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August 15, 2014 3:06 pm
Advertising executive-turned-internet-entrepreneur Joel Babbit is best known for his environmental news website Mother Nature Network (MNN), but he is also a history buff. Before we go inside his house, he excitedly leads me up a small hill to a road named Pace’s Ferry. It is the most distinguished street in Atlanta, counting the governor of Georgia among its residents. Although, as Babbit, 61, explains, it has very humble beginnings.
“That little blue bridge goes over the Chattahoochee river,” he says pointing down the road in the distance. “Before that bridge was built, Mr Hardy Pace [1785-1864] had a ferry that ran across the river. That’s how this street got its name. It’s also where General William T Sherman entered Atlanta on his famous ‘march’ during the American civil war that left most of the south in flames.”
Warming to his theme, Babbit continues: “In 1864, this whole area was critical to the civil war. I’ve got old photos that show this is where a ton of fighting happened.” Old photos, it turns out, are one of many things that Babbit collects in his expansive two-storey colonial-style home.
In 2009, when Babbit co-founded MNN with Chuck Leavell, the website focused strictly on the environment. Over time, however, they realised that visitors to the site are not so much environmentalists but rather what Babbit calls “responsible consumers”. They look at nutrition labels, practise yoga and buy hybrid cars. “The environment is a key subject for them but it’s only one of a number of things. Rarely will you find someone who’s concerned with the environment but doesn’t work out or care about their kid’s education. We’ve expanded our content beyond the traditional green issues to a much broader range.”
Babbit says one of the objects he is most fond of is a Louis Vuitton chest he found in an old shoe repair store in Atlanta. “About 10 years ago, they lost a pair of my shoes,” he says. “I never found the shoes, but when I’m looking around the backroom for them, I notice this thing in the corner, dust covered and everything. I kind of rubbed it off, and I asked the owner, ‘How long have you had this?’ It turns out some lady left it there 50 years ago. ‘Do you want to sell it?’ ‘Yeah, I’ll sell it. How much do you want to give me for it?’ I think I gave him a couple hundred bucks, and I see them sold now for $16,000. It still has the woman’s initials on it.”
Broader subject matter has led to rapid growth in readership – today MNN has 10m unique views per month, up more than 50 per cent from last year – as well as prized sponsors such as Walmart, Mercedes and Coca-Cola. Unlike other websites that sell advertising by the click, MNN sells annual sponsorship of each of its website’s segments, or channels, to companies for $300,000 to $500,000. The sponsors can then use this space to have a dialogue with consumers. Last year, for example, telecommunications company AT&T used its page to publish sponsored articles against texting while driving.
“It’s unbelievable to me that people in internet publishing talk about how innovative and high-tech things are, and yet they’re selling advertising the same way they did in newspapers 100 years ago,” says Babbit.
“Our model is very different. We don’t sell any traditional advertising. Each of our content categories is sponsored by one company for an entire year. During that year, they have 100 per cent share voice on all pages in their category. Mercedes has the transportation category, so you won’t see marketing from any other company but Mercedes on those pages. It’s a much better experience for the visitor because there aren’t all these logos and junk, and it’s better for the sponsors because they’re having an ongoing conversation with the visitors, and it’s better for us because it gives us higher margins.” Babbit points out that sponsored content is clearly differentiated from editorial.
Ten years ago Babbit bought this house with Kimberly, his wife, who is a documentary producer for CNN. The property was previously owned by the father of one of Babbit’s childhood friends, Doug Hertz, chief executive of United Distributors (one of the largest distributors of alcohol in the US) and now an investor in MNN.
Located in Buckhead, the house is close to Midtown Atlanta but feels like it is in the middle of nowhere. The property, hidden behind a private gated fence, is surrounded by greenery, and the house itself feels unassuming. “Doug’s parents built this place 65 years ago,” says Babbit. “He grew up here from birth, and I would always come over.” After Hertz’s mother died, Babbit got word from his friend that his father was planning to move. “Both of Doug’s parents had outstanding taste,” says Babbit, who chose to retain the dark wood panelling and matching built-in bookshelves. “Mr Hertz actually came over here a few years ago before he passed away and was surprised. I told him, ‘Why should I change it? You have much better taste than I do’.”
The Hertzs’ had made many additions over the years to the original structure, which is now the living room: a grand space with vaulted ceilings and exposed beams that has the feel of a literary hunting lodge. On a table sits an old chess set featuring elaborately carved pieces made to resemble the confederate and union armies of the civil war. “This is the north and south. If you look closely, you can see Lincoln and Mary Todd, and Jefferson Davis and the state houses. You won’t see that in too many places. I found it at an estate sale in Virginia.”
Babbit, who has three daughters, gives a guided tour in his unassuming southern drawl as we walk through a seemingly endless expanse of rooms. The walls of a bright yellow, wallpapered guest bathroom are covered with a meticulous collection of sheet music from songs that mention Georgia, including “Georgia Rose” and “Georgia on My Mind.” “This took a while because these [sheets] are really hard to find,” he says.
In 1995, Babbit launched 360, a marketing agency, which in 2002 was acquired by WPP’s Grey Global Group, whose clients include the NFL, Canon and Bosch. His many advertising awards line nearby shelves along with his wife’s Emmy and Peabody awards. On an adjacent wall hangs a less flattering commemoration of his work. “This is a postcard to me from Allen Ginsberg,” says Babbit, who once wrote a pro bono campaign for a Colorado-based institute that counted the famed beat poet among its board members. Ginsberg saw the ad, tore it out and wrote to Babbit to say it was too wordy: “Try reading William Carlos Williams and others. Good models. Yours truly, Allen Ginsberg.”
After selling 360, Babbit stayed on to work on many of the company’s larger accounts, which he noticed were spending an increasing amount of money on environmental messaging. “So I wouldn’t look like a total idiot in meetings, I would go to the internet,” says Babbit. “When I got there, everything was very technical, very academic and way over my head. Most of it was political. I figured if this was becoming a mainstream movement, there must be tens of millions of people just like me who are looking for answers who aren’t scientists. I saw it as a business opportunity to create a site that was giving environmental information and news but for a mainstream audience.”
Babbit contacted Leavell, the longtime touring keyboardist for the Rolling Stones, whom he met while doing pro bono work for the Forest Stewardship Council, an NGO created in 1993 to foster more sustainable business practices. “He happens to be one of the most educated and passionate people I know on that subject. He’s written four books on the environment . . . it’s a huge part of his life. He was thrilled by the idea and wanted to be actively involved.”
Continuing our tour, Babbit leads the way into the family room, which has a wet bar and, perched above a fireplace, yet more history – a commemorative flag from 1876, made to honour the first 13-star flag of America. The space opens on to a hallway that leads into a sitting room containing an office, entered through a hidden door, which Babbit has filled with more objects relating to his home city.
“If I have any criticism of Atlanta,” he says, “it’s that we’ve knocked down too many beautiful buildings and replaced them with flavour-of-the-month type architecture. You go to Philadelphia or Virginia and you see these old houses from the 1700s and 1800s. First of all, Sherman burnt nearly everything so there’s almost nothing before 1865, but there’s very little after that. If something’s been up since the 1960s, it’s considered old.”
Photographs: Chris Hamilton
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