One of Style Network president Salaam Coleman Smith’s most formative memories is the very first interview she had with Viacom’s MTV Networks upon her entry into the television business.
Coleman Smith came directly from Wall Street, where she had found her two years spent in investment banking far too monotonous.
As the elevator doors opened on the Nickelodeon floor of MTV Networks headquarters, she was amazed that “everything was orange.
“I felt like I went from more of a generic day-to-day [environment] to color,” she says, noting that her arrival on each brand’s floor offered its own clear look and distinction. “It is incredibly inspiring to think through how cable has offered so much brand diversity.”
Coleman Smith took that experience to heart; the Style offices are similarly expressive in that employees are encouraged to decorate their offi ces and dress the way they wish.
“She encourages people to be self-expressive with their styles,” says Frances Berwick, president of Bravo and Style Media. “That is a very powerful brand message.”
Named to her position in 2008 after having served as the network’s executive VP since 2006, Coleman Smith’s emphasis on living the Style brand is perhaps why the NBCUniversal cable network celebrated its most successful year in 2011 under her leadership. And while it delivered double- digit increases across all key demos and passed 75 million subscribers, Style is currently in the process of a rebrand.
This rebrand is not a repair, says Coleman Smith, but a way to “strengthen and deepen engagement with the viewers we already have” and reach the growing Hispanic and African-American audience with a “positive portrayal of these underserved multicultural audiences and [represent] in a way that is uplifting, stylish and positive.”
The network’s most successful series— which Coleman Smith is responsible for launching—are of the style ilk, such as Jerseylicious and Big Rich Texas, both of which return Feb. 19. And positivity and optimism are a big part of the “stylish lifestyle” brand message: Another of Style’s most successful series, Giuliana & Bill, stars Giuliana Rancic, who recently underwent a mastectomy to battle breast cancer.
Successful and aspirational women form a key component to Style’s programming, and these women have been an influence in Coleman Smith’s career as well. As a worldwide board member for the nonprofit organization Dress for Success (with which Style has had an ongoing media partnership) and a member of the Women in Cable Telecommunications board, Coleman Smith credits the industry for allowing strong female leadership to emerge at a time when “broadcasting was king” and cable was a fledgling business.
When Coleman Smith joined Nickelodeon in 1993, the network was run by cable vet Geraldine Laybourne, along with other female executives including current Disney Media Networks co-chair and Disney/ ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney, Nickelodeon president Cyma Zarghami and FearNet president Diane Robina—all powerful industry leaders.
“The cable industry has always been an environment that has nurtured strong female leadership, and I think I have been the beneficiary of those early pioneers,” Coleman Smith says.
She developed her leadership style during nearly 10 years at MTV Networks before moving to E! in 2003 as VP of programming and acquisitions. But Coleman Smith’s decision-making abilities are strongly rooted in both her education and upbringing. Encouraged to explore the math and sciences fields in which she excelled, Coleman Smith graduated from Stanford with a B.S. in industrial engineering, a field that is, at first glance, seemingly in opposition to the creative arts.
“[Running a network] is built on gut instinct, emotional connection,” she says. “But it’s also built on hard-core data analysis, understanding audience segments and quantitative data. I think the balance of head and heart is something I got from my parents,” who supported her decision to shift her career focus.
Coleman Smith brings that balance home to her husband and two children, making sure to separate her identity as Style exec from, as she puts it, “Mommy regular.”
“My plate is full, but it’s full with the exact things I love,” Coleman Smith says. “I work 24/7, I’m a mom 24/7 and I’m a wife 24/7. There are just certain things you always are.”
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