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From the Corner Office: Lauren Zalaznick

Rachel Zoe. Padma Lakshmi. These are the glamorous
new faces of Bravo, princesses reigning over hit reality
shows (The Rachel Zoe Project and Top Chef, respectively)
that have the American public in a trance and begging
for more.

And behind these women is another face, one you might not
recognize (yet) but that is far more powerful: Lauren Zalaznick,
the branding queen. As president of NBC Universal Women and
Lifestyle Entertainment Networks, she oversees Oxygen Media,
the iVillage site and Bravo Media. The latter is probably her greatest
success story—so far. Since being named president of Bravo in May
2004, she has helped the network enjoy its three best years in 2006,
2007 and 2008 and the most critical recognition in its history.

Her skill at similarly reviving floundering brands Oxygen and iVillage—
and launching projects like the Women@NBCU B2B marketing
initiative—has earned Zalaznick a reputation in the industry as having
a bit of a Midas touch. In fact, this year, she was even named one of
“The World’s Most Infl uential People” by Time (accompanied by a
glowing write-up from Martha Stewart).

She credits her incredible track record to a simple drive to succeed.

“I love to achieve extraordinary success,” says Zalaznick, 46. “I am, in
general, a very motivated person to achieve really big, hard goals.”

But Zalaznick didn’t start out with her eye on television. After
majoring in English literature and premed at Brown, she began working in the film industry,
producing indie films like Swoon and Kids. She crossed over to TV in 1994
by joining VH1, and, in 2002, became president of the Universal-owned

arts and pop culture network Trio. When Trio fizzled, Zalaznick
joined Bravo.

Meanwhile, the sleepy Bravo network had shifted its focus from
performing arts to pop culture in the early 2000s, and NBC Universal
had purchased it in 2002. By the time Zalaznick was promoted from
general manager to Bravo president in 2004, the revamped network
had scored its fi rst big hit with a 2003 reality show. “It had launched
the most successful hit, certainly in Bravo history, and maybe—I’d say
a tent pole of cable success—a game-changer, a face-changer, and that
was Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” she recalls. “And it was really revved
up with momentum for continued success on the cable landscape.”

The key to this success, Zalaznick says, was to identify Bravo’s
strengths in terms of content. She and her team identified five
key subject areas, or “affinities”: fashion, design, food, beauty and
pop culture. “And what we did was focus development in those
five buckets.”

The next step was to “hyper-focus” on Bravo’s target
audience.
“We identified this target and called them, in general, the
‘affluencers,’ she says. (Zalaznick was later featured
on the cover
of
The New York Times Magazine with the headline “The Affluencer.”)
“The affluencers are comprised of five segments, and we put a face
on these audience segments. We put behavioral modeling around
these segments; we thought about what they’d like to see, what
they like to watch, what they do every day.”

Putting two and two together—”keeping both the content affi
nity
and the audience segment in mind”—resulted in such hits as Top
Chef
,
Flipping Out, Millionaire Matchmaker and Real Housewives, she says.

Zalaznick has been hailed for her ability to build distinct, lasting
brands, over and over again. In the Time article about Zalaznick,
Martha Stewart wrote that Zalaznick “has transformed that network
so that you can now
recognize a Bravo show
at a distance. To do that
kind of work in a very
crowded field takes
more than a producer—
it takes a visionary.”

Forging such strong
brand identity is both a
challenge and a necessity
because of that
crowded field, where
it’s “harder to get your
message out, harder to
be clear and consistent in
your messaging in the face of that,” Zalaznick says.

“All my brands are clear signals, clear flagships in the marketplace,
remaining very, very true to servicing this audience that we sought
out, identified and keep massively serving,” she says. “And
we
just
keep ringing the same bell in more entertaining ways.”

"It
is a much stronger place to fight from when you have a very clear sense of your brand."

The strength of these brands helped Zalaznick overcome another
hurdle, the DVR revolution, which turned the traditional rating
system on its head.

“It is a much stronger place to fi ght from when you have a very
clear sense of your brand,” she says. “So people
change the way
that
you’re measured? You change with it. The marketing strategy became
less 100 percent dependent on getting them to tune in every Tuesday
at 10 to how do you get them to put you on their season pass list? We
reacted very nimbly; we weren’t afraid of new technologies and new
ways of being measured.”

Another major challenge has been the recession, which Zalaznick
and her team approached in a very practical, scientific way. “We
went right back to our audience and did a fabulous, very comprehensive
survey called The Recessionomics Study,” she says. “[They]
identified about a dozen spending segments, going from what we
call the ‘recession-proof’…
that’s
like
on level 12, going all the
way
down to level 1, who are shutting down.”

But the study revealed viewers in segments six through
11 were still spending, but in more strategic ways, Zalaznick
says. “All along that continuum, we have an audience that we
can bring to our advertising partners and say, ‘We know their
spending habits, we know their life stage behaviors, and you
should still try to market to them.’ So that is both a strategic and
an institutional reaction to something terrible, which is a huge
marketplace contraction.”

Zalaznick says that she took a similar audience-focused
approach to revamp the female-centric Oxygen network,
which NBC Universal acquired in 2007. Since then, it has shattered
every previous ratings record and had its best year ever in 2008. She
added the community Web site iVillage to her portfolio in 2008,
and a fresh, multistage rebrand is currently debuting online.

No matter what the medium, Zalaznick strives to stay in tune
with the needs and interests of her audience. “We listen to them,”
she says. “We look at our ratings. We know when we’re
reaching
them; we know when we’re not. We really do read all the blog
posts on the community message boards and figure out what they
like, what they don’t like, what they want more of, who they want
to see more of.”

She says her challenge is to use such insights as launching pads
and “give [the audience] something a little different, a little off to
the right, off to the left, on an angle they didn’t
expect and bring them a little further along.”

In 2008, this extensive knowledge of her
audience prompted Zalaznick to launch
Women@NBCU, a combination of media
assets reaching women across multiple
platforms. She calls it “a very easy one-stop
shopping place for advertisers and
marketing partners” to access particular
audience segments.

The Manhattan resident and mother of
three says that the huge responsibilities she
has tackled over recent years have been
“highly motivating”
and keep
her “very
sharp
and fresh.”

It seems that Stewart would agree. “She’s
natural,” she wrote. “She’s
never
contrived.
She’s always optimistic. I like so much that she
sees the best in people and that, like millions
of others, I get to watch her vision.”

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