Retiring Dish exec Joe Clayton tells how he wrote the book on marketing consumer tech

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When you watch wide-screen TV, or satellite TV, or listen to satellite radio, the man who helped pioneer and push them was Joe Clayton.

PEOPLE still yack about what a good pitchman Steve Jobs was for Apple. But when it comes to serving the sizzle as well as the steak in consumer-tech presentations, nobody's ever gonna match Joe Clayton, a 40-year industry exec finally cashing in his chips at age 65, "so I have time to take my new grandson hunting and fishing."

Damn, I'm gonna miss this guy.

A few weeks ago, this outgoing president/CEO of Dish Network stole the spotlight at the giant CES electronics show in Las Vegas with a news conference entrance like we'd never seen before. Loudly banging on a bass drum, Clayton led a giddy procession of people dressed as kangaroos (Dish's company mascot) onto the stage, upending the day's decorum.

So, too, did his Dish product announcements, most notably on the Internet-streamed Sling TV service for "cable cutters." Clayton also busted on Sonos, announcing "multiroom music for free" through Dish satellite TV gear. And reminded all that Dish is still the only pay TV system with the nerve to "auto-hop" over commercials on recorded network shows.

"If you're not turning over the apple cart, disrupting the status quo, you're not going to have fun - or survive in this business," Clayton shared in a recent phone conversation with the Daily News. "If there's any advice I'd pass along to the industry on my way out the door, it's embrace change or fail. Keep your feet firmly planted in the air. That's how we got to where we are today."

 

Joe did that

Hardly a day goes by when we're not using a tech product that Joe Clayton persuaded us to buy.

Wide-screen and high-definition TVs? Thank Joe for introducing both, as chief U.S. executive for then industry-leading RCA/Thomson.

Video discs? Check that, for both the clunky "SelectaVision" variety that took RCA far too long to fine-tune, and the still-relevant DVD disc format, which RCA promoted from Day One - just as it had with the VHS VCR, lending stature to JVC's tape format.

"I put up giant billboards going in and out of Park Ridge, N.J. [Sony's U.S. headquarters] that read, 'Two are Better than One,' " Clayton recalled with a laugh, referring to the original Sony Betamax VCR's one-hour recording limit. It was also a jibe at Sony's "The one and only" branding motto.

Are you a satellite-TV viewer? Clayton's RCA was the primary maker and marketer of DirecTV/USSB receivers and antennas from the get-go, introducing the small dish product first to a Middle America underserved by cable. "But then we were also able to capitalize [in urban markets] on customers' widespread dissatisfaction with cable providers," he said.

 

Making radio pay

Clayton also kick-started satellite radio as first CEO of Sirius. "Pay radio was a much harder sell - and friends told me I shouldn't get involved - because everybody had free radio in their cars," he said. "But I saw lots of appeal in its commercial-free programming and go-anywhere reception. And after [Sirius program chief and former WMMR-FM general manager] Mel Karmazin hired Howard Stern, the business went through the roof - now to 27 million customers."

Clayton is "probably the last guy running a big tech company who started out with retail sales experience, as well as an MBA," observed Consumer Electronics Association spokesperson Jim Barry. And he still brings a rare folksiness to the pursuit.

 

Cowboy Clayton

Clayton doesn't need to remove his tie, as other CEOs do, to seem "down" with the people. And he still lays on that Kentucky accent of his youth. "An executive once told me I had to lose my 'good old boy' attitude if I wanted to survive," he mused. "I survived. He didn't."

Clayton also took a ribbing from French execs at Thomson SA, after that conglomerate bought the RCA electronics business from GE. "The French," he said, "called me 'Cowboy,' which was OK. They were real smart people, great at arguing, but couldn't merchandize or market their way out of a paper bag.

"Still, they were better than GE. Their big idea for a product innovation was moving the handle on the refrigerator door from the left side to the right."

Drawing folks in with cute mascots has always been part of Clayton's schtick, since he introduced little Chipper to tag along with RCA's Nipper dog, a company symbol harking back to the windup Victrola days.

When he arrived at Dish four years ago, the satellite TV company had strong technology, sharp pricing and a stale, geeky image.

"They'd come up with this incredible new multiroom receiver system and wanted to call it the 'PIP-813P,' " Clayton remembered. "And I said, 'No, we're going to call it the Hopper, because the content hops from room to room.' "

Company founder Charlie Ergen "suggested a rabbit mascot, but I picked a kangaroo because it's more pugilistic."

What's the future hold? Clayton hints at Dish evolving more into an Internet video company, using Dish's growing stockpile of wireless spectrum as an alternative distribution network.

And he envisions "everything connected to the Internet and the cloud - eye glasses, health care, automobiles. Even your dog's collar will be connected. I'm gonna enjoy watching - from the sidelines."

 


On Twitter: @JTakiff

Online: ph.ly/Tech