Joe Abruzzese, a veteran of TV’s ad-sales wars who over the years was instrumental in lining up Madison Avenue support for everything from “Survivor” to “Shark Week,” is getting ready to leave the battlefield.
Abruzzese, 68 years old, will leave his post as president of ad sales of Discovery Communications by the end of the year, he said in an interview Monday. Ben Price, an executive vice president of ad sales at the company, will succeed him. Abruzzese leaves after 46 years in the business, many of them spent as head of either Discovery’s ad-sales outreach or CBS’. “It’s just time,” said Abruzzese, who indicated the decision to leave was his.
In ad circles, speculation has risen for several months that Abruzzese might depart. As viewers use new technology to watch TV programs in ways media companies find more difficult to monetize with commercials, outfits like Discovery, CBS, Time Warner and others have placed more emphasis on getting revenue from distribution, events and intellectual property. Last fall, Discovery named Paul Guyardo, a marketing executive who has worked for DirecTV and Kmart, as its chief commercial officer. He now oversees everything from U.S. ad sales to digital media to licensing and research – and Abruzzese, who had in the past reported directly to David Zaslav, Discovery’s chief executive.
With his departure, the media business will employ one less ad-sales executive with ties to the medium’s earlier – and some would say easier – days. Like its rivals, Discovery must sell ads across not only TV but also streaming-video and social media, and the growing number of venues and the splintering audiences flocking to them has heightened the complexity of the business. “Years ago, we used to drink at lunch,” Abruzzese said during a recent interview. “We don’t drink at lunch any more.”
Abruzzese has always cut an interesting figure, perhaps because of the bespoke suits and ties that are an integral part of his wardrobe (by his own count, he says, he has about 300). He raised eyebrows in 2002 when he moved to Discovery from CBS. At the time, it was unheard of to abandon a job at broadcast for cable. In the intervening years, however, cable’s appeal to marketers has increased, as it gives marketers access to large groups of consumer niches. And cable networks have often led in testing new ideas for running ads – Discovery this year said it would experiment with ads in virtual-reality content and in 2014 devised a program with talent from its various networks that was really a veiled promotion for a 20th Century Fox movie called “Exodus: Gods and Kings” – that often are embraced months later by broadcast counterparts.
During his 14 years at Discovery, Abruzzese helped sell everything from TLC to the tabloid-mystery fare that is the bulk of Investigation Discovery. He also helped launch OWN, the joint venture between the company and Oprah Winfrey. He spent more than two decades at CBS, and worked for ten years at NBC in sports sales, planning and business affairs. Abruzzese began his career at the J.P. Stevens Company in New York.
Replacing his ties to advertisers will be difficult. Over lunch, Abruzzese has been known to regale guests with tales of drinks and cigars with some of the titans of Madison Avenue, whether they be senior executives from Anheuser Busch InBev or senior buyers from Publicis Groupe. Over years of haggling, he has been known to say, he developed relationships that helped pave the way to doing advertising deals both large and small that were worth millions of dollars,
With that history, it would be easy for Abruzzese to set up his own entrepreneurial venture, but he says he intends to take a step back. “I really don’t like the word ‘consulting,’ which means, ‘How do I use your Rolodex?'” he said. “I don’t think that’s in the cards.” He may spend time doing work for boards of charities, he added.
He is the second ad-sales chief at one of the nation’s big media companies to step down in recent weeks. Jeff Lucas, the senior ad-sales executive at Viacom, recently left that company to take a similar job at Snapchat, the digital instant-messaging service.