In the Office with Sofia Ioannou
by arielle castillo
Sofia Ioannou will be the first to admit she only fully unplugs to sleep—and maybe not quite even then. As managing director of Viacom International Media Networks for the Americas, based in Miami, she oversees the big-picture operations for MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, and their offshoots across Latin America, Canada, and the US Hispanic market. That’s a hemisphere-size media empire for her to run, with teams to manage in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, São Paulo, Bogota, and Toronto. Her workdays begin at 5:30 am, via BlackBerry, but with offices across seven time zones, Ioannou admits, “I’m plugged in 24/7. Disconnecting doesn’t happen easily when you get to certain levels in an organization.”
Ioannou’s job is global in every sense of the word. Responsible for business and creative development strategy in her markets, her current focus is on programming with major border-crossing appeal, as well as aggressive digital expansion.
“Day-to-day we’re working on growth, which will stem from launching the different brands into our markets, as well as finding the next big hits,” Ioannou says. For that, she prefers an on-the-ground approach, traveling to meet her various teams on their home turf multiple times a year. “It’s important to be able to sit at the table with them. It allows me to walk the streets in our market and have contact. I can see what [viewers are] listening to, what they’re wearing, and where they’re shopping.”
Under Ioannou’s watch, Viacom has cranked out a series of creative properties with impressive international appeal. Spanish-language Nickelodeon’s teen soap Isa TKM proved so popular it spawned a spin-off, Isa TK+. The US-based Hispanic Tr3s network, meanwhile, offered, arguably, the network’s first-ever bicultural, Spanglish reality series to prove a bona fide hit, Quiero Mis Quinces. On MTV Latin America, the network’s first-ever novela, Niñas Mal, quickly vaulted to the most-viewed scripted daily series on both those channels as well as Tr3s. In fact, thanks to such hits, the latter channel enjoyed a 46 percent ratings spike between 2010 and 2011, eventually making Tr3s the fastest-growing Hispanic cable channel for viewers 18 to 34 years old.
Ioannou and her teams have also revived the legendary Unplugged series for the Americas and Latin America. An early 2012 episode featuring Colombian rocker Juanes, filmed with the New World Symphony in Miami, even yielded the artist a number-one album on the Billboard Top Latin Albums chart, as well as a Latin Grammy nomination.
While finding the next big thing is a cornerstone of her job, Ioannou comes to her position from a legal rather than creative background, which has served her well in negotiating deals and contracts. She also credits her upbringing for some of her business savvy. Ioannou was born in Buenos Aires and later raised in South Florida, as the second of three daughters, with an Italian mother and an Argentine father, with whom she shared a particularly close relationship—they bonded over politics and soccer. While she also harbored a secret love of the entertainment business, she didn’t see a role for herself in it.
Her early and overwhelming interest was politics. Ioannou even considered a career in public life—the reason she chose to attend college in Washington, DC, at American University. It was there that, during her sophomore year, she would meet her future husband, Michael Ioannou, himself a South Florida native. Later, an internship with Senator Connie Mack led her to study law at Nova Southeastern University.
Her first job was as corporate counsel for TJAC, a partner of Wal-Mart, overseeing real estate law. And while she found the work fulfilling, when she ran into a college friend one day, she was surprised at a spontaneous admission: “I told her, ‘I think I missed my calling; I would have really loved to be in front of the camera or be a VJ on MTV,’” Ioannou recalls. As it turned out, the friend had a friend at the organization, then general counsel for MTV Latin America, Antoinette Zel. Zel ended up hiring Ioannou on as counsel for MTV Latin America, and subsequently served as a business mentor. When Viacom promoted Zel to president of MTV Latin America, Ioannou stepped up to become general counsel, before being promoted to general counsel for Viacom International, and eventually managing director. Those early days as general counsel prepared her well for her current spot. “To be a good lawyer for a corporation, you really need to understand every area of the business you’re infiltrating,” she says.
Though chronically wired into the happenings of her far-flung empire, Ioannou admits to a few hard stops that remain sacred. The first comes at about 7 AM, when she gathers her husband and children—two sons, ages 13 and 14, and a 4-year-old daughter—for breakfast. The other is family dinner at her Golden Beach home. “It’s something we don’t miss. I was raised with dinners as a family, and I’ve kept it almost as a religious aspect of our lives,” she says. That goes equally for her husband, a part owner of multinational wholesale food purveyors Marina Foods.
While her father helped fuel her career ambitions, Ioannou credits her mother with helping her develop the people skills needed to oversee a large organization. “She managed daughters who had distinct personalities, but she had a keen sense of how to show us we were the most important part of her life. I try to do that with my children and my husband, but also in my professional life with all the different executives,” Ioannou says. “In the way I manage senior members of my team throughout the organization, it’s about making them understand that I’m only as strong as they are.”
photography by gary james