Keith Clinkscales first got bitten by the entrepreneurial bug during his junior year at Florida A&M. He and his college friend Len Burnett were tasked with creating a souvenir program for a fraternity dinner. Clinkscales developed the content; Burnett sold the ads. “We actually made some money,” Burnett recalls.
Clinkscales, who graduated magna cum laude from the university in 1986, laughs at the memory. “I had a Macintosh computer, and whoever had the Mac at that time was powerful,” he says. But the experience forged a longtime working partnership with Burnett, giving them confidence in their ability to make their visions work. They successfully launched their own magazine, Urban Profiles, in 1988 from their Manhattan apartment.
“We were spurred on by everything from living in New York City to the golden age of hip-hop music to the films of Spike Lee,” Clinkscales says.
“It was a social, political, economic publication targeting college-educated African-Americans,” Burnett adds.
It was also the first step in a two-decade career that has led Clinkscales from print to multi-platform positions, working with people who have recognized his ability to bring definition, versatility and success to a brand. It's what led John Skipper, ESPN's executive VP of content, to tap Clinkscales to be senior VP of content development and enterprises for the company.
“I'm a big believer in brains,” Skipper says. “I've always been impressed by Keith's intellect, and he has good entrepreneurial skills. He's a good all-around creative executive, and he had a set of skills that interested us.”
Those skills include the ability to multi-task well. While still running Urban Profiles, Clinkscales found the time to earn an M.B.A. from Harvard in 1990; by 1993, he and Burnett had an offer from Time Inc. to run its new publication, Vibe, the now-legendary magazine founded by Quincy Jones and David Salzman.
“Keith was the CEO and I was the sales guy,” recalls Burnett, who today is the co-CEO and group publisher of Harlem-based Uptown Magazine. “He was the great visionary who conducted the magazine's business, but he also developed the brand itself, taking it from the magazine to television events to online.”
Ever the entrepreneurs, Clinkscales and Burnett decided to leave Vibe in 1999 to found what they hoped would become an empire: Vanguarde Media, which published titles such as Savoy, Honey and Heart & Soul. That was the first time the pair encountered failure: The venture's launch coincided with the end of the dot-com bubble, and things never took off. Clinkscales and Burnett sold Vanguarde in 2003.
“It's heart-breaking when something like that fails because you put together something you believed was great,” Burnett says. “But you learn from mistakes. The idea of being a leader is to not just quit, but to pick yourself up and move to the next thing. That's the tenacity and drive Keith has.”
While Burnett went on to Uptown, Clinkscales connected with ESPN's Skipper, who had run Vibe's sister publication, Spin. Skipper recognized that Clinkscales would have something to offer to ESPN.
“I didn't have a job for him at the time, but I respected him and enjoyed working with him,” says Skipper, who brought Clinkscales on as a consultant. “I thought if I had him, something would open up and I would have a guy who could step right in.”
Clinkscales jumped at the chance. Although he enjoyed his years covering music and culture, he'd always been a huge sports fan.
“I've been blessed for most of my career in that I'm always dealing with passion-based businesses,” Clinkscales says. “At a place like ESPN, you get to feel that from the minute you walk in the door.”
Before long, Clinkscales was running ESPN: The Magazine as senior VP of ESPN Publishing, a position he held for about a year and a half before Skipper thought he was ready to do something bigger. In June 2007, Skipper promoted Clinkscales to senior VP of content development and enterprises. Clinkscales now oversees content development for all of ESPN's platforms, including ESPN 360 and ESPN Mobile.
He also runs ESPN Enterprises, which includes the company's publishing concerns, and manages ESPN consumer products, which develops product lines under the ESPN, X Games and BASS Brands and includes ESPN Golf Schools, ESPN Home Entertainment, ESPN Interactive and ESPN Zones.
“The whole purpose of the division is to make sure we are playing to our full strength in order to reach our fans where and when they want to be reached,” Clinkscales says. That's true for both ESPN's loyal viewers and its advertisers, who work across ESPN's platforms to get their messages to consumers.
“What's going on with digital media is that you continue to have increased accountability and efficacy for advertisers,” Clinkscales says. “The multi-platform approach means you have to play with everyone to deliver maximum value. That kind of teamwork sometimes requires a lot more work, but at the end of the day you end up with a lot more value.”
ESPN's sports-focused newsmagazine E:60 is also under Clinkscales' watch. For that show, ESPN worked with Spike Lee and the National Basketball Association to produce “A Day in the Life of Kobe Bryant,” for which 22 cameras trailed the Los Angeles Lakers star. Getting such a high-profile project done demonstrated Clinkscales' ability to work well with others.
“Keith is very smart, very smooth and very sharp when it comes to what's important to the ESPN brand,” says Danny Meiseles, the NBA's senior VP of production, programming and broadcasting. “He's very open-minded and he understands the NBA's brand. We try to share with each other what our messages are, and how to make that work for each other.”
Clinkscales' group also developed ESPN's New Year's Eve special, in which rock group Angels & Airwaves played a show from Las Vegas while motorsports star Robbie “Maddo” Maddison broke a world record by jumping a motorcycle the length of a football field.
“At ESPN, you have a lot of room to think and be bold, but you also have to realize you are dealing with important assets,” Clinkscales says. “I'm very proud of the stuff we've been able to accomplish so far, but it's always about the next thing.”
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