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Meet PAM, NBCU’s Ad Sales Answer in a Data Age

When NBCUniversal decided it wanted to sell advertising a different way, it came to the same conclusion other big media companies are reaching—that it needed a new computer system to make the change.

Three years and an estimated $30 million later, ad sales for NBCU’s numerous broadcast networks, cable channels and digital properties are all running on a single system, providing senior executives with up-to-the-minute information about available inventory and allowing them to inject data from internal and external data to optimize its value. The apparently omniscient system goes by the name PAM—short for Portfolio Access Management—and it arrived just in time for upfront planning.

Data has become one of the buzzwords of the advertising business. Every media company and agency is talking about how ratings and age and sex demographics should no longer determine where ads are placed. In order to analyze and transact in this new economy they are building more sophisticated systems to analyze data and make transactions.

Linda Yaccarino, now chairman of advertising sales and client partnerships at NBCU, climbed aboard three years ago, not long after Comcast acquired the media giant. She moved to consolidate the ad sales division to take advantage of its scale, but found that the company had 19 different systems keeping track of the commercial inventory for its broadcast and cable TV networks. Two more systems handled the ads on NBCU’s digital assets.

“I knew pretty quickly if we were going to pay off for our customers that promise of that merger and give them better access, better products and better yields on their investments with us, we needed to be on one system or one backbone,” Yaccarino says. She declined to say how much the system cost but said the spending represented significant support from the company and NBCU CEO Steve Burke.

PAM officially opened for business a couple of months ago when NBC was taken off the mainframe—yes, mainframe—it had been using since 1990.

PAM’s arrival coincided with NBCU’s planning for the upfront market. “It’s the first time we’re able to really look at our entire ecosystem wholesale—English, Spanish, linear, digital—and really be able to do custom projects with an advertiser,” says Yaccarino.

The system can handle new currencies, such as using research data from Cogent instead of Nielsen, as the basis for selling commercials in CNBC’s Business Day programming.

It also enables NBCU’s Audience Targeting Platform, which gives participating advertisers access to the ad inventory most effective at getting their target audiences to buy their products.

“The role that data is playing today has become incredible table stakes for any media company. And then what you can do with that data makes all the difference,” Yaccarino says. “When we have more clarity and vision and ultimately proof of the power and scale of our content and the customers that we reach, we think we’ll be able to do an incredible service of partnership for our customers. And that’s really what the goal is.”

The foundation for NBCU’s computerized evolution is the OnAir system from SintecMedia, which handles ad sales proposals and trafficking.

On its website, Sintec calls OnAir its flagship product, describing it as a “complete enterpriselevel broadcast management system, incorporating all major broadcast operations including sales, traffic, programming and promo management and billing into an integrated all-in-one system.” It is also designed to handle “extensive configuration, scaling and customization to allow media companies to leverage their assets and manage their airtime,” the company says.

Custom Touches

NBCU’s internal information technology team, headed by Mike Mayer, executive VP, sales solutions, is adding a stack of customized layers of programming on top of that, enabling a unified reporting system, analytics and finally modeling that will instantly provide the answers to “what if” questions that would have taken days to answer previously. The system includes business intelligence systems that allow managers to monitor information via a variety of graphical representations and dashboards.

PAM also makes it easier to convey information to clients if, say, a client wants to look at a different media mix than it’s currently buying. Or wants a custom plan to help sell more sneakers. Or more soda. Or more diapers. In any such cases, PAM can take in data from the client or third-party sources and see how that impacts the usefulness of its inventory. “There’s a bunch of different things we’re looking at that the systems allows us to be more creative with,” Yaccarino says.

The new system also supports communications with ad agencies at a time when more of the ad buying process is being automated and makes the company better prepared for programmatic advertising buying and selling.

Yaccarino says she and her senior managers use the system all day, every day. “It’s really what’s powering everything we do as we prepare for the upfront market,” she says. “It will be something that will fuel all reports, estimates, revenue forecasts, and budgeting” everything that comes out of a division that generates $10 billion in revenue annually.

Staffers say they are adapting pretty quickly to the new system.

“It’s a huge change and management exercise. In some cases it’s just different terminology, different languages, getting people to operate differently,” says Mayer, who previously worked with Yaccarino at Turner Broadcasting. Each time a group of staffers has been introduced to the new system, “usually within a month, we’re off the training wheels. And in some cases it’s now down to two weeks. And that’s pretty dynamic.”

Mayer thinks that PAM will also be ready for the future, even if it’s not clear what demands the future will bring.

“I just want to be ready for whatever happens and as new models evolve—and that’s for Linda and the team to determine,” he says. “I don’t want to ever look at them and say, ‘that’s really interesting. I can’t do that.’ I want to be able to say, ‘that’s really interesting. Give me a little time, we can make that happen.’”