what Courteney does in her position is helpful to people and to the planet itself. Still, there is an outside cause about which she is passionate. “My son has multiple severe food allergies. So we’re pretty involved with the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington and an organization called FARE – Food Allergy Research and Education.”  Thankfully her daughter, age 9 1/2, is food-allergy free. (Editor’s Note: Today is the start of Food Allergy Awareness Week.)

Because Courteney’s husband Mike, a Marines Special Forces veteran, now works for Team Rubicon, a disaster relief organization, she is also very aware of the value and importance of responding to major crises around the world, which also contributes to her understanding of the appeal of National Geographic to Millennials.

“Millennials care about the planet,” she said. “They tend to support companies that are doing good in the world. They are super-engaged with us even though we are the world’s oldest global media brand.” (National Geographic dates back to 1888.)

Courteney gives great credit for her growth and continued success to the past and present mentors in her career. “My very first boss at BBDO was a woman on the GE account named Sue Haxager Kunze who ultimately went on to run the Visa account. There is so much that I learned from her that I still practice today,” she said. “Eric Kessler and Richard Plepler at HBO were huge mentors and influences. And Peter Rice -- I learn something every time I have a conversation with him. Also, [FX Chairman] John Landgraf. I think he is one of the great thought leaders of our industry. I learn so much from watching and observing him. When I find myself in situations where I’m not sure what to do, I literally say to myself, ‘What would John Landgraf do?’ If I point my compass in that direction I will win.”

And of course her dad’s advice has always stayed with her, as has that of her mom. Courteney recalled her saying, “‘You’re so smart. You need to network more.’ Even when I was working hard she would say, ‘You can do so much more. You should follow up with all these great people you’re meeting. You just need to dig in more.’”

“Now I tell her, ‘Mom, I dug in! I did it!’”

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