One thing about covering the advertising, entertainment and cable-TV industries, staying current is essential, says Ben Swinburne, Managing Director and Head of Media Research for Morgan Stanley. On any given day, Swinburne might be trying out the latest social media app to understand how disparate sets of users are engaging with it, or digging deeper into what impact mergers and acquisitions in the cable-TV sector are having on subscribers and adjacent industries.
“I love what I cover—the rate of change is incredible," Swinburne says. “Disruption is a constant, with companies crossing sector lines to shake up the status quo. Plus, some big personalities, like the Murdochs or John Malone, drive the sector. There's always something going on to write about."
Swinburne, who was born in Boston and raised on Long Island, earned a Bachelor's in Public Policy from Washington and Lee University and a Master's in accounting from Babson College. “I like the idea of using numbers to investigate where people might be dressing things up or down," he says. “My mind works well when I'm thinking about clear rules.”
He fit in well at Morgan Stanley, when he joined as a new research analyst in 1999. “Two things that we try to do well: Have a lot of analytical rigor and collaborate with other teams," he says. That approach allows them to answer the complex questions that clients have about how they should position themselves and their portfolios in the marketplace.
Swinburne was charged with analyzing the outlook for the cable industry; as luck would have it, a few months after he was hired, AOL and Time Warner announced what was then the largest merger in U.S. history. “It was a trial by fire,” but it helped him develop his expertise and prove his mettle in a high-profile, high-stress situation.
Within a couple years, Swinburne was covering his own group of stocks. Whenever opportunity arose, he expanded his repertoire and knowledge of the industry. Today, he manages a team of five, covering some 30 major stocks, all in the media sector.
In addition to analyzing market-moving events, such as earnings, product announcements, M&As and IPOs, Swinburne loves to spearhead in-depth research projects, which often start with questions from clients. “One of the questions we've been getting is: 'How can digital advertising continue to grow alongside TV advertising growth?' At some point, it would seem like there's not enough money to go around," he says.
Swinburne did a deep dive into the numbers and published the results in a report called “Bringing It All Together," revealing that, despite robust mobile ad spending, U.S. ad growth was slowing, with all kinds of implications for traditional players and upstarts, old media vs. new tech platforms, and investors trying to figure out near-term shakeouts and long-term winners.
Swinburne’s penchant for structure and data may only be superseded by his love for the freedom he has to explore new ideas and ways of seeing the marketplace. “Every day we come into work, and we can investigate whatever we want," he says. "It's both intimidating and exciting."
It’s the kind of passion he tries to convey to the younger associates that he mentors. Everyone starts out on a team, with assignments to analyze some specific aspect of a company, industry trend or larger collaborative effort. They learn to contribute their insights and analysis to the larger report. But Swinburne also encourages them to pursue their own lines of inquiry and write their own research reports on topics that interest them.
“You keep asking questions and collecting data and formulating hypotheses, and the hope is that you will get to a place where you find a strong signal that slices through all the noise. That’s what everyone is looking for.”