Nayeem Syed: MTV

Twenty-five years ago, video killed the radio star with the launch of MTV. At the time Nayeem Syed was nine years’ old, but today he heads the UK, Ireland and Nordic legal functions for the global music television giant as it works to keep itself at the cutting edge of youth culture.

The MTV empire is vast and is split between its US base and MTV Networks International, under which the Europe, UK, Ireland and Nordic operation falls. Owned by Viacom, the world’s second-largest media conglomerate, the company has moved to decentralise its operations to deliver more power and accountability to the regions.

That move gave Syed power to create from scratch his own fully functioning regional legal operation, with 12 lawyers currently based in the UK, who also cover Ireland, and another three, including a general counsel, in Stockholm covering the Scandinavian countries. Syed takes much more of a hands-on role in the UK and Ireland operations compared with those in Scandinavia.

“We’ve tried to manage the process with the structure in place and have teams aligned to the business units to manage the legal issues in line with the business priority,” says Syed.

The structure MTV has installed sees Syed reporting directly to the UK, Ireland and Nordic senior vice-president of finance, while legal matters are overseen by MTV Networks International’s senior vice-president general counsel, who is based in New York.

Syed’s UK-based operation is split into three teams – commercial, regulatory and licensing. The commercial department deals with advertising, marketing and sponsorship issues, while licensing looks at all the third-party IP to ensure everything is properly licensed before broadcast. “We operate nine channels alone in the UK, so there’s a lot of compliance and clearance work that has to be dealt with,” explains Syed.

The regulatory team ensures that the framework governing the company’s broadcasting responsibilities are complied with and also takes an active role in lobbying on business-specific initiatives to Ofcom.

Product placement is another area at which Syed’s team is looking closely, with recent relaxations in EU legislation governing the rules surrounding it.

However, the big moves in 2006 for MTV Networks Europe are expected to come from mobile television. “It’s looking at taking the two most successful consumer applications ever – television and mobile phones – and converging them, developing television that will be mobile-specific,” says Syed. “It will evolve as we see what works, but the regulations, compliance and IP components are all huge.”

On top of that, MTV is also dabbling with internet television, which poses a unique set of legal issues. “It will no longer be a purely linear experience to sit back and watch; it will be interactive and will give control to the consumer. How much control we want to give up is something we need to consider very carefully,” he adds.

MTV may be a US creation, but it is the UK that leads the way with the emerging technologies. “That’s why this is the best place to be right now,” says Syed. “Convergence is really arriving and the traditional walls are collapsing. The advanced digital TV market in the UK is driving this quicker than in the US. We’ve got a creative environment of forward-thinking businesspeople growing the region and probing opportunities for the brand in every direction, and this is a good place to be – right on the cutting edge.”

Like most in-housers, Syed likes to keep the majority of his work in-house, but when he does turn to external counsel he has a four-firm panel to choose from.

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Olswang and Richards Butler have been the historic panel members, with Field Fisher Waterhouse (FFW) recently added after a contact partner changed firms.

“These have been inherited relationships since I joined [in mid-2004], and they know the business so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel,” says Syed.

Freshfields brings its magic circle clout to the table and is used when dealing with Ofcom or other regulators. Olswang’s media reputation and client base in the industry makes it a natural choice, and Syed says Richards Butler falls into the same category. He adds that, although new, FFW is “working out very well”.

There has been no panel review in Syed’s 18 months at the helm and he “doesn’t see the need to do one anytime soon”.

Syed is coy when discussing budgets, saying only: “I’m very lucky that the company respects the need to resource the legal department properly; the budget I’ve got is one that allows me to get the support I need. The company doesn’t scrimp when it comes to getting specialist external legal advice.”
Nayeem Syed
UK, Ireland and Nordic vice-president legal affairs
MTV Networks Europe

Organisation MTV Networks Europe
Sector Media
Legal capability 16
UK, Ireland and Nordic vice-president legal affairs Nayeem Syed
Reporting to UK, Ireland and Nordic senior vice-president of finance Richard Tan
Main law firms Field Fisher Waterhouse, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Olswang and Richards Butler