Navigating the Path to the Consumer

NAME: Sarah Lyons
TITLE: Senior VP, Product Experience
COMPANY: WarnerMedia
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Was DirecTV’s VP of OTT media products and VP of product management of DirecTV’s streaming video services. Oversaw the launch of DirecTV’s authenticated product suite as well as the roadmap for the NFL Sunday Ticket streaming service. Prior to that, was VP of revenue marketing, responsibe for generating $4 billion in revenue across a broad portfolio of subscription services and transactional content.
QUOTABLE: “We need to project out into the future based on intrinsic human behavior, which people in streaming services sometimes forget.”

Sarah Lyons

Sarah Lyons

In her new job, leading AT&T-owned WarnerMedia’s Product Experience Team for its new direct-to-consumer offering, Sarah Lyons is right in the middle of everything. And that’s right where she likes to be.

“Over the course of my career, I’ve learned a lot about myself and what I enjoy,” said Lyons, who has been in the role since January. “And I’ve found out that I love to be in roles that are at the center of change in the industry, in a place where I can affect the trajectory of the industry and where the company is putting momentum behind the project. This job is literally all of those things.”

Lyons is responsible for defining the product’s features, user experience and product road map while shaping the app experience across all major platforms and paving the way for innovation on how content is viewed and experienced in the future.

“Sarah has been thinking about where the puck is going in the consumer video business before innovation in our space was even an en vogue thing to talk about,” said Tim Gibson, vice president of video & application marketing, who previously partnered with Lyons at DirecTV.

Lyons has been involved in streaming for years. Before taking on her current job, she held various roles within DirecTV, including vice president of OTT media products. She also oversaw the launch of DirecTV’s TV Everywhere extensions as well as the product road map for the NFL Sunday Ticket streaming service.

“I’ve been fortunate to have moved into areas that are rebuilding something or building something from scratch,” she said, adding that the word “fortunate” is not false modesty: it took time and introspection to figure out that’s where she thrives. “Now every time I crest the wave and reach maintenance mode I think ‘I’m ready for another challenge.’ ”

Vikash Sharma, AVP and general manager of OTT video products at AT&T Communications, worked with Lyons during the development of AT&T’s next-generation Open Video Platform. One reason Lyons is so successful, Sharma said, is her leadership skills. “She nurtures creativity in teams and empowers individuals to think about creating the best possible experiences for the consumer while articulating a strong vision for the organization and industry,” Sharma said.

Lyons said she believes everything she’s done in her career to date, going all the way back to “streaming Sunday Ticket live on the Web before the iPhone even came out,” has prepared her for her current role.

With the industry evolving so rapidly, Lyons said, she has been constantly learning — about rights deals, about what resonates with customers and can be impactful and about “when the juice is just not worth the squeeze.”

“My business experience, my marketing experience, my streaming experience all really prepared me,” she said. But some of the experiences she brings to bear go back even further: She’s been painting (with oils) since childhood, and minored in the subject in college (her parents wanted a more practical major, so she studied communication).

Lyons still paints occasionally, but she’s found another outlet for her artistic experience in designing apps. “It’s about balancing elements on the page and how you move your eye and moving the customer along a happy path,” she said.

A lifelong learner, Lyons has also studied wine, earning a diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. She and her husband own a small vineyard near Santa Barbara, where in “my golden years” she will make her own wine.

Learning the Dos and Don’ts

That love of learning plays a role in streaming. It’s not just about making the right decisions, it’s about learning from mistakes and knowing “what not to do.”

“If you look at things that were done wrong, then you can cut out a lot of the noise and really focus on what matters,” she said.

Even consumer research can’t always be taken at face value, she said, as ordinary citizens aren’t able to see ahead in terms of technological changes. Before the iPhone came out, people said all they wanted from a cellphone was to not have their calls dropped.

“Then, bam, you’ve got a computer in your pocket,” she said. “A consumer never would have predicted that. We need to project out into the future based on intrinsic human behavior, which people in streaming services sometimes forget.

“There are things like giving consumers a sense of accomplishment or satisfying the collector in people,” she added. “We need to figure out how we can capture those desires in streaming and create something that will surprise them that they’d never have thought of on their own.”

The goal is to launch products now that create a road map, and train for behavior that brings consumers along for any products the future might hold. Right now she points to social media as proof that consumers are hungering for a connection — they want to be engaged with, not talked at — and “most streaming today doesn’t engage the consumer the way they are engaging on other platforms.”

Lyons has her team seeking to “capture that same essence and create those experiences in streaming,” she said. “That’s where we can drive this thing forward.”

Stuart Miller

Stuart Miller has been writing about television for 30 years since he first joined Variety as a staff writer. He has written about television for The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, Vulture and numerous other publications.