Howard Handler

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In our latest podcast, we spoke with Howard Handler, Chief Marketing Officer of Major League Soccer. Handler shared his marketing journey, how he defines leadership, and the power of having a mission.

Here are our top three favorite highlights:

On leadership.

“At summer camp, we would do wilderness trips, canoes, packs. We would be out in virgin wilderness and we would have to read maps, make our way, find campsites, [and] figure out how to protect ourselves from the elements… Sometimes the weather could be pretty troubling and we were just kind of there and were in a position to try to figure it out… You would learn who was going to lead, who was going to follow, [and] what role everybody was going to play… I learned what effective leadership might look like, who showed grace under fire, who was flexible, who was creative, and I tried to model some of my own decisions after that.”

On having a mission.

“[T]he people that distinguished themselves to me were the people that had the greatest leadership skills, the most imagination, and honestly the most magnetic personalities. They just were the type of people that other people wanted to be around because they were hungry, they were curious, they were on a mission, they were fun, [and] they knew how to solve big, complicated problems.

On going into marketing.

“[M]y heartbeat, my pulse was really more driven by music and media and pop culture and the closest thing that seemed applicable in business was marketing. Because marketing was essentially about demand and about dealing with consumers and solving problems within that context. And so that’s what energized me in that way.”

You’ll find the full interview and transcript below.

In our latest podcast, we spoke with Howard Handler, Chief Marketing Officer of Major League Soccer. Handler shared his marketing journey, how he defines leadership, and the power of having a mission.

Here are our top three favorite highlights:

On leadership.

“At summer camp, we would do wilderness trips, canoes, packs. We would be out in virgin wilderness and we would have to read maps, make our way, find campsites, [and] figure out how to protect ourselves from the elements… Sometimes the weather could be pretty troubling and we were just kind of there and were in a position to try to figure it out… You would learn who was going to lead, who was going to follow, [and] what role everybody was going to play… I learned what effective leadership might look like, who showed grace under fire, who was flexible, who was creative, and I tried to model some of my own decisions after that.”

On having a mission.

“[T]he people that distinguished themselves to me were the people that had the greatest leadership skills, the most imagination, and honestly the most magnetic personalities. They just were the type of people that other people wanted to be around because they were hungry, they were curious, they were on a mission, they were fun, [and] they knew how to solve big, complicated problems.

On going into marketing.

“[M]y heartbeat, my pulse was really more driven by music and media and pop culture and the closest thing that seemed applicable in business was marketing. Because marketing was essentially about demand and about dealing with consumers and solving problems within that context. And so that’s what energized me in that way.”

You’ll find the full interview and transcript below.

Daniel: Today on Connections.

Howard: The problem is is that we took our eye off the ball and when you raise debt, you have to you have to commit to certain covenants, certain operating targets in terms of your revenue or some of your other key metrics and we blew it and so we had to renegotiate with the banks and they really could have made our lives very, very difficult.

Daniel: My name is Daniel Rodic and I’m your host at Connections, brought to you by Exact Media. We created this podcast as we realized that a lot of people we spend time with in our day to day work, brand managers, marketers, those who’re trying to rise quickly in their careers, could benefit from hearing the stories of the leaders they look up to in their industry. In every episode, we cover the stories that you’ve never heard of. Where did they grow up? How did they get their first job? What were their successes and failures in their career and how did they recover from them? My hope is that you will take away some interesting tidbits and tactics that will help you accelerate your careers. I don’t wanna spend too much time talking about us. [inaudible 00:01:16] context on how we’re involved in the industry. At Exact Media, we work specifically with marketers to help them sample their products through the parcels of online retailers. For example, if you bought running shoes online, we might give you a sample of a healthy granola bar in that parcel. If that interests you at all, visit us Now onto our guest.

Today’s guest is Howard Handler, the Chief Marketing Officer of Major League Soccer. My first reaction after going through this interview with Howard was just that I wish I had at least another hour to spend with him because his career is just ridiculous. Here are just some of the highlights. He started his career as a brand manager at Quaker Oats. But after that, he was head of marketing of the company behind “Saturday Night Live,” was the VP of marketing at MTV, then became the marketing leader, essentially the CMO, of the NFL, the first one they ever had. Then was a VP of marketing at EMI, which is one of the biggest record labels in the world. Then he worked with Richard Branson as the CMO of Virgin Mobile when they went public, and has now returned to the world of sports, leading marketing as CMO of Major League Soccer, one of the fastest-growing sports leagues in the world. He’s taken his expertise and scaled it across food, TV, music, telecom, and sports. I really haven’t met anyone who’s done that. And really the main thing to take away is that, the reason why Howard had all these great opportunities was just that he did great work in every single place he was, which created more opportunities for him, even when he wasn’t really seeking them out. So I wish we had another hour, but at least we have one with Howard and I’ll let you get right to it. Here is my interview with Howard Handler.

Thanks so much for joining us and maybe to get started, can you talk a little bit about what you’re working on today at MLS?

Howard: Well, we are putting together a very ambitious fan development plan that encompasses really everything that happens with my team. So branding, promotion, events, media, digital, CRM, technology, everything that we bring to bear…to impact the fan base and to grow the fan base. We’ve got quite a bit of momentum, for sure. We’re coming off of our best season ever on every measure, but we’re really working hard to kind of build the league, to build our brand, to build the relevance of our clubs and our key markets and that’s the big headline for me.

Daniel: Yeah, I mean, sitting in the stadium on the finals on, I guess, last week, you could tell that there’s something special about the fan base, at least in Toronto, but I sense it’s kind of like that everywhere. It’s also pretty impressive that a lot of expansion teams that you guys have brought into the league are now being successful so quickly, which I find that is really not the case in many other sports.

Howard: Yeah. I guess our business model’s pretty extraordinary. I think that it does take a while for a team to gain chemistry, for sure, but because of our salary cap, because of the rules that we have in place to build rosters, that there’s a good competitive balance. And so every fan can really take a look at the beginning of the season and believe very genuinely that they could be in contention for an MLS cup.

Daniel: That makes a lot of sense. And before we kind of go onto that side, I’d love to go back to where it all started and kind of understand a bit more about your childhood. You know, what was your childhood like? Where did you grow up? What were your parents like? What were the early days in your household like? You grew up in Detroit, am I correct?

Howard: Yes, I’m from Detroit. Actually born in the city of Detroit and for I guess the ’60s, I actually lived there. We didn’t leave the city of Detroit until after the riots and then I was in Southfield, Michigan, one of the growing suburbs at that time. I loved growing up in Detroit. It still had a very strong impression on me. I come from a really good family, very strong set of values. My mom and my dad met at the University of Michigan. I am the middle child of three. I’ve got an older sister and a younger sister and we’re just very well grounded in terms of high integrity, hard work, ambition, and deep ties to family and community. My dad is a very strong figure in my life. So is my mom. My mom is a voracious reader, was a research librarian, always said that books were her ticket to travel all over the world and through time and gave me a great sense of imagination and culture. My dad is, I guess at this point, 82 years old and mostly retired, but people call him the dean of the bankruptcy bar in Southeastern Michigan. So very respected attorney. A man of honor, a man of respect, and a guy that I looked up to and still do and who very much set the tone for me, in terms of work ethic and focus and how to think and how to work with integrity and how to respect relationships. I also have some really interesting family history. My great uncle, Lou Handler, was and still is a great presence in my life. Very heroic man. He passed away a long time ago but he was the first guy in my family to go to college. He was a highly decorated amateur boxer. He won the Golden Gloves, became a professional boxer, fought 10 fights as a heavyweight, undefeated. Sparred with Jack Dempsey. He went to Michigan State, which was called Michigan State College at the time. Studied Forestry, loved the outdoors. Continued to box, but he also played football and an injury that he had led to the end of his boxing career, at least as a fighter, but then he became a referee and he was even more famous as a referee. He refereed Joe Lewis’s first professional fight, Sugar Ray Robinson, Kid Gavilán, and his most famous fight was the 1950 Middleweight Championship where Jake LaMotta won the Middleweight Championship. And so boxing and competition and sports were always very core. I was never a boxer. I guess my metaphor for that was the way that I played tennis and competed in playing tennis, but my uncle Lou went even further than that and he founded a summer camp in Algonquin Park, Ontario, in 1936, Camp Tamakwa, that still exists to this day. And the friendships and the values that I learned at summer camp and later on after my uncle passed away, Camp Nebagamon in Wisconsin, are really the basis for who I am and who my deepest, most important friendships are. So I would say that that’s a little bit of a snapshot of my early days.

Daniel: It sounds like the camp was even more important than kind of for a lot of kids, what they went through in school or what teams they played on. What were some of your, I guess, those memories that stand out for you from your time at camp that still stick with you today?

Howard: Well, for me, Nebagamon, which is still an institution that I stay very connected to, is the basis of how I discovered what my adult life might shape up to be and what it might look like. Being a camper was awesome. You had to learn how to get along with other people, how to work as a team. But being a counselor was I guess the most meaningful experience because it was there that your leadership was really tested. And not just leading a cabin and a group of kids who might have different circumstances and different challenges and different strengths, but also getting along with other staff members, leading a project. In my case, the tennis program. And then, you know, figuring out where to go to school, where was everybody else going to school and why and what were they hoping to accomplish. And those types of influences on me were very, very powerful. And to this day, my six core friends are guys that I met at Camp Nebagamon. They’re all scattered in different parts of the country and, in some cases, different parts of the world, but the experiences that we had, the kind of relationship that we had with this great institution that still exists and still impacts lots of boys and young men, is still there for me.

Daniel: What were some of the experiences that you think specifically shaped you as a young leader? Is there anything that stuck out? Any story or incident or thing that [inaudible 00:13:17] was one of the interesting, memorable experiences that [inaudible 00:13:23] today?

Howard: Well, I guess there were a lot of experiences. At summer camp, we would do wilderness trips, canoes, packs. We would be out essentially in virgin wilderness and we would have to read maps, make our way, find campsites, figure out how to protect ourselves from the elements because this is way, way northern Minnesota, the boundary waters, and southern Ontario, Quetico. Sometimes the weather could be pretty troubling and we were just kind of there and were in a position to try to figure it out. I think in those types of situations, you would learn who was gonna lead, who was gonna follow, what role everybody was gonna play. And in those situations, I felt like I learned what effective leadership might look like, who showed grace under fire, who was flexible, who was creative, and I tried to model some of my own decisions after that. Sports has certainly been a source of learning how to become a leader as well. Tennis was my first love and actually still is as a sport, but when I went to the University of Michigan, I couldn’t really play at a national level. I was a pretty good player, but I didn’t have a national ranking, which is what was required to make the team at Michigan. And so instead, I joined the lacrosse club and ultimately, as a senior, I became the president. I don’t know if there was any particular reason why I was chosen to do that, other than being a senior and one of the guys who had stuck around the program, but I found myself having to figure out the schedule, having to reinvigorate our budget. I actually got Schlitz Beer to be our sponsor, which I think is kind of ironic.

Daniel: How’d you do that? What was the story of getting them on board?

Howard: Just mostly begging. No, I mean, I just made it up as I went along. I tried to figure out who might be interested in supporting us because we weren’t yet a varsity team. The club transformed about six years ago to become a full varsity and now it’s Division I, but everything starts somewhere and the program is still very connected and those were the beginnings. And we were a very social group. I didn’t belong to a fraternity. I would say that the closest thing that I had to that was the lacrosse team and we would definitely hang out and be social and party and I just figured, “Okay, well, maybe we’ll get a beer sponsor.” We’d get some free beer, but they also print up a lot of materials, so maybe they can print up a schedule. You know, pretty basic, low-key stuff. But you realize that people are counting on you and you’ve gotta stand for something and you’ve gotta deliver results and you’ve gotta know how to ask other people to pitch in and to share the burden. So those were some influential experiences for me.

Daniel: And so, kind of leading up to the experience at Michigan, what did you wanna be when you were growing up and how did that ultimately lead to you picking that as your college?

Howard: Well, I was born into a Michigan legacy. As I said, both of my folks went there, they met each other. Michigan was the best public school, I guess probably the best any school in the state of Michigan and it just felt very natural to go there. It was funny because when I was a camper and a counselor at Nebagamon, kids went off to all different schools, really interesting Ivy League schools and other state schools. But I was from Detroit and my folks went to Michigan and I grew up listening to my dad scream at the radio and then the television when Michigan was playing football and so that just seemed very natural for me. It’s interesting, the process that I see people go through today because I only applied to one school, but it was one of the best decisions I ever made in my whole life. It’s funny because when I went, when I was leaving high school, I was pretty good at science and math and I thought, “Maybe I’ll be a doctor. You know, I like helping people.” But then I realized, as I was kinda getting into it, that I really couldn’t take the sight of blood and didn’t really see myself doing that. So I made a pivot and I studied economics and history, mostly because those were things that I really liked to do and that was really my focus. When I was in college, I didn’t have this strong idea of what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. That was something that would unfold as I was getting into it.

Daniel: Sounds like kind of every year, you took the opportunity to take whatever it is you were enjoying and kind of went with the flow.

Howard: Yeah, I mean, I guess I’m still a very curious person and I was always just trying to find my way, but I didn’t…So I guess my goals at that point were in maybe a two to three-year horizon, as opposed to a 5 or a 10-year horizon where I was like, “Okay, this is where I’m headed. I don’t know how I’m gonna get there.” That was a little bit more the case for me.

Daniel: And then your summers in college, were they all spent at the camp or did you end up doing other things?

Howard: Well, I was a camp counselor for the first couple of summers, but then I really wanted to work. I wanted to get into what would it be like to really try to make a living and to work hard and to make some money and I also wanted to get a car. And so I worked in a grocery warehouse as a clerk for a couple of summers and one of those summers, I had the overnight shift, so I would get in in the early evening and work until 3:00 in the morning, this parallel universe that existed. But I was a teamster and I was making a really good wage and it was fun to be home for those couple of summers.

Daniel: So as you, I guess, came closer to graduation, what was that process like of picking where to apply and you ended up at Quaker Oats? Was that the one main choice or were you trying a lot of things?

Howard: Well, I guess the first decision was, when I was leaving undergrad, I guess I had a sense that I wanted to be in the food business at that point. My mom was this unbelievable, just very adventurous gourmet cook and it’s funny because you go back to late ’70s, early ’80s, the world of food was not what it is today. There was no such thing as a Food Network. Julia Child was probably as close as anybody got to being a celebrity chef. There weren’t a lot of ethnic choices or adventurous choices, but my mom was a little bit ahead of her time and really did very interesting things with food and entertaining and I went to New York a couple of times and I saw Zabar’s and Dean & DeLuca’s and I thought, “Wow, maybe that’s something I’ll do. I’ll be an entrepreneur and I’ll create a whole food business.” And I started to kind of feel like I might not know what to do or where to even start. And so I thought, “Well, I’ll go to business school and I’ll get a little bit more training.” And so I went to the graduate school of business, so therefore I stayed in Ann Arbor for six straight years. My graduate business school experience was very, very different than undergrad because my classmates were not 20, 21 years old, just graduating from undergrad. They had been out working for four or five years and so that immediately catapulted me and forced me to a different level of maturity and seriousness in terms of thinking about where I might find myself. And Quaker Oats turned out to be fantastic because it was the food business, but it was more structured and I could get a lot of responsibility very quickly and I was working with really interesting, really smart people. So that was perfect for me as a starting point.

Daniel: When you think about some of your, I guess I can call them classmates at Quaker, in terms of the top performers that you worked with, what do you think set them apart from everyone else?

Howard: Well, I think that there was a baseline of smart, right? And in those days, places like Quaker Oats and Procter & Gamble and General Mills were really the kind of the post-graduate marketing factories. Brand management, classic marketing skills. They were recruiting from the very best business schools. And so everybody was pretty smart, but the people that distinguished themselves to me were the people that had the greatest leadership skills, the most imagination, and honestly the most magnetic personalities. They just were the type of people that other people wanted to be around because they were hungry, they were curious, they were on a mission, they were fun, they knew how to solve big, complicated problems. And so that’s where I took some additional signals from.

Daniel: And when you’re picking this career in marketing, what were your conversations with your parents like? Your father wasn’t…this wasn’t the [inaudible 00:26:45] you mentioned. Were there any conversations about you going down his path versus the path that you ultimately followed?

Howard: Well, it’s interesting that you should say that because I knew that my dad was a master at his trade and in his profession because the way that other people talked about him or, “Oh, you’re Wally Handler’s son.” I was like, “Wow.” You know, my dad’s really good at what he does, but the funny thing is is that bankruptcy’s pretty complicated and I don’t really feel like I understood fundamentally what my dad did more precisely until I was really in college. But I knew that I wanted to strike out on my own path and do something that felt more right for me. I mean, I was a little intimidated about trying to follow in his footsteps, but I think it was bigger than that for me in that I just, I guess my heartbeat, my pulse was really more driven by music and media and pop culture and the closest thing that seemed applicable in business was marketing because marketing was essentially about demand and about dealing with consumers and solving problems within that context. And so that’s kind of what energized me in that way.

Daniel: And so in that exploration of marketing, was Quaker Oats the only place you had looked at or were you thinking about going into marketing in the music industry or the entertainment industry? How did you ultimately land on Quakers as that first place to go?

Howard: Great question. So I was in business school and still really thinking about being in the food business, right? And I had a girlfriend from New York at the time and so I figured, “Okay, well, I’ll go to New York.” And there were so many different companies that I tried to talk to and it was this great experience in humility because I got a handful of interviews. They were all pretty awkward. Mostly, I got a lot of closed doors and lack of interest. And so on some levels, I was like, “Wow, I really gotta re-gear here. This isn’t going so well.” And as fate would have it, I was walking down the street in New York City and I ended up bumping into my uncle, who is a very close relative. He’s been an amazing influence on my life. I had no idea he was in New York. He lives in Chicago. And he was like, “Hey, why don’t you look at Chicago? Chicago’s a great city.” That’s where my mom grew up and I’d certainly visited there a bunch of times. And so when I went back to Ann Arbor, I was thinking, “Hey, maybe I’ll go to Chicago.” And Quaker Oats came in to do one of their career presentations and one of the guys there was a Michigan alum and I ended up calling him on the phone and saying, “Hey, would you help me?” And he was really generous, a guy named Phil Roos, and he said, “I’ll fix you up with the HR guy.” And I met the HR guy, but the HR guy said, “Hey, you know, we’re only talking to Harvard and Virginia and Northwestern for our interns.” And I guess learned a couple of lessons that persistence could pay off because I tried as best as I could to say how ridiculous I thought it was that they wouldn’t talk to the University of Michigan because we were a great business school. But even more than that, I was hungry and wanted to be there and I was determined to convince these guys that I should be there. And I guess maybe they were charmed or amused or maybe they were just exhausted by my persistence, but they agreed to let me come in and do an interview and I ended up getting the internship and I decided to go back and take a full-time job after I graduated.

Daniel: So you’re saying you were being persistent. Was that you were calling him every day or what did that look like back then?

Howard: Well, the phone and the mail were really the only two ways that you could influence a situation from distance because I couldn’t just show up on somebody’s doorstep. I mean, I think I tried to just write something and speak from the heart. I wasn’t a stalker, but I definitely made sure that I could get this guy on the phone and say, “Hey, I really feel strongly that I could make a difference for your company and I’ve been successful in a lot of other places and would you give me a shot?” I just tried to be genuine and honest.

Daniel: Did you change anything in your approach in that first interview with Quaker Oats from the others which didn’t work out so well, beyond the persistence in getting the interview?

Howard: Maybe I did. Certainly, the first few times that you interview, you’re gonna be nervous or you don’t have the experience in answering certain questions. And so with a little bit of repetition, I was probably a little bit better but I think that the bigger factor was that I felt like this was something that I wanted and some amazing things happen when passion is kind of beating underneath something. You’re willing to work a little harder or you’re willing to be a little bit more imaginative or creative in terms of how you go about something because you believe in it and you want it.

Daniel: That makes sense. So you were at Quaker for five years and then you ended up switching into [inaudible 00:34:18], I’d say TV and video. What was that [inaudible 00:34:20] I’m looking at the year as 1989 when you had to make that decision to switch to Broadway Video. How did it feel like at that time, as much as you can remember?

Howard: Well, that was one of those really critical inflection points for me because I loved the business of brand management and marketing. I was able to manage a whole multimillion dollar P&L by the time I was 27 years old. And what we were doing in the grocery business with granola bars and cereals was really fun and really, really cool. But I realized along the way that I was interested in television and media and music and pop culture and that was always what I was most interested in. But growing up in Detroit and just with some of the circles that I had been in, I had never met anybody who was in that business. I had no idea what the jobs were, how it worked, how you got those jobs and so on. But as I did get into my business life at the Quaker Oats Company, I did get exposed to a lot of those things and I made some friendships and those relationships ended up paying dividends because there was one guy in particular, a guy named Eric Ellenbogen, who I had met after I graduated from business school and took a really fun trip to France with some of my camp guys, interestingly enough. And we stayed in touch and within a couple of years, he was like, “Why aren’t you in show business? You’re made for it. You’ve got that spark and you’re a good marketing guy and you might be really successful.” And then that ultimately turned into, “You gotta come to New York and come to work for me.” Eric was the president of Broadway Video at the time and prior to that, he had been an independent producer in Hollywood and just this incredible entrepreneur and force of nature and he took me under his wing. And when he offered me the opportunity to come work for him and Lorne Michaels and Broadway Video, which was the production company behind “Saturday Night Live,” I was ready to go. It was a really interesting time for me at Quaker because I had been there for five years, I’d been successful as a brand manager and now it was time to think about what the next step in my career might look like. And I was thinking about some different things. I was thinking, “Well, maybe I’ll go overseas and work internationally,” because that seemed mysterious and cool and full of some interesting new learning experiences, but I knew that I didn’t wanna stay domestic and just go to that next level of management because I didn’t think it would be as fun, I didn’t think it would be as close to really operating the business. And so I was starting to think about a lot of different things but mostly I was thinking this is an industry that could have a much bigger opportunity for me and it turned out to be true. And my wife and I were at a stage in our lives where we thought, “Wow, okay. We don’t have any huge commitments or kids or anything,” and this was an opportunity to step on a different learning curve and potentially a different career path and, “Let’s move to New York.” And that’s what I did.

Daniel: What was that conversation like with her when you…I guess you had a conversation with Eric that he said come down to New York and it sounded pretty exciting to move there but obviously, it had some impact on her life and her career. So if you remember, like what did you guys talk about in making that decision?

Howard: Well, I met Wendy Krantz in Ann Arbor, interestingly, just like my dad met my mom. And her dad actually went to Michigan and we started in seriously with our relationship toward the end of graduate business school for me and undergraduate for Wendy. And we had a bit of a long-distance relationship in the beginning. I moved to Chicago to go to work for Quaker Oats, Wendy moved to New York to begin her career in PR. I convinced her within a couple of years to move to Chicago and to continue her PR career in Chicago. We got married in ’87. So we got married a year after she moved to Chicago. And so then the idea of going to New York, she loved New York. She had had a great experience there. It was tricky though because we had been together in Chicago for three, four years when this opportunity shows up and had a lot of friends, family. We felt pretty rooted in Chicago but we were both hungry and ambitious and felt like New York could be a great place for us to take the next step in our respective careers. My opportunity was the driver, I guess, or at least it was fairly specific. She was a little bit more open-ended, but felt like New York could be great for her as well. So we made the decision together.

Daniel: That’s awesome. And it seemed like it paid off because from that point, I feel like you worked in some of the most interesting places. I can imagine working in the music industry, working in sports twice now, working at Virgin. I was talking about all of those things but I think I’m most interested in digging deep into your time going to your early years at Broadway Video and then how that eventually led to the NFL, which I feel like that must be a pretty important time in your career.

Howard: Oh my goodness, definitely. Definitely. Broadway Video was an extraordinary experience for me because Quaker was pretty structured, when it came right down to it. You had to deal with a certain amount of ambiguity. You got a lot of responsibility as a young executive, but the reality is that there were lots of resources and there was an organization that operated underneath it. When I went to work for Eric at Broadway Video, I mean, there were about 20 people in the whole company. There was Broadway Video, which was an editing facility, but that was a very specialized business. Eric was running something called Broadway Video Entertainment, which was essentially an independent production company and we had “Saturday Night Live,” but “Saturday Night Live” was a show that NBC was producing. So what we were doing with “SNL” related to managing the intellectual property and some of the opportunities that related to that. So syndication, licensing, publishing, home video. And there were a handful of other properties. There was “The Kids in the Hall,” which was a great show in the early ’90s that was up in Canada and eventually on HBO. But it was a little production company and it wasn’t terribly well-defined. Eric had a great deal of ambitions in terms of how to build it, but I had never been in the entertainment business. I had never been in television. Eric said, “You know, I want you to be my marketing guy.” I didn’t really know what that was gonna be in that setting. He spoke very broadly about the opportunity with some of these properties, but I figured, “Okay, well, I’ll see how it goes.” And it felt risky on one level, but it also felt like it wasn’t risky at all because if I did it for a year or two and it didn’t go well, I could go work for General Foods or Colgate-Palmolive because I was a brand management guy and I had made a reputation for myself in that world. What Broadway Video was for me was like pulling a desk into an empty office and having some vague ideas about licensing and home video and publishing and certainly taking some guidance from Eric and some others along the way, but really figuring it out for myself and building a business for Lorne. And so it was really, really entrepreneurial and I also had to sell myself to Lorne Michaels, who is a formidable man, one of the greatest people in the television business and in entertainment in general, and that could be very intimidating. And I also had to establish myself and sell myself to the cast and to the writers and it was a pretty interesting cast at the time. And so it was trial by fire, but it was really, really fun and some part of my innocence and some part of not knowing too much probably operated to my benefit.

Daniel: And so as you spend time there, you switched to MTV. What was the reason or story behind that?

Howard: Well, I started to expand my network at that point. I guess it’s pretty natural, as you get further in your career, you meet lots of interesting people and MTV was in year 10 at that point, 1990, 1991, and they were looking for a new head of marketing. And somebody that I knew suggested to Tom Freston, who was the head of all of the MTV networks at the time, that I was a good candidate, that I was a guy with classic training. You know, had started my career in packaged goods, but had successfully made the transition into show business and was working for Lorne Michaels. And they were like, “Wow, that sounds like a great profile.” He wasn’t the guy that was managing the search. He called up this woman named Sara Levinson, who would eventually become the president of MTV, and she literally called me at home. She said, “Hey, I’m Sara Levinson. You don’t know me from a hole in the wall, but I run the business side of MTV and I heard that you’re a great marketing guy and would you be interested in interviewing for a job here at MTV?” And after I picked myself up off the floor because I couldn’t believe that they would be calling me, I said, “Sure.” And I went through a process and eventually took that job and went to work for Sara and Sara was a great mentor and still to this day is a great friend, but she was my boss at MTV and I was at MTV for a few years. It was a great experience and learned some new skills and launched “Beavis and Butt-Head” and “The Real World” and we launched MTV Asia and took the next step in my career, managed a really big organization, but Sara decided to go become the president of the NFL and I very quickly followed her to the NFL and that’s how I got there. It was that simple.

Daniel: And before we go into that, taking back to that phone call that Sara had made to you, what do you think you had done differently in terms of how you built relationships or how you got to know people or how you built your name that made her call you first versus…there’s lots of marketers in television, a lot of marketers in entertainment, a lot of marketers in music in that kind of industry. As you would almost deconstruct yourself back then, what are some of the things that you think that you did well or different that made her seek you out versus anyone else?

Howard: Well, I mean I just think that that was about my reputation and she didn’t single me out. I got thrown in…in fact, I guess if I remember correctly, I was thrown into the search a little later in the process, but I know that there were a couple of other really strong candidates, one of whom was running marketing for one of the major television networks at the time. So somebody who had a far better sense of what the job was gonna be than what I did, but I guess Sara just probably saw my potential and she saw that I was able to learn an entirely new industry and establish relationships in a pretty heavy environment and that I could probably do the same thing at MTV. And I thought it was a pretty good instinct because the culture at MTV was very creative and very dynamic but everybody that was there making decisions was very young, didn’t have much experience leading and managing and building processes and all the rest of it, so it was oftentimes a very, very challenging environment for people. We loved the next big thing and would chase after great ideas and rally and build things, but the day to day could be very tricky and very political and I think Sara wanted somebody who had thick skin and who could establish something and do something new and be a change agent, but who could get along.

Daniel: You bring up an interesting point here about it being a bit chaotic at that stage. So during your time with Sara, whether it was at MTV or the NFL, was there any kind of catastrophe or something that you had gone through that you thought was gonna be a great idea and it just kind of blew up in your face? And I’m curious if you had a situation like that and how you dealt with it.

Howard: Yeah. I guess the NFL was the next great challenge and I had a run there that was as long as I had at the Quaker Oats Company. It was a very different type of experience on some levels. This was an institution that was very, very well-established, that was dominant and yet was looking for a change agent. And I was this kind of young, upstart guy from MTV and now I’m the head of marketing for the NFL and the NFL never really had a head of strategic marketing. The place was full of great marketing minds and very, very creative people, one of whom was Commissioner Don Garber, the guy that I ultimately work for here at Major League Soccer. But everybody was in charge of either staging events, selling sponsorships, doing licenses, doing PR, and so on and so forth, but my job was to define the brand and to be the advocate for the fans and to help people understand who the fans were and how they segmented and in doing so, manage a whole bunch of different operating areas of the business like publishing and what turned into, well, it was first cataloging and it turned into e-commerce. And so my role never existed before and I was not going to be successful if I just showed up and asked where I could help. I really had to build an agenda and to be a little bit of a man on a mission. And I was really, at MTV to be a bit of a change agent, but that was not quite as dramatic of an experience as I had at the NFL. And the people who were there in the positions of leadership had been there for a long, long time and here I was. So how was I gonna establish myself and how was I gonna put some points on the board? And there were a couple of things that I tried to do early on that got a great deal of pushback, a lot, a lot of resistance. And I guess there was just a lot of learning there because, on the one hand, my first reaction was “Well, I’m right. These are good ideas. People should understand that and I just have to push harder and harder.” And I remember very, very clearly that my buddy Don Garber, who was running the special events team and who had really built some interesting platforms. He created the NFL Experience and built up the modern day Punt, Pass & Kick and the Quarterback Challenge and all these things that were visible and important and valuable for commercial relationships and so on, you know, took me under his wing a little bit and he said, “Just keep in mind, to be successful here,” he said, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” That’s the tip of the iceberg, but I really learned that change is a really, really tricky process. You have to build trust, you have to bring people along at the right pace. You’ve gotta be dogged and determined and sometimes take people out of their comfort zones but you’ve gotta do it in a way that ensures that everybody wins along the way. And it can’t just be about you and if the minute that somebody thinks that your change agenda is really your personal agenda, they’ll either reject you or turn against you or only do things by virtue of authority, not because of influence and not because they took some ownership themselves.

Daniel: Was there ever anything that you tried to push through that was kind of accepted but then ultimately didn’t work out while at the NFL?

Howard: You know, I implemented a campaign called Feel the Power and this goes back to 1995. So it’s a long time ago but it was the first time that we ever had a kind of a core positioning that we would express and articulate for the NFL brand. And the first time that we had some real goals in terms of what we wanted it to mean for the fan base and how we wanted to implement it and I had to implement that campaign at the expense of the United Way campaign that was running at the time. And the United Way was a phenomenal institution that was started by Pete Rozelle as a way of humanizing NFL players because they wear armor and they’re big, tough guys and you don’t necessarily know who they are. So the United Way was this, and still is, this amazing umbrella organization and doing these institutional spots and running them at halftime during the NFL games was a way of humanizing the players. What I was trying to accomplish was bringing some vitality and some more youthful energy to our fan base at a time when the NBA was “Showtime,” “I Love This Game,” when they had a hipper, younger sensibility and we thought that we didn’t really wanna cede that ground to the NBA. Even though we were much bigger, it was still a momentum game and we were still thinking about the future and I could have been a lot more delicate in terms of how I approached the transition from just running United Way spots that weren’t exactly on track with where we wanted to take things in the future. And that transitioned from United Way to Feel the Power and it was a very, very stark contrast to the music and the editing and just this kind of sensibility of why people were really, really impassioned about football versus one aspect of it, which was the softer side and the warmer and the more human side. And if I did it all over again with a little bit more experience and a little bit more maturity, a little bit more gravitas, I probably still could have gotten the same solution, but I think I would have had a lot more support along the way.

Daniel: That makes sense. I wanted to jump ahead to your time at Virgin Mobile because I feel like that’s another amazing career arc in itself. You went through an IPO and you spent time with Richard Branson. What were some of the memorable stories from your time there?

Howard: Well, the reason why I left the NFL was because I really felt that I was ready to be an entrepreneur, that everything that I had done from Quaker to Broadway Video and MTV and especially the NFL kind of formed me as a well-rounded brand builder and business leader. And that I wanted to strike out for myself and get some skin in the game and that’s what Burly Bear was about and that brought me back and connected me with Lorne and it’s because Lorne Michaels was the strategic investor and owner behind Burly Bear Network and his vision of building this farm team for “Saturday Night Live” and doing scrappy, edgy, low-cost content and that was really fun and we built it up and we won a lot of battles. We brought a bunch of partners in, I learned how to raise money, but after September 11th, we had to raise more money and it was just impossible to do. So my first true entrepreneurial experience, I mean, Broadway Video was partially that but I wasn’t the CEO, I wasn’t the owner. I mean, this was the first big opportunity for me to really lead a whole organization and we ended up having to sell the company. So I was kind of back out there going, “Okay, well, I’d love to be an entrepreneur. What’s next?” And the opportunity with Virgin Mobile was a tremendous, tremendous opportunity. I love the Virgin brand, but I knew it wasn’t that well-established in the United States beyond the airline and the Virgin Megastores at the time, but that was all very regional and very niche, especially with the airline. And I didn’t really know much about mobile or telecommunications but when I met CEO, Dan Schulman, I was blown away because this was a business that was completely dedicated to young people and bringing mobile phones to that market. And the only thing that existed at the time was Cingular and Sprint and AT&T and Verizon and those are big, scary companies, not consumer friendly, and Virgin in that way could be a real upstart and a real challenger and the business model was really interesting. It was kind of this virtual network model called an NVNO, which a number of people adopted, and the last thing was it was a really well-funded startup. Richard put in $200 million of his money, Sprint put in $200 million dollars of their money. It was this core team of founders. The business was just launching and they wanted a chief marketing officer and at first I thought, “Well, I’ve really been a good chief marketing officer and I was a CEO,” but Dan was so compelling and I had not just the traditional marketing and promotion stuff, the brand, I had the sales force and I had the whole suite of products. So the handsets, the pricing for the voice, and all of the non-voice stuff. So ring tones and the early days of mobile content. And so that was a big, scary job. A well-funded startup with very ambitious goals. I was a non-telecom guy going into a telecom environment, but when I went over to London to interview with all of Richard’s guys, I thought, “Man, this is a kindred brand for me. It’s a challenger brand. Richard’s got this twinkle in his eye and wants to make a big fuss in the United States and take on the big telecoms.” I’m like that’s got everything, everything that I could hope for. And so that was an amazing ride. We built the whole company, we took it public. We hit the wall a couple of times. It was an amazing experience.

Daniel: And when you say you kind of hit the wall, what were some of the hard parts of that journey?

Howard: Well, it was interesting because we were growing so quickly. I started in January of 2003, January, 2003, and the business had just launched a couple of months prior. We had Best Buy, we had Target, we had Musicland, so we had some distribution. We probably had 100,000 subscribers. We probably had about $30 million worth of revenue and our ambition was to build a billion-dollar company and to have millions of customers, millions of subscribers. And so from 2003 to 2004, 2005, we had surpassed a couple million subscribers. We had really driven the top line. We had gotten to the point where we thought we were ready to go public. And I think we were nearing 3 million customers, subscribers, and we thought the best way to prepare for an IPO was to raise some debt. And we raised about half billion dollars worth of debt and that would allow us to take the current investors and allow them to now just be playing with house money because the money for the debt raise essentially went right back into their pockets and allowed us to fund some additional growth. But what it would do was to kind of validate the enterprise and what our enterprise value was at the time. And it was a big deal because we’re out there talking to all these different banks and investors and that was the beginning. The problem is is that we took our eye off the ball. And when you raise debt, you have to commit to certain covenants, certain operating targets, in terms of your revenue or some of your other key metrics and we blew it. And so we had to renegotiate with the banks and they really could have made our lives very, very difficult and they ultimately believed in the fundamentals of the company, but we were knocked sideways and Dan Schulman, the CEO, had to make some pretty dramatic changes to the organization and restructure things. And I learned a lot about myself. I learned and saw the way that he dealt with an existential crisis and really reinvigorated the culture that put us back on track and we did ultimately take the company public. Next October, it will be 10 years. We went public in October of 2007.

Daniel: What do you think he did so well during that tough time? What are some of the tactics or the things that you saw that, “Hey, I’d love to replicate that if I’m ever in a situation like this again?”

Howard: Well, he wrote a manifesto. It was called Virgin Mobile Rising and a lot of us contributed to the building blocks of that manifesto. But he was our leader and he was able to articulate a fresh vision for what we would need to do to be successful and what we were ultimately aiming for and what the building blocks of that vision would be. It was very tangible in terms of, “We’re gonna re-energize our pricing, we’re gonna introduce this service and that service.” But it was so much bigger than that because it was kind of a renewal of your commitment to how you wanted to manage and how you were going to lead and what kind of culture that we were gonna have. And one of the things I think that he was frustrated by was that we started to take some of our success and our momentum for granted and what that meant was is that we were settling into, “Well, this is what’s made us successful so we’re gonna keep doing it.” And we started to harden and institutionalize and he realized that there was just no way that we could do that as an upstart and as a category challenger and especially with the kind of ambitious goals that we had. And honestly, I knew that we still had to reinvent and do and to try new things and take risks, but I didn’t know how to express that, I didn’t know how to build consensus around those ideas. I was back to pushing instead of pulling and it was really frustrating. Dan was able, and some of it was positional authority. He was the CEO. He was the guy. His reputation was on the line, but he was able to really articulate the path forward and he made some tough changes. He moved some people out of the management team, he moved some people in, he moved some responsibilities around. I mean, he basically shook everybody up, but he figured out a way to get the board excited and he got all of us excited and it was the right decision. And Dan is still a very dear friend. At this stage of the game, he;s the CEO PayPal, which is a gigantic global business that’s fighting the good fight in a very exciting space and on some levels, as big of a company as it is, he’s still an upstart as people like Google and Apple, as well as the big banks of the world, are trying to own mobile payment. So I learned a lot about myself, learned a lot from him in that situation.

Daniel: That’s great. I wanna be respectful of your time so I just have a few questions more on the personal side and we can switch to there. When you think about your work habits, what does your daily routine look like? When you wake up, you [inaudible 01:13:22] run in the morning but what’s your typical…a typical behavior you can have look like knowing that [inaudible 01:13:29] every day it’s different?

Howard: Well, I do stretch and either run or walk our dog, Blue. We’ve got a chocolate lab and he’s an athlete, man. He needs to be out there and be active and that allows Wendy and I to be active and we trade off. I’ll run and she’ll walk Blue or I’ll walk Blue and she’ll run. And so the beginning of my day is always fresh air, just taking in the world, gathering my thoughts. Being physically active is important to both of us and it’s funny because it’s usually before the sun is coming up, I feel like I’m walking back into the house just as the light is starting to show up and I think that’s a fun way to get going because you the world belongs to you at that point. I do consume a lot of media. I still like to sample a couple of different newspapers. I don’t read a physical paper anymore but the “New York Times” and the “Journal.” There are some RSS Feeds and blogs that are really important. I check in on the social media so by the time I get to the office, I kind of feel grounded. I feel kind of grounded spiritually and physically, but also that I’m on point in terms of what I need to attack on any given day.

Daniel: When you think about your 25- to 30-year-old self, so I’m trying to put the audience of people who are listening to this who are probably in a career similar to yours where they’re a brand manager at PNG or a marketing manager somewhere else and they’re thinking about making a career change, is there any advice you’d give to them or to yourself back then on anything that you’ve learned since?

Howard: Well, I mean that 25- to 30-year-old version of me was very brash and very aggressive and it’s interesting because if you have the heart of an entrepreneur, then the world of organized businesses and established businesses might not be the best place. It might be better to strike out on your own and to be an entrepreneur. For me, because I made a decision that I wanted to be an entrepreneurial type that worked in organizations, I would say that getting more self-awareness, learning how to think from another person’s point of view, what’s driving them, what their priorities are, will allow you to be more successful than just really pushing a great idea. And it might be the best idea. It might be spot on and correct to solve a problem or to seize an opportunity, but bringing people along and building trust and building ownership among a diverse group of people will often make you much more successful.

Daniel: This is, like, another…just out of curiosity, I imagine you must travel a lot in what you’re doing now. How do you manage family life, given that you manage existing teams all around North America, every day, every week?

Howard: Well, balance is just important on so many different levels, whether you travel or you don’t travel. It’s a little less of an issue for me today because my kids are 25 and 22 and they have their own lives and our family is core. It’s our foundation and so we’re together a lot. That’s a big, big priority, but there isn’t as much hands-on challenge for me to pick kids up from school or to take my son to hockey practice or to do those types of things anymore. I do miss those days, to be honest with you. But even when I was in the middle of those earlier stages of our family’s life, I was running around on the road and I definitely saw the guys who were like me, who were family guys, make slightly different decisions than the people who were single and who would just stay wherever they were for the weekend, as opposed to going back home or not staying to the party way into the night, getting home so you can put your kids to bed and I just think that you gotta be very, very in touch with your priorities and if your family is your priority, you gotta be true to it.

Daniel: Did that ever alter your career decisions? Did you ever find that being an impediment to opportunities that you wanted to pursue?

Howard: I think it definitely factored in. When you have a mortgage and you’ve got kids, you’re supporting a certain lifestyle, it’s really, really difficult to wing it. I mean, it’s interesting. That period when I left Burly Bear because we had to sell it, that was a period of time when I hungered to be an entrepreneur still but for me personally, you gotta figure out what is your appetite for risk? What are you willing to do? The great entrepreneurs are willing to put a second mortgage on their house and to sweat it out and to go through some much more extreme highs and lows than I was willing to do at that point. For me, Virgin struck a perfect balance because, on the one hand, it was very risky. There was no guarantee that we would last another year, much less be able to take a company public on the New York Stock Exchange. On the other hand, I was paid a salary that wasn’t the typical, “Hey, it’s all in the options and we’re gonna give you a little bit of salary but that’s not what it’s about.” Dan was putting together a management team of pros, of people…the company was gonna grow into our ability to manage it. We were already proven that we could manage big businesses. So they had to pay us a respectable salary as well as to have the upside with equity and the enterprise. I could have made a very different decision but I chose not to and I’m very comfortable with that. But I think anybody has to do that soul-searching and understand what is their appetite and their capacity for risk.

Daniel: Amd that brings us to then the last question. You’ve almost teed it up. There is kind of what’s left for you, either personally or professionally on your bucket list? What are some of the things that you still want to accomplish in life?

Howard: Well, Major League Soccer is on an amazing growth path and trajectory and I wanna see through what we’ve set out. We wanna be one of the best leagues in the world. We want to surpass all competitive soccer leagues here in the United States. We wanna build a big, thriving, profitable enterprise and we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve built a big, relevant professional league that a lot of people respect, but we’ve got a lot of work to do in a bunch of our markets and we’re bringing on more markets. And I’ve built a great organization but I wanna keep building. And so, there’s still a lot more for me to accomplish at Major League Soccer. On my bucket list, I wanna write a book, I wanna learn a foreign language, I wanna learn to play another instrument. There’s a lot of parts of the world that I wanna travel and see. I would love to see grandkids. So I got a whole bunch of things. This summer, I’m gonna celebrate my 30th anniversary with Wendy. I’d love to celebrate my 60th anniversary with Wendy. So got a whole lot of living to do.

Daniel: Congratulations on that and I think that’s a great place to end off. I really appreciate taking your time. So it’s the last part, if anyone is interested on discovering and checking out Major League Soccer, where do you recommend they go online to get a taste of it and see if it’s something they wanna experience themselves?

Howard: Well, download the MLS app. Go to Check us out on Instagram or Facebook or Snapchat. We’re easy to learn. Go buy a ticket for a match and fasten your seatbelt and experience the greatest spectator phenomenon here in North America. There’s an electricity and energy to our game that’s really unlike anything else and so that’s the real deal man. It’s that firsthand experience.

Daniel: I can attest to that seeing it in Toronto. So I’m excited to go to some more games next season. But again, thanks so much for doing this.

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