Joe Rooney: Making a Bundle

Rooney's marketing savvy turned the Cox triple play into a hit
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Joe Rooney knows the business of selling cable. After all, Cox Communications' chief marketing officer started his career going door-to-door. These days, he takes a scientific approach as cable offerings become more diverse and competition more intense.

Known among his peers as a risk-taker, Rooney has championed innovative changes in how the cable industry approaches communicating with customers. He is perhaps most widely appreciated for helping to engineer cable's bundle (a package of video, voice and data products) and for his effusive signature phrase: “It's the bundle, baby.”

“He is a consummate marketer who understands marketing cable from every angle,” says Char Beales, president and CEO of cable marketing organization CTAM, which Rooney chairs. “He really is an innovator.”

As a newly minted broadcasting and communications graduate from the University of Iowa, Rooney knew a little something about the cable industry, having studied it in college. He spent the summer of 1981 trying to land a job at a TV station but took up ringing doorbells and selling cable subscriptions for American Television and Communications (ATC) at $25 a commission. The first door he knocked on was a sale, and he didn't look back from there.

Rooney became the company's top salesman, and soon began working his way up the ranks and bouncing around cable systems along the way. In fact, he points out, over his 26-year career he has lived in eight states, working for operators that include Heritage Communications, Times Mirror Cable and eventually Cox.

At Cox he landed in Orange County, Calif., an incubator for developing new products and a staging area for Rooney's jump to Cox corporate. According to Rooney, the system was an ideal place to launch products because it “had a strong management team and great demographics.”

It also had a head start on a rebuild, and saw the launch of data in 1996 as well as telephone and digital cable in 1997, the three ingredients of the triple play.

Orange County was the first to bundle these services for consumers, making it a testing ground for Cox. It was an exhausting learning process, but it sharpened Rooney's marketing acumen.

The marketing team spent their weekends in those years hosting events and meeting their customers face-to-face. “We had a 2,000-square-foot tent we could pop up in a strip mall,” Rooney recalls. The feedback paid dividends.

Through this interaction, Cox learned the keys to successfully marketing the bundle. Customers wanted one bill and one installer for the services, and they wanted value for taking extra products.

Rooney would use this first-hand knowledge to eventually drive the bundle across the Cox system. When the top marketing job at corporate became available in 1999, Rooney made his move to Atlanta. However, it wasn't without risk; the company had gone through three marketing vice presidents in five years.

Moreover, while the bundle was a competitive differentiator, it was not universally accepted. “We had a lot of early detractors in the first days of bundling,” he says, “A lot of people said it wouldn't work because of sticker shock, that no one would pay their cable company $100 a month. I think we proved the naysayers wrong.”

Today, Rooney is still driving the idea. “The future of the bundle is very bright,” he says, noting that 60% of Cox customers are taking a package.

Cox is adding another piece to its bundle with a leap into wireless. While other cable operators, such as industry giant Comcast Corp., are staying away, Cox will be a participant in the FCC's 700 MHz wireless spectrum auction in January.

“We think wireless is a big part of the future of the bundle,” Rooney says. “It's an important differentiator and it's pro-consumer. I think people will want a wireless service that really works well with their home video, voice and Internet services.”

Rooney is also at the forefront of a shift in philosophy in the industry, to that of marketing science. “There is a long history of us focusing on the art of marketing,” Rooney says, but the “science” of marketing is focusing on the return on investment.

Promoting the right product to the right consumer is challenging because today there are more flavors of individual products such as high-speed data and digital cable. Thus, there is the need for more precise promotions for different demographics.

“Clearly the industry is much more sophisticated today than it was just a few years ago,” says Rooney, who sees a shift in the industry from “spray and pray”-style direct mail campaigns to more segmented, customer-targeted marketing.

Researching and testing the effectiveness of campaigns makes a difference in understanding how to sell to underserved markets, says Beth Denning, executive director of marketing operations for the Eastern division of Cox. “Rather than just over-advertise, Joe has led us through the research of what the segment may want, need or expect from us,” she says.

Rooney lauds his marketing team as the sharpest in the field, and fosters heavy communication and cooperation between different disciplines. An off-site conference pointedly titled “Love Fest” brings together marketing, public affairs and advertising sales staffers to ensure that these elements are working together efficiently and effectively, and presenting a unified voice when dealing with partners.

Such efforts make a difference to programmers. “[Joe] really has a global view; he really understands our business,” says Denise Dahldorf, head of sales for MTV Networks. “We are learning something about how to reach the customer better every time we work with him.”

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