Scott Thomas must convince children to watch cartoons. It might not sound hard at first, but consider the task. We have more TV stations, more networks, more screens, more devices, more gadgets, and more competition than ever before. Fifty-six percent of American families pay for cable. Kids watch 80,000 minutes of TV each year, and, in that time, they’ll see 16,000 commercials. Which is all to say that Thomas has his work cut out for him.
Today, Thomas serves as vice president of consumer marketing for Cartoon Network [CN], but more than 20 years ago he was a pharmaceutical sales rep with an interest in medical school. “Ironically, this path helped me learn how to market well,” he explains. “I was using brochures I didn’t like to sell drugs to doctors, and I knew I could do better.”
Thomas gave the materials a face-lift, customizing the brand message, and started improving his monthly sales figures. Although he became the youngest rep to win the company’s high-sales award, Thomas hit a wall. “I was more interested in marketing, but found myself pigeonholed in sales and science,” he says. Thomas left pharma sales and returned to graduate school full time, where he received an MBA in marketing and economics. After graduation, he worked his way up through various positions at Bausch + Lomb’s Contact Lens and Sunglass divisions, Coca-Cola, and EarthLink, Inc.
During his six-year tenure at EarthLink, Thomas, as director of brand marketing, led two efforts to rebrand the then consumer-Internet-service provider. That experience would prove critical a short time later when Thomas landed at CN and found the company in the middle of a renaissance. “We were asked to reinvent the network for kids after research showed we were a bit rough around the edges. The vision was to add fun and excitement,” he explains, adding that his CN peers decided to turn to live-action and other nontraditional vehicles in a larger way.
The network began an elaborate sampling process, during which all bets were off. “We really took risks, and the development team brought a variety of shows that were unexpected from our network at the time,” Thomas says. In addition to live-action, CN tried short formats, game shows, and other unorthodox programs.
The decision to reinvent the network presented Thomas with a new challenge—he would have to fight to reeducate kids in an already competitive space. “I needed kids to know this was something different from their regular expectations,” he says. He started looking for any available space in a kid’s world to interject “tastes” of this new variety.
A creative company got creative again. Thomas and his colleagues bought ad space in front of G- and PG-rated movies. They also created a partnership with Six Flags to show content and full episodes to guests waiting in line for attractions. And while they mined traditional avenues, it was the out-of-the-box ideas that have paid the highest dividends.
“We met with an ad agency called Pop2Life, LLC who mentioned in passing that they did work for the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas,” Thomas says. “We started to realize the opportunity for us to market to the one million seasonal Atlantis visitors. People said we were crazy because I oversee domestic marketing, but what they didn’t know was that over 80 percent of guests who check in at Atlantis are US passport holders, and most have kids between age 6 and 13. We are in our third year of a fully integrated brand experience. We are on their key cards, in the family restaurant, have movie premieres in the pool, host concerts, and have games and prizes. It’s an amazing partnership.”
The efforts have paid off. Last year, CN’s 20th anniversary, was the network’s most-watched year ever. The numbers come, Thomas says, from keeping a specific goal. “We marketed ourselves for the 6–12 age group for four years,” he remarks. “We’ve been able to reach them and educate them. They came, they watched, and they liked it.”
Cartoons are fun—that’s something Thomas reminds himself of daily. “We’re not making emergency-medical equipment; we are helping kids have fun in a responsible way,” he says. “Our shows are fun and our marketing must be fun, or the message simply won’t be received.”
One way to nurture fun is to reduce fear. Thomas credits CN president Stuart Snyder with building a safe environment for risk taking. “There was one show I loved that didn’t work, and we had to learn from it,” Thomas recalls. The show in question, an hour-long, live-action serialized drama with a sci-fi angle, was not working for the network, but still provided benefits. The CN team may have overreached with a complicated (albeit well-produced) show. It fell flat with a young audience more accustomed to one-off, 15- or 30-minute cartoons. Soon afterward, however, CN found success with Total Drama Island, a serialized parody on reality shows about to enter its fifth season.
Total Drama Island is just one of several milestones Thomas’s team has reached during the last four years. Other hits include Ben 10 Omniverse and The Amazing World of Gumball, along with newcomers like the live-action shows Level Up and Incredible Crew. “We have fun because we get to try new things,” Thomas says. “Now, we have exciting new shows and returning hits to market.”
The surprises keep coming. Thomas has discovered that CN’s Adventure Time, a cartoon about a boy and his shape-shifting dog who live in the Land of Ooo, is a hit with college students. The network has done house parties and special screenings for frat houses and homemakers alike. “Moms are throwing parties for their kids and campuses are hosting weekend screenings,” Thomas says of the show’s wide-ranging popularity.
Thomas knows he’s well suited to withstand the ups and downs of television marketing. “I wanted to be a doctor and realized that wasn’t the way,” he says. “I had to start over and experiment with my life. I’ve learned to keep my eyes open and raise my hand to try new things.”
That credo has worked well at CN, where executives who take chances are not fired or punished. “We all learn valuable lessons and move on to create and market new shows for a rising TV powerhouse,” Thomas says.
And while Thomas never became a doctor, he hasn’t forgotten his interest in pharmaceuticals or his desire to help people. This year, he was named as a candidate for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Man of the Year, which recognizes individuals who raise awareness and funds for blood-cancer research.