Solution-Savvy Women Tackle Ad Sales in the Digital Age at Top Networks

Women in Ad Sales
Tatiana Boyko for Variety

Many years ago, when Jon Mandel was CEO of media-buying agency MediaCom, he got a call from an angry client. The problem? The client was a major beer company, and Mandel had just assigned a woman to oversee buying for the account.

“They went crazy,” Mandel recalls. “They said, ‘No way. No way.’ And I said: ‘That’s too bad. She’s going to be on it because she’s the best buyer there is.’ ” A year later, “They came to me and said, ‘Don’t ever put anyone but a woman on our account.’ ”

It’s a good thing that beer company got over its aversion to having a woman plot the spots for its suds, because in the two decades since Mandel stood his ground, women have steadily climbed into the top echelon of the advertising business.

The gains are particularly notable in television ad sales, a bastion of boy’s club-itis in terms of leadership roles until the 1990s. Today, the multibillion-dollar ad sales departments at three of the Big Four networks are headed by women — ABC’s Geri Wang, CBS’ Jo Ann Ross and NBC­Universal’s Linda Yaccarino — one more than the number of women who head all the various entertainment operations at those broadcasters. The heights that female execs have reached in this department is notable when compared with the number of women who currently run major TV studios (two), film studios (one) and talent agencies (zero).

One of the major reasons women have made such strides in the sector is that it no longer revolves merely around bulk sales of 30-second spots to big-spending advertisers. The work of sales executives has changed dramatically, and the volume of job opportunities in related disciplines has skyrocketed, opening doors for plenty of ambitious newcomers. New York remains the locus of activity for the TV ad sales trade. But just about everything else has been turned inside-out.

The marketplace has exploded with the rise of digital media as an advertising vehicle, and the blossoming of brand integrations and custom content as an integral part of campaigns, not to mention all the new forms of data and analytics required for targeting all those new ways to deliver a sponsor’s message. Moreover, the growth of cable nets as heavyweight contenders to the Big Four has greatly expanded the options for women to move up the ladder.

“Digital brought a whole new discipline into the landscape,” says Donna Speciale, president of ad sales for Turner Broadcasting. “The scope of the work just started becoming massive. We needed to find new skill sets that we never had before.”

The requirements of being a strong leader of a sales team have changed in ways that favor the qualities women tend to have. Golf and three-martini lunches are less important than data-driven analyses and creative ideas for marrying products and programs.

“Our business is so much about multi-tasking, and women by nature are very good multitaskers,” says Amy Baker, exec VP of ad sales for Lifetime, LMN and FYI.

“Ad sales used to be a matter of taking media kits out, having lunches, and writing on a napkin what the deal was going to be. Today, it is so much more involved. You have to do more homework. You have to be a specialist in your client’s business in order to talk about content opportunities,” Baker notes. “Back then, business was on a very specific cycle. You did 80% of your business in the upfront. Now, you sell every single day of the year in a much more sophisticated way.”

Another important factor behind the growing clout of femmes in TV advertising is simply the passage of time. Women who got into the business in the 1980s and ’90s have paid their dues. In many cases, they’ve achieved the experience, success and seniority necessary to command top jobs. It also doesn’t hurt that it is taken as gospel on Madison Avenue that women typically control the purse strings, making upwards of two-thirds of a family’s purchasing decisions.

“Our clients are trying to reach those consumers,” Baker says. “They know that (female execs) bring more knowledge about the power of the purse, and how women think.”

When ABC’s longtime ad sales chief Mike Shaw retired in late 2009, there was no question that Wang, his No. 2 and a 20-year ABC vet, would succeed him.

At CBS, Ross had become the first woman to head ad sales for a major broadcast network in 2002, tapped to replace her boss, Joe Abruzzese. When CBS chief Leslie Moonves gave her the promotion, there wasn’t much internal discussion about Ross being the first woman in the job. That came from outsiders, which reinforced to Ross that she had earned the post through hard work.

“I feel very fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time,” Ross says. “My boss recognized that it didn’t matter if you were male or female; he just wanted the best person for the job.”

Before Yaccarino joined NBCU in 2011, she was ad sales chief for Turner Broadcasting. Her job at Turner was filled by Speciale. Among other prominent women in advertising sales at major showbiz congloms are Amy Carney, president of advertising sales, strategy and research for Sony Pictures TV, and Laura Nathanson, exec VP of ad sales for ABC Family.

The contemporary landscape is a world apart from the working environment that today’s leaders found when they started out a generation ago. As chair of advertising sales and client partnerships for NBCUniversal, Yaccarino has a purview that encompasses all ad sales across broadcast, cable and digital platforms, reporting to CEO Steve Burke. Her division delivers some $10 billion in annual revenue to NBCU parent Comcast.

“When I started in this business, you always had that question in the back of your mind about how far can you go, because you are a woman. That has virtually disappeared from the thinking of the women who are joining our company today,” Yaccarino says, citing the number of women in senior roles on her team.

“The world has changed,” she adds. “Our division is really a good surrogate for what goes on in the entire industry. We don’t just sell television. We do cross-platform, we do digital, we do analytics. You really have that need for diversity of thought and diversity of experience to be effective in this marketplace.”

The formative years of cable TV in the 1980s were a great proving ground for many people. Baker began her career working in local sales for Cablevision Systems in the days when most people couldn’t even grasp the concept of cable TV. She went door-to-door making cold calls on prospective advertisers on Long Island. When she did get a sale, she had the soup-to-nuts job of creating the ads — in many cases, holding the videocamera — and delivering them to her corporate headquarters to make sure they got aired. The experience taught her to be resourceful and to be good at persuading people to try something new. Those skills have served her well throughout her career.

“I wound up finding all of the Chamber of Commerce meetings in different towns and visiting them,” Baker remembers. “I’d stand up there at the Elks Club or the local firehouse, and explain to them what cable advertising was. Back then, people thought cable was only HBO.”

In the 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of women also found openings at media-buying agencies, which at the time were growing in prominence as a distinct discipline within the broader operations of ad agencies. That put a generation of female executives in a good position to innovate and adapt to the marketplace changes that accelerated in the 1990s. And that training made them attractive candidates to land network sales positions.

“On the buying side, these women were able to learn what it was that clients were looking for,” says Mandel, who is now a consultant. “They came at it in a different way, because women tend to be solution-based thinkers. It’s not just spots and dots. … As the sales side realized more and more that in order to survive, it had to think more like that rather than just shoveling units at advertisers, women coming out of those agencies became more valuable, because they had a better understanding of that process.”

After graduating from college in 1984, Turner’s Speciale followed her father’s career path by getting into the local media-buying business in her native Rhode Island. By 1989, she was in New York working for Mandel at Grey Advertising, and later at Grey’s stand-alone media-buying agency MediaCom. In 2004, she was recruited by another prominent female exec, Starcom MediaVest CEO Laura Desmond, to head MediaVest’s investment department, overseeing spending for such advertisers as Kraft, Coca-Cola, Walmart and Procter & Gamble.

Speciale credits her early experience in local media with helping her understand how to be more effective by the time she moved up to the national big leagues. Among the ample opportunities she had to demonstrate leadership skills: her forward-thinking response to the convergence of TV and digital platforms.

“I started seeing this evolution happen with the congruence of digital and linear (TV) coming under one roof,” Speciale says. “We weren’t TV buyers anymore. I knew that we had to get our teams to change their behavior, and we had to get clients to change their behavior. That was a big transformation for all of us.”

Mandel cites Speciale’s track record as an example of the advantages women often bring to the table in tense situations. “In a negotiation environment, I think men tend to think with their little brain — it’s more like a street fight,” he says. “Women are better at thinking with both sides of their brain. They’re more solution-based, more focused on trying to find what’s right for me and for you.”

The advancement of women in TV advertising is undeniable, and heartening to those who remember the days when female co-workers were few and far between. But as always, there are trade-offs: With greater stature and more responsibility comes work that can be all-consuming, with travel and round-the-clock contact with bosses and clients.

Speciale says she feels an obligation to demonstrate to her staff, male and female, the importance of striving for a healthy work-life balance, no matter how intense the job can be. If not, the industry runs the risk of frightening away potential stars.

“What scares me now is that our business has gotten much more complicated, and the hours that we put in with technology are even more than before,” Speciale says. “I’m concerned (that) the women coming up the ranks now may look at this and say, ‘I don’t see the balance.’ I take this very seriously in my role (as Turner president). I’m careful about keeping balance for me and family. Young people are looking to us as leaders, and if they don’t like what they see, they’re not going to stay.”

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