David Phillips, '88: An Early Adopter Focuses on Sustainability

Appeared in Record issue: 
Spring 2009

After just a few years of working as an associate after graduation, David Phillips, ’88, recognized that big-firm lawyering wasn’t what he was cut out for. In 1991 he formed a company that sold computer equipment, much of it overseas. One day as he was researching a question about Chilean customs law on the rudimentary World Wide Web, he discovered that he could link directly into the law library at the University of Chile. “I couldn’t get answers to all my questions,” he says, “but the potential power of that connectivity was startling, and I wanted to know more about it and participate in some way if I could.”

He didn’t just participate, he led. And he still is leading today.

In 1994 he was hired as the second lawyer at a small company headquartered in a nondescript building behind a car dealership in northern Virginia. The company, America Online (AOL), did pretty well, and within a couple of years Phillips was managing a team of 25 lawyers who helped construct the initial legal architecture of the online world. He recalls, “[AOL founder] Steve Case always challenged us to consider ourselves as the framers of a constitution for an entirely new dimension of society. He wanted us to think beyond AOL’s immediate issues and try to create a governing structure that could last for many years.”

Phillips’s impact was expanded when he became general counsel at AOL Europe in 1997. In 1999, after AOL bought Netscape Europe and Compuserve Europe (with Phillips serving as lead negotiator on the Compuserve deal), he stepped from his legal role into the position of AOL’s managing director in the UK, charged with strategically integrating the three brands.

An even grander vista loomed as AOL merged with Time Warner the next year, but Phillips decided to move on to another blossoming part of the digital landscape, becoming CEO of Crunch Music, a European pioneer of the digital-download business. From there, he returned to the US and joined Napster, where he managed the business and product-development efforts aimed at launching Napster as a paid subscription music and media service.

From 2004 to 2006 he was a top executive at IGN Entertainment, a network of websites devoted to computer gaming, movies, and digital entertainment. IGN, which attracted as many as 23 million unique visitors a month during Phillips’s tenure, was sold to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, with Phillips leading the negotiations on IGN’s side.

In 2006 he formed the company he now heads, NaturalPath Media. Squarely positioned as a leader in what is known as the LOHAS (lifestyles of health and sustainability) marketplace, NaturalPath Media connects internet-based publishers, advertisers, and audiences by selling customized brand advertising programs to companies and connecting publishers, advertisers, and online audiences through a common network. “We now have over 130 websites in our network, making NaturalPath the largest, fastest-growing media network appealing to conscious consumers—consumers who seek out practical solutions to help them lead informed, healthy, and sustainable lives,” Phillips explains. The company also provides top content from its client organizations at a website it manages, naturalpath.com.

“So much of what I learned at the Law School has been very valuable in my career,” Phillips says, “but I think maybe the two most distinctive ‘Chicago’ attributes have been, first, learning that the best decisions are the product of surfacing multiple perspectives and reaching solutions through real give and take. That helped me in negotiations starting early in my career, and it helps me today as I work with our clients to be a true network based on mutual interests. Second, we learned at Chicago to detect where markets were working properly and where they weren’t. That’s a priceless skill for anyone in business who wants to identify and pursue real, enduring opportunities and not just the glimmer of the current moment. I think it has served me well.”