MBPT Spotlight: “I Wanted To Expand My Skill Set”: At Horizon Media, Marianne Gambelli Makes Happy Return to Her Agency Roots

Marianne Gambelli, Horizon Media’s executive VP and chief investment officer, has come full circle in her career. After spending the first decade, beginning in 1980, with stints as a media planner and buyer at two agencies, and then rising up the ladder in ad sales at NBC during her 23 years there, she’s back on the agency side.

Gambelli initially worked as a media planner and network TV buyer at Grey Advertising, before moving to Backer, Spielvogel & Bates, where she rose to handle network media buying for the Miller Brewing Co., becoming the first female sales exec to work on the account.

She moved to the sales side in 1989, joining NBC as an account executive and was promoted to director of sports sales four years later. After that, Gambelli was elevated to VP of NBC sports sales, VP of eastern sales and executive VP, sales for primetime sports and specials, before being named executive VP of NBC Universal sales and marketing, where she oversaw the sales and integrated marketing efforts for both the NBC television network and NBCUniversal cable networks USA, Sci Fi (now Syfy) and Bravo.

In 2010 she was promoted to president of NBC network ad sales, where she was responsible for overseeing sales efforts for NBCU’s broadcast properties, including NBC entertainment sales, news sales and sports sales, as well as for ad sales for NBC’s cable news channels, MSNBC and CNBC. She also had oversight over the NBC regional sales offices in Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit.

After departing NBCU in October 2012, Gambelli eventually decided to go back to her media buyer roots. She joined Horizon Media, the largest U.S. independent media agency with billings of about $4 billion, in June 2013.

At Horizon, she succeeded Aaron Cohen, executive VP and chief media negotiation officer, who has stayed with the agency in a senior advisory role to Horizon’s CEO and founder Bill Koenigsberg, also helping Gambelli transition into her new role, where she oversees media activation strategy for all offline media.

Here, Gambelli discusses her transition from the network selling side to the agency buying side, and the similarities and differences between the two.

What was it that attracted you to Horizon Media as opposed to another agency?

I knew Bill [Koenigsberg, Horizon CEO]. I had sat on a few industry panels with him over the years. I liked the independence of Horizon. It’s pretty unique in today’s marketplace for an agency its size to not be a part of a major holding company. The corporate culture at Horizon is also unique. There is less politics. You don’t have to run ideas through a number of different executives like you do in holding companies to get answers or approvals. Bill is involved in all decisions. If you take an idea to him, it can get done very quickly. He’s accessible. He encourages out-of-the-box thinking and risk-taking. I felt I could do more here. I primarily had a TV ad sales background, but I wanted to expand my skill set to other media and he offered me the opportunity.

Talk a bit about your role at Horizon Media and what your mandate is?

Bill wanted someone with a different perspective, a different thought process, but someone with a lot of connections in the business. He felt my experience from the network sales side would be beneficial to the agency and its clients. I oversee all activation and investment except for direct digital. So that includes TV, audio, print and outdoor, both national and local advertising. While I don’t oversee digital advertising, I work hand in hand with the digital group so that everything we buy for our clients can be connected across platforms. Dave Campanelli [senior VP, director of national TV] handles network TV and Nancy Larkin [senior VP, director of local TV] handles local, and they both report to me.

You joined Horizon right after the network upfront presentations last year and just as negotiations were beginning. What kind of challenge did that present for you?

I started the Tuesday after Memorial Day, but it was easy to transition in. I have a great team here who knows what they are doing. It couldn’t have been easier to just step in to oversee the upfront process.

You spent 22 years at NBC. How do you look back on your time there?

My time at NBC was a big part of my life. It is a great company and I was given many opportunities to grow my career. All the time I spent there and all the duties I had made me who I am today.

How similar or different is selling media for a TV network than buying media for an agency? And how did it feel negotiating from an agency perspective with the NBC folks when you had negotiated on their behalf a year earlier?

It would have been different for me, I think, if I would have gone to another network to sell against NBC. I have yet to go to an event held by another network but those will be coming up during this upfront. Going to a cocktail party of an NBC competitor that I used to sell against and now buy from, will probably be a little strange for me the first time I do it. It would also have felt strange to work for another network. But negotiating for clients with all the networks is okay. As far as negotiating with NBC specifically during the last upfront, I let the team negotiate and do their thing. I was there for guidance and whatever insight they needed. As far as strategy goes, there isn’t much difference between selling and buying. In order to be most prepared, you always go into a negotiation not only knowing your own strategy but also anticipating what the strategy of the other side might be. At the end of the day, selling is selling and buying is buying, no matter what company you do it for.

The broadcast networks clearly have been pushing to move from C3 to C7 as a negotiating currency, but now that you are on the buying side do you still want to see C7 as the currency or would you like to keep it at C3?

My main frustration is that I want the most accurate measurement not only for TV but across all platforms and we are still not there yet. It still takes Nielsen several weeks to provide us with C3 ratings and C7 takes even longer. The lag time in getting both C3 and C7 data is still a problem that needs to be resolved. As far as moving to only C7, some clients are willing to use C7 as a currency but it doesn’t work for clients that want to reach consumers more immediately and want quicker accountability.

Are the networks offering to use C7 as a negotiating currency now and are clients using it?

It’s being offered by some networks and some clients are using it, but it’s still a small part of all the dollars negotiated. And it’s not being forced on clients by the networks. If both sides agree to use it, then deals can get done.

How has the upfront process changed over the years and has it been for the better?

The biggest change has been in the agency side consolidation. Ten years ago there were maybe 15 or even 20 decent-sized agencies each network would have to negotiate with separately. Today because of all the consolidation there are only a handful. That’s why the upfront negotiations get done quicker now. The deals might be more complex today: With all the cross-platform buys and integrations, there are so many more moving parts. But most of those complex details are worked on months before the actual upfront negotiations begin. Today, there is a longer preparation time by both sides before the upfront negotiations begin, so once the negotiations on price start, they get done quicker.

In years past, the TV networks and the agencies sat across the table and negotiated against one another using their own generated data. Today, more agencies seem to be partnering regularly with TV networks to do joint research projects and share data. How do you view these partnerships?

We’re all interested in trying to learn more about people who consume media and how they consume it. We both want to try to develop better, more accurate metrics for buying and selling. In the past, it was usually the networks that were the sole suppliers of data about their viewers. Now the agencies are developing data too. The demand for more accurate data from both sides and from our clients is motivating both sides to forge relationships and collaborate. We both need to agree on what data we need to use as currency before we can use it to negotiate price.