Former MTV Executive, Brand Expert & Marketing Executive at Medjet
Sheri Howell began her long and diverse career with a 15-year stint at MTV, where she helped to build the platform into the international brand that it is today. Then, she spent a decade building branded content with such notable clients as Sports Illustrated, Walmart and Sony, working with pop icons like the Black Eyed Peas and Miley Cyrus. Sheri has now found her passion in a company called Medjet, an air medical transport company that provides international travel security. The work, she says, is far from boring: “On a daily basis, I watch the company help people at their worst and scariest moments, which has been incredibly rewarding.”
Your father had an interesting career, which resulted in many family moves. Why?
My father was a captain in the Coast Guard, a career officer. He was the Dean of Engineering at the Coast Guard Academy, which is probably the most difficult academy to get into. He was brilliant. He had a master’s in engineering and a master’s in business. He taught at the Academy and designed new ships. While the ships were being built, we lived in Washington, D.C. We also lived in Seattle a lot because he was a captain of the giant Polar-class icebreakers. So, we moved around every four years.
Are your parents still living?
My mother is. She has more energy than I do. Jan’s like the ENERGIZER Bunny. My father is not living; it has been three years. He had Alzheimer’s for quite some time, though.
Where do you live?
The company that I’m working with now is in Alabama, so I live most of the time in Birmingham. My son goes to school here in New York, so I bounce between the two.
Your career has been equally diverse and mercuric. What was your first job out of college?
MTV for fifteen years.
How did the position evolve?
When I was a junior in college at the University of Washington, Hunter College, here in New York, had the equivalent to a junior year abroad. Rather than going to Paris or Europe, you came to New York. They set students up with all the classes in their major, and they provided internships. I was 16-years-old and living on the Coast Guard Academy campus where my dad was Dean of Engineering when MTV launched. My best friend’s dad was the assistant superintendent of the Academy. We found MTV the day that it launched. That night my dad finally called over to my friend’s home and asked, “Is my daughter over there? Can you send her home? It’s three o’clock in the morning.” We were fixated because there were videos all day, and they had not stopped yet. We decided that we wanted to work there. My friend found the Hunter College program, and he went the first year. Then I applied with one of my friends from University of Washington and landed an internship there. When I graduated, there was a job opening for an assistant in the talent relations department. My friend, who was already working there, told the woman who was hiring the assistant that I was graduating. The woman said, “We loved Sheri. She was the greatest intern ever.” So, they held the job open for me until I could graduate. I had switched majors to English short story and poetry writing. I would write all night, and FedEx my assignments back to college because I arranged to leave before I technically graduated. I started out as an assistant to Roberta Cruger. I loved her.
From assistant to?
Vice President of Music and Talent. It was a great job. We would look at all the music videos that came in every week and then pick the videos that would be played. At that time, MTV actually played a lot of music and was incredibly powerful.
Who was the CEO?
Tom Freston, but they seemed to change regimes every four years. There would be pink slips flying, but somehow, I survived. You just do your job and keep your head down. I think the day that I started as an assistant I had already started eyeing the next role. I asked, “What is the next level up? What do they do all day?” I began to learn their jobs and would offer to help them, so by the time they were promoted, I would have already been doing part of that job. It put you in the front of the line.
Did someone teach you that?
No. It is an intuitive thing.
During the fifteen years, did your father ever change his mind about MTV’s sustainability?
Yes. When they came to visit me at work for the first time, I think he saw the scope and how big MTV actually was. MTV had five floors at 1515 Broadway at the time. I think he was finally impressed.
How would your father tell you that he was proud of you?
Ooh. He didn’t a lot. He was not a man of many words, but you just knew.
Did he meet your fiancé?
He did. I always call it my bad version of The Notebook story. My fiancé is actually my first boyfriend ever. He was a cadet at the Coast Guard Academy at the time that my dad was the Dean of Engineering. My mom has known him since he was probably 20.
Your version of The Notebook has interesting twists and turns. How did you reconnect with your first love many years later?
Through the years, my fiancé stayed in touch with my family, and we remained friends with occasional contact. At the Academy, we lived up on the hill, and so my parents were well-known.
Did you always love him?
Yes, I think so.
Did you ever let yourself talk about that?
No, it’s funny because we are very different people. He broke my heart when I was 18, and I was just so angry. I went off to live my life, first to college, and then I moved to New York and later worked at MTV. He graduated top of his class, went to Navy flight school and flew jets into hurricanes. He was in the military for twenty years and then became a pilot for FedEx. We are very different.
Is he like your father?
No, he’s very outgoing.
You both married other people in between?
Yes. He married and had three kids. I was married and had one son.
How did the circle complete?
This is where the bad version of The Notebook comes in. He had long been divorced and had a health issue but didn’t know how to talk to people about it. He called and told me the situation. I said, “First of all, until you have a plan of action, you shouldn’t mention it to anybody who might be upset by it. You’re a can-do kind of a guy, the guy that gets things done. The first question will be, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ You have to be able to answer that question.” Long story short, my mom wrote him a note after I told her what was going on when he was in the hospital. He read her note and decided that he would go visit her as soon as he was well enough. I think he knew that I was going home for her birthday. He piled himself into the car and showed up two days early. He apologized for breaking my heart when I was 18 and told her that he still really loved me and was going to get me back. My mom laughed at him and said, “You both are so different now. There’s no way.”
So, you ended up in Birmingham, Alabama via L.A. and New York City?
In between MTV and Birmingham, in your current position, what did you do?
I was in the music department for a long time at MTV. The brand shifted while I was there into a lot of non-music programming. That was my introduction into marketing and brand renovations and all that I do now. I experienced my first lesson in marketing through these executive retreats. So, when I finally left MTV, I didn’t want to go into the music business. I saw where that was going. I partnered with a friend who was running Albert Watson’s company. He had come from Foote, Cone & Belding and the Levi’s accounts, and we started working on projects together. We worked with The Black Eyed Peas a lot. We also helped the online department of Sports Illustrated create branded content to super serve their advertisers. We worked in branded content for a good ten years.
When did you get your Emmy?
will.i.am wanted to support Barack Obama for president, and he came up with this “Yes We Can” video. So, we helped him create that. A lot of his friends and celebrities were involved.
What was your role?
Executive producer. He conceptualized it, and my partner, Mike Jurkovac, was the other executive producer. Jesse Dylan was involved in it, and Sarah Pantera helped book all the talent. It was a big team effort to help him. We had done so much with him, so many different campaigns.
You spent 15 years at MTV and then ten years doing branded content. What did you do next?
I have always done marketing. Whether it’s brands meet bands and content, that’s still marketing. You’re trying to get to what I would call “brand truths.” Artists are brands. A lot of people don’t understand what the brand truth of an artist is or what the brand truth of the partner is. I always call it getting people to play nicely in a sandbox. It’s finding the intersection where the artist and partner can peacefully coexist. We did that a lot. Marketing has really been my entire career.
What was the most creative initiative that you ever worked on?
Probably a project called Nomad: Two Worlds, which took me to Australia. That project was created by Russell James, a photographer. At the time, the production company was doing all of Victoria’s Secrets’ commercials. We were interested in signing Russell as a director and learned the way to his heart was this project. It was a photographic project about the clash of ancient civilizations with the modern world. It’s told in three stories, and it’s an exhibition and discovery. He wanted to make a film out of it. I introduced him to a friend who did an art exhibition with the Australian Consulate every year, and we ended up launching it. will.i.am executive produced this remix of the prime minister’s apology speech to the indigenous people of Australia, and Hugh Jackman hosted it. Donna Karan, Anna Wintour, news channels, everyone engaged and turned it into this huge collaborative thing. Russell’s photography with indigenous art told the story of the emotion and the intent behind the photograph as well as its inception and discovery. We started touring, and he brought in a CEO who turned it into an incubator for things other than just art. There was a fragrance line that came out of it. There was a nonprofit foundation that came out of it. The foundation is supporting the Nomad: Two Worlds’ people that are on tour right now with Hugh Jackman and his Broadway show. So, that was a great experience. Just taking this really beautiful collection of photography and watching that evolve was amazing.
What in the world happened? Now, Birmingham Alabama and a company called Medjet?
What in the world happened? I was living in Los Angeles but spending a lot of time in the Birmingham area for what I call my bad version of The Notebook. As long as I was down south (I was really looking in Atlanta), I wondered what kind of companies were in Birmingham, and I stumbled across this company called Medjet. When I started reading about it, I was incredibly angry that I hadn’t been a member for the last 20 years of my life. I travel all the time and had just returned from Bogota, Colombia and Mexico City, traveling by myself. I picked up the phone, called the CMO and told him I was spending a lot of time down in Birmingham and sent him my resume. I told him I thought that they might have a marketing problem because I should have been a member for the last 30 years along with every single person that I know. I told him that I wanted to help them. In my resume, he saw the work I had done with Intel, Walmart, Miley Cyrus and MTV, and he asked me, “Why are you here? What are you doing here? Don’t tell me on the phone. Meet me for lunch.” They probably thought I was on the run . . . an embezzler or something. Medjet is my new obsession. I love it when you really like a product that you would actually own. I do have it now, and I cannot tell you how nice it is. My son goes to school here in New York, and I’m in Alabama. If something happened here to him, Medjet would make sure that he got home to me. Medjet is air medical transport and travel security. It sounds incredibly boring, but it’s not. On a daily basis, I watch the company help people at their worst and scariest moments, which has been incredibly rewarding, and it’s a small company. I love renovating brands, and I have had a lot of freedom. With Sports Illustrated, we did a lot of work with Hard Rock. Nomad was created from scratch. We worked with Miley Cyrus and Walmart when she was in the television show Hannah Montana. Everybody was positioning her as Hannah Montana, but she was a grown-up. So, we created a nonprofit partnership for her called Get Ur Good On, and everything washed through that. Russell did her photographs for a year, and everything took on a much more mature and beautiful aesthetic. Every charity that she did, she “got her good on” whether it was with Make-A-Wish or some other cause. Everything was consistent for a year. With Medjet, it’s been great because they trust my judgment. It has been reinvigorating. The marketing, re-branding the website development and their marketing collaterals . . . everything is brand new.
If a person finds himself or herself in harms way, is it too late at that point to engage with Medjet?
No, it’s not, and insurance is important. We always recommend travel insurance. People should also be covered by their business. In the case of corporations, we elevate that care to the individual and get them back to their own hospital. Travel insurance leaves you in the acceptable facility unless it’s medically necessary to get you home. We go one step beyond. We don’t care if the facility is acceptable or not. If you want to go home, that’s what we do. We take you to your home hospital.
There’s a medical component, and then there’s a security component?
Right. There’s one level of membership called Medjet Assist, which is the medical transport, and then there’s the elevated level, Medjet Horizon, which is all the transport benefits, but also includes the ten security and crisis response services layered on top.
Why is Medjet timely?
Security. For the first time, this year, security is people’s number one concern when travelling. I believe it was Business Travel News’ poll that first showed that the number one concern of travelers is safety and security. Now, people are uncertain even places where they used to feel safe.
Where do you see yourself five years from now, physically?
Wow. I ask myself that question all the time. I love it there in Alabama. We have a house on a lake and four rescue dogs. I really enjoy my work at Medjet. My fiancé is retired now, so there is talk about travel trailers and road trips. I think he gets a little bit frustrated that I’m still working. Hopefully, five years from now, I will be doing a lot of consultation, still working with Medjet, but spending a lot of time in a travel trailer cruising around the United States, hiking in Moab and visiting friends.
Do you ever see your fiance moving to New York City?
He is not a city person.
Did you ever expect real love?
Absolutely, positively not.
But you are 100 percent sure?
Can you share with our young readers a piece of advice? It can be anything.
Wow. I give out so much advice, but it’s always very specific. There is a young woman who grew up with my son. Her mother is the CEO of a company. This young lady wanted to get into the music business. When she was going to Sarah Lawrence, I helped her get various internships. She graduated, and I’ve been helping her find a job. It was easy to help her because she didn’t present me with a broad “ask.” She came to me with a clear idea of what she wanted. If you want help, you have to have pre-thought everything. For many young people, they only have a vague idea of what they want to do. If you want help trying to figure out what the opportunities are, then that’s a very specific question and a very specific ask that I can help you with. With Ruby, it was great because she did all of the work. She would call me with an actionable request, like when she had submitted the application and had gotten the phone interview, and she just needed somebody to kick it over the edge. I would say if you need help, ask for very specific help like, ‘Could you call this person for me?’ or ‘Do you know somebody at this place?’ People in general don’t know how to ask for help. A broad range “can you help me” doesn’t help you figure anything out. If you need help, do all the work first and then figure out what is the actionable thing that the person can do for you. Otherwise, it’s just too broad, and you may be disappointed.