President, Sales, Fox Broadcasting Co.: Jon Nesvig

You can tell a lot about people when
times get tough. After the death of his
son Tim in 2005, Jon Nesvig, president
for ad sales for Fox Broadcasting,
set up a medical research fund in his
memory. The industry embraced him
and his cause, a testament to Nesvig’s
personal and professional stature in the business.

“His compassion and empathy in creating the Tim
Nesvig Fellowship for the City of Hope is his biggest
accomplishment,” says Comcast Networks President of
Ad Sales and former colleague David Cassaro. “He has
created something that will spare many people the pain
of losing a child or loved one to lymphoma. In my book,
this says a lot more about Jon Nesvig than the billions of
dollars of value he has created for Fox and News Corp.”

“He’s rallied the industry around this cause because
people love Jon so much,” says Joe Abruzzese, president
of ad sales at Discovery and another former coworker.

The outpouring touches Nesvig. “I’m just grateful and
pleased, and certainly my family is, that the industry has
supported Tim’s research fund,” he says. The City of
Hope Golf Classic raised more than $1 million this year. “It feels like family, like a close group of people that are
coming together to support this, which is terrific.”

On the business side, Nesvig has built his reputation
with a no-nonsense approach and by keeping an even
keel, even when others might want to turn a negotiation
into a battle.

“To refer to Jon Nesvig as ‘the dean of network sales
executives’ does not begin to touch on his importance to
both Fox and the broadcast industry,” says News Corp.
CEO Rupert Murdoch. “He is a true gentleman—a man
whose word binds more firmly than any contract. He’s an
aggressive negotiator, but his ultimate goal is to ensure
that his clients receive only the best.”

Former NBC Sales President Keith Turner recalled
that years ago there was one salesman working for Nesvig
whose shaky deals would get his goat. “Of course
we would howl, because you’d never see Jon mad.
There’s not a more honorable, decent guy in the business, ” Turner says. “What I loved when I worked for
him was that he’d say: ‘Look, this doesn’t have to be
as tough as we make it. Let’s just figure out how to do
good business. Let’s figure out a way to keep customers
happy. And then let’s go play golf.’”

Nearly everyone who worked for him does a Nesvig
impersonation. “A normal ego in this business would get
angry at it, or hurt or embarrassed,” says Jon Mandel,
former chief negotiating officer for MediaCom. “Jon has
a sense of humor about himself and he can laugh at it. He
knows about the impersonations and he finds them quite
amusing. And they’re always
done with affection.”

Asked about his demeanor,
Nesvig recalls the famous
quote about keeping your head
when all around you are losing
theirs. “I would like to—I’m
not sure I do,” he says. “My  ares are quick spikes and then
go. You try not to get pissed
off over business anyway, because
you’ve got to figure out
a way to make it work.” And
make it work he has.

“You look at the way he handled [upfront] marketplaces
year after year after year, and there’s a history of
nailing them all. Very few others can claim that. Everyone
else either overplays or underplays their hand,” says
GroupM chairman Irwin Gotlieb. “He’s
probably got the single-best record of
consistent performance.

Nesvig says his preparation isn’t
unique. He watches the economy and
stays in close contact with clients. More
importantly, he’s not afraid to move before
the herd.

He remembers avoiding the 1990–91
recession by going to market while the
other networks were considering modifying
the guarantees they offered clients. “We ended up writing so much money
in the upfront that we had to give some
back,” he recalls. And this year, he moved
quickly again, shrugging off criticism
from rivals that Fox sold too cheaply.

“I think the two or three years when
we’ve done something significantly or
somewhat different than what the market
has expected, or what the other networks
were planning on doing, have probably
been the best moves,” Nesvig says.

Nesvig began his career on the agency
side, but quickly decided that “sales
looked like a better career path.” He moved to ABC
Radio, where he pestered one client so much that the
client urged NBC to hire Nesvig “so he gets off my
back about radio.”

Nesvig rose to VP at NBC, but decided to leave when
it was bought by General Electric. “I didn’t particularly
care about plastics or locomotives,” he says. He opted
to join the fledgling Fox network in 1989 because “I
wanted to see if I could still work hard enough and take
a shot. Because the GE guys might have liked me then,
but I wasn’t sure they’d like me for another five years,
and I didn’t want to be 50 and on the outside.”

To get him to stay, GE offered to make him president
of NBC. “I opted for a world I enjoyed and was
comfortable in, I guess, rather than get into some areas
that would have been a bigger title and more power, but
didn’t interest me as much,” he says.

Back then, Fox and its UHF affiliates were being
dismissed as the coat-hanger network. Nesvig brought
it some credibility on Madison Avenue. “I think Jon
was very instrumental in getting people at least to give
[Fox] the time of day to listen to their story,” says Peggy
Green, vice chairman of media buyer Zenith.

Now that Fox is on top, Nesvig might seem a little oldschool
for a new media age, but looks can be deceiving.

Green says Fox has been ahead of the curve in many
areas. “In a competitive industry, you’ve got to find a
way to make buying Fox have more value,” she says. “They’ve done a lot of great things in prime for our clients,
and I think that all comes from the top.”

Nesvig also tried to DVR-proof Fox shows by reducing
commercial loads with the Remote-Free TV experiment.

“If old-school means being a good guy who knows
more than he lets on, who’s smarter than you are and
doesn’t make you think he’s smarter, then it’s good to
be a traditional guy,” says Mandel.

Nesvig’s Achilles heel is being uncomfortable in
front of the big crowds upfront presentations attract.

“If I never had to appear in front a group of people
again, that would be OK with me,” he says. “I’ve done
OK with wine and golf, I guess.”

Now at 66, how much longer does Nesvig want
to sell spots? “That’s a good question,” he replies. “Next.”

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.