When Denise Denson saw what lay before her as executive vice president for distribution and marketing at Viacom Media Networks, she knew the first stretch of road would be bumpy.
But — like the boss who handed her the keys — she also knew she could steer her group to smooth road.
“When I took over we were shutting down regions and laying off half the staff ,” recalled Denson, who took over as top affiliate executive for Viacom’s many cable networks in February 2007. Several top MTV Networks executives left around that time in a major cost-cutting restructuring.
Denson was able to cut millions more dollars from costs, taking two years to whittle the organization to the right size. “But then it took a few more years until I had the right team,” she said. “Finding those people took longer than I expected.”
She had some people in-house but had to hire more, she said, especially because she believes the industry has evolved. “Attributes count, but a great product is not enough anymore,” she said.
Success in sales and marketing now requires more decisionmaking based on critical thinking and analytical skills.
“And I had to evolve as a leader,” she said. “It was part of the growing process to find the right people and put them in the right jobs. That was a challenge.”
Anyone who knows Denson knew she wouldn’t let herself fall short. “My first impression of her back in 1997 was, ‘Wow, she’s super-intense,’ and that’s still accurate,” Sam Cooper, senior vice president of content distribution and marketing, and one of Denson’s top lieutenants, said.
“But she also had a vision and a holistic view,” he added. “And she’s nothing if not decisive, but in a way that’s thoughtful, not reckless. There’s a tenacity, too, an infinite capacity for perseverance. She’ll work as hard as she must to see something come to fruition.”
Denson said she looks at how smoothly things are running now and feels some pride: “It took confidence and tenacity to look at that strategically and know that it would take a couple of years to pull off . Once we did, I said to myself, ‘I can do this job.’ ”
Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman knew that from the beginning. “We entrusted her to oversee a huge source of our revenue because she’s thoughtful, well-prepared and a strategic thinker,” he said.
Denson earned a finance degree from the University of Southern California, thinking her goal was to be a chief financial officer for a public company. After school, she found a job as an analyst for a healthcare company, but “four days in, I realized that finance did not rule the world.”
Still, she didn’t run for the hills. “I loved the analytics, and it was a great foundation,” she said of her four years there.
Then, 19 years ago, a headhunter called because MTV Networks was looking for something new in sales, “a hybrid, who could merge sales skills with finance,” as the company had countless affiliate deals to manage. So she moved to Chicago and became director, affiliate services. “It was the perfect job, and I was perfect for it.”
The jobs changed, not just because she moved up the ladder. The industry has faced relentless shifts, from channel proliferation to distribution consolidation to technological advances.
All that turmoil has also been a perfect fit, she said: “I would have been bored otherwise.”
Denson has succeeded as a dealmaker because she understands both Viacom’s and the other party’s needs, Dauman said.
Successes notched by Denson and her team in 2012 include a hard-fought new long-term affiliate agreement with DirecTV; an expansion of Viacom’s partnership with over-the- top video site Hulu.com; and tablet-app rights deals with Cablevision Systems and Time Warner Cable.
Coming to the table with a hammer just doesn’t make sense, Denson said, adding: “I take a consensus approach, trying to find ways we can grow together because these are long relationships. We’re always going to be back at the table again, and not just for the next deal.
“There isn’t a deal we’ve made that hasn’t been modified within its term — there’s always a new technology or something that wasn’t thought of when we signed it,” she said.
Denson has also modified her own approach to her job, adjusting to the mantle of leadership.
“She didn’t have to run a team before and now she runs an organization with many people,” Cooper said.
Added Dauman: “She has really grown as a leader.”
Denson learned how to manage a large staff — “grown-ups are easier than kids who are a little irrational,” the mother of five said.
Cooper, who is also a mother, said Denson’s ability to create a balanced work culture is one reason she has stayed with the executive so long.
Denson also learned that she couldn’t do everything, even with her husband, Verizon Communications vice president of content strategy and acquisition Terry Denson, cooking all the dinners in their Brooklyn Heights home in New York. (“He loves doing it,” she said. “That would stress me out.”)
“Learning to delegate is one of the hardest jobs in management,” she said, adding that she had to nurture the right person for the right tasks, for which there is no formula. But she is getting the hang of it. “In 2008, I negotiated the Cablevision deal, but this time around it was completely led by Sam Cooper.”
Denson says that enables her to tackle new opportunities Dauman has given her, like overseeing digital growth worldwide. “I can imagine being at Viacom for another 19 years,” she said. “They keep me challenged, giving me a chance to grow.”
TITLE: EVP, Content Distribution and Marketing, Viacom Media Networks
CAREER: Has risen up the ranks at Viacom from director of affiliate services at MTV Networks; to SVP, cable sales, distribution and national accounts, Viacom Media Networks; to her role overseeing all multiplatform distribution for media brands MTV, MTV2, VH1, VH1 Classic, CMT, Logo, Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite, Nick Jr., TeenNick, Comedy Central, Spike TV, TV Land, BET, Centric, Tr3s and Epix
QUOTABLE: “I played high school sports and I’m a big sports fan. Competitiveness is part of the fabric of who I am. At work, you have to keep that in check. You need to be motivated and have the desire, but negotiations cannot be about winning and losing.”
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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.