Sean Moran Shakes Things Up at Viacom's Ad Sales Unit

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Viacom's Sean Moran.
Viacom's Sean Moran. Credit: Courtesy Viacom
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Three months after being named the captain of Viacom's cable ad sales unit, Sean Moran has put the finishing touches on his leadership team's starting roster, installing three New York-based executive VPs and expanding the day-to-day responsibilities of a number of other longstanding execs.

Mr. Moran, who was appointed head of Viacom's Marketing & Partner Solutions unit in late June on the heels of Jeff Lucas' defection to Snapchat, said his goal is to cultivate a team of "intellectual athletes," strategists who can intuit their clients' needs and devise specific marketing solutions to meet their particular objectives.

Under the new structure, Valerie Bischak and Karen Phillips, senior VPs of ad sales at Viacom's Music & Entertainment and Kids & Family portfolios, have been bumped up to exec VP, while Amy Hyland, who previously handled pricing and planning duties at Nickelodeon, assumes a more outward-facing post as exec VP of ad sales at both network groups.

The three execs report to Viacom Exec VP-Sales Neil Holt, who in turn reports to Mr. Moran.

Also getting spiffier titles and expanded responsibilities are the newly-elevated exec VPs Ellen Dominus (brand sales) and Kalina Nikolova (ad sales strategy). And there are expanded roles for five of Mr. Moran's direct reports, a cast that includes the Viacom Velocity creative battery that is Dario Spina and Niels Schuurmans, as well as sales execs Mike Tedone, John Halley and Jim Balbirer.

As one might expect during a changing of the guard, a few sales execs are now in the process of transitioning out of Viacom. Among these are longtime Nickelodeon sales boss Jim Perry and former MagnaGlobal president and CEO Elizabeth Herbst-Brady.

In an interview with Ad Age, the first he's given since succeeding Mr. Lucas, Mr. Moran said he was looking forward to helping usher in a new vanguard at Viacom, which has been his home base for the last 21 years. "Innovation was something that was in the water here; it was part of our DNA," he said, adding that MTV effectively invented the network-as-lifestyle concept in the early '80s, when it curried favor with young viewers with stunts like the John Mellencamp "pink house" giveaway contest.

While Viacom continues to engage with younger consumers, they're much harder to reach than they were in the "People Really Win on MTV" era. As the Roanoke Colony that is the 18-to-34 crowd continues to stump traditional TV marketers, Viacom has made it its business to be everywhere its core enthusiasts are, which has led to the development of such envelope-pushing initiatives as the social-amplification platform Echo and a very cozy distribution and sales arrangement with the aforementioned Snapchat.

"We didn't get involved with Snapchat just because we though it was a cool company," Mr. Moran said. "This is where everyone was matriculating. It's where our fans are, so that's where our brands need to be."

While Mr. Moran acknowledged that linear TV ratings are still the coin of the realm, he added that Viacom will continue to work to out-hustle the rest of the coolhunter crowd when it comes down to identifying the next Snapchat or Twitter. "That's become an integral piece of what we do. While others are waiting to see if ratings go up or down, we want to be first to tap into where young people are going," he said. "It's not [a complete shift in] focus -- TV as a medium has never been stronger, so we're certainly not taking an eye off that -- but holistically, it's about how it all works together."

After an annus horribilis in which MTV lost nearly one-quarter of its primetime 18-to-34 gross ratings points and Comedy Central's share of adults 18 to 49 dropped 20%, the Viacom nets have shown significant improvement in recent months. But as a conglomerate that targets consumers who are changing their media consumption habits on the fly, Viacom is particularly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the marketplace -- which is something Mr. Moran doesn't shy away from.

"It's no longer just about how you're handling your GRPs," he said. The company that brought generations of viewers such cultural lodestones as "Ren & Stimpy," "Beavis and Butt-Head," "South Park" and Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino has been responsible for fostering some of the most profound and enduring bonds between viewers and advertisers. he sugested. "Emotion cannot be commodified."

Certainly, Viacom's unique ability to all but poke the parts of the limbic system that are most susceptible to advertising suggests that Mr. Moran's team will be able to keep serving clients while the industry waits out the umpteenth delay of Nielsen's "Total Audience Measurement" currency. In the meantime, he says that the ad sales re-org is designed to empower his field marshals, which in turn should foster a more efficient and speedier approach to the day-to-day challenge of finding new ways to connect audiences to sponsors.

Mr. Moran joined Viacom in 1991 as an account executive. He began his media career at Turner's sports division, where he was recruited by TV's other Ivy League-educated former basketball standout, Bruce Lefkowitz. A member of the Brown basketball team (1985-89), Mr. Moran went head-to-head against the likes of Syracuse University legends and future NBA ballers Dwayne "Pearl" Washington and Sherman Douglas before moving on to play pro ball in Europe.

Brown captured its first and only Ivy League title during Mr. Moran's debut season as a Bear, but the ad sales boss may well have faced his most memorable on-court antagonist a few years ago, when he was invited to play full-court hoops against President Barack Obama. (Inside dope: under duress, the POTUS isn't afraid to throw some sharp elbows, and not just a little shade.)