Chuck Leavell

Rolling Stones Keyboardist Does It All

Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

You have to understand that Chuck Leavell has a passion beyond the musical career that led him to become one of the early members of the Allman Brothers Band and the keyboardist for the Rolling Stones since the early 1980s.

He loves the land. For decades, in addition to touring with the Stones, he has been a tree farmer in Georgia and an advocate for the environment. It was the latter passion that led him to join with veteran ad man Joel Babbit on an Internet startup, Mother Nature Network, that has taken off since its founding in 2008—landing funding from such major media players as CNN and Discovery Communications and taking over the popular site TreeHugger from Discovery along the way.

Leavell, recounts the way the Mother Nature Network got its start.

He and Babbit were chatting and Babbit, then with advertising giant WPP, was talking about how big advertisers were looking for a way to tell their stories of environmental stewardship and he asked Leavell if there were any large websites devoted to the issue.

“There’s a lot of mom and pop sites,” Leavell said. And there were plenty of sites run by organizations like the Sierra Club. But there wasn’t a large site devoted to environmental issues.

“He hesitated and then he turned over to me and said, ‘well why don’t we build it?’ I said, ‘Man if you’re serious, I’m in’,” Leavell said.

They decided from the start to launch a site geared toward a general audience interested in environmental issues, but not toward environmentalists, per se.

The two launched at an inopportune time for media, 2008, when there were major cutbacks at news organizations that have continued.

But, Babbit, the chief executive of MNN told me, that actually played to his company’s benefit. Atlanta is a major media market, with the presence of CNN, Cox, The Weather Channel and Web MD.

“We were able to pick up some really great talent that were looking for work,” Leavell said.

And Mother Nature Network launched with a different model for advertising. Instead of banner ads and the like, MNN launched with different topics and allowed advertisers to buy sole sponsorship of those topics.

“We have approximately 30 different categories of content and each of those is sponsored by one company,” Babbit said. “We have had tremendous success on that front as well.”

The sponsorship model, along with the site’s initial focus on environmental news translated for a general audience resonated.

Sites run by the company attract about 7 million visits a month, the most for any commercial site devoted to the environment.

Mother Nature Network has landed such advertisers as Mercedes, Coca-Cola and AT&T. “More importantly we’ve retained that group,” Babbit said.

Leavell has even done some advertiser schmoozing while on the road with the Stones.

“Actually, being out here on tour with the Rolling Stones works to our advantage,” he said. He’s been able to meet with contacts from companies like Mercedes and Aflac while touring.

And as the site has grown, it’s grown beyond a strictly environmental focus to embrace various other topics like health and family.

Leavell and Babbit say that’s just the beginning of big things to come. They plan to expand the number of topics, but keep them all under the umbrella of targeting the socially responsible consumer.

“It’s not like we’re picking an audience that is small or declining. It’s an audience that’s growing,” Babbit said.


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