Paul Wilson never ran a 10,000 meter race at the Olympics, but he sure must feel like it.
Wilson has supervised much of the work that NBCUniversal’s ad-sales team has had to do over the past two decade to make the company’s investment in the Olympics pay off. He is stepping down from his role as senior vice president of Olympics ad sales at NBCU, ending a streak of selling commercial inventory for the past ten editions of the Games, eight as the leader — making him directly responsible for $10 billion in ad revenue. During the pandemic, NBCU really had to work for its ad support, breaking down buys that sponsors had committed for the 2020 Games, then rebuilding them for 2021 after coronavirus forced a year’s delay of the Summer Games. There was even more work to do — the delay meant the Summer Olympics took place just six months before the 2022 Winter Games.
Wilson hopes to keep his ties to the event. “Once it gets in your blood, it stays in your blood,” he says in an interview. Olympics advertisers “come into it, and they come in all guns blazing. They want to do their bit for the movement. They want to do their bit for the athletes.”
Dan Lovinger, who had been overseeing all of NBCU’s sports ads sales, was named earlier this year to take on the Olympics directly. NBCUniversal executives hopes that the Games, which have proven nettlesome as viewers migrate to streaming venues and try to suss out how to watch athletic contests that have taken place in Beijing and PyeongChang in recent outings, will be easier to broadcast from Europe and the U.S., where they are slated to take place in 2024, 2026 and 2028.
Wilson spent the past 22 years at NBCU, starting out selling MSNBC and “Today” as part of the company’s efforts to line up advertising behind news programs. After making a jump to sports, he first started selling the Olympics during the 2004 Games in Athens. “He truly believes the Olympics are the soul of our company and the greatest platform available to marketers!” Lovinger said in a memo to staffers. “That passion has helped Paul build the strongest customer relationships in the business. “
Wilson’s exit is the latest in a parade of veteran ad-sales executives who have specialized in sports when streaming wasn’t really a verb. He will follow Neil Mulcahy, the longtime Fox Sports executive; Ed Erhardt, the head of ad sales at ESPN; and, most recently, Seth Winter, who supervised NBC Sports ad sales before moving over to Fox. These sales chiefs started out in an era when sports were fully the province of TV, and they exit when the companies they work for are increasingly interested in using NFL games, MLB match-ups and NHL contests to bring viewers to subscription-video-on-demand sites. The hope is that once the viewers do that, the ads will follow.
Modern marketers understand that “they need to embrace every platform,” Wilson says. “The content alone is enough to separate you from the pack.” They also recognize they need to try new things. In his time, Wilson helped Toyota move to support the Paralympic Games, and worked with Visa to devise “real time” ads that had messages responding to the wins viewers saw just before the commercials aired.
“Putting together and creating those partnerships really was what kept me going,” he says.