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Reinventing Herself Within HBO

NAME: Diana Pessin
TITLE: Senior VP, Digital Media & Growth Marketing
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Oversaw 2015 launch of HBO’s direct-to-consumer app, HBO Now. In the final season of Game of Thrones, subscriptions to HBO Now more than doubled through paid media channels, while subscriber acquisition costs fell by almost half. She also developed a retention marketing program that has increased engagement on the platform by more than 20%.
QUOTABLE: “Data and analytics are a huge foundational piece of what we do. Our whole marketing approach is data-driven.”

Diana Pessin

Diana Pessin

When Diana Pessin was asked to make the leap from overseeing HBO’s e-commerce division to the 2015 launch of the network’s direct-to-consumer app, HBO Now, she made the move with seemingly no reservations.

“We’ve always managed the program as an evolution, and it keeps building and evolving based on those learnings today,” Pessin said.

Much of Pessin’s strategy involves not just attracting new subscribers but the tricky business of keeping them — even when their favorite show has ended for the season.

“Our whole philosophy is, good retention starts with good acquisition,” Pessin said. “We model our prospects based on the highest-value customers. We always think about what a customer is worth to us when we go into a market. Data and analytics are a huge foundational piece of what we do. Our whole marketing approach is data-driven.”

While Pessin has made it look easy, it’s because she brings to the table a surprising combination of breadth and depth — an ability to understand the deep implications of data while also being able to form lasting, productive relationships.

“I have this joke that I want to be Diana Pessin when I grow up,” Sabrina Calouri, executive vice president, digital media and marketing at HBO, said. That’s high praise considering that Pessin reports to Calouri, who in turn reports to WarnerMedia Entertainment chief marketing officer Chris Spadaccini. “It’s been wonderful to watch her reinvent herself at the company. Diana has the quantitative ability to run the subscriber acquisition side of the business but she also intimately understands the consumer. She thinks about user experience and creative in a way that helps drive the business forward.”

Strategic Thinker

Admiration for Pessin runs downstream as well: “I often get asked at HBO what it’s like to work for her, especially by younger women who look up to her and want to know how she’s been able to make the moves she has,” said Alissa Tofias, VP, digital media and acquisition, who has been reporting to Pessin for more than two years. “She’s been able to reinvent herself and try new things. She goes super deep and understands all of the pieces, but she can be really strategic at the same time.”

Prior to being tapped to launch HBO Now, Pessin spent more than 10 years as HBO’s director of e-commerce and marketing, managing operations for the HBO online shop. As part of that, Pessin oversaw the global expansion of HBO’s e-commerce footprint throughout the European Union with a multi-language, multi-currency and mobile-optimized storefront. While in that job, she learned how to apply data to grow a business, but also has found that e-commerce is a different beast than direct-to-consumer marketing.

“Some of the foundational skill sets are the same — e-commerce is a performance-based marketing initiative — but there are a lot more differences than similarities,” Pessin said. “There’s so much nuance in selling a subscription service versus selling a product. And retention marketing is new. We are trying to further our connection with the consumer.”

Still, Pessin has adapted quickly by all accounts.

“At HBO, she is the most skilled and experienced person on the streaming side,” Kevin McGovern, executive director, strategy, HBO at Omnicom Media World-owned Hearts & Science, said. “The main thing I have learned from working with Diana is that there is a brilliant executive mind that is able to operate at the highest strategic level but also has this crazy appetite for detail. She’s not like your typical executive, who asks a couple of questions to make her feel like she participated. I’ve never had a client like her and it’s a workout in a way, but it’s good, it keeps everybody on their toes.”

From the experience of running HBO’s e-commerce business, Pessin had a leg up when it came to building HBO’s data teams. For example, she made sure a control group was put into place at HBO Now to help guide the way.

“One of the pieces we are most proud of is our ability to measure our progress against control groups that allow us to see if we didn’t do anything, what would the consumer’s natural behavior be?” Di Wu, director of life cycle marketing, HBO, said. “That adoption discipline is something we hold ourselves to. It, in turn, allows us to be very honest with ourselves, asking, ‘why did or didn’t this work?’ This helps us to make sure we aren’t taking credit for something that would have happened on its own. Without that strategy in place, it would be a much harder lift to go back in time and try to capture that information.”

Looking forward, Pessin has next spring’s launch of HBO Max on the horizon, but she feels confident that what she’s learned via HBO Now will apply.

“It’s about how you sync what’s working and scale it for a bigger service,” Pessin said. “There’s going to be more mass interest in this service based on the offering, so we need to figure out how to speak to different types of people, including kids and families. It’s creating a lot of new opportunities for us.”

“It’s an exciting time,” Calouri said. “Certainly, all of the work that we’ve done and that Diana has led over the last five years has laid the foundation for us to be ready for HBO Max.”

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.