A Mind for MediaTapping Both Sides of Her Gray Matter, Turner’s Freeman Influences Creative, Business 1/27/2014 12:00 AM Eastern
Ask anyone who has worked with Turner Broadcasting System’s Animation, Young Adults & Kids Media (AYAKM) chief marketing officer Brenda Freeman, and a common theme emerges: She’s smart, savvy, energetic, insightful and adept at using both sides of her brain.
Today, Freeman is charged with strategic positioning and on-air execution of three television networks: Adult Swim, which targets young adults and men ages 18-34; kids’ animation channel Cartoon Network; and Boomerang, an all-classics cartoon network for younger viewers and parents.
Freeman’s ability to tap into both sides of her gray matter stems from a somewhat unique educational background. She graduated with a chemical engineering degree from the University of Maryland, later earning an MBA in finance and marketing from the same institution.
Her cranial dichotomy also was driven by her family. The Baltimore native’s father was a civil engineer before he retired. Her younger sister, before switching careers to become an artist, was a mechanical engineer. Her brother is a civil engineer.
“And then there was me, a chemical engineer,” she said. “I definitely started out in a family that was fairly technical, but also had this artistic bent as well.
‘SCIENCE AND MAGIC’
“I have been labeled a left-brainer, right-brainer most of my life, and that’s probably true,” Freeman said. “I started out on a very technical road, but realized that wasn’t fulfilling enough for me. I was really more interested in the pace and the vitality and what was happening that had a little bit more excitement.”
After stints with Mobil and PepsiCo in finance and consumer marketing, she found that excitement in the television industry. But Freeman still makes good use of her technical abilities.
“I still process like an engineer to some degree in that there’s a strategic analytical foundation,” Freeman said. “I have always felt that great marketers have a mix of both science and magic in equal proportions, and sometimes one needs to lean a little heavier [on one side] than the other.”
Those attributes aren’t lost on the people she has worked with through the years.
Turner AYAKM president and chief operating officer Stuart Snyder was among those who noted Freeman’s facility with what’s considered the different sides of the brain. “One side is creative and is really able to understand and think about the possibilities and get people to discuss and open up about different ways of approaching something,” he said. “[The] other side is looking at things from a practical, business standpoint, from a research standpoint. She has a great ability to work both sides of the brain and connect the two.”
Snyder hired Freeman in 2008 from Viacom, when he was looking for a CMO for the division.
While at Nickelodeon, she had worked in several areas and helped spearhead early integrated marketing efforts for the channel, working with movie studios and other partners, connecting their brand attributes with those of the network’s to make them more attractive to kids.
“From the minute we met her she was really committed and very passionate about working at Nickelodeon,” Nickelodeon Group president Cyma Zarghami, an early mentor to Freeman, said. “The people on her team adored her and, at the time, integrated marketing was an emerging and important area. We had fun.”
Freeman said Turner offered an opportunity to do more than address a range of audiences, from kids to young adults and older adults. She also gained an ability to participate in the selection of actual programming.
As part of the AYAKM executive team, Freeman helps evaluate all potential original content for the networks. Among the shows she has helped greenlight are Adult Swim’s Children’s Hospital, Robot Chicken and Squidbillies; and Cartoon Network hits Adventure Time, Regular Show, The Amazing World of Gumball and Uncle Grandpa.
Freeman said her input usually involves audience and demographics research for shows that have already made the cut to debut on the network.
But sometimes she’s able to do more to shape the direction of a show. “There is constant conversation where standards might pull marketing in for a brand point of view,” she explained. The combination of strong content and the efforts of Freeman’s team have helped lead to ratings growth for the networks. The first three quarters of last year were the most-watched in Adult Swim’s history, including a No. 1 primetime basic-cable ranking among adults 18-34 this summer and double-digit growth across all target demos (including adults and men 18-24, 18-34, and 18-49).
TECH, CULTURE FANS
That kind of success requires a marketing effort that is not only knowledgeable of pop culture, but tech-savvy as well.
To that end, Turner uses the gamut of social media outlets — Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instragram — as well as platforms like PlayStation and Xbox. And the company has done so successfully: Cartoon Network is the fourth-largest media brand on Facebook, with 22 million fans/likes. Its YouTube Channel (“Food for Your Eyeholes”) has grown to 200,000 subscribers and more than 65 million views since launch.
Staying on top of that famously fickle market can be tricky, though. Freeman and her team have managed to navigate the waters by getting out to colleges and conferences, and by performing regular reviews of its agencies as well as tapping into its own internal base of interns and young employees.
“They are the audience,” Freeman said, “and so we take full advantage of having talent in our building to help old folks like us stay young and youthful-minded and relevant.”
TITLE: Chief Marketing Officer, Animation, Young Adults & Kids Media, Turner Broadcasting System
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Vice President of Consumer Marketing, VH1; Vice President, Affiliate Marketing, Entertainment Group, MTV Networks; Executive Director of Marketing and Special Events, ABC Radio Networks
QUOTABLE: “We tend to stay engaged with the content. It’s the lifeblood of our brand and our business.”