Bruce Campbell has served as Discovery CEO David Zaslav’s top dealmaker for more than 20 years, and over their tenures at NBCUniversal and Discovery, has helped orchestrate many key M&A deals. The transactions ranged from the merger of NBC and Universal Studios to Discovery’s purchase of Eurosport and its 2018 acquisition of Scripps Networks Interactive that bolstered its arsenal of lifestyle TV brands.
But in early March, Campbell was handed his toughest assignment yet after learning that Zaslav had initiated secret talks with AT&T CEO John Stankey that culminated in the surprise $43 billion WarnerMedia-Discovery spinoff agreement unveiled May 17.
“Effectively, a meaningfully smaller company is acquiring the larger company,” Campbell says. “It’s an interesting dynamic that you rarely see.”
Campbell was among the handful of need-to-know executives to be in the loop through most of the negotiation process. Not only did the eye-popping pact stay out of the headlines until just a day before the transaction was unveiled, but it stayed off the radar of the voracious M&A market of bankers and advisers.
“Often the bankers and the industry generally see the deals coming. When we bought Scripps, no one was surprised. This one, no one saw coming,” he says.
Negotiating a deal in pandemic-imposed conditions was also a first. Campbell believes the virtual-negotiations factor went a long way to keeping chatter down. There were no groups of lawyers and bankers gathering in conference rooms. One of the first big in-person meetings came late in the process, about two weeks before the deal was announced. For the occasion, Aryeh Bourkoff, Liontree CEO and financial adviser to AT&T, cleared the floor of his Madison Avenue offices before either contingent arrived in midtown.
“We certainly had the element of surprise on our side,” Campbell says.
The hardest part of getting the deal done, as always, Campbell says, was making the business case for why it makes more sense to bring the two companies together than to keep them apart. As chief dealmaker, it’s his responsibility to vet that case — even check the CEO’s enthusiasm if need be — and make sure the math and the rationale all add up.
“If you’re an investment banker, their job is to get deals done. Coming from inside, we have to continue to think what’s going to matter to this company five years from now,” Campbell says.
Unsurprisingly, Campbell would not expand on the issues and points that arose in the WarnerMedia negotiations other than to say that much back-and-forth was done on the valuation of the various assets contributed by both sides.
Since he landed at Discovery, a few months behind Zaslav, Campbell has been the CEO’s right hand in executing the strategic plan that has yielded a triple-digit expansion of Discovery earnings.
In addition to striking deals, Campbell’s remit in operations has expanded steadily. He oversees most of Discovery’s revenue-generating operations, and he is unquestionably in line for a big role in the expanded Warner Bros. Discovery, so long as the deal closes as expected by the middle of next year and doesn’t hit regulatory turbulence.
Campbell, like Zaslav, can’t discuss future plans in any depth while the merger is under review by the Justice Department. But he indicates that Warner Bros., HBO and others at WarnerMedia are in for a burst of activity once Zaslav is firmly holding the keys to HBO and the town’s biggest movie and TV studio.
“We are as non-bureaucratic as a media company can be. That’s a really unique thing about the culture here and David’s leadership style,” Campbell says. “David is hands-on. He loves deals. He’s a big reason why we’ve been able to get things done. He’s got a real people focus and knows what his team is capable of.”
THE INNER CIRCLE
Adria Alpert Romm
Chief people and culture officer
After a 25-year run at NBCUniversal as a senior human resources executive, Alpert Romm moved to Discovery within months of Zaslav in 2007.
Chief brand officer, Discovery & factual
The company veteran revved up TLC with hits such as “90-Day Fiancé,” “Sister Wives” and “My 600-lb Life” before taking over Discovery and Science Channel.
Chief lifestyle brands officer
The Scripps Networks alum, who scored big ratings and profits with Food Network and HGTV, was tapped to run a huge portfolio of female-focused channels following the 2018 Scripps acquisition.
Chief corporate operating officer
The 21-year company veteran and former Clinton administration communications official has become a key diplomat for and consiglieri to Zaslav.
President and CEO, Discovery Streaming and International
The executive, who once worked with Zaslav at NBCUniversal in business development, signed on in 2011 to run digital and now steers Discovery’s international operations and direct-to-consumer platforms.
Chief financial officer
The financial wiz is crucial to keeping what Zaslav likes to call “a free cash-flow machine” humming with a balance sheet ready for M&A when opportunity strikes.