Interview: Lee Fenton, COO, Jamba: New Focus On Europe, Music, Simpsons

News Corp and Verisign’s Jamba mobile content JV will base its CEO in Berlin, become MySpace’s m-commerce facilitator in six European countries and push its new mobile/desktop music store out through broadband ISP portals as part of a new European focus.

In an interview with paidContent:UK during a visit to London, COO Lee Fenton said he would be “delighted” to take the top spot full-time after assuming LA-based CEO Lucy Hood’s duties since her resignation in October: “We wanted to base the CEO out of Europe and Lucy couldn’t base herself out of Europe and so she left.” Fenton made the move to Berlin mothership five months ago after dividing his time between Germany and California, and already sounds like he has his feet under the desk. But the company still expects to grow its LA studio and New York US HQ next year.

Simpsons downloads have overtaken pop ringtones as Jamba’s most popular content, but Fenton wants to break Jamba’s reputation as “the ringtones guys” by moving in to full-track music downloads. This will come in the next six months through an expansion of its German-only desktop/mobile music store. Fenton will also “look closely” at the dual Jamba/Jamster brand used in different countries.

Full highlights after the jump…

EU changes: On Hood’s resignation: “Nothing really dramatic in that … One of the issues, of course, was having a CEO based in LA when we have 90 percent of our staff based in Berlin, and it was felt that it was the right time for the CEO to be based out of Berlin and, obviously, Lucy, with her family commitments in Los Angeles, couldn’t make that move so Lucy left.” Despite what we were told at the time, Fenton said the decision was not made because of the relative maturity of Europe’s mobile market against North America’s, but because of where staff are based.

Staying in US: But moving the CEO to Europe doesn’t mean Jamba abandoning America, where a “huge opportunity” remains. The LA studio, responsible for producing content including the successful Simpsons downloads, will be “developed” and the New York country office “will be growing over the coming months”, adding up to “a real push in the US market”. Fenton said: “It’s not true that we have a purely European focus – we just happen to have most of our staff in Europe and we will be managing a lot of the business out of Europe. Most of us spend a hell of a lot of time on planes, as you can imagine.

CEO: So does Fenton want the job? He spoke confidently about all areas of the business and his focus on big, strategic aims for the company suggests a long-term interest: “The board are looking and doing a search for a CEO passionately. I think we have a fantastic board and I have no doubt that they’ll find the right person to lead the business. If the board wants to consider me for the post, I’d be delighted.”

Distribution: Jamba will remain a direct-to-consumer business and, though it’s in 35 territories worldwide, “we would like to push harder in certain markets so we’re currently looking at where we need to put additional emphasis in certain geographies”. Despite its direct-to-consumer history, “we’re seeing additional opportunities now to innovate around the whole distribution model”. Fenton is interested in off-deck positioning, for example. Plus: “Obviously we have a (mobile commerce) partnership with MySpace, which is currently only launched in the US (but) will, over the course of the first quarter, launch in another six markets in Europe.”

Ringtones: Sales are “definitely reducing as a proportionate amount of our sales and revenue, but that’s been a common trend for a number of years now”, Fenton said. “Although you hear a lot of reports to the contrary, absolute sales for us on ringtones continue to increase. Today, we are largely thought of as the ringtones guys. It’s important that we evolve that perception in the eyes of the consumer. One of the most natural ways to do that is through ringtones in to full-track music.”

Music: Amongst the additions to direct consumer operations, Jamba is “in discussions with mostly broadband ISPs” about extending its music store on to their services. Currently online only in Germany, the store offers single downloads, subscriptions and all-you-can-eat monthly rentals, is seeing double-digit month-on-month growth and will accelerate to other countries in 2008. “Offering our music service to PC customers is a natural extension for us and you’ll see us be quite active in that space over the next six months … It’s important for us to create more pull, not just push, and to give services that have more of a viral effect that bring more mass of traffic to our portals.”

Simpsons: The Simpsons Minute To Meltdown game, made by EA, has become this year’s Jamba top seller, a place occupied by ringtones over the last five years. Jamba products EVP Jens Begemann: “Fox content is the most successful in Jamba/Jamster now.” Jamba’s top 10 sellers are now comprised of five ringtones and five games. Fenton said the $9.99 US monthly price for The Simpsons package was merely a reflection of standard US mobile subscription costs and represented “huge value”: “Now that the peak of the game sales has moved on, it’s absolutely valid for us to look at that pricepoint again” to maintain sales.