While top-notch researchers are adept at crunching numbers to find trends and truths, Mary Beth Marks takes data interpretation to a whole other level.
The new VP of research at Crawford Johnson & Northcott (CJN) specializes in behavioral research, studying how and why people make the decisions they make. And not only can Marks give uniquely incisive research on TV viewing based on her three decades in the business, she also has some pretty extensive talent-coaching chops as well.
“I'm a psychologist by training,” Marks says. “My background is primarily in attitude design and attitude measurement. Over the years, I'd sit with on-air people and talk about what we could do to improve and take advantage of their profile in the market.”
It took a bit of courting to get Marks on board at CJN, which assists some 70 stations around the country with strategic planning, promotions and talent training. Marks lives in Bozeman, Mont., and has spent the past 14 years running her own MBM Associates media research firm (she did contract jobs over the years for CJN)—and enjoying the expansive nature outside her door. Described as a “mountain-climbing, snowboard-riding, independent thinker” by CJN co-founder Bruce Northcott, Marks says she yearned to be a team member, even if it meant pitching in remotely from Big Sky Country.
“I get to have this great collaboration with creative people,” she says. “That can be a little tough when you're working on your own, brainstorming against yourself, walking around the room saying, 'Hey Mary Beth—what do you think of that?'”
A native of Cleveland, Marks' career began in academia. After getting her Ph.D. at the University of Colorado, she taught consumer behavior at the University of Michigan School of Business, then joined media research firm Frank N. Magid Associates for the first time in 1982, working her way up to director of research development. Elden Hale, now VP and general manager at WSMV Nashville, credits Marks' research acumen with helping WNEP Scranton grow from what he calls “No. 4 in a three-station market to a powerhouse No. 1.”
Marks jumped to the client side in 1986, overseeing research for the two-station group Kelly Broadcasting, which owned Sacramento power KCRA and KCPQ Seattle, before moving up to VP of marketing.
Marks credits her time at Kelly with teaching her to multi-task (one of her duties involved researching and helping with the marketing and distribution of a pair of Kelly-produced newsmagazines), and cites co-owner Jon Kelly for his risk-taking, innovation and insistence that every element of research lead to concrete knowledge. “It was imperative as I put together a research project for clients that virtually every question we ask has to have some actionable result to it,” she says. “That's my approach today.”
It was with Kelly that Marks put her anchor-coaching skills to good use, studying talent-related research to help anchors improve on-air performance. Audrey Farrington, the longtime general manager at KTXL Sacramento before resigning earlier this month, says she learned the depth of Marks' talents after many years of competing against Kelly's KCRA. More recently, Farrington credits Marks' work in “solidifying” the late-news team's on-air rapport, and boosting KTXL to tops in adults 25-54 in February's late-news race.
“Mary Beth has two great skills,” says Farrington. “One is her amazing ability to speak in a language that talent understands. The other is her ability to find that thing that can help them with their skills. She's got a very broad skill set but is very specific in her recommendations.”
After six years at Kelly, Marks shifted back to Magid. Setting up in Los Angeles as a senior consultant, she advised clients such as Twentieth Television, Warner Bros. and NBC, and worked closely with Northcott, Magid's president at the time. Northcott went on to found CJN in 1998, and stayed in touch with Marks, tapping her research skills on a freelance basis for CJN. When co-founder/research wiz Bob Crawford left the Des Moines-based firm in January, Northcott ramped up a long-term effort to get Marks on-board full time. “I'd been working on Mary Beth for several years,” he says. “I guess I finally wore her down.”
Two months into the new gig, Marks is focused on, among other things, tackling new media to deliver better research results on local news viewing. She says popular viewer-insight methods early in her career included door-to-door interviews, and when people became skittish about letting strangers in, it shifted to phone interviews. With consumers that much more on the go now, it's not only surveys conducted via the Web, but via text messaging as well. “We need to continue to evolve in how we reach out to people to get our information,” she says.
Marks communicates with the rest of the CJN staff on a Monday phone meeting, and finds herself at the local Gallatin Field airport a few times a month to get out and see clients around the country. She ended up in Bozeman through her husband, Randall Roberts, a fine-arts photographer and 30-year resident of the area. During downtime, she enjoys watching the likes of Cold Case, Dancing With the Stars, Days of Our Lives (which she says she got hooked on while doing research on it years ago), and Cleveland Indians baseball via MLB.com.
But mostly, Mary Beth and Randall are out and about, hiking with their black Lab and their Irish setter, and—don't tell Bruce and the gang stuck in the office—snowboarding after a winter storm. “Occasionally, when there's fresh powder falling, you just have to pull that board out,” she says with a laugh.
Northcott says he and Marks' shared interests go beyond work. “We're both obsessed with the rivers and mountains of the West,” he says, “as well as why people watch what they watch on TV.”
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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.