Growing up on Manhattanâ€™s Upper West Side, Geri Wangâ€™s parents wouldnâ€™t let her watch TV. Now, as president of ad sales for ABC, overseeing broadcast, syndication, digital, SoapNet and the new ABC News/Univision joint venture on cable, television is a big part of Wangâ€™s life. But she wonâ€™t use her DVR.
Sheâ€™s hardly a Luddite. In last springâ€™s upfront, Wang pushed clients to buy video deals that included ads on TV and digital. But she only watches TV live because â€œI want to see how advertising works inside a program. I want to make sure the formats make sense.â€
A first-generation American, Wangâ€™s Chinese parents moved to New Jersey in search of better schools. As kids, she and her sisters (who are in sales in other industries) would sneak off to watch the familyâ€™s one TV set.
Inspired by volunteer work at an institution for physically challenged children, Wang studied physical therapy at Ithaca College. Tripped up by a physics course, she changed her major to communications and graduated early from Ithaca College and spent the end of her senior year in Paris going to museums and eating great food.
Returning home in 1982 to a recession, she interviewed with Grey Advertising, which had openings in media for a planner, a buyer and an analyst. After asking what each does, she picked the analyst job. "I do love data," Wang says. After three years, she joined Grey's buying group, executing what she'd been studying previously in theory. "It was a great education, better than any MBA," she says.
"You never went into her office without a pencil and a calculator," recalls MediaVest president, investment and activation Christine Merrifield, who got her first job from Wang. "You had to know your stuff."
Wang was recruited to join ABC in a sales job, but ultimately, Paul Rittenberg, then the network's head of daytime sales and now executive VP at Fox News, thought his other candidate had more experience. That was Jo Ann Ross, now CBS' president of sales. A few months later, Rittenberg convinced Wang to take a sales planning post. She climbed the ladder and in 2010 was named head of sales, the first woman to hold that job at ABC.
"She was always very determined," says Rittenberg, who recalls that Wang was part of a group that went out for a late-night drink during her first upfront at the network. Hungry, she convinced a reluctant bartender to turn on the French fry machine. "That's when I knew she had what it takes," he says.
Back then, Rittenberg couldn't have visualized any woman-even Wang or Ross-running network sales. "If someone had said â€˜are they smart enough, do they work hard enough,' I would have said sure," he says. But "things have changed a lot in 22 years."
Long gone are the days when sales was dominated by men drinking Scotch and smoking cigars in clubby steakhouses like Ben Benson's. Now with Wang, Ross and Linda Yaccarino at NBCUniversal, three of the Big Four broadcasters' sales divisions are overseen by women.
Why have women ascended? "You have to give some props to network management for recognizing the talent that they had," Wang says. "I would like to think that it is meaningful that I was a woman, but I'd like to think I was the best person for the position."
"Geri approaches every sales negotiation the same way she tackled the Wipeout course [for a taped upfront presentation segment] a few years back-with guts, tenacity and skill. She always finds a way to get the highest value for ABC while delivering a positive result for advertisers," says Anne Sweeney, president, Disney/ABC Television Group.
"During her more than twenty years with the network, she's helped position ABC as a â€˜must buy' for national advertisers, and her insights have led to groundbreaking new ways for us to do business," Sweeney says. "Geri's leadership, tenacity and analytical brilliance allow our hit shows such as Modern Family, Once Upon A Time and Good Morning America to shine even brighter."
Buyers say Wang is tough but fair. "You always learn something new when you talk to Geri," says Merrifield of MediaVest. "She's a very strong, assertive, aggressive negotiator but she's also a very strong listener."
Wang says that while there may be friction during upfront, the rest of the year, ABC is on the same side as clients, helping them drive their businesses.
"I have the best job in the company. I've always, always felt that way because sales is a pivot point for all the divisions inside the company," Wang says. She weighs in on programming, conveying the views of her clients. "It's not as important what Geri Wang likes to watch," she says. "We're going to be successful as a sales organization if we help our clients drive their businesses."
In her post, Wang also gets to opine on policy and help the company become a thought leader in a changing industry. "We're still learning. How cool is that? It's not the same thing every day. In fact I can almost guarantee that tomorrow, figuratively, is going to be very different."
While work dominates her life, Wang manages to keep 14 games of Words With Friends games going, plus four games of Scrabble. "I'm just a big gamer," she says. Married to Mike Shaw-himself the former head of ABC sales-she makes time for an extended family and a network of girlfriends. An admitted foodie, Wang says, "I love to eat and I love to cook."
"Geri will order for the table and it will be delicious," says someone who does business with Wang. "She can take over and everybody's comfortable with that."
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