Quincy Smith: CBS’ Digital Czar

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CBS named 35-year-old Quincy Smith president of its new CBS Interactive division last week, replacing Larry Kramer as head of its digital effort. As an investment banker at Allen & Co., Smith advised clients on Internet interests, after gaining experience as an executive at Netscape and a Silicon Valley venture-capital firm. Now tasked with uniting CBS Corp.’s digital plan across its myriad assets, he talked to Anne Becker about monetizing content, Internet bubbles and what his hiring really means.

You were a star Web guy at a powerful investment bank. What drew you to an Old Media company?

This was not a move away from Allen & Co. and absolutely a move towards CBS. I joined for the core assets [CBS] has: the No. 1 television network, No. 2 radio network and No. 1 outdoor network. That’s a lot of reach. There’s nothing “old” about CBS. Then, there’s a huge difference between “advising” on transactions and actually living one. It’s less fun to be on a platform where your highs and lows are clipped. You have no “ownership” after the deal is done.

Here, we’re going to be making decisions that are going to be at best 80% right, and we’re going to have to fight like heck to make them 100%.

It’s that fighting I really miss, and that comes from my days at Netscape. You just can’t get that in a service organization.

You were in a venture-capital firm, the Barksdale Group, which struggled during the tech bust. What did you learn?

Everybody in that era invested in companies that were disappointments or failures. From a management perspective, you would call it “controlled flight into terrain.” You learn more in the down times than you do in the up. Anyone who was in tech in 1999 through 2002 learned about the downside. Technology coming back so much more aggressively now is media acknowledging that it is an enabling platform for their content, combined with new humility on behalf of Silicon Valley across the board.

Does this latest wave of Internet deals look like a second tech bubble?

Part of the beauty of no longer being at an investment bank is, I don’t get to opine on whether we’re in a bubble or a boom. There is absolutely the need to make sure CBS gets our content out to as many platforms as we can. I have an investment-banking background, but I come first and foremost from the industry side. We’re not inclined to go out and do 1,000 acquisitions and 4 million investments. We’re more inclined to think about ways to monetize our content across new platforms.

There’s lots of demand. There are a lot of new eyeballs out there that we can reach-arguably, with a better cost structure as well.

Is your priority buying new businesses or building them?

We’re looking to do everything we can to make sure our content is seen and we’re getting paid for it. We’re all about generating a community around user-generated content, but there’s also commercial application that can get our content out just as aggressively and effectively as an acquisition. So I’m going to be looking a lot of times at larger commercial deals.

How will you respond to copyright questions, which are haunting the Google-YouTube deal?

CBS is going to lead through innovation and not copyright suits. Users are already starting to use the technology services out there, and it’s hard to stop that. We’ve just got to be smart about how to monetize and take advantage of the systems as opposed to letting them take advantage of us.

Other content companies are taking their content off YouTube while we’re putting more up. That means we get to benefit more from the mainstream community, and the others don’t. Those are going to be our points of differentiation in this space. We want to be the most approachable media company. That’s got a lot to do with why I joined CBS, because that’s not going to be on me. The pressure of that is going to be on [President/CEO] Leslie [Moonves] and his management team, which has been extremely open-minded in dealing with Silicon Valley opportunity.

Does the pay-to-download or ad-supported model strike you as better?

There’s a lot more evidence of the success of advertising-based content services than of subscription to date. I’m not going to opine one way or the other as an industry maven.

Advertising has taken off earlier, but ultimately, all kinds of content forms are going to be viable. We’re a media company; we love the advertising model, and it’s certainly shown the most flexibility.

Was your hiring a message to Wall Street and Sumner Redstone that CBS is being aggressive with digital?

I’m lucky enough to be part of CBS, I don’t know much about the intergalactic implications of that. But I think, no matter what, the report card comes in nine months, a year, five years. Not today.

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