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The Measure of Success

The perfect blend of business acumen and personality create a dynamic industry leader
  • April 18 2011

It’s virtually impossible to find anyone who spends time with Donna Speciale, AWNY’s 2010 Woman of the Year, who isn’t eager to share positive stories or heap praise upon her. Whether it’s a small agency meeting or large industry conference, the current president of investment and activation at MediaVest USA since 2004 is known for commanding her audience with her extensive knowledge of the media market and her insights into the advertising landscape. Her charm and irreverent humor don’t hurt either.

“Donna is incredibly well liked and respected in the industry,” says longtime friend Michael Kassan, chairman and CEO of MediaLink. “She has close relationships with her clients and vendors, yet she drives as hard a bargain as anyone I know. She can handle any high-pressure situation with ease.” Not to mention, he adds, Speciale has a great, dry sense of humor. “For a nice Italian girl, she speaks a mean Yiddish,” he says.

Her “Spesh touch,” as her friends and colleagues call it, has served Speciale well in her professional and personal lives, allowing her to handle just about any situation with aplomb. “Donna strikes the perfect balance between relationship building and professionalism,” says MediaVest CEO Bill Tucker.

At 48, Speciale has repeatedly won over her business partners and forged groundbreaking deals while gaining the respect and admiration of her peers. “I do think my experience has been important, but my success has a lot to do with the people around me,” Speciale says. “I have been fortunate enough to work with people who have stayed with me throughout my career. Those who did move on usually went on to do bigger and better things, and I am so pleased for them.”

A Spunky Kid with a Perpetual Smile

An East Greenwich, R.I., native and a self-described “media brat,” Speciale has always had a familial connection to the business. Her father was a media director in Rhode Island, where Speciale got her start at the Leonard Monahan agency. (He now works at Blaine Warren Advertising in Las Vegas.) Her husband, Gary Reisman, runs the brand-attachment measurement service NewMediaMetrics.

She worked her way up from a buyer at Grey Advertising in 1989 to director of national broadcast at Grey Global’s media arm MediaCom in the late 1990s. She was hired by Starcom MediaVest Group CEO Laura Desmond in 2004.

From the beginning, major industry players recognized her rare talent. “I always knew there was a superstar in the making,” says David Levy, president of sales, distribution and sports at Turner Broadcasting System. “There are very few people in this business who can deliver bad news and make you feel like it’s not bad news. That’s a gift.”

Today, MediaVest executives who report to Speciale roundly praise her as someone who can make anyone in the room feel comfortable. Christine Merrifield, executive vice president and director of video investment and activation at the Publicis-owned agency first met Speciale at Grey in 1990.

“She was this spunky kid from Rhode Island who always had a smile on her face,” says Merrifield, whom Speciale recruited first to MediaCom in 2000 and later to MediaVest in 2004. “We’ve been working hand-in-hand since then,” says Merrifield. “She’s a great mentor and a strong, welcoming person.”

Robin Steinberg, senior vice president and director of publisher investment and activation, concurs. “I’ve known Donna for the last five years and she’s always supported me,” Steinberg says. “I consider her a great boss and a great friend.” Accolades also come quick and easy from clients.

“Donna possesses an uncanny skill to effortlessly prioritize work and play across a 36/7 workweek,” says Annis Lyles, vice president of connections, planning and investment at Coca-Cola North America. “Whether at home or at work, Donna always makes time to share a joke, provide coaching or simply just listen. Donna is a very approachable individual who understands the importance of building relationships which ultimately enhance both her professional and personal life with her husband and two kids.”

Speciale is also a skilled athlete, drummer and the mother of two teenagers. While she would rather dwell on the strengths and achievements of others, Speciale says AWNY’s honor is particularly satisfying because it enhances her status as a role model for her 14-year-old daughter. “I think my daughter will be that much stronger of a woman in seeing my success,” she says. “You don’t go into your career thinking about the awards you are going to win, but I’m grateful to be honored by peers in this way.”

Speciale is also gratified seeing more women in media today occupying senior roles. “That was definitely not the case when I first started,” she says.” I think the industry has come a long way and I certainly hope it will continue.”

Leading the Digital Revolution

Throughout the industry, Speciale is widely credited for championing the formation of the Video Investment and Activation (VIA) group.

Recognizing that a digital paradigm shift was already well underway when she arrived at MediaVest in 2004, she took immediate steps to move the agency from a TV-centric point of view toward a video-neutral solution.

Namely, she began to unwind the independent silos (an ongoing process) and establish “cross-athlete” teams that work together as a unit across all media platforms. “It was a huge behavioral change for us,” Speciale says. “Four or five years ago, people were saying, ‘Why are you doing it?’ Now, video is such a natural part of everything we do. We needed to get all our teams together on this new mindset and get everyone, including all our new hires, trained in the digital space.”

As a result of these efforts, MediaVest is positioned well to address sweeping changes in the media landscape. “It’s critical that we no longer have to go through multiple layers of approval in talking to the network,” adds Merrifield. “Clients are embracing the change. They’d much rather deal with one person than have the print buyer consult with the out-of-home buyer and so forth. Now, all of us can address client needs holistically. It’s a total investment approach.”

Ted Harbert, the former Comcast veteran and current chairman of NBC Broadcasting, says his connection to Speciale goes far beyond the standard buyer/seller relationship. “I’ve been working with Donna for more years than either of us wants to admit. I consider her a partner and friend,” says Harbert. “She possesses unique analytical and communication skills that allow her to quickly get to the root of an issue and fi nd the best solution for both sides.”

A Banner Year

had a terrific year with several major deals signed in 2010. Among the highlights: charter advertising and multiple brand integrations on the new Oprah Winfrey OWN network; an extensive partnership with BermanBraun (creators of Wonderwall.com and Glo.com) to create custom digital entertainment/ advertising content; and an eye-catching digital campaign on New York City subways for Turner Sports’ coverage of the Major League Baseball playoffs (see case study on page 32).

The agency boasts some of the biggest brand marketers in the country as clients, including P&G and Kraft Foods, as well as the giant media company Comcast. According to billings tracker Recma, MediaVest is ranked 6th in the U.S. by billings with approximately $7 billion. Key 2011 programs include a major foray into addressable TV with the launch of a national DirecTV ad campaign later this year.

MediaVest insiders say the agency is able to consistently put clients at the forefront of cultural and technological changes because Speciale fosters an environment where creative thinking is nurtured and it is OK to fail. “We call it ‘failing forward.’ As long as we learned something about what makes sense for our clients in the future, it is considered a worthwhile endeavor,” says Jen Soch, senior vice president and director of advanced TV at MediaVest.

“I always feel like Donna has my back. Regardless of the idea I might want to explore, she’s always willing to listen and never shoots me down.” Risk taking is embedded in the culture at MediaVest, adds Speciale. “Sometimes leadership is about giving the people you trust the power to succeed on their own,” she says. “I’ve been blessed to find some amazing talent and I encourage them to go for it!”

Those individuals include Sarah Baehr, the former Razorfish media executive whom Speciale recruited last fall as senior vice president and director of digital publishing solutions. “Donna’s always asking how we need to evolve to meet the needs of our industry, including bringing in someone new with the right expertise,” notes Steinberg. Adds Merrifield: “Often times at an agency, print gets folded into digital. Here, we flipped the idea around. That’s a great example of how we’re breaking down the silos. Our challenge is to take a traditional print concept and innovate in the digital space.”

Speciale says this boils down to a simple matter: Do not rely on the status quo. “We’re always trying to figure out what’s next, whether it’s a new type of media or a new revenue stream,” she says, citing the agency’s success in getting print clients on board with advertising on the new Wall Street Journal iPad application last year. “Where we are headed is media that’s audience based and consumer focused, not channel focused,” she says. “Content will continue to be the driving force.” At MediaVest, it’s quite clear that the driving force, at least to a large extent, is “Spesh” herself.

“People love working for her Donna. She is an inspiring leader,” says CEO Tucker. “She’s constantly trying to improve her own skill sets and those of the people she manages.” As for her Woman of the Year award, she simply says: “I think it’s very cool.”