Seven Rules of Discovery: Talking with Billy Campbell, President, Discovery Networks

“I love beach music, bass fishing and Bo-Jangles fried chicken…and I love my job”.

Southern charm and warm weather breezed into campus last Thursday, September 23rd, with the arrival of Billy Campbell, President of Discovery Networks and guest of the HBS Entertainment & Media Club.

As part of the club’s keynote lecture series, Billy Campbell (HBS ’87) offered up his home-cooked advice on life at HBS, breaking into the entertainment industry, and what he really thinks of Baker Scholars.
With the gentle self-deprecation that punctuated the whole discussion, Campbell kicked off with “you’ll have to forgive me, as I’m from South Carolina, so I talk real slow”.

But anyone expecting Forrest Gump was quickly corrected, as the man who had developed the ER and Project Greenlight series, and who held leadership positions at Warner Brothers, CBS and Miramax Television, continued.

Talking about his first break into the industry, his key counsel was “be politely aggressive”, as he detailed his introduction to a class speaker – the CEO of Capital Cities, the company that had acquired the ABC network.

“After the class ended, being a good Southerner, I thanked him for coming, and also asked him why his company wasn’t recruiting that year. He politely responded that after the acquisition, his company wasn’t hiring…they were firing as quickly as possible…(but) two days later, his office called. He asked me if I had ever thought of living in Los Angeles, and I think my very Southern response was ‘Good Lord, no!’ Fortunately, that didn’t deter him from offering me a job at ABC to learn programming.”

The main point? “Don’t skip class – you have no idea who you might meet and how it might affect your career”.
Carrying on with this sentiment, he underlined the most important aspect of his experience and education, “Relationships are critical…if you want to be in programming, go to LA, get out there, meet people and get immersed. It’s all word of mouth.”

“If you’re interested in getting into the creative part – TV or features – don’t go into strategic planning, as there’s no system to shuttle you over (to the creative side). Stay true to your passion. The Yellow Brick Road into entertainment isn’t there. But don’t lose faith, work hard, do what you love and you’ll make more money than you need.”

To nervous RCs worried about hitting the screen, Billy Campbell had this to say; “RELAX. I know it’s hard to do – like standing on the plate and someone throwing the ball at you at 90mph – but do relax. Some of you may want to be Baker Scholars. Sorry, but that’s a joke. Truly. I am not degrading academics, and if you want it, go for it. But prioritize. I have never had a conversation or interview and asked ‘Were you a Baker Scholar? Oh, come right in'”.

“You’re getting a terrific education. You’re at the best business school. It’s not just the professors and facilities, it’s the people in the room, in your study group. Reach out, get to know people, don’t fret, work really hard, but have fun. On your deathbed, you won’t think ‘I should have closed one more deal’ – it’s who you are, what you are, and who loves you…so, always try to give back”

With the room already feeling warm and fuzzy, Campbell wound up with his key takeaways, “or I’ll call them my seven points of Discovery”:
“One, you don’t know 10% of what you think you know. 99% of the people with whom you work have more experience than you. So respect that, and respect them. When you begin your new job, be humble…but also be confident.

“Two, look to make the team better. There’s no quicker way to flourish than having support from both above and below, and no faster path to peril than being labeled selfish, arrogant or lazy. I’ve yet to hear anyone criticized for making a great assist.

“Three, be your own person. A wise friend once told me, if you don’t
stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. I don’t drink, nor have I ever done drugs. It wasn’t for me, and no one ever judged me for that. There are many pressures out there in the world, but stay true to who you are. Live or die, I can always say, ‘Billy was always Billy’.

“Four, don’t take a job for money. In the end, I firmly believe the journey is the reward.”

“Five, build your own personal brand…focus on it every day, and fight fiercely to protect it.

“Six, look for great leaders, there’s no better way to learn. We need beacons for what’s right in business, family and leadership. Stand up and be counted, (and) you’ll earn respect from everyone around you.

“Finally, and most important of all; FALL IN LOVE. Is there a better feeling? I hope each of you will find a job that you love. I do believe leadership and love go hand in hand.”

If anything, Billy Campbell’s visit reminded us of how lucky we are to be here at HBS and to have such terrific, generous speakers come to campus to give something back. As he continually highlighted, take advantage of the opportunity by coming to speaker series, engaging in discussion, and connecting with the participants. You won’t regret it.

In closing, Billy Campbell left us with this:

“Always play hard and play fair….You’ll be just fine…. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always beach music, bass fishing and Bo-Jangles fried chicken.”