Birth of a salesman

Bill McGowan is accustomed to cutting multimillion dollar, cross platform deals across 15 of Discovery Communications' cable networks. But his deals weren't always so intricate.

McGowan, now Discovery's executive vice president and GM for U.S. ad sales, started out at a small, easy-listening FM station in Arlington Heights, Ill. Working a summer between terms in college, McGowan had been turned down by just about every other TV and radio station in the metro Chicago phone book.

The station, WEXI(FM), was a teeny suburban station, too small to be picked up by Arbitron. (But it also spawned the sales career of Petry Television President Tim McAuliff.) So McGowan's straight-commission task was pitching local office-supply stores, clothing shops and the like to buy a schedule of $20-$30 spots. It was a frustrating job, cold-calling stores in shopping center after suburban shopping center.

After a long struggle, McGowan landed his first sale: a waterbed store. Unfortunately, after WEXI aired the store's spots, the owner went Chapter 11. The owner was apologetic and made an offer: "He wanted to pay me in waterbeds."

The station owner rejected the offer, denying McGowan a commission on one of the few sales he made that summer.

Even though he majored in liberal arts with a bent toward history, he always wanted to do something "in business."

He found juice in sales. "To me, sales is the ultimate in the opportunity for personal achievement," McGowan says. "There's a direct correlation between performance and reward. It's ongoing feedback. It's not like you have to wait six to nine months. And it tends to be objective, not subjective. Either you're making your numbers, or you not making your numbers."

His summer experience was enough to embolden McGowan to look for a bigger sales job when he returned to the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

McGowan called up one of the biggest stations in town and bragged that he was an experienced account executive from the Chicago market. He scored not just a job at the Top 40-formatted station but "a major list" of existing clients. "I was probably making as much as my college professors," McGowan said.

Not that having money made him very popular. To make sales calls in the afternoon, he'd show up at morning classes in a suit at a school that, even today, is a lot more hippie than preppie. McGowan was harshly derided, despite profound sideburns.

After securing his undergraduate degree, McGowan's brother, John—who worked in sales at WPIX(TV) in New York, steered him toward station group Avco Broadcasting, which needed a rep to pitch Chicago's many ad agencies. That led him quickly to rep firm Katz Television, then over to the station side, where he worked at NBC-affiliated San Francisco giant KRON-TV and KTVU(TV) Oakland, affiliated to the then-fledgling Fox network, and ultimately to Fox-owned KTTV(TV).

In 1991 a headhunter for Discovery called. McGowan had been intrigued by the possibilities of cable by looking at the difference in pricing for commercials on KTTV's coverage of Dodgers games and spots on a local cable sports network. Dodger games on broadcast got perhaps a third more viewers than games on SportsChannel L.A., but the station's spots commanded 10 times the price the cable net could secure.

His broadcast peers saw that as a sign of cable's weakness, but McGowan saw potential for big, broad growth for all cable networks as it grabbed an increasing share of the audience.

"Cable had nowhere to go but up," McGowan said. "I looked at the station business. We were fighting just to get single-digit revenue increases. Cable, this was the growth opportunity."