Raiding the Enemy Camp

Mike Ball doesn’t have to think too hard about why he left CBS Spot Sales for a major cable advertising interconnect in December 2002. “The growth potential in cable compared with broadcast is night and day,” says Ball, an ad sales manager in the New York City office of National Cable Communications, the ad-rep firm co-owned by Comcast Corp., Cox Communications Inc. and Time Warner Cable.

Like many other broadcast ad sales ex-patriots who have taken jobs in the cable industry, Ball says the tide has turned. “Cable used to be an afterthought,” he says. “Now, it’s becoming a first thought.”

Indeed, local and regional cable TV advertising — once considered a backwater of mom-and-pop buyers and chintzy TV commercials made in someone’s basement — has certainly come of age in the last few years.

While the more targeted nature of cable advertising will continue to attract small businesses seeking inexpensive ways to reach a local audience, cable operators are also making their case to large national advertisers increasingly wary of declining broadcast audiences.

With more large advertisers finding cable, many broadcast salespeople are bringing their relationships and Rolodexes to cable. “It’s definitely the relationships” that make broadcast executives appealing, says Ball, whose last couple of hires have been from the broadcast side.

Charlie Holmes, a sales director in NCC’s New York office, first dipped his toes into the cable waters in 1999 when he joined CNBC Network Sales, coming to NCC in January 2003. He also hires sales people away from the broadcast world because of their expertise in selling DMAs, which increasingly parallel the cable industry’s regional clusters in metropolitan markets.

Says Kevin Barry, vice president of local ad sales and marketing at the Cable Advertising Bureau: “We’ve always attracted broadcast talent, but as we’ve become more important in each DMA, it’s easier to get the top broadcast talent.” In fact, Barry says “there’s mediocre broadcast talent that would like to work for us but can’t.”

None of this necessarily suggests that the cable industry is on a mission to raid the broadcast ad sales ranks. “We try to look for the best possible people,” says Holmes. “They don’t necessarily have to come from broadcast. There are good people coming up on the cable and the broadcast sides.”

Says Ball: “When I hire, I try to hire the sharpest tool in the shed. A lot of times it just happens to be broadcast people.”

“Clearly, the talent pool is richest in [broadcast],” says Time Warner Cable Media Sales president Larry Fischer. One of his hires, Sherry Armotrading, formerly of Paxson Communication Corp.’s Atlanta affiliate, WPXA-TV, is now director of national sales in Time Warner’s Atlanta office. “In effect, what I was doing was buying these relationships,” says Fischer.

Pitching broadcast executives to make the switch to cable has become easier in recent years, according to Fischer. “The broadcast model is broken, and cable is the only true provider of consumers going forward,” he says, adding that broadcast’s recent reliance on short-lived reality shows has helped drive ad sales talent away from the broadcast side. “It’s not a pretty picture,” he says. “The pressures on the broadcasters are many.”

At Los Angeles interconnect AdLink, management has hired several broadcast ad sales people since Bob McCauley left his job as a vice president at Fox’s Los Angeles duopoly, KCOP and KTTV, to become AdLink’s president in 2002.

Many of the hires have come from McCauley’s old stomping grounds at Fox. So far, the strategy seems to be paying off: AdLink’s revenues increased by 23% in 2003. Just last August, McCauley hired KCOP/KTTV national sales manager Eric Kern to become an AdLink national sales manager.

“Being on the broadcast side, I saw a gradual shift of viewers from broadcast to cable,” Kern says. “With that shift, I wanted to be part of the growing cable world.”

Kern was also attracted to cable’s flexibility — namely, the ability to sell spots on dozens of cable networks rather than for one or two TV stations. “You really have a laundry list,” he says. “You have so much more to offer.”

Kern says the ability to target specific viewers also lured him into AdLink’s fold. The company’s “Adtag” and “Adcopy” technology, for example, allows advertisers to change out the last five seconds of a commercial to match specific zones within the viewing area.

A car dealership chain with 10 locations, for example, could highlight the closest showroom for each zone rather than list all 10 locations in a confusing jumble. “Our sandbox has more toys in it,” says Matt Brown, AdLink’s vice president of marketing and communications.

With new technologies and more interesting propositions making cable a potent force in local ad sales, some operators wonder what all the fuss is about when it comes to broadcast hires. “I have a problem with the argument that says we’ve come of age just because we can get broadcasters,” says CAB’s Barry.

Could it be that local cable advertising has simply reached adulthood on its own? “I think cable has grown up in a lot of ways,” says Brown. “It’s now attracting quality people that don’t look at cable the way they did five years ago.”