Charging ahead in the media industry
John Saroff is CEO of Chartbeat, the leading content intelligence platform used by more than 700 of the world’s top media companies in over 65 countries. John has worked on the cutting edge of media and technology for close to 20 years, setting the daily operations and business agendas of companies as diverse as Google, NBCUniversal, and Vente-Privee. Prior to entering the JD/MBA Program at Columbia, John received his undergraduate degree in history from Haverford College.
What attracted you to the JD/MBA Program?
I was attracted to Columbia for two reasons. First, I wanted to go to a university with top-class academics across a variety of disciplines. If I was going to go back to school to get a graduate degree, I wanted to be in an environment where there was academic firepower across the entire campus so that I could just be in an incredibly learned environment and attend talks, meet interesting students and professors, and just nerd out. I also very much wanted to be in New York. I realized that New York would give me a chance to do internships in the industries in which I was interested (media and technology) and would attract peers who were interested in the same thing.
I started my Columbia career as solely a law student, but about halfway through my first semester, I realized that I wanted to add some practical business knowledge to my degree. My goal was to one day have the experience to not only provide legal counsel to companies, but also to develop and manage them from the inside. I applied to the MBA as a 1L student and began the program the next year.
How has your JD/MBA degree helped you through your career?
I was a lawyer for the first year of my career, and then I moved into business development roles, first at NBCUniversal and then at Google. As a business development executive, everything was a combination of the two. At Google, I was responsible for negotiating transactions between Google and media companies. My MBA helped me with a lot of the strategic implications of the deals, and my legal degree helped me close them.
As a CEO, I use both degrees each and every day. A lot of the strategy that we use at Chartbeat is derived from Bruce Greenwald’s Strategic Management of Media class, and each of my executives has read his Competition Demystified. The way we lead people is based largely on Michael Feiner’s Feiner Points of Leadership. My legal degree helps me when I’m working with my sales team to negotiate contracts, with my investors and shareholders in our fundraising efforts, and even with our landlord when our air-conditioning doesn’t work.
What aspects of your profession do you find most rewarding, and why?
Our customers and my colleagues form the best part of my job. We have some of the most influential media brands in the world as our customers, ranging from the New York Times and the Atlantic to ESPN to international brands like Le Monde and NHK. It’s a crazy, rapidly changing time in media, and helping each of our clients navigate their way to success is incredibly rewarding. Our team is also incredible—I learn something new from one of our people each and every day. We have a saying at Chartbeat that “great ideas can come from anywhere,” and we live it each day.
What advice would you give to current and aspiring JD/MBA students?
In the abstract, figure out what you want to do and just go do it. As a Columbia JD/MBA, there are no bounds on your future. Start working on what you are passionate about right away. Don’t pick the “hot” industry—pick the one that’s right for you.
In addition, I would suggest that you find your first job at a company that is growing fast in an industry that you are interested in, and just jump in. Periods of high growth are incredible learning experiences, and they open up new opportunities almost constantly.