TV Upfront

Long Vacancy for Top Sales Post at Fox Begs a Question: What's the Role of the Modern TV Ad Chief?

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Jussie Smollett, Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard, Bryshere Gray and Trai Byers, cast members on Fox's hit 'Empire,' which returned to the air last week.
Jussie Smollett, Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard, Bryshere Gray and Trai Byers, cast members on Fox's hit 'Empire,' which returned to the air last week. Credit: Michael Lavine/FOX

The lingering vacancy for the post of ad sales chief at Fox Networks Group is surprising buyers and prompting questions about the role itself in a changing TV business.

The job at Fox Networks Group has been unoccupied since Toby Byrne left in September. While many ad executives expected a successor to emerge in time to sell commercial time in Super Bowl LI, which aired on Fox on Feb. 5, it's now just two months until TV's annual springtime upfront market. Buyers are wondering whether a new leader will be named in time for the negotiations.

But the prolonged search for a replacement also shows that the function of a TV ad sales chief is very different than it was even five years ago.

Media agency executives say it's been business as usual working with Fox since Mr. Byrne departed. And whether or not a new leader is in place in time for the upfronts, the day-to-day transacting and negotiating will likely still fall to Bruce Lefkowitz, who serves as exec VP of advertising sales at Fox Networks Group and is considered to be the "relationship guy."

Those relationships remain incredibly important when it comes to these negotiations. But as the business becomes increasingly complicated, an ad sales chief requires a new set of skills and knowledge -- so much so that it almost seems too simple to just label the role "head of ad sales."

Amid viewer fragmentation and the rise of consumption on non-traditional platforms and devices that are not fully measured, the job has become an all-revenue position, requiring people who can drive value across all platforms and devices. They need to understand big data as more marketers want to apply varying metrics to target TV audiences beyond traditional Nielsen age and gender demographics. As the relationships between agencies and marketers change, ad sales leaders must forge deeper relationships with CMOs and brand leaders. And the birth of internet-delivered TV means that the TV business over the next several years will likely operate much more like its digital counterparts.

Couple this with the pervasive belief that the commercial experience has become too cluttered, and an ad sales leader ultimately is now charged with ushering in a new TV ad model.

Rather than a sales chief who can just get the most money for a 30-second spot, Fox is likely seeking a person with a mix of skills: someone who can solve problems for its parent 21st Century Fox, improve the consumer experience and deliver brand solutions.

There's plenty of speculation over who that might be, with many in the marketplace favoring Joe Marchese, who was brought in two years ago in the newly created role of president of advanced ad products.

Along with Mr. Lefkowitz, Fox ad sales is being run by Mr. Marchese and Danielle Maged, exec VP-global partnerships, reporting to Randy Freer, Fox Network Group's president and chief operating officer.

But how Fox handles the appointment -- whether it names someone to continue doing what Mr. Byrne had been doing or reinvents the role -- will be an important signal.

Of course, ultimately someone needs to be the boss of sales. And it is likely that there will be clarity on who that person (or persons) might be before the upfronts.

"It's important to have a sales leader, because at the end of the day in the middle of an upfront negotiation you need to know who you can go to who has that final say," said David Campanelli, exec VP-managing partner video investment, Horizon Media. "Fox has people in place who are more than capable in leading an upfront sales effort, but I think it's important to have it publically communicated who is in charge."

If nothing else, the person who is tapped will provide a window on Fox's overall position in the marketplace. Fox had help this season from its broadcasts of Super Bowl LI and the 2016 World Series, which puts it in second place among the big four broadcasters in the 18-to-49 demographic. But when you strip out sports, Fox comes in at No. 4. "Empire" continues to be a must-buy for marketers, and while ratings for the hip-hop drama are off by nearly a third compared to last season, it also enjoys TV's biggest lift from live-same-day ratings to C3 and C7 ratings accounting for viewing over three days or a week.

Fox's "Gotham" is down nearly 20%, while "Lucifer" has seen a quarter of its demo deliveries vanish. And there are plenty of holes that need filling in its schedule.

"It does matter, especially as we get into the upfronts. You need someone to drive overall strategy," said Rino Scanzoni, exec chairman and CEO of GroupM's addressable TV group Modi Media and barter group Midas Exchange. "If someone isn't in that role it creates uncertainty. Their job is to manage internal expectations."

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