By acting boldly—and reacting wisely—digital media innovator Jay Samit has hit some soaring high notes while melding marketing with entertainment
by Whitney Vendt
In 2004 Jay Samit was looking for a novel approach to gaining publicity to launch his new digital download music store, Sony Connect.
“I got the idea to do the first ever ‘Concert in the Sky’ from a concept Richard Branson of Virgin Records had ultimately discarded,” he recalls. But doing it alone would be prohibitively complicated and expensive. “So I looked though the paper and asked, ‘Who’s in trouble? Who has an obstacle that’s my opportunity?’”
At the time, United Airlines was trying to find a way to come out of bankruptcy, while McDonald’s was digesting the effects of the documentary Supersize Me, which had diminished their sales. Samit approached both companies with a proposal.
“I told United, ‘Here’s how we’re gonna make you cool and hip: we’ll do a Concert in the Sky, announce you’re a whole new thing, that you’re back, and that people can use their frequent flier miles to buy music downloads.” He arranged to have Sheryl Crow as the performer, filled the plane with press, and handed everybody a DVD of the event as they walked off. “Total cost?” Samit asks rhetorically. “Zero dollars and zero cents.”
Samit then negotiated with McDonald’s to launch a ‘Buy a Big Mac, Get a Free Track’ promotion, which would roll out that same day. “Every tray liner, every sign, every window of every McDonald’s, would be driving people to my store.”
But here Samit ran into complications. McDonald’s required their promotions be insured: They would cover their half of the policy, but Sony would have to pick up the rest, about $3mm, for the event to go through. Suddenly faced with this last-minute, seven-figure expense, Samit improvised.
What McDonald’s really wanted was to have the promotion insured, he reasoned. “Since I controlled the downloads, I could make sure nothing went wrong.” He told McDonald’s, “We’ll self-insure this thing. If you write us the check, I’ll cover the policy.” Samit launched his event without a hitch, pushed millions of customers to Sony Connect, and made his company $3mm profit.
Today, as CEO of SeaChange International, Jay Samit is widely recognized as a leading expert on disruption and innovation. His new book, Disrupt You! (released July 7), walks readers through some of the concepts he has mastered over the years.
“The book is about how anybody can make it to the C-Suite; how anybody can change the world regardless of industry,” he explains. “The world is one click away from six billion people saying ‘here’s a buck.’ Pretty easy to make a billion dollars.”
The secret, according to Samit, is to see a problem that affects a wide audience and offer a solution.
“If you focus on the part of the business that makes the most value, that’s where you’ll create the greatest wealth for yourself in the shortest period of time,” he explains. “This book teaches you how to look at yourself, see your assets differently, then go out and change the world.”
Originally from Philadelphia, Samit came to Los Angeles to attend UCLA, where he studied political science, intending to become a lawyer. He got all As, a presidential fellowship, a full ride scholarship to a top law school – then realized he had no desire to continue that path. “Probably the best decision I ever made,” he says.
At UCLA, Samit became fascinated with finding out how famous people achieved their success. As an editor for the school paper, he was able to choose interviewees from the many famous names that came through to speak. What he learned was that none of the successful people he met had followed the path of another.
He also had access to an ARPANET terminal at a time when most people didn’t even know what a computer was. This led to tech-related opportunities after graduation, particularly his first big breakthrough in 1982 when he founded Jasmine Multimedia Publishing, which developed laserdisc and CD-ROM titles, eventually evolving to develop interactive gaming, video games, kiosks, and corporate training modules.
Samit went on to take a position at Universal Studios in 1996, where he became head of business development for the New Media Group. In 1999, as senior vice president of New Media, he launched Animalhouse.com, the first online community for college students to reach a million members.
From there he moved to EMI where he spent four years working as president of digital distribution, guiding the company through a time when the music industry was reeling from the devastating effects of Napster. His work at EMI led him to meet Richard Branson, who invited him to come work for Virgin. Samit declined the offer – something he still regrets.
“Branson is the embodiment of a brand that can’t be destroyed by failure. The very fact that Branson’s companies are called ‘Virgin’ acknowledges the fact that they’re learning as they go.”
In 2003 Samit took a position at Sony, where, as executive vice president and general manager, he executive produced the Concert in the Sky event and expanded Sony’s focus on developing global distribution services for media. He has since gone on to work with companies such as Digital Containers, LinkedIn, Sonico, SocialVibe, ooVoo, Realty Mogul, and Equal Earth. He currently teaches a course on startups at USC.
In his current position, Samit is acutely aware of how consumer access to video is being disrupted now that a majority of customers have broadband. “It’s the same story that the music industry went through, except some industries are paying attention while others are not,” Samit says. “The value has shifted, and unless you figure out how to capture value when it shifts, your industry disappears.”
Founded in 1993 and headquartered in Massachusetts, SeaChange currently works as the technology ‘back office’ for major cable brands like Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon. Samit is focused on giving consumers access to content across multiple screens and finding ways to offer consumers greater freedom of choice, such as the ability to watch any show from the past 30 days.
One of the best ways to train for business, according to Samit, is to learn the art of performing magic tricks, a childhood hobby that he still enjoys as a member of The Magic Castle in Hollywood. “When you see a magician, you are against the performer – you are trying to figure it out. The magician must suspend your disbelief so that you accept that it’s magic. That’s no different than suspending your disbelief that the world can change. It trains you to convince people to be willing to invest in you, partner with you, follow you and join your startup.”
One of Samit’s greatest tricks was his philanthropic goal to put a computer in every classroom in America. The challenges at the time, the late 1990s, were significant. Many teachers didn’t know how to use computers and schools lacked phone lines. The cost of remodeling would have been in the billions. Despite not having any federal or state funding, Samit turned the issue into a popular cause and got Vice President Al Gore and President Bill Clinton on board. Within two years, every classroom in America had a computer hooked up to the Internet – all because Samit knew how to connect those who benefited from the results, to take on the challenge.
He continues to pursue this cause, both through his book and through his continued philanthropy. “Stability on this planet, particularly in the third world, is based on people having access to their basic needs,” Samit acknowledges. “If we can get people onto the Internet and teach them to be entrepreneurs, we can solve tons of problems. We can show people a road out of poverty. It all starts with access to knowledge.”
This article originally ran in the July 2015 issue of C-Suite Quarterly.