The Changing of the Guard: Welcome to a New Era in TV Ad Sales

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The old guard (clockwise from top left): Joe Abruzzese, Arlene Manos, Seth Winter, Toby Byrne and Jeff Lucas.
The old guard (clockwise from top left): Joe Abruzzese, Arlene Manos, Seth Winter, Toby Byrne and Jeff Lucas. Credit: Photos courtesy CBS, AMC, NBC, Fox and Viacom

For decades, TV's commercial time has been governed by some familiar faces. There's the impeccably dressed Joe Abruzzese, whose 46-year ad career has included leading sales efforts for both Discovery and CBS; AMC Networks' Arlene Manos, who introduced ad sales to AMC and later capitalized on "The Walking Dead"; and Seth Winter, who spent a decade at NBC leading ad sales for sought-after sports programming such as "Sunday Night Football" and the Olympics.

But over the span of just a few months starting this summer, those proven leaders announced they will abdicate their posts. Mr. Abruzzese will retire at the end of the year, Ms. Manos will take on an advisory role at AMC Network and Mr. Winter will step down from the day-to-day sales operations at NBC, though he'll remain at the company through 2018.

Viacom ad-sales chief Jeff Lucas, who had been at the company since 2006, meanwhile moved to a sales role at Snapchat this summer. And Fox Networks Group unexpectedly announced last month that its own veteran ad sales chief, Toby Byrne, would leave the company.

While there may not be one set of circumstances that have led to the exit of some of the most prolific ad sales leaders, surely the sheer pace of change that has bombarded TV over the last several years has played a part.

30-second spots and a world beyond
The role of a TV ad sales leader looks very different than it did in the days when Mr. Abruzzese and his counterparts enjoyed a cocktail at lunch.

Viewership continues to fragment as more content consumption occurs on platforms and devices that are still not fully measured. Marketers want to apply so-called big data to TV buys to target audiences beyond traditional Nielsen age and gender demographics. It is a much more complicated business, requiring a new set of skills and knowledge.

"The agency business has seen changes, the client business has seen changes and that's caused our business to change," Mr. Abruzzese said. "It is still about negotiating, but also about finding solutions for clients. It's a lot more than selling just that 30-second spot. It's about driving efficiencies, connections with viewers and applying data."

Those taking the reins are established authorities in their own right. NBCU announced on Monday that Dan Lovinger, who had been overseeing ad sales for its entertainment networks and has a more than 20-plus year career in ad sales and business development, will replace Mr. Winter as the head of sports sales. Sean Moran, who stepped into Mr. Lucas' role at Viacom, has been part of the company's sales efforts for two decades. Scott Collins, Ms. Manos's successor, has been her right-hand man. And Ben Price, Mr. Abruzzese's successor, is a 27-year veteran of Discovery.

But unlike their predecessors, who operated in what was for many years a relatively stable TV advertising marketplace, these new leaders will be charged with ushering in a new TV ad model.

Perhaps the biggest indication of what ad sales leaders will look like going forward will come when Fox names its successor to Mr. Byrne. 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch has been vocal about the need for the TV industry to take a serious look at the consumer experience. This includes cleaning up commercial clutter and serving more relevant ads.

New shape of TV ads
Fox has been beefing up its staff dedicated to taking on this mission. The big question is whether the company will appoint someone who already has a proven sales record, or a leader with a more diverse background that perhaps doesn't include a proficiency built over years on the ins-and-outs of a traditional sales organization.

Across the board, there is a need for an ad sales chief to be able to pivot from just packaging inventory to understanding all of the company's assets, said Amanda Richman, president at Publicis Groupe's Starcom. That includes understanding data and being able to create unique ad experiences, she said.

Increasingly, deals look more American Express' partnership with NBC last season, when they replaced a chunk of commercial time with sponsored content. There was also Mondelez's partnership with Fox this summer in which the Oreo maker committed a meaningful part of its budget to not only standard ad time but also working with Fox on a more engaging ad experience for viewers, developing new ad formats with the network and helping to set standards for commercials on VOD and streaming.

These are all deals that are built on more than just guaranteeing gross ratings points in prime time and include digital and social components.

"Ad sales leaders need to be able to package a multiplatform offering, but sell it in a connected way to advertisers," said David Campanelli, senior VP-director of national broadcast, Horizon Media.

Internally, they need to manage expectations of senior leadership about what can seriously be accomplished in the long-term, said Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer, GroupM.

The sprint becomes a marathon
It's been decades since five-martini lunches were at the core of some of the biggest ad deals. But even more recently, the idea of aggressive upfront negotiations that lingered into the wee hours of the morning have become all but obsolete.

Back when there were significantly fewer TV networks and no holding companies on the agency side, there was real scarcity in the TV marketplace. With 30 or 40 agencies all vying for a limited supply, it was the "wild west," Mr. Scanzoni recalled. There was the fear that anything could happen in the span of three hours and that an agency wouldn't be able to get inventory a client needed.

Today, negotiations are nowhere near as aggressive or exciting. Typically, a rate of change is set in the marketplace and there isn't a huge spread in the increases paid from one agency to another. Negotiations are also increasingly more complicated as big data, social reach and digital opportunities make it essential for conversations to start months in advance.

Relationships still matter, surprisingly perhaps even more so than five or 10 years ago. And these days it is not only important to stay close to the media agency leads, but also be able to call on the CEOs and chief marketing officers at brands.

"If relationships start and end with the agency it is limited," Mr. Scanzoni said. "With agencies going through a constant churn of clients, and I don't think that will change any time soon, there is a need for direct client relationships, which are more stable than relationships with agencies. As long as they are working through us and not around us sometimes it is easier to sell through the stuff we want to do."

"Gone are the days when you just visit clients once or twice a year," AMC's Mr. Collins said. "We are constantly talking."

But what hasn't changed is the need for an ad sales manager to communicate efficiently and inspire and motivate their staff, Ms. Manos said.

And there will always be a focus on delivering a high-level of service to clients to help them drive business goals, Mr. Price said.

"So much of what we do with linear still drives business, but we need to stay close to and realize multi-platform solutions for clients," he added.

As much as these new sales leaders will be responsible to re-imagining what TV advertising looks like in a digitally-focused world, there is a need to protect the core business, Mr. Scanzoni said.

"Clients are constantly looking for the next new thing, shiny thing," Mr. Collins said. "They don't want to miss out. But it is still about service and delivering on your promises, that doesn't change."

And what of these outgoing executives? Perhaps more will bring their TV acumen to digital companies that are desperately trying to understand the TV space, Ms. Richman said.

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