Atlanta Magazine - July 2010 - Mother Nature Network
 
July 2010

Mother Nature's Daddy

Don't call him a tree hugger. Ad man Joel Babbit taps into a new environmental movement to build an online empire.
By Elizabeth Florio


Joel Babbit / Neda Abghari
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.

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.

***

At 7:15 on the morning after the Haiti earthquake, MNN managing editor Emily Murphy sent an e-mail to her colleagues: Is there an environmental angle we should look at? With a full-time staff of twenty, Mother Nature Network can’t compete with breaking news organizations such as CNN or MSNBC. It doesn’t try to. But it does try to reflect that coverage, so Murphy and staff pulled stories and photos from the Associated Press, embedded a Today Show clip on the home page, and set to work on an originally reported, in-depth presentation of the science behind earthquakes. The piece was classic MNN: cleanly written, attractive graphics, potentially reusable for the next earthquake. With a year and a half under its belt, MNN remains ever mindful of resources.

Depending on your tastes, the site’s content is either oddly disparate or appealingly diverse. On a given day readers might find an update on the oil spill cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico, a story about an obese skunk with a bacon addiction, and green-living tips from celebrities. (In one memorable video clip, Christina Applegate recommends buying bamboo towels while Amy Poehler advises drying yourself with your own hair.) They might peruse installments of “Translating Uncle Sam,” in which ungainly governmental data is rendered in plain language, or update their profile on the MNN Community social network, or watch full-length episodes of Captain Planet, the eco-themed animated series resurrected from the archives of Turner Broadcasting System. It’s not exactly the environmental Mother Jones. “We try and do things that have a certain optimism, that very much feel like you can effect change,” says Hope Dlugozima, MNN’s vice president of community and social networking. “It’s kind of like the readership of Real Simple. Do everything you would normally do—cook, buy clothes—but just do it a little more consciously.”

Such advice ranges from the strictly blasé (energy-efficient lawn equipment) to the risqué (hand-cranked sex toys). The site’s sheer range of material is one of its most defining traits. “The fact that we don’t have ‘green’ in our name allows us to cover subjects like caring for kids, camping, bicycling, astronomy,” says Babbit. “These are subjects that may not be pigeonholed as strictly environmental, but that’s where we see our future—social responsibility as a whole.” That the name sounds like CNN is purely accidental. Babbit forked over $100,000 to a New Jersey business owner for the rights to MNN.com after an acquaintance, Turner Enterprises president Taylor Glover, pointed out that Mother Nature Network would make for an unwieldy URL.

MNN.com officially launched in January 2009, after five months of planning in a windowless space on the thirty-third floor of 191 Peachtree Tower. Among the first hired: managing editor Murphy, a Westminster Schools alum who has worked at USA Today, National Geographic, and CNN; and content director Benyamin Cohen, founder of now defunct American Jewish Life magazine and author of My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith. Today, their green-walled newsroom on the fortieth floor of 191 Peachtree Tower is full of natural light and unnaturally devoid of conversation. Says Cohen, “Every time I make a phone call, I close my door because I don’t want to make noise. I guess it’s a very 2010 thing, all of us sitting here with our headphones on, instant messaging each other.”

Behind the scenes, though, the content machine is humming. Cohen presides over about fifty nonstaff contributors around the country who churn out quick-turnaround stories or write longer-form columns and features. Typical rates vary between twenty and thirty-five cents a word—a rate below what many freelance journalists will accept. There are eight featured bloggers and eighty-five college “correspondents” who report on news in their home states. Thanks in part to the languishing journalism industry, Babbit was able to enlist top talent early, including the former executive producer of CNN’s science department, Peter Dykstra, who contributed articles and serves on MNN’s advisory board; former Creative Loafing editor Ken Edelstein, who pens the weekly “Planet Pundit” column; and New York Times contributor Jim Motavalli, who authors MNN’s transportation blog.

Nonjournalist heavyweights also permeate the ranks, culled from Babbit and Leavell’s collective Rolodex. Atlanta resident Vanessa Vadim, environmental consultant and daughter of Jane Fonda, sits on the advisory board and wrote an advice column. Alexandra Cousteau, filmmaker and granddaughter of deep-sea explorer Jacques Cousteau, recently joined the board of directors and shares content from her independently produced series on water resources, Expedition: Blue Planet. James Berrien, who recently stepped down after a decade as publisher and president of Forbes, is MNN’s president; he maintains a New York address to be close to advertisers.

The face of Mother Nature Network, though, is Leavell. Besides contributing a share of the startup funds, Leavell came on staff as director of environmental affairs, which is a fancy way of saying he does a bit of everything: making sales calls and promotional appearances, interviewing fellow musicians in an editorial segment called “In the Green Room,” voting on strategic business decisions. For all the founding board members’ combined expertise on raising capital and generating a profit, Leavell’s the one with environmental chops. The owner of a 2,200-acre pine plantation near Macon, he routinely engages with lawmakers on matters of forestry and lent his expertise to the last two Congressional farm bills. He has written two books on tree farming and is working on a third about sustainable growth and development in American communities.

More than any of his fellow stakeholders, Leavell’s interest in MNN transcends the financial. Seated in his office in 191, where classic rock memorabilia adorns the walls, he explains in a soft-edged Southern accent: “The sleeping giant is awakening. People have started to get it and say, ‘Do we only have a limited time to turn our planet around? And if that’s true, what do we need to do?’ That’s what we’re trying to do at MNN—be a resource for people so they can make these changes. I’m a father, a grandfather now. I want to pass on to my heirs a world where they can enjoy the things I enjoy—walking out in that forest and breathing in the fresh air and seeing the deer and turkey and songbirds.”

***

When Joel Babbit was a kid in the sixties, American advertising became funnier, livelier, and more creative. “Think small,” urged the Volkswagen Beetle. “Betcha can’t eat just one,” dared Lay’s potato chips. Babbit, born and raised in Druid Hills, was a devoted consumer before he had any spending power. He admired the artists who would come to define the era in advertising: Norman Rockwell, George Lois, Andy Warhol. By thirteen he knew his calling. He declared an advertising major in the first quarter of his freshman year at the University of Georgia.

By age thirty-three Babbit had opened his own agency, striking off with another young player on the Atlanta ad scene, a Manhattan transplant named Joey Reiman. They flipped a coin to see whose name would come first, and Babbit & Reiman was born. “We thought of ourselves as Batman and Robin, Lennon and McCartney,” recalls Reiman, who today heads Atlanta’s BrightHouse consulting firm. “We both believed we could accomplish anything in the world. We had an unflappable and unswerving confidence.” They also had nerve. They netted one of their first clients, Rich’s department stores, when they were just a company of two working out of Reiman’s apartment; they held the meeting at a restaurant and paid waiters to pose as staff. They won the Days Inn account by arranging for a sign-wearing camel to greet the company’s president, Mike Leven, outside his hotel in Israel. Mike, we’re busting our humps for you back in Atlanta. Their campaigns were as creative as their pitches, and they frequently needed—and one year brought—a shopping cart to tote their winnings from the Atlanta Ad Club’s Addy competition. In 1988, when Babbit was thirty-five, they sold Babbit & Reiman to now defunct London firm GGT for what would amount to about $7.5 million, cementing their fortunes. The agency continued to operate under the same name until 1991, when Babbit left to head the New York office of ad firm Chiat/Day.

In 1992, he took a substantial pay cut to serve as Maynard Jackson’s chief marketing officer; he was eager to return to his hometown as it geared up to host the Olympics. During his yearlong tenure under Jackson, Babbit’s colorful ideas were not always well received—and sometimes they weren’t even real ideas—but they added to his mystique. Two oft-told stories from this time include the one about beaming ads from outer space—true insofar as Babbit met with a company called Space Marketing to discuss running ads on the side of “space balloons”—and one in which he proposed printing corporate logos on stray dogs, which was a joke he told a reporter friend that ended up in the next day’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Babbit was entirely serious, however, about a proposal to lease naming rights of Atlanta streets and parks to corporations. The idea got plenty of buzz—groused then councilman Bill Campbell to the New York Times, “We’ll just become Coca-Colaville”—but never gained traction. To this day Babbit thinks it would work. “People thought it was commercial and crass, but given the choice between having more policemen and teachers and giving up the name Piedmont [Park], which would you prefer?” he says.

He could present a similar hypothetical to any die-hard, granola environmentalist who winces at MNN’s list of megacorporate sponsors—corporations such as Aflac, Pfizer, Clorox, Dell, Southern Company, Coca-Cola, and MillerCoors. Indeed, MNN’s raison d’etre is awkwardly twofold—an environmental news site built in service of corporate advertising, if you’re Babbit, or the other way around, if you’re Leavell. But should the website be successful, perhaps Babbit’s greatest accomplishment will be that he’s found a way to obtain the dollars without undermining the message.

Sitting at his desk one afternoon, he clicks through MNN’s pages like a proud father flicking through the photos in his wallet. “For all the talk of being high-tech, most Internet companies still sell ads the way a newspaper did 100 years ago: by the inch, by the day, in rotation with 100 other companies,” he explains. He calls them NASCAR jackets—websites on which logos pop on and off seemingly at random, vying for attention. MNN, in contrast, is built around a sponsorship model that’s easy on the eye and, he thinks, effective. The content is divided into thirty-five “channels” with themes such as politics, fashion, computers, or cooking. Companies pay $300,000 to be the sole marketing presence on a given channel and all the pages within it for a year; included in the cost are six promotional boxes for interactive content such as videos and blogs as well as a share of the traditional display ads used sparingly throughout the site.

The result is that MNN has a distinctly corporate feel. There is a specific channel for building products (sponsored by Georgia-Pacific), for instance, and one channel for beer and another for “wine and spirits” (sponsored by MillerCoors and Brown-Forman, respectively). And it can be jarring to read an article about clean energy alongside an advertisement for Southern Company, which, according to the Center for Global Development, operates the country’s top three CO2-emitting power plants. But Babbit insists sponsors don’t influence editorial decisions. Asked if MNN would hesitate to cover news that implicates an advertiser, he says: “Every sponsor we’ve ever called on has asked us that question. They say, ‘Look, we try and do the right thing, but if by mistake something was to occur that involved us, are you telling me it’s possible that story would be on the page we are sponsoring?’ I say not only is it possible, it will happen. But if we lose our credibility, we are worthless to everyone.”

Given that muckraking is not MNN’s mission, corporations can feel reasonably secure on MNN’s pages while staking a presence within an increasingly meaningful niche. Says Chris Womack, executive vice president of Southern Company: “[MNN] is a great platform to disseminate messaging about what Southern Company’s doing on an environmental front—new initiatives, new programs, what’s happening in the marketplace.” Adds Bill Frerking, vice president and chief sustainability officer for Georgia-Pacific (a position created in 2007): “We look at MNN as a forum to not only message about our sustainability stories but also get feedback on what people are saying about the issues. The fact is there’s going to be content on there we may not always agree with, but that’s one of the things that makes it attractive to us.”

MNN broke about even in its first year but is poised to make a profit in its second, Babbit says. Monthly visits, a vital stat to advertisers, are surging. This March, MNN surpassed 1 million visits for the first time, up from about 800,000 the month before. Out of the 6,000-some environmental websites tracked by Alexa, the Amazon-owned website-ranking service, MNN’s rank as of May was sixth—behind nonprofit site Care2 and three governmental sites. The only higher-ranked for-profit site was the environmental subsite of Britain’s Guardian; MNN outperformed Hearst’s Daily Green and Discovery’s Planet Green.

Readers are just one ingredient in the cocktail, of course. The New York Times’ website attracts some 17 million readers a month in the United States, but with advertising revenue in a two-year decline, the Times’ executives made the polarizing decision earlier this year to charge a fee to frequent visitors, effective 2011. Babbit is watching this experiment with interest; its success or failure could shape the future of online news consumption. So could the iPad, for that matter, or any of the “digital newsstand” companies that have cropped up to broker the download of multiple publications. The ad model Babbit developed for MNN is just one permutation in the industry-wide puzzle of how to make a news site profitable.

Environmental purists might criticize MNN for the fundamental weirdness it represents: a green news site built as an engine for corporate advertising. They might lament that Mother Nature’s champion is an ad man, her cause boiled down to a bottom line. But if Babbit and his friends have calculated correctly, MNN will be a rare model of sustainability in a medium defined by uncertainty, in an industry that must evolve to survive. So long as its sponsors sign and renew their lucrative contracts, MNN’s editorial staff will get paid, even grow, and continue to generate stories about organic towels, electric cars, and earthquakes. And Joel Babbit will sit in his office on the fortieth floor of 191 Peachtree Tower, which looks out over Downtown Atlanta and the yellow haze of surrounding sprawl, and he will see that it is good.