AT&T sent the ad-sales staff at WarnerMedia out to wrangle millions of dollars in critical support from advertisers in the industry’s recent “upfront” market. And once they were done, the company ousted their top executives.
Donna Speciale, a Madison Avenue veteran who has led advertising sales at WarnerMedia’s cable-TV operations since 2012, will leave the company along with two of her top lieutenants, employees learned in a memo Wednesday night, marking the latest departure of high-profile executives from the former Time Warner since AT&T acquired it in June of last year.
AT&T has been under pressure to reduce its debt since buying the storied media assets for approximately $85.4 billion. The ad-sales unit was left untouched as the company navigated through the industry’s recent “upfront” advertising market, which WarnerMedia recently closed. But AT&T has been trying to shed as much as $170 million, and has offered buyouts at various parts of the operation, including CNN and HBO.
“After a thoughtful review, I concluded that we also need to change the leadership structure to support the transition of our ad sales business. For the time being, I will lead ad sales as interim president, working with a three-person operational team,” said Gerhard Zeiler, who was named WarnerMedia’s chief revenue officer earlier this year, in a memo to employees.
Speciale will leave the company along with Dan Riess, an executive vice president who supervised a recent push into new areas such as content solutions and data-based buying, and Frank Sgrizzi, an executive vice president who had a strong hand in maintaining relationships with various media agencies. Riess had been with the company for 21 years, while Sgrizzi had been an employee of 28 years’ standing.
The move is likely to raise some eyebrows among the company’s advertisers, many of whom have counted on Speciale for years to devise unique ways for them to stand apart from rivals and create lasting connections with consumers. Before joining Turner, the TV operation that is one of the main engines of WarnerMedia, Speciale oversaw media investment at MediaVest, the former division of Publicis Groupe, and enjoyed years-long relationships with advertisers such as Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Kraft Foods. Her departure wouldn’t come as a complete shock, given recent changes at WarnerMedia, said one media-buying executive, but is likely to create some confusion among clients.
Speciale is leaving just months after the departure of David Levy, the Turner veteran who previously oversaw the company’s revenue operations and sports properties. Levy hired Speciale and the two had established a successful working relationship, with Speciale’s familiarity with advertisers complementing Levy’s broader oversight of content distribution.
Observers attribute the overhaul to a desire by AT&T management to put more of a push behind addressable advertising and data-based ad deals. AT&T has in recent months touted its ability to use its DirecTV subscriber base and technology and its new Xandr ad-tech unit to help marketers place commercials more precisely and in ways that will help them reach their most likely customers. Whether or not those efforts gain fuller traction remains to be seen. And yet, there is evidence that the needs of the company’s advertisers are changing: In the most recent “upfront” ad sales market, WarnerMedia saw new emphasis placed on the sale of digital inventory.
Still, Speciale and her team have been at the forefront of many of these trends. During her tenure, Speciale pushed for deals with advertisers based on new kinds of metrics, including sales goals, website visits and consumer responses. She was early to call for the scaling back of commercial breaks, vowing in 2015 to run fewer commercials during certain programs on TruTV. She was one of the architects of a unit called Open AP, a collaboration with Viacom, NBCUniversal, Fox and Univision that worked to define audience categories in a more uniform way so advertisers could make more “audience-based purchases.” WarnerMedia said in April it would pull out of the group, choosing to rely instead on its Xandr operations to achieve that goal.
She has a long history in the ad sector of pushing new ways of thinking to match the new ways consumers gain access to their video favorites. During her tenure on Madison Avenue, Speciale has pressed for new definitions of video advertising and has never been shy about establishing new concepts. She proved instrumental, for example, in helping the CW launch in 2006, while serving as a media-buying executive. She persuaded Procter & Gamble to align itself with CW’s debut week of programming with a concept called a “content wrap,” or a promotion that ran the length of an entire commercial break and looked much like programming. Today, that idea is widely used across the industry.
There is speculation among ad buyers and others that AT&T might like to put someone in the lead ad-sales role who has a greater working familiarity with John Stankey, the AT&T executive who leads WarnerMedia. These observers suggest AT&T might choose someone from its Xandr unit to move into the post. One person with whom buyers are familiar is Rick Welday, an ad-sales executive who had been leading AT&T’s national ad sales business. Still, there is no signal as of yet that WarnerMedia has identified a new ad-sales chief.
WarnerMedia has seen an exodus of its top executives in recent months as AT&T has taken more of a hands-on role. Richard Plepler, the former head of HBO, left at about the same time as Turner’s Levy.
Zeiler named three other senior WarnerMedia ad sales executives to oversee specific parts of the business. Amit Chaturvedi will supervise revenue operations. Katrina Cukaj was tapped to lead planning and research, and network partnerships, among other duties. And Joe Hogan, a company veteran, will lead overall sales.