‘Death of A Salesman’ Playing Out at TV Networks

Like so many wing-tipped Willy Lomans, hundreds of senior television ad sales executives have been put out of their jobs in the past year and more are worried that their cushy, well-paid way of life is disappearing as the industry rapidly changes.

This “Death of the TV Ad Salesman” is being caused by a number of factors, among them industry consolidation, cost-cutting, changes in consumer behavior cutting into TV ratings and ad revenue and technology.

How much this talent drain will hurt the TV networks as they compete for ad dollars with digital media is uncertain. It’s not likely to stop any time soon, industry executives said.

Opinions differ as to what kinds of jobs displaced ad sales executives will be able to find as the TV business shrinks. It’s unlikely they’ll earn the $750,000 and up they were accustomed to, or that they’ve have access to perks like lunches at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle steakhouse, Super Bowl tickets and trips to Cannes.

The most recent example is at AT&T, which last year acquired Time Warner and its Turner cable TV unit. Earlier this month, the company announced that Donna Speciale, who had been the popular president of sales for Turner, and two of her executive VPs--Frank Sgrizzi and Dan Riess, both 20-year Turner veterans--would be leaving the company, along with about 20 other lower-level salespeople.

The bloodbath at AT&T was just the latest in a series of layoffs, downsizings and right-sizings of TV ad sales organizations.

"With the TV business contracting, there are many talented, experienced people that are being displaced,” said former Fox Network Group ad sales president Toby Byrne.

“Relationships are a very important asset for experienced executives as well as the skill sets that can translate to an emerging company in the media business,” added Byrne, now president of Zefr, a technology company with a growing video contextual-targeting platform. “Not everyone will be able to pivot, but the most progressive TV sales executives will have a lot to offer as they seek new opportunities."

Hard numbers for advertising sales staffers and senior ad sales executives are hard to come by. Erik Sorenson, CEO of Sucherman Group, which does executive search, strategic counsel and industry intelligence for the entertainment and media industry, estimates that hundreds of senior executives have lost jobs and that if you look at all ad sales personnel the number could be in the thousands.

‘Crazy Times’

Sorenson, a former executive at CBS News, MSNBC and Court TV, said his firm used to get about 10 calls a week from ad sales executives out of work or concerned they might be soon who wanted to brush up their resumes and make sure they were on recruiters’ radar. Now, Sucherman is getting 10 to 15 calls per day, about 10 times more.

“These are pretty crazy times. I have never seen anything like it in almost 40 years in the business. The disruption, the perfect storm of technology, consolidation, automation, artificial intelligence, consumer behavior changing in ways I've never seen. We've always had these shifts in demographic dynamics, but what's going on right now is just unprecedented,” Sorenson said.

When WarnerMedia announced the departure of those senior ad executives, chief revenue officer Gerhard Zeiler sent out a memo that it was “obvious that everyone understands how much the industry is transforming and that we need to change to enable us to stay at the top and lead the industry.”

Similarly, in November 2018 when 50 ad sales positions were eliminated by NBCUniversal, the company said it was part of “an effort to rightsize its business and allocate resources to future growth areas such as new development in advanced advertising, automation, and technology systems.” Executive VPs Mike Rosen and Scott Schiller left the company at that point.

Industry mergers haven’t helped. Many more ad sales positions disappeared a year ago when Discovery acquired Scripps Networks Interactive. Discovery’s ad sales president Ben Price left after the top job went to Jon Steinlauf of Scripps (Price is now with NBCU). It happened again when the Walt Disney Co. bought 21st Century Fox. In addition to president for ad revenue Joe Marchese, executive VPs including Bruce Lefkowitz of Fox Network Group and Michael Teicher of Twentieth Television were without a position at either Disney or Fox.

Additional cuts will come if CBS and Viacom finally merge as industry observers expect.

“What we’re seeing before our eyes is you’re eliminating the top third of the industry,” said one former network sales head.

Sales executives with 20 years of experience are being replaced by people who understand automation, programmatic sales and algorithms. “Technology is changing the game in every facet of the business including manpower,” the executive said. “This is just the end result of what we’ve been seeing develop over 10 years and it doesn’t mean that the people being laid off have opportunities that are going to be at the same level. Those jobs are gone forever.”

Relationship Status

The network brain drain is starting to be felt.

“The biggest change that is underway and will continue is that the business becomes less and less relationship based and more transactional. Good or bad, relationships have been at the core of how agencies work with networks. It allows us to ‘get things done’ for our clients that might not ordinarily be expected,” said Dave Campanelli, executive VP and co-chief investment officer at Horizon Media. “But, somewhat like digital, deals are becoming more transactional now it seems.”

In Advertiser Perception surveys of marketing executives, there’s a diminishment of advertisers' willingness to call sales teams “excellent” in different ways, whether it’s knowledge, creativity, innovation or customer service.

“We definitely see those numbers starting to slip,” said Andy Sippel, executive VP at Advertiser Perceptions.

Advertiser ratings of network sales forces are down 10% with some well-regarded organizations down 20% over the past five years.

The decline could be a reaction to media buyers and advertisers having fewer people servicing their business. And the drop in the regard for TV sales organizations comes as digital firms like Google and Facebook are upgrading their sales staffs to help marketers make advertising on their platforms more effective.

“The question for the networks is, why are you rushing towards being a commodity quicker than you have to,” Sippel said.

Network CEOs have to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater when cutting costs.

“TV companies need to identify their core pieces of business and they need to hold onto those relationships. You can use data too. That doesn’t mean you get rid of the people with gray hair,” Sippel said. “They're needed because they have those relationships and they actually are pretty good consultative sellers, whether you think they’re just transactors or not. They actually understand clients' businesses. You can supplement them with people who can come in and do the analytics.”

Sippel added that the bigger issue is the future of advertiser-supported television. “With Disney+ and Netflix and HBO Max and all these services that are about to launch, I think there's a huge fear that everything is going to go without ads,” he said. “Big parts of the ecosystem now run without ads, and there’s likely more to follow. So that is really what hanging over everybody's heads right now.”

Get Ready

So what’s a nervous ad sales executive to do?

Byrne said that he left Fox in 2016, “didn't see the trajectory changing for big media companies in the near term, so I turned my focus to finding a company that was in growth mode, on the other side of the disruption in the business.”

He found that with Zefr, which is profitable and growing. "To pivot into a different area of the business, it certainly helped that I ran a very large national ad sales operation that encompassed all of our digital sales for the last six years I was at Fox. My purview was broader than TV, and I was involved right from the beginning with the launch of Hulu, originally a joint venture between Fox and NBC.”

Former Discovery ad sales executive VP Sharon O’Sullivan moved into the digital realm as chief revenue officer of Ozy.

To survive at a digital company, “you better be good at multiple things. It's very hard now to be successful, especially in the media business without having skills in multiple areas” said O’Sullivan, who left Ozy in May and is now consulting.

“The reality is strong executives just have to learn, adapt and evolve. You do it personally but you do it for the business too,” O’Sullivan said. “I do think that if you're willing to adapt and evolve and push business forward in the direction of the consumer to bring great value.”

Sorenson questions how much of a senior ad sales executive’s skills are transferable to other businesses.

“Television ad sales in primarily a set of relationship skills and understanding the market and who you're partnering with on the brand side. And I don't know how transferable that is to other things,” he said. “It's such a specialized--and I only work in media. Maybe there's another industry that is parallel or similar.”

Carrie Pryor, managing director of executive search firm Greenwich Harbor Partners, said digital companies are interested in TV executives. “So long as they can prove that they can truly get things done,” she added.

Greenwich Harbor recently did a chief revenue officer search for a software company in the media business.

“We talked a lot about relationships versus technical skills,“ said Ted Pryor, also managing director at Greenwich Harbor. “We agreed as a group--that's the CFO the CEO and ourselves--that relationships will help get you in the door. It'll get you a lunch. It will get you to the first meeting. It'll help get you in a position where you can identify who are the right people to talk to in the organization, but after that it's a technical sale.”

Carrie Pryor says she tells TV sales executives that there are steps they can take to make themselves more marketable in a changing media environment.

“Brush up on your skill set and make sure that you can understand statistics and you're comfortable talking some quantitative analysis. Maybe that's a night school class. Maybe an online class,” she said.

But the million-dollar comp packages for TV sales execs are fading away and digital compensation packages often include stock that might never become valuable.

“They’re pushing out the million dollar people and bringing much younger people getting paid half,” Pryor said. “It’s a very tough time to be in ad sales right now,” she said.

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.