BET CEO Scott Mills Has Proven That Legacy Media Brands Still Matter
In conversation, the longtime Viacom leader and recently appointed Chief Executive Officer lays out what it takes to adapt and thrive.
Scott Mills can be forgiven for running a bit late to our meeting. It's indicative of why his recent appointment as CEO of Black-media staple BET is likely to be a success. The 53-year-old New York native — who has been with BET and its parent, ViacomCBS, for 25 years, following an early career in finance — has been busy overseeing his legacy brand's latest innovations, including streaming app BET+ and dynamic content creator BET Studios, while navigating the now-familiar challenges of corporate governance amid a pandemic. His time, suffice it to say, is scarce.
But his Zoom background is lovely. Once logged on, Mills was centered against a superimposed scene of some serene lakeside far away from the stresses of executive life. His tone, too, belied the pressures of captaincy. Throughout our half-hour chat, he was thoughtful and patient, a bit wonky — borderline nerdy — about the minutiae of media shifts and macro-scale management.
Below are excerpts from that conversation, during which Mills mused on everything from how Black entrepreneurs can seize an available abundance of investor capital to what it's like determining the future of a brand that's helped reflect a community's tastes for generations.
Do you think the "Great Resignation" will lead to a new wave of aspiring entrepreneurs?
I do. And I think importantly, one of the things that we have to do is talk to people about the importance of taking risks. For example, in the Black community, we don't have the safety net of multi-generational wealth. So many of the people who are the most successful entrepreneurs out there have been seeded by family members or, even if it didn't go well, there was still extraordinary wealth behind them. For a lot of communities, the data says there is a lot of entrepreneurialism. The challenge is because there is this disinclination towards risk because of the absence of safety nets, I think we get a far higher concentration of [the Black] community in corporate America, as opposed to in these entrepreneurial spaces.
Do you think there's been enough of an added investment into Black entrepreneurs of late that we will start to see sea change in who's willing to take those kinds of risks?
I love that question. I certainly think that there are more resources available and there certainly is more focus, and I think there are a lot of things driving that focus. A lot of companies are putting more resources into supporting that because historically access to capital has been a gigantic impediment to entrepreneurialism. One of the issues, of course, is that to be lent money, institutions want to know that you have money. That's a foundational challenge. I juxtapose that with a great friend who's a member of a different ethnic community. He was 26 when I met him, and I asked him what he did, and he said, "I run a hedge fund." I said, "How much money do you run?" He was running like just under a half-billion dollars. And I said, "How did a 26-year-old get a half-billion dollars?" And he said, "Well, you know, I worked for this big hedge fund, and when I told the person I was ready to leave, they said, 'OK, I'll give you $50 million from my fund, and I'm going to call a couple of my friends, and each of my friends will give you $50 million'." And so he came out of the gate with like $300 million. That example doesn't exist in my community, and it wasn't that unusual in his community.
I do think there's so many more institutions today who have said they recognize access to capital as a real impediment and are working to try to address that. I don't know if there's necessarily a sea change at this moment, but I think there's certainly been a real improvement.
As CEO, how do you factor in your own risk-reward calculation?
That's the beauty of it. My peers and I actually spend a lot of time actively running a calculus against that risk-and-reward matrix. What we do know about the world today is there's an unbelievable amount of capital that's looking to be deployed. So for people who have accomplished success in industries that are of interest to investors, you generally do have a lot of potential opportunities. Now there is a risk-and-reward calculus there for me in part because BET plays a singular role in our community. When Covid hit, we raised nearly $20 million to provide assistance to Black families that were disproportionately impacted. We're doing a partnership [Content for Change] with Stanford University Research Center to try to determine if there are narrative devices and structures that could be used to combat racism. Being able to initiate, drive and contribute to efforts like that, for me, creates extraordinary psychic value. I don't have a vision for how I can do that as an entrepreneur just yet. What I do have to balance is not only the pure financial reward but also the broader context of the value that I get. And I hope that I'm contributing to my community by running [BET] as a uniquely important community asset. I think of BET as a community.
Having said that, there's a very, very active process that people in my situation go through when we're constantly assessing calls from private equity shops, VC shops, friends who have raised a bunch of money. Because there's so much money out in the world right now to invest in this area and that area, and there is a constant constant analysis that you have.
When you talk about how there is so much available capital, the majority of people reading this will say, "Sure, but I don't know what the first step to is to even pursue an avenue for some of it." How do you answer that?
Well, I think it's a couple of things. I think the first thing is to really make sure that entrepreneurs know how to package their business or concept, depending on where you are in a phase. Is it early stage, angel phase, venture phase or an existing business at the private-equity phase? Spend a little time researching the nature of funding at each of those stages. People always say to me, "I want to make content. I want to make a television show. I want to make a movie." And I always say, "Like anything else in life, there's a process to making a television show. There's a process to making a movie. Go and learn the process. Buy the book, read the article, take the course, right." Similarly, I would say to an entrepreneur, depending on what stage of the process you're in, spend a little time understanding the players in the space from a capital-access side and understand what they're looking for and what they're expecting from you, and then make a decision where you live along that continuum.
And for minority entrepreneurs, in particular, they may finally have a seat at the table, but amid Covid, there's no real physical table. What's the best way to network in this circumstance?
I think it's, in part, trying to determine whether or not you have an entry point. Is there someone to whom you have access that is connected to the organization? Because a warm introduction is always easier than a cold introduction. But I also think the interesting thing is in the current market, there's more money than there are ideas. And I understand as an entrepreneur sitting on the other side, it may not feel that way. It's really about, first and foremost, making sure that you're positioning your concept as strongly as possible. What resonates? A strategic investor potentially doesn't just provide you with capital. They also provide you with access to their distribution infrastructure. So for the entrepreneur to put a little time into researching the players and then really put time into packaging their concept in a way informed by their understanding of the people who are looking to deploy capital — I think that's really important.
On the other end of the spectrum, you're the chief executive of an established legacy brand. How do you know when to innovate and push the brand forward without betraying its classic appeal?
As a business person, I'm a student of business history, and there are examples of brands that have done an incredible job of navigating a changing world. One of my absolute favorites is Nike. I mean, I'm 53 years old. When I was a teenager, Air Jordans were the most coveted thing in the world. I remember finally convincing my parents to give me a hundred bucks, which was inconceivable back in the '80s — $100 for a pair of sneakers. My 12-, 13- and 14-year-old nephews covet Air Jordans as much in 2021, and there is no sneaker brand that's more relevant to them. That's extraordinary. How have they managed that? That's one of my favorite examples of a company that has been able to not even endure, but successfully navigate this extraordinary arc. And that's my aspiration for BET, which is to say, we have this extraordinary legacy that is anchored in this intersection of content and community and culture. We really understand our foundational pieces, and so we then say, "Where are all the places that content, community and culture intersect?" They intersect in radio, but that's not necessarily a business we want to be in given what we think the trajectory of that business is. Content, community and culture absolutely intersect in the live-events space, and we like the trajectory of that space, so we built the live-event business several years ago. Clearly, content, community and culture intersect in the streaming space, and we love the trajectory of that business. So we said we have to be in that business because for BET to be as relevant 20 years from now as it is today, as it was 20 years ago, we have to be at these nodes of content, community and culture that exist for our community. Recognizing if we just stayed inside that [cable] ecosystem, then we wouldn't be relevant.
I use the example of, when I was a little kid, every coffee table in a Black person's house had Ebony on it. It was so well-positioned to actually do exactly what we're doing with BET. So when cable hit, they should have jumped into cable. When radio hit, they should've jumped into radio. But at the time, those weren't the decisions that were made, and as a result, it was captive to the traditional publishing ecosystem, and that ecosystem declined, and so went that brand. So we've been absolutely fanatic about that we have to think about: Where are these nodes today and where will they be in the future and how do we establish leading franchises on those nodes?
Basically, you have to walk this unenviable tightrope of preserving your legacy IP while making carefully progressive choices.
That's exactly right. I think what's fortunate for us is, back to your point about more capital being available to ethnically diverse entrepreneurs, the way that manifested for BET is that more companies are invested in really showing up for Black consumers; not lip service, not tokenism, but genuinely being present. When I go back to this idea of raising nearly $20 million of Covid relief, a significant portion of those funds came from our biggest advertising partners who said, "You all have explained to us the unique needs that exist in the community and this unique opportunity. You built a very specific vehicle to address those needs, and we want to be supportive." We literally had our biggest advertising partners writing million-dollar checks and contributing to this. And it wasn't symbolic.
When we created BET+, we had to go and pitch Amazon and Apple and Roku on why they should be supportive of a BET streaming service, and we went to each of those and said, "We've done all this research, and that's the basis for our creating this product, and our research said Black Americans love streaming media." So you could say, "Well, then there is no role for BET." But we then asked the question, "How satisfied are you with their black content?" And what we saw is those satisfaction levels dropped by double digits for each service. Well, that's the opportunity for BET. We're not trying to replace Squid Games and any of those other things. We're trying to supplement the offerings for these people. There's a desire for more tailored content.
Lastly, and I like to ask this of executives we speak to: Is it possible to reach your level of success and leadership and still be, on balance, a pretty decent person?
I think you absolutely can, and I think you get richly rewarded for it. Being the CEO of BET is a really neat job. You know, I've spoken to Tyler Perry twice this morning. Kevin Hart will send you a video from his phone, telling your kids that he thinks their dad is pretty cool. There's no better way to be cool with your kid 10-year-olds. We get to make the most amazing content in the world. We get to do so much. So there's so many things that are neat about this job. Having said all of that, the thing that I most value is what we were able to do to help the Black community when Covid hit, and I'm so unbelievably excited about this work we're doing with Stanford. My president of ad sales said in 2020, "You know, eventually people will focus on the idea that racism is a bigger virus in this country than Covid," and I thought it was insightful. Everybody then subsequently picked it up — the two viruses. We can't cure racism, but we can try to vaccinate people. That's what Content for Change is trying to do. Can we create structures and devices that will actually counteract this scourge [of racism] that kind of plagues this country?
So, yes, there are really fun, exciting, dynamic parts of these jobs. But the part that's really rewarding for me is being in service of our community. And it's understanding that I'm only able to do these other things because the commercial side of our business is so successful.