A Seat At
TV's Table
Five female ad sales executives on the long, hard road to the top
By Jeanine Poggi
Photography by Robyn Twomey
Published on May 13, 2019
Five female ad sales executives on the long, hard road to the top
By Jeanine Poggi
Photography by Robyn Twomey
Published on May 13, 2019

Linda Yaccarino, chairman of advertising sales and client partnerships at NBC Universal, was turned down for a promotion early in her career because she was on maternity leave. Donna Speciale, president of ad sales at WarnerMedia, took up golf to fit in with her male colleagues. Marianne Gambelli, president of ad sales at Fox, kept it a secret that she was on a beer account because at the time it was seen as bizarre for a woman to sell beer. Jo Ann Ross, president and chief advertising revenue officer at CBS, felt it was necessary when interviewing at the Eye network to admit she was trying to conceive. Rita Ferro, president of advertising sales and partnerships at Walt Disney, was often the only woman at the table during her years as an ad executive in Latin America.

These five women now spearhead the ad strategies for the leading network groups that will control the lion’s share of the $70 billion TV ad business during this year’s annual upfront ad haggle.

Despite their similar stories about climbing the ranks in the male-dominated advertising industry, when they gather in Manhattan’s Union Square on an afternoon in early April, the tension is palpable. Evident is a long history of fierce competition. There’s a reason for that: “There have been so few spots for women that it has been really difficult for women to embrace each other because there was never a notion that said there could be two of them in a row or five of them,” Yaccarino says.

But once they start talking, the women bond over their shared experiences. During the course of an hour, the five speak candidly about being female leaders in the ad industry, the loneliness they have experienced on their way to the top, and their hopes for the next generation of women in media.

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


What has it been like being a woman in this industry and climbing up the ranks? Jo Ann, you were the first woman to sell the Olympics, right? You’ve all had incredible firsts.

Jo Ann Ross: It’s odd that we’re so focused on being a woman in the industry, but I know why we are. When I went to CBS to interview for the job I told [them] I was trying to get pregnant. I wanted to be honest. And when I got the job that I have now, it’s almost 17 years this November.

Donna Speciale: Congratulations.

Ross: Thank you. And congratulations to all of us at this table. Not that I sent a signal, but that sent a signal to the industry that women can do anything, that they’re capable of doing more than men in some instances. To all my male friends out there, that’s not a dig. I was the first female head of sales [at CBS]. I was seen as basically breaking the glass ceiling, and I never really thought about it that way until I saw those headlines, because I was, like, “I got the job because I was the right person, at the right time, at CBS, to be a leader.”

Marianne Gambelli: Our bosses were all men. When I first got to New York, all heads of sales were men.

Speciale: All heads of agencies were men.

Linda Yaccarino: All of our bosses are still men.

Gambelli: Yes, our CEOs are men.

So you all report to men?

Speciale: Yes

Rita Ferro: Yes

Yaccarino: At least in my own experience, you get used to being a little lonely being one of the very few women in the room. You need to speak louder, work harder, repeat yourself. And quite often invite yourself to meetings or to events. Those things are changing a little bit. When I had my second child, the company that I was at did promotions once a year. It was when I was about to get my first VP stripe. And if you were in good standing, you were there a year, you got made a vice president. Once a year. Every January. So I have my second child, I’m on maternity leave, promotions come out. Well, I’ve got to look at that list again, I’m not on it. I called my boss at the time and I said, “What happened?” “Oh, I’m sorry, company policy, if you’re on maternity leave you’re ineligible for a promotion. You have to wait another year.” When I talk to younger people today, they can’t believe it.

Gambelli: There was a mommy track. You picked. You had kids later. You couldn’t do both. There was no support system. There were no role models.

Ross: I never had a role model. I said it was my mother. She was my mentor, but I didn’t know it. And I’m sure there are plenty of women now who feel they don’t have a role model.

Ferro: I came up internationally, and I actually think in the U.S. we are great. I’ll never forget, I was in a sales meeting in Argentina and there were 17 men around the table and myself.

(Left) Rita Ferro, president of ad sales and partnerships at Walt Disney Co.; Ferro and Jo Ann Ross, president and chief advertising revenue officer at CBS

How did that feel?

Ferro: You know, it’s funny, I grew up as a tomboy. I had two brothers. So to me, I felt comfortable, but I only realized the lack of diversity when I moved to the U.S. There’s a lot more women here.

Are women doing a better job—and men—of supporting younger women coming up through the ranks?

Ferro: It’s more in the conversation and it’s definitely intentional.

Ross: There’s still more work to be done.

Speciale: There’s more mentoring that also has to be done because there are women who don’t see that you can have both.

Yaccarino: I think you’re right, because I don’t think any of us have ever read an article that has posed a question to a male that says, “How do you have it all?”

That’s been part of the problem—there’s an assumption that women can’t do both in the same way that men can.

Speciale: We can handle a lot more than men can.

Ross: We can multitask better.

Yaccarino: Whether you’re doing it for men or women, we need to make up for some lost time. One of the things we’re doing at NBCU, we call them “returnships.” So if you choose to take off and do the most important thing in your life, whether it’s having babies or taking care of your elderly parents or family member and you’re out for an extended period of time, that doesn’t mean you’re not valuable. So we have a program, should you want to enter back into the workforce [after] two years, five years, 10 years, to reskill and to actually start people on almost like a consultant or contractor basis. And then they have preferential treatment to interview, to invite them back in, because I really feel that we have some making up time to do for people who made those choices.

How are the rest of you thinking about diversifying your own teams?

Ross: On my team we do it through outreach, whether it’s going up to Iona Prep or Howard University. We did a company-wide survey recently at CBS, and based on the input from all the employees, we changed some of our policies to be more flexible—more time off, more benefits, just being more conscious of what’s important to people in the workforce.

Speciale: What we started to do, which we don’t really do in our business, is hire them before they graduate. Media never did that; we would wait until they got out of school. But then we would lose all these great candidates.

Gambelli: We’ve done a lot around mentorship and women. We do smaller breakfasts, so some of the younger women get exposure to the senior executives. We do that on a monthly basis now.

Ferro: We’ve taken it a step further in that they paired 50 senior executives around the company on a global level with 50 women who had been identified as top potential talent. People who are looking for their next step, but don’t have access to actually understand how they go about getting a job in a different segment or a different territory.

(Left) Marianne Gambelli, president of ad sales at Fox, says that she had had no female role models or support systems; Gambelli and Donna Speciale, president of ad sales at WarnerMedia. Speciale says that when she joined, her entire leadership team was male.

Still, the people above you are men. So where do we go from here?

Yaccarino: The industry overall is very awake right now.

Ferro: I agree.

Yaccarino: It’s our responsibility to take the awake and turn it into action.

Speciale: When I first started at WarnerMedia, my entire leadership team were men. There was not one woman on my team, and now I have half of them, like three to four women, on the team. We have to do a good job of promoting. I also think women don’t do a good job of promoting themselves. Men do a very good job promoting themselves. A man will apply for a job even if he can’t do it; women don’t.

Yaccarino: Donna is right. I just read this book, “Drop the Ball,” by Tiffany Dufu. One of the things she talks about is exactly to your point, Donna, that if there is a job description for a CEO position or senior position, women believe they have to have at least nine of the specific qualifications to even pick up the phone or schedule a meeting to interview. Men, you know how many? Three, and they go, “Oh, I’m good. I could learn it. I can talk it.” Women don't have that confidence. They’re not raised or nurtured in that way because they’re so task-oriented and don’t think, “My hard work or natural smarts is going to speak for itself.” That’s why it’s so important—again to your point, Donna—to lift up the women that are either our peers or beneath us. We just went through a reorg, and as excited as I was to pass the upfront torch to Mark Marshall and Laura Molen, if I ever had to do that when I first got to the company, there was no woman to pass it to.

How did you find your confidence?

Ross: It was the way I was brought up. I’m one of six. I have four older brothers, one older sister. I’m the baby, middle class, Long Island. Went to an all-girls private Catholic school, which I think really shaped me.

Ferro: I did too.

Gambelli: I did too.

Yaccarino: It’s interesting that we all have [that] in common.

Gambelli [laughing]: I thought that’s what messed me up.

Ross: I never doubted myself. I doubt myself in private or at church, but right now I’m not doubting myself. I would never do that.

(Left) CBS’s Jo Ann Ross says she never doubts herself; Ferro (l.) and Ross discover they both attended Catholic private schools as children.

Speciale: Growing up, most of my friends were men. I actually didn’t have as many girlfriends as I do today. I played sports. I was a tomboy, I was a musician. I’m very comfortable in a male environment. So it didn’t make me nervous. One thing I did do right away, because I saw all the guys do it, is I took up golf. A lot of business was happening on the golf course. ... And it actually was the best thing I ever did for my career from a business standpoint.

Ross: But it goes back to confidence level. You weren’t afraid to go out on the golf course.

Gambelli: I remember going to those original sales meetings where it was literally all 50-year-old-plus men just sitting around the table. They knew what they were supposed to say and not say, and nobody really told me what to say or not say. Everybody sort of protected each other. The guys had a code.

Yaccarino: I was always in a role that most of us would say was historically dominated by men. I started out in programming content, then I moved into advertising, and if you’re the only person of that kind in the room, I always looked at it as, well, then make what you say meaningful, because they’re going to remember what you say and not [what’s said by] the five people who are exactly the same in the room. So it probably required or dictated a lot more preparation and a lot more studying back then.

Someone asked me this morning how I feel about, in our industry, women supporting other women? It was a negative spin—they asked, “What's this about women not supporting women?” Growing up in the business, there have been so few spots for women that it has been really difficult for women to embrace each other because there was never a notion that there could be two of them in a row or five of them. So I asked the person who asked the question, “When was the last time you reframed that and said, ‘Are there enough men in the circle, or how about men supporting men?’”

Ferro: It’s also tied to business results. We have to get better at showing that when we diversify our teams and our executive ranks, it has a real meaningful impact on the bottom line of the business.

Yaccarino: And if you think about any job description, when you’re going to hire someone and you say “collaboration,” “problem-solving,” “partnership,” those are all female qualities or skill-sets that come naturally to us. That exactly supports what you’re saying, that the more females you get in decision-making roles reflects well on your P&L.

Yet when you think about what words are used to describe female sales leaders, the word I hear a lot is “aggressive.”

Ferro: Passionate.

That’s the nice way of saying it. But you wouldn’t call a man “aggressive” at his job.

Yaccarino: You would say he’s a driver.

Ferro: Confident.

How do we change the tone of how women are perceived in leadership roles?

Gambelli: There was a whole story this weekend about female presidential candidates and how there’s so much more scrutiny of all of their behavior and everything that they do versus the male candidates. And they were like, “How do you ever break through that?” Because there are those societal pressures that still judge differently, which is amazing to me.

Ross: I don’t think that’ll change any time soon. When I got the job that I have now, I was up against two other candidates, both men, and obviously I was the better candidate, but there was a lot of that going around, like, “Wow, did she get that job?” That’s the nature of the beast. So we just have to rise above it.

Ferro: You don’t hear that as much anymore, which is a big deal.

Ross: They’re afraid to say it out loud.

Yaccarino: That goes to the awake part.

Does the MeToo movement scare them?

Yaccarino: It scared some people who may have to be worried about this. But it was a very big and sustaining wake-up call. And now many, many women, in particular the younger women in all of our companies, thank God, feel that they have a voice or feel like they have an avenue to speak up.

Ross: The good part coming out of MeToo, it made people at the top of corporations think differently. Look at the changes that have occurred in Hollywood, and the women that are being given better roles on TV series and movies, women behind the camera, and there’s not that eyeroll anymore. They’re getting those jobs because they deserve those jobs. [Editor’s Note: Late last year, former CBS CEO Leslie Moonves was fired following allegations of sexual harassment. While his termination was not discussed during the roundtable, Ross did say leadership at the company has made strengthening the workplace culture a top priority.]

Speciale: I’m going to flip it. I’m worried that the MeToo movement is going to hurt younger women with men mentoring them.

Yaccarino: I think you’re right.

Speciale: I think men are very concerned about saying, “Let’s go have a drink after work and have a conversation.” It’s very real. Men are not going to be as forthright because of concerns.

Gambelli: That’s just their stupid excuses. Like they don’t know the difference between trying to make out with you…

Speciale: I totally hear it.

Yaccarino: A middle-level manager came to us and said he was uncomfortable giving evaluations to his female employees, in particular because [with] a couple of them he needed to have tough conversations. And I think it was a really appropriate concern. We gave him assistance during the evaluations, but mostly what we gave him is training on how to have tough conversations with someone of the opposite sex, whether it’s female-to-male or male-to-female, and how to protect yourself or know when to say, “Let’s change this conversation, let’s end this conversation and seek help.”

Training is so important because, to your point about the men being uncomfortable, we don’t train them to anticipate any kind of situation, whether they’re in the right or the wrong. They have to be trained to be able to navigate that kind of conversation, which unfortunately is so complicated these days.

Donna Speciale, president of ad sales at WarnerMedia, says since the MeToo movement, men are likely to be less forthright with women.

Not only are the five of you in leadership roles, but your roles have evolved over the last few years. Linda, you passed the baton to Laura Molen and Mark Marshall to handle the day-to-day sales operations, and you’re taking a broader role. Why?

Yaccarino: It’s really just about trying to spend more time focusing on transformation instead of, or in addition to, the commercial process. I always talk to my team about, “You can lead transformation or you can be led by it.” I’ll take the former on that one. We really look at the screen, no matter what size, as a storefront for every one of our customers. So from Sky as a new acquisition, to commerce capabilities that didn’t exist before that hopefully will give the social platforms a run for their money, I’m excited.

And obviously you three—Rita, Donna and Marianne—have nothing going on. [Laughter.] How has M&A and consolidation changed how you’re thinking about approaching the marketplace?

Speciale: The structural changes helped us a lot because Time Warner was very siloed; HBO, Warner Bros., Turner didn’t really speak to each other. Now there’s a collaboration across the entire company. Xandr, even though it’s a separate entity, is definitely connected to us. I’m very excited about the data that we now have access to, and enabling the products that we were doing.

Rita, you have a couple of more networks in your purview.

Ferro: The beauty is the brands that came in fit. National Geographic and FX are premium, great storytelling brands that have a unique audience and they’re complementary to everything we have. And again, it will take time, right? It’s all new. There’s a lot more planning that has to happen.

Each of your respective companies have come together over the last two years to talk about ways to take on the Facebooks and Googles. There’s been a lot of talk, but what do you think is holding back progress?

Ross: There is progress; it’s moving slowly. We haven’t all agreed on what the sweet spot is. As these platforms—Xandr, OpenAP—scale, it will feed the ecosystem.

Gambelli: The frustrating thing is everyone is doing a lot, but it’s not covering the entire ecosystem. One of the things is our agencies are still going back to the same metric because they’re still being held to the same standard. So it’s still your CPM increase.

Ross: And they’re comfortable doing that.

Gambelli: It’s the clients.

Speciale: You can’t blame clients, you can’t blame agencies, because it’s both.

Yaccarino: The good thing is that the conversation that’s surfaced is about an outcome that matters for someone’s business. An overnight rating, or a C3 or C7, doesn’t matter to any of our businesses. And it certainly doesn’t serve a business purpose to any CMO or CEO that we deal with. I would be surprised if within the next three years we’re not almost all the way there.

Gambelli: Tech companies are jealous of what we have. I know from my agency days. Google and Facebook, they would love to have our TV money.

Speciale: But they don’t have our content.

Yaccarino: Bingo, exactly.

Speciale: We have content, and we now have data.

Gambelli: And we have the scale. They’re never going to match our scale.

Yaccarino: There’s also the rise in maturation of the direct-to-consumer businesses that have maxed out on the performance platforms and need to build brands, and they’re flocking to TV.

NBC Universal Chairman of Advertising Sales and Client Partnerships Linda Yaccarino says TV buying will be based on outcomes rather than ratings within the next three years.

To bring it back to where we started: What would you say is your hope for the next generation of women who are coming up in the business?

Yaccarino: I mean this in the most complimentary way, it’s not going to come out right, but I want them to not have to have this conversation. I want them to approach their careers with courage and excitement and optimism, and not have the tagline be, “And you could do it even though you’re a woman.” So I want them to go with complete freedom. And I hope that some of them will say these ladies, including myself, had a hand in it.

Ferro: I agree. You’re starting to see, when you go into rooms with younger women, they don’t feel this notion of, “Because I’m not a guy, I’m not going to have a chance.” They’re like, “I’m all-in and let me at it.” I love that energy and that passion, because ultimately that’s what it’s going to take— hard work, and you’re going to do it the same way we did. Right? But you’re not going to feel the sense of hesitation.

Yaccarino: It will accelerate their progress. They will get there faster.

Ferro: Let’s cheers.

Web production by Corey Holmes.