Brent Hansen: the Kiwi behind MTV Europe

Brent Hansen’s accidental gig running MTV Europe lasted 19 years. He’s learned a few things along the way about cash and creativity, writes Russell Brown

The Hit Man feature

Idealog May/June 2006, page 54. Design by Alice Bell

Brent Hansen’s accidental gig running MTV Europe lasted 19 years. He’s learned a few things along the way about cash and creativity

If you were to Google Brent Hansen’s name, you could be forgiven for thinking he is merely, as the slogan goes, world-famous in New Zealand. The first two or three pages of results are largely homeland tributes—or relate to some other Brent Hansen altogether, and not the man who recently resigned from the top post at MTV Networks Europe after 19 years with the company.

By the time he walked away from the company this year, Hansen was not only president (and former CEO) of MTV’s huge European operation—it operates 27 channels reaching 120 million households in 49 territories—but MTV’s president of international creative and its global editor-in-chief. He was, as he puts it, “the icon individual” in the whole MTV system: the guy who symbolised something beyond the bottom line.

Hansen had the classic New Zealander’s role in the global creative economy: that of the enabler, rather than the star.

The story of his arrival is familiar enough. In 1986 the guy who produced Radio With Pictures in its great years had his fill of New Zealand television and headed off to London for his OE, on what his bosses persuaded him to regard as a sabbatical. He sent a CV and a showreel to MTV in New York, thinking he’d stop there on his way home. Word came back that there were no jobs in New York, but inviting him to apply for a position at MTV’s planned European division.

“I didn’t really want to work for MTV. I took the job because they contacted me and kind of put me under pressure,” he recalls. “And I literally thought this will pay for my Kombi van to go round Europe.”

But almost as soon as he started work as a producer in the company’s news division in 1987, his boss was fired. Hansen became editorial director.

“And I suddenly saw there was opportunity there. Like any creative editorial person, this was interesting to me. I had a couple of paranoid nights when I sat at home and thought to myself: if I’m going to be successful at this, I’m going to have to be very true to myself here. If you start to buy into your own hype, you end up being a kind of walking cliché. So I ‘dug deep’ in terms of the things that I thought were where I’d come from.”

His success and longevity with the company were “a hundred percent” to do with his Kiwi roots, Hansen says.

He invokes a Colin McCahon painting that struck him during a recent visit to Wellington, a great black canvas with the words: “I am scared. But I stand up.”

“It’s that New Zealand thing, which is direct but not arrogant,” Hansen explains. “I wanted to have that reality that I think New Zealanders have. Not everybody has it in New Zealand, as you know—some people are more hyped-up than others. But the true-blue New Zealander has a real feet-on-the-ground thing, and I really wanted to keep that. And I also thought that I’d continue to do the job for as long as I felt that I was contributing myself creatively to what was going on, and not just taking a free ride on the system.

“When there were big decisions to be made, I tried to remember my New Zealandness.”

Hansen’s biggest call coincided with his arrival in 1997 at the top of the business: president of MTV Networks Europe. He decided the operation needed to regionalise. The ‘one-stop-shop’ channel from London wasn’t right any more.

“It was the blonde Scandinavian talking about Italian music in English to Germans,” he says. “Which is exotic for five minutes but I always knew, coming from a little country, that in the end you’re going to feel patronised if you don’t feel it’s relevant to you.”

The decision to regionalise can now be seen as the key to the company’s strength. But at the time, it had substantial financial implications: it meant a big punt on extra satellite capacity and an investment in going digital. And there was a personal toll—with individual country operations across Europe, the London operation he’d helped develop would be an unsustainable overhead. Some staff would be absorbed into a ‘centre of excellence’ for the group; many others would have to go.

Honesty is one of those weird things that tend to get spun within organisations in a way that makes it more acceptable. I’m just incapable of corporate-speak. I’d be on my own message, but not on the company’s message.

“I was just straight about it,” he says. “Honesty is one of those weird things that tend to get spun within organisations in a way that makes it more acceptable, and doesn’t allow people ever to get to the nitty-gritty of it. I’m just incapable of corporate-speak and I think that in lots of ways that was actually a weakness of mine. But it was a strength when it came to making those difficult decisions, because I would never be on message. I’d be on my own message, but not on the company’s message.”

Hansen has strong views on what fosters loyalty in a creative business.

“I’ve always believed that when you’re under pressure, especially with creatives, that if you don’t take the credit for people’s work, if you give them opportunities to do things that they may not feel they’re going to get away with in a big company—but you keep them real by making sure they know what the bottom line is—that when you’re right, when the system turns on you and your back’s to the wall, they’ll be fighting with you. I really believe very strongly in that.

“And it’s very important that it’s constantly reinforced: that people know you’re expecting good and interesting stuff, but that you won’t take the glory for it. Because you see that so often: most senior people in most businesses end up managing their bosses, and not leading people. And that’s where things go wrong. There are plenty of people out there who represent an editorial–creative point of view who spend most of their lives managing up and not managing down.”

It’s the nature of a creative business such as MTV that some of the most important information is held at the bottom of the tree. To put it another way: the hip kid who arrived last week knows things the boss doesn’t. Hansen’s response was to try and make the hierarchy disappear.

“Quite often, my door was open and people could just walk in,” he says. “I’d have a bunch of kids who’d come and say, ‘Just tell me about how you got your job—how do you do what you do?’ And I’d be quite happy to do that. Or they’d come in and say ‘Have you seen this thing that we just picked up in Berlin? What do you think of it?’ And I’d get to learn about stuff that would help me manage people several layers above them.

“Because it’s the middle management that’s always the problem. Not to demean those middle manager people, but to keep them real—then they weren’t going to be little despots in the middle of the process who didn’t allow good ideas to filter up.

“In the end, if I could avoid having meetings, I would do it. I wanted meetings to be spontaneous. I had a very hip PA who had been with me for 19 years. She knew exactly the kind of people I liked. It’s one thing to protect the doorway, to filter things—the PA is often the most powerful person in the company, because if they don’t put the information though you don’t get it—but she knew the kind of stuff I was interested in and she knew that I wanted to be stimulated. That I wanted to feel that it was worth my while to come into the office and do this job each day. She knew I had a short attention span on boring stuff and that I didn’t want to deal with a certain kind of left-brain stuff. I just didn’t want to do that anymore.”

The other part, he says, is to be not only available, but “credible to the people on the ground”.

Which means, in practice?

“In my case, you go to more gigs than they do, you have a stronger knowledge. And I walked the floor all the time. No matter where I was, whether it was in my New York office, or my Berlin office, or Sydney, wherever it was. As the icon individual, you cannot do it by memos. You cannot do it by putting out missives every two weeks and try to sound groovy because your speechwriter writes it that way. You’ve actually got to know what you’re talking about.”

Hansen’s approach to his own bosses was similarly straightforward.

“I never acquiesced to an instruction from above me if I felt it was wrong. And I always got away with it—because I was making the money. A couple of times I stood up to the very top of the system at [MTV owner] Viacom and said ‘That’s wrong’.”

Were they startled by that?

“Very startled. In American organisations, everybody says yes to the bosses. But they also knew that in a funny kind of way, I was representing the company with truth, not just the company line. I think they kind of thought I was brave. And bravery is a big deal in business.”

Senior people in most businesses end up managing their bosses, and not leading people. And that’s where things go wrong.

Hansen’s approach allowed him the mana to swing what he regards as his biggest creative risk: the MTV Europe Music Awards, which launched in 1994. The awards show is now the company’s most widely-seen (an estimated billion viewers) and credible product. As creative director, Hansen instructed staff to go for the amazing, like the stand-up-and-applaud spectacle of Gorillaz playing as 3D holograms last year. But amazing isn’t cheap.

“We spent money on good ideas, and there were a lot of questions about that, because it’s the kind of thing where you can pull a certain amount of money in sponsorship and make a huge profit right from the start. But if the show is not going to live from then on, you create a bar that you’re never going to hit. So that was when I took a deep breath.”

Hansen’s role with MTV’s international group was conceived in 2003 as a way to bring some of his creative mojo to the proliferation of individual country operations. He oversaw the launch of the core channel, MTV Base, into Africa in 2004, charming a BBC interviewer with his knowledge of African music and observing that his roots in “a little country at the bottom of the world” help him realise there would be “all sorts of cultural imperialism issues about a business like ours”.

But the tensions of managing the sometimes conflicting aspirations of country operations and the international group eventually led him to decide it was time “to do things more for myself than for a company”. He left without fulfilling the prediction he’d often made for himself in conversation and in speeches: that it was the nature of the business that one day he’d be fired. “I took the intercept pass,” he quips.

After he’d made the big call, Hansen didn’t disappear to a tropical resort. He hitched along on a low-budget UK tour by his “hero”, acid-drenched oddball rocker Julian Cope. And it’s to Cope he reaches for a philosophical summing-up.

“As Julian would say—you can’t succeed in life unless you’re a forward-looking motherfucker.”