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Media mentor of the year: Al Lieberman

NYU's Stern School tailors tomorrow's 'suits'

W hereas many graduate business schools have their eyes fixed firmly on the world of finance, New York U.’s Stern School puts stock in showbiz, thanks to a pioneering Entertainment, Media and Technology Program overseen by Al Lieberman.

Before joining Stern in 1996, the EMT co-founder spent decades working in marketing for entertainment and publishing companies. In that capacity, he observed firsthand the battle between “suits” and “creatives” — a common disconnect Lieberman has made it his mission to repair as executive director of EMT.

“A lot of my colleagues were having tremendous problems because they didn’t really understand what the creative people were thinking or why they had come up with certain campaigns,” he recalls. “They were being asked to sell the campaigns to clients and weren’t doing that great a job, and therefore weren’t maintaining much respect from their creative counterparts. There were often very interesting verbal battles between them.”

Lieberman’s desire to educate business students on how both sides of the industry work together inspired him to offer Entertainment and Media Marketing, a class that formed the basis for EMT’s launch in 1997.

Working alongside EMT director C. Samuel Craig, he has grown his program to 25 graduate business courses covering film, television, digital media, publishing and music, teaching 800 full-time students — plus nearly 2,000 more in the school’s Langone continuing-ed division. “I’m dealing with the suits,” he says, “the people who really want to be managers, business executives, accountants, CFOs and heads of advertising departments in entertainment and media businesses.”

Lieberman’s journey to NYU began at NYU, where he received a marketing MBA in 1963. After rising to executive VP of Young & Rubicam’s direct response division, he went to work for Simon & Schuster. In 1986, he founded Grey Entertainment, an advertising and marketing division of Grey Advertising whose clients included Warners, ABC and HarperCollins.

“Al brings tremendous experience, wisdom, energy and creativity,” says Stern dean Peter Henry, who joined the school last year and sees EMT as one of its key strengths. “One of the key things about the economic recovery is that it’s being driven by emerging markets. And what’s one of the greatest areas of growth in these countries? Media and technology.”

One of the ways Lieberman teaches the “suits” of the future is integrating them with the creatives in Stern’s sister division, the Tisch School of the Arts, and its Kanbar Institute of Film and Television. In a unique program, NYU offers a dual-degree, three-year MBA/MFA in producing with courses from Stern and Kanbar.

Even students who stick to Stern classes with an EMT specialization can learn how to work with the creative side in ways that may prove crucial in their future careers. “Probably the most dramatic way,” per Lieberman, is through ProMotion Pictures, in which EMT and Kanbar grad students work together to create branded short films sponsored by various companies.

ProMotion was founded by alums Russ Axelrod and Jeffrey Grossman while they were attending Stern in 2003 and is run by students. “We have 15-20 panels with business people, and the students are expected to make those calls and bring them in,” Lieberman says. “This helps them meet the industry people who are hiring.” He also hires students to write papers (for both pay and attribution) and help him develop new courses.

Lieberman strongly believes in providing real-world experience at school, and not just through the internships and job connections he helps to arrange either. To this end, EMT takes a class to the Cannes Film Festival each year as a way to teach about globalization in the entertainment industry, and since 2008 has run a similar undergrad class with the Tribeca Film Festival. Students also attend and help coordinate panels at the annual MBA Media & Entertainment Conference (held at Stern and run in conjunction with Columbia, Duke Fuqua, MIT Sloan and Wharton) and the annual Future of TV conference Lieberman co-chairs.

“He and professor Craig realize if you really want to teach entertainment, it’s not just about them lecturing,” Axelrod says. “It’s not an ego thing for them. It’s about going out to the community and getting everybody they can to come teach. He’s got great contacts and he’s not afraid to leverage them on behalf of us, which is great.”

In addition to an all-star lineup of guest speakers (including execs from Comedy Central, ESPN, NASCAR, Sony and William Morris Endeavor in recent years), the division augments its three or four full-time tenured professors by relying on execs for such companies as Viacom, HBO and Miramax as teachers. While this staffing setup helps Lieberman keep EMT relevant in today’s ever-changing media and technology worlds, he points out that “this is a business school that depends on continuity,” noting that Cablevision’s Local Media group president (and former Reed exec) Tad Smith has taught at EMT for nearly a decade, and CBS chief research officer David Poltrack has been with the program from its beginning.

But for Lieberman, who still teaches six courses at age 71, the main focus is still his students. “The terrible phrase that some business schools use is that the students are customers,” he says. “For me the students are the reason I will teach until my dying day. That’s what I really love about it.”

More from the Education Impact Report 2011:
Brave new ways to teach media | Yesterday’s grads share key lessons | Film school directory | Fox topper shows real class | Media’s emerging markets | Media mentor of the year | Master class | Brands sponsor student shorts

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