TV’s partnership power broker
Linda Yaccarino has dreamed up a future for NBCU that’s bigger than Google, but some say she needs a reality checkBy Parker Herren
Photo by Billy Coleman
Published on March 6, 2023
Linda Yaccarino has dreamed up a future for NBCU that’s bigger than Google, but some say she needs a reality check
Linda Yaccarino is obsessed with two TV characters. The first is Captain Sandy Yawn of “Below Deck Mediterranean.” The leader of luxury yachting excursions for Bravo’s melodramatic reality series isn’t so different from NBCUniversal’s chairman of global advertising and partnerships. Unlike reality show characters known for biting insults or dramatic tantrums, Yawn is even-tempered, sometimes brutally honest and willing to get her hands dirty when waters turn rough.
Yaccarino has similarly built a reputation for taking the TV industry’s issues head on—rallying her peers around dilemmas such as inadequate measurement systems and archaic media hierarchies. And while the consensus of her peers seems to be that she typically maintains a Yawnian composure, she makes it clear who’s steering the ship.
“When you’re having a difficult conversation with Linda, she will caveat: ‘This is going to be a rough conversation and I’m just going to tell it to you straight,’” said Sarah Franklin, chief marketing officer at Salesforce. “She’ll be very business-oriented in that situation. It’s not a time to be emotional. It’s time to be direct.”
Yaccarino was an early doomsayer for the digital upheaval now threatening the some $67 billion in annual TV ad sales revenue. Mega media conglomerates find themselves in a race to bolster connected TV as a competitive force among the social, multi-screen and short-form video platforms after the realization that what has traditionally been considered TV may no longer sustain their revenue streams.
As Yaccarino seeks to develop a foothold in digital media to match NBCU’s legacy in broadcast, she is hedging her bets on traditional TV advertising’s longevity while at the same time padding out the company’s tech capabilities should either go south.
But she always ties her passion for the media business back to content—Yaccarino loves TV and has made herself into an industry celebrity of sorts in the vein of the Hollywood talent she adores herself.
Yaccarino’s second TV obsession is “Yellowstone” ranch hand Rip Wheeler.
“I will fight anybody for him,” Yaccarino said. “I thought about getting my husband a cowboy hat for Christmas, but it would be pushing it over the edge too far. We’ve been married a long time—I thought it would help.”
Yaccarino, 60, is fierce in her conviction that the NBCU advertising structure she’s built over the past eight years as chairman is the future of TV. She describes the media company’s streamer Peacock as a prototype for the future of TV distribution and has her sights set on making NBCU the world’s preeminent partnership broker—combining the tech prowess of Google with the content of Netflix and the sharing power of Facebook, perhaps with the shoppability of Amazon in the not-too-distant future.
While Yaccarino doesn’t predict commercial-break advertising will ever go away entirely, her vision appears primed for a post-cable, premium subscription world. NBCU, for its part, has been expanding into live commerce, Web3, distributing competitor programming and selling ads on behalf of external vendors, including Apple News and video game advertiser Anzu. The most critical thread through these future-proofings—partnerships.
The idea isn’t exactly novel for Yaccarino—she hasn’t considered her job to be selling 30-second spots for at least a decade. Rather, she’s been quoted over the years preferring to be known as a sales liaison between brand and viewer, telling Ad Age in 2013 she’s a purveyor of cola, jeans and diapers (in recent conversations, she listed insurance, movies and sneakers) instead of TV inventory. Rather, it’s the avenues in which she can do this that have changed.
A recent example in action is a pitch with a global advertising partner, which Yaccarino declined to identify, wanting to engage audio audiences—a category where “we had a gap in what we could offer them,” she said.
“We reached out to a very big audio partner that we do not have a relationship with,” said Yaccarino. “We know we can give [marketers] a lot, but we’re also very aware that we can’t give them everything they need. We just want to be the partnership broker for them.”
Constructing a partnership ecosystem capable of serving clients from small-to-medium sized businesses to the Fortune 500 has been a labor five years in the making, with more to go. NBCU has cultivated an extensive roster of Silicon Valley collaborators, with the likes of Twitter, Apple, YouTube, Snap and Meta topping the list of its current 45 digital partners (up from six in 2017). Expanding the purview to include ad tech, measurement, data and commerce partners as well, the number is north of 200.
Peacock has even brought competitive programmers into the fold. Yaccarino used Peacock’s exclusive partnership with Hallmark as an example of a type of deals that may become more common in the future as subscription fatigue sets in: TV companies, particularly those outside of the big five, joining forces to distribute content in greater force to wider audiences. The partnership builds on a similar distribution deal struck with A+E Networks for the launch of Peacock, although A+E distributes its content with multiple digital platforms.
Looking forward, “my hunch is that there’ll be linear partners coming,” said Yaccarino. “It's very difficult to navigate this marketplace where being independent or smaller is really tough.”
Breaking from the pack
Yaccarino has an unabashed appetite for the spotlight. She name drops celebrities and has signed photos peppered across her 51st floor corner office in 30 Rock. Jimmy Fallon, Rami Malek and Gabriel Macht watch from the walls as she stops mid sentence to point out a Telemundo broadcast airing on one of the two TVs that play opposite her desk—a guest commentator had joined the segment, stunning Yaccarino on the spot with his glamorous outfit: “Look, look, look, look—Oh my god! Look at those fabulous shoes!” she exclaimed.
Yaccarino likes to put herself in the center of the industry, whether it’s through brokering partnerships or rallying for change, and promotes her own celebrity-like persona while doing it. Despite her small stature, Yaccarino makes a big impression between her opulent style—always appearing in designer shoes and metallic fabrics—and project-to-the-balcony voice. She calls herself a relationship person, natural to her Italian heritage, but some credit Yaccarino’s rolodex of devotees to decades of self-branding in the industry.
Yaccarino balks at the implication NBCU is just another media programmer lumped in with what she calls the “big TV pack.” While her ambition to inflate the company to the competitive arena of tech behemoths and social platforms is lofty, she’s long been frustrated with the rules of legacy TV while the fledgling FANG “just had different expectations, or different rulebooks, or a different grading system.”
When the digital behemoths first began to impinge on TV’s ad dollars, she didn’t hide her criticisms. During NBCU’s 2017 upfront, the chairman took center stage and admonished: “When it comes to measurement, we don’t grade our own homework,” she said, a direct dig at Facebook. “What the hell is a ‘view’ anyway? Has a ‘like’ ever walked into your store, purchased your product or drove a car out of the dealership?”
She even rallied top executives from rival networks, media agencies and brands that year at an emergency-switch-pull summit to sort out the rising measurement mess of consumer fragmentation that still plagues TV today. But not many solutions were produced.
Yaccarino has seemed to do a 180, though, as she has recently taken to exalting Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. Last fall, she advised the audience at Ad Age’s Next: Streaming event to never bet against the purveyor of EVs and space travel, and recently doubled down by telling Ad Age, “There is no surrogate [for Twitter] and we continue to believe that it will play an important role in the marketplace” (although Twitter has been the subject of praise from other top executives including Netflix’s Reed Hastings and WPP’s Mark Read).
The lag in the TV industry’s jump to digital likely had to do with the networks’ comfort in a deteriorating operations structure, said Dave Morgan, CEO and founder of TV ad tech firm Simulmedia. For decades, audiences were growing, measurement and data were simple, and the broadcasters’ exclusive (i.e. isolated) upfront sales window was efficient. “It wasn’t until Netflix had an extraordinary stock price that [the network groups] really aggressively moved,” said Morgan.
Thus, the old guard of Fox, Paramount, Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery has given way to “the competitive set we spend most of our time thinking about: Apple, Netflix, Meta, Google,” said Yaccarino. Yet, the chairman finds herself at a compelling crossroads: Despite Yaccarino’s pining to morph NBCU into a futuristic entity that transcends any one category, she’s still confined by TV’s hurdles and the sentiment of the marketplace.
Yaccarino has pegged NBCU’s future on its cross-channel sales structure One Platform—whose name even infers the social media philosophy. Nearly a decade in the making, although waylaid by the pandemic according to Yaccarino, the theory is one buy can feed through the company’s bastion of first-party data, targeting tools or battalion of consultants to land in front of any viewer imaginable, whether an NBCU asset or not.
One agency buyer told Ad Age that while all of the network groups are “marching down the same path” toward social-like ways of simpler, democratized and more efficient advertising, NBCU has performed ahead of the pack in tests of the networks’ cross-platform tech capabilities preparing for this year’s upfront. However, the edge isn’t as sharp as Yaccarino would lead one to believe.
Paramount’s tech is on NBCU’s heels; Warner Bros. Discovery's tech has the scale, but is waylaid by its merger woes; and Disney has both, but holds itself back in isolation from industry efforts to become more interoperable, the buyer said. The buyer also lauded the tech savvy of TelevisaUnivision.
A second buyer told Ad Age that NBCU’s efforts with its merged sales structure will be invaluable this year, when many clients seek to eliminate waste and get more bang for their buck as economic outlooks grow increasingly bleak.
However, a third buyer said the whole endeavor is overkill. “I don’t know that we want [NBCU] for all that data and technology,” said the buyer, adding, “I need it to be interoperable” rather than a series of one-off capabilities for each programmer. Likewise, a third buyer harkened back to early fears of social media advertisers, saying NBCU’s increasingly techy suite of tools may be appealing to small brands previously shut out of the high-priced TV ecosystem. But for agencies, “sometimes you have to give [NBCU] more than you’re gonna get back, so they're learning too much about your client and what’s working for them. That then gives them too much power in the negotiation.”
And a fourth buyer advised Yaccarino: “Do the things that [Google] does well that would benefit us, but just please don’t think that there’s power in being another set of walled gardens, because if we knew that’s where it would go, we would have pushed against it years ago.”
In response, Yaccarino said the core principles of her sales philosophy are trust and transparency, and that any business is welcome to access NBCU’s IP and data.
The campaign trail
While she’s maintained a fairly consistent reputation as a market mover in the industry, not all of Yaccarino’s moves have been met with kudos and applause. In 2018, former president Donald Trump named Yaccarino to the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition. The appointment seemed a strange addition to the executive’s resume, with some calling out Yaccarino for affiliating with the polarizing president.
“Some people thought it was a little controversial because of the administration,” Yaccarino said. She pushed back on objections to her joining the council, which every president has had an iteration of, because of her passion for the theme under Trump—sports programming for underprivileged youth. She also noted her qualifications for the job with close relationships to sports leagues and businesses. Although the topic turned her tone swiftly more serious, Yaccarino concluded she was “raised to always be an independent thinker.”
More importantly, Yaccarino said the council introduced her to former NFL player and Texas Representative Scott Turner. Turner started an organization called Community Engagement and Opportunity Council in 2021 with Yaccarino as chairman. A recent program that Yaccarino spoke proudly of was a funded driving school for an underprivileged South Dallas community that recently graduated 30 students, with half going to a local, understaffed truck driving business.
“I always looked at my leadership style similar to my parents’ style,” said Yaccarino. “Your foundation is: there is right and there is wrong. And sometimes, right is the hard decision.”
Whether she’s at the office or at home, life is all about family for Yaccarino. Her mother, a first-generation Italian American immigrant, “never had the good fortune or the finances” to attend college. Her father, second-generation, balanced a career in the police force while going to night school to prove the possibility to his children, said Yaccarino. She has two sisters, one an identical twin. She and her husband have two children, and last year, became grandparents.
Yaccarino described herself as one part “contemporary and progressive business person, but the same exact dose of a traditional relationship person who was brought up in a very, very traditional Italian Catholic family.”
But where Yaccarino likens herself to an industry matriarch, others say it’s all politics. One competitor sales executive described Yaccarino as a politician whose promises keep growing while her impact declines.
“She’s made herself and her company bigger than they are,” said the executive, later questioning if Yaccarino is “building her brand or building NBCU’s brand.”
By all accounts, Yaccarino makes an adept politician—she’s led efforts to rally the industry around new metrics and currencies for longer than some think there was an issue to rally around, and stands out for her efforts in curating her image as an industry figure.
In fact, if Yaccarino could have any job outside of ad sales, she’d run for mayor of New York City. She acknowledged that “many people have speculated over time that I would like to run for office,” but she conceded to bad timing at present.
When asked if he would vote for Yaccarino, “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels told Ad Age, “It would depend who she was running against.”
The latest product of Yaccarino’s measurement campaign is the Joint Industry Committee hosted by OpenAP, the cross-network measurement consortium meant to get TV out of this pickle in the first place. The JIC endeavors to certify industry standard currencies as well as compile programmers’ streaming viewership data into a common platform. It has the participation of NBCU, Paramount, Fox, Warner Bros. Discovery and TelevisaUnivision, with an open invitation to the major outliers such as Disney, Netflix and Amazon, whose absences would likely be a blow to the integrity of a finished dataset.
“I really see NBC continuing to lead where it’s necessary, but also being very proactive in saying, ‘We've accomplished this, but how do we get everyone else to have the exact same capabilities?’” said David Levy, CEO of OpenAP. “[Yaccarino’s] been the most important leader on this.”
A second ad sales executive said Yaccarino’s interest in the JIC is an effort to facilitate a new form of currency that “doesn’t include YouTube and TikTok.”
Despite the JIC’s infancy, Yaccarino has already proposed a new metric to the group called the Content Quality Index, which would provide advertisers with a score for the caliber of video they’re marketing in. Yaccarino said the CQI factors in common metrics such as reach, attention and recall, but is open in saying that it favors premium video (i.e. Peacock, Paramount+, HBO Max, etc.) over short-form and user-generated content (YouTube and TikTok)—a likely bid to devalue the imminent threat of social video as it encroaches further on TV’s reach power at lower costs.
“She wants to keep broadcast TV where she believes it deserves to be, despite viewers flocking to these platforms,” said the executive. “In one breath, you can say Linda is super creative and doing her job, and in another breath you can say she is riding this horse until it dies.”
Regardless of Yaccarino’s effectiveness in efforts to converge the industry around common issues, it has nonetheless been “a bold move to bring strange bedfellows together,” said Michael Kassan, chairman and CEO of MediaLink. Kassan attributes unexpected moves like the 2017 cross-industry meeting—which he noted Yaccarino’s competitors wouldn’t have been as eager to host—as major contributors to “the rise she’s had in influence and in gravitas that she’s generated and earned.”
“Linda has given voice to an evolution in solutions at a level the others haven’t,” said Simulmedia’s Morgan. “The other network groups who have lots of great solutions haven’t necessarily put as much into convening the industry—and that matters a lot.”
With a cross-industry council off the ground and network groups’ adopting competitive tech stacks, Yaccarino risks falling back among the pack. “She wants to be as big as Google, but that doesn’t mean that her company can be,” said the first ad executive. “[Yaccarino] probably was the lead voice of moving the industry away from the old and into the new. Now, I would argue that voice isn’t as needed.”
Perhaps the pack isn’t a bad place to be as TV presses on in its civil war against Silicon Valley—which in many ways is taking the reverse course of NBCU and company. Netflix may have kicked off the streaming craze, but its recent transition into the advertising space has been far from graceful. As every major network has followed with its own digital platform, the OG streamer has perhaps the steepest hill to climb: a tech company learning the ropes of media versus its legacy TV peers having to catch up in tech capabilities—which they’re doing quickly.
“Advertising is a relational business and you will get way more money by bringing your people out in a personable, intelligent, fairly transparent way,” said a media buyer of Netflix’s challenges. “[Linda’s] got the trust, she's got the intelligence, She's got the inventory. Now, how does she get the rest to compete with the Metas of the world?”
We’ll always have Radio City
While Yaccarino yearns to put NBCU in a separate bucket than the rest of the TV ecosystem, she stands by the strength of her relationships, even the ways that seem to tie her to the legacy group she wants to be free of. One example is TV’s annual upfront week in May, when each programmer throws lavish events for advertisers with celebrities and concerts and booze. This year, Paramount became the first to officially jump ship in favor of smaller meetings with individual agencies and clients, but Yaccarino said the upfront is one tradition she’ll hold onto.
“It's a celebration of what we do day-in and day-out,” said Yaccarino. “And I fully hope that never goes away.”
Yaccarino will pitch NBCU’s latest shows and innovations to advertisers at the company’s usual upfront venue Radio City Music Hall on May 15. Considering her stage presence at the networks’ yearly show, Michaels said Yaccarino “would probably have a pretty good monologue” if she were to host “SNL,” where she’d likely feel at home among the stars.
In one conversation with Ad Age, Yaccarino bragged that she has Captain Sandy Yawn on speed dial. Yawn said that Yaccarino is “highly respected and trusted by those she works with—both important characteristics of a good captain.”
As this year looks to be a stormy one in the TV business, Yawn’s number is one Yaccarino may need as she helms NBCU’s ad strategy.
More on Linda Yaccarino and NBC
- Peacock’s Super Bowl ad includes M&M’s and Google while promoting its own show
- NBCU launches shoppable ads on Peacock, discusses new ad formats and in-game ads
- NBCU adds Nielsen rival VideoAmp as currency, expands iSpot role
- NBCUniversal restructures sales division with focus on streaming and small businesses