God created the world in six days. Joel Babbit created Mother Nature Network in one. The concept of an environmental website aimed at mainstream audiences had been germinating in his mind for some time. And the hiring, designing, building—that would take months. But the real genesis of MNN, as it’s called, occurred between lunch and dinner, when the longtime advertising executive secured $10 million in startup funds from a handful of powerful friends on the brink of a global recession.
Joel Babbit / Neda Abghari
As of noon on March 11, 2008, Babbit had no plans to send his career whirling like an unleashed balloon. Then president of GCI, an international public relations firm with clients such as Nike and Starbucks, he’d arranged a lunch with Tom Bell, then chairman and CEO of Cousins Properties, at the white-tablecloth business club in Downtown’s 191 Peachtree Tower. It was just a friends’ lunch; both men worked in the Cousins-owned building and frequently dined together. But Babbit couldn’t help himself. Working on an account for Dell, he’d seen the hundreds of millions the computer giant poured into environmental marketing. And in refining his own environmental literacy, he’d discovered that most websites in the field—sites such as Grist or Riverkeeper or EPA.gov—were highly technical, narrow in focus, or too political. There was an untapped opportunity, he told Bell, to create an engaging, approachable source for environmental news and information—the kind of website where a high schooler could do research for a science project or a new mother could scout organic baby products.
Bell knew it wasn’t a great time to start a business, but he’d also seen a change in his own industry as more tenants desired environmentally sensitive, energy-efficient properties. “How much do you think it would cost to start something like that?” he asked.
Babbit threw out a figure: $10 million.
“I’ll give you 20 percent,” Bell said, offering a cut of his own substantial fortune. Then he picked up his phone and dialed Pete Correll, past chairman of Georgia-Pacific and current head of Atlanta Equity, also located in 191. After lunch, Babbit dropped by Correll’s office and gave the same pitch, and Correll pledged a similar amount.
Later that evening, Babbit had dinner with Doug Hertz, president of beverage distributing company United Distributors and a friend of thirty-plus years. Hertz wanted in. At home, he phoned another friend, Rolling Stones keyboardist and Middle Georgia tree farmer Chuck Leavell. Leavell, who’d wrapped a two-year tour with the Stones the previous year and whose resume as an environmentalist includes lobbying Congress and authoring a children’s book, signed on as a fourth investor. All told, Babbit amassed a commitment of roughly $10 million—including a “significant” contribution of his own, he says—between lunch and the time his head hit the pillow. (A fifth investor, Atlanta Equity’s Gerry Benjamin, came on a few days later.) He gave notice at GCI the next day.
Says Bell, “I’ve raised a lot of money in my life, but that was just unbelievable.” Says Hertz, “It was probably the worst time to launch a new idea, or thirty days in advance of the worst time. But if you wait till the stars and the moon are aligned, it may be somebody else’s idea.”
Chuck Leavell / Neda Abghari
Friends of Babbit know he rarely dismisses a big idea. As one-half of legendary 1980s advertising duo Babbit & Reiman, he once turned Reagan press footage into an Applebee’s promo, earning a cease and desist order from the White House. As marketing officer during Maynard Jackson’s third mayoral term, he investigated beaming ads from outer space, prompting City Council to draft an ordinance expressly banning the practice. He has made a career out of pushing the boundaries of advertising propriety, of making worlds collide. MNN is no exception. Tom Bell is the current vice chairman and chair-elect of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a consistent and controversial opponent of climate change legislation. Pete Correll helmed a company whose business is turning trees into paper and building products. Babbit, for his part, bought a hybrid and admits he buys into global warming—even if he doesn’t broadcast it in polite company—but would hardly be called a tree hugger.
But Mother Nature Network is a dot-com, not a dot-org, with a goal of turning a profit. And the engine for the site’s profitability is advertising. Tempting as it may be to pin an altruistic motive on his foray into environmental journalism, fifty-six-year-old Babbit is dealing in the same trade that has transfixed him since he was a young kid watching Frito-Lay and Alka-Seltzer commercials in the era of whiskey-swilling Mad Men. Of course, the business of online advertising has become increasingly fraught, as advertisers question the value of traditional display ads and content providers seek to preserve an uncluttered viewing experience. Even a website as lauded as the New York Times has struggled to subsist on ad dollars alone. So at MNN Babbit has built a model that’s simultaneously stripped down and amped up—one that provides exclusive, in-depth presence for a few key sponsors and one that, he thinks, will pay dividends. He’s staked his career on it.