ABC’s Geri Wang Provides a Steady Hand

ABC is steaming into the 2010-11 upfront at full sail, pennants fluttering from the mastheads and a new captain at the ad sales helm. And while this spring will mark Geri Wang’s first solo voyage, media buyers and clients alike say that ABC’s sales skipper is shipshape, and calm in turbulent seas.

Just one month ago, the 49-year-old Wang was elevated to president of sales and marketing at ABC after she’d spent 20 years in assorted roles at the network. Taking command of ABC’s $3 billion ad sales business, Wang succeeds Mike Shaw, the hard-as-nails sales capo who on Nov. 30 announced he was stepping down after a decade at the top.

For anyone wondering how Wang will fill the shoes of her predecessor — in the penumbra of the upfront, Shaw cultivated an air of proactive combativeness and was often willing to serve as the public voice of the broadcast business — buyers are already well aware that she’s no shrinking violet. With 10 years of prime-time sales under her belt, Wang has demonstrated that she is a savvy and confident negotiator, and like Shaw before her, she won’t hesitate to have her voice heard on various industry issues.

“In many ways, my style is no different than Mike’s,” Wang says. “I can be as candid and direct as anybody. I will be very vocal and very public when I have something to say and be part of the industry discussion. I’m not a shy person.”

Wang’s promotion was widely seen as a fait accompli, an assertion made evident by the speed with which Disney identified her as the new ad sales boss. (The duration between Shaw’s disclosure that he was hanging it up and Wang’s official succession: 79 days.) “I talked to a number of candidates, and Geri was the obvious choice for the job,” explains Anne Sweeney, co-chair, Disney Media Networks and president, Disney/ABC Television Group, who promoted Wang after plenty of due diligence. “She’s smart, knows our business inside and out, and has the experience and the insight to move ABC sales and marketing to the next level.”

Wang has spent the last two decades at ABC learning pretty much every sales-side department: daytime, early morning, news, late night and prime time, the latter as vp of prime time in 1998. She was named senior vp in 2000. During her tenure at the network, she developed a strong reputation not only among the media agency executives she negotiated with, but also her sales chief rivals at the other networks.

“There is nobody else who should have gotten that job,” says CBS ad sales president JoAnn Ross. “Geri is really smart, a strategic thinker, a perfectionist and somebody who knows and loves the business. This will be a seamless transition for her.”

Elizabeth Herbst-Brady, president of media buying agency Magna, concurs. “It shows a commitment by ABC to promote their own talent…somebody inside who is capable,” she says. “And the street feels that way. She has a long, distinguished career there. She deserves it.”

Wang believes her greatest challenge, and the most important part of her expanded job, will be to “maximize sales opportunities for ad clients.” It sounds easy enough, but pulling it off is far more difficult than ever, what with more complicated negotiations that involve a growing number of executives on the client side — no longer just marketing executives, but company procurement officers, and even presidents and CEOs.

Then there’s the task of working closer internally with the network’s entertainment division.
“Television is where many advertisers spend their most ad dollars, and there is a growing need to be creative,” Wang explains. “Today we are not only negotiating for ad time but have to find ways for the client to tap into the creative aspect of a show.”

Wang can tap experience dating back a decade ago when she, along with John Caruso, senior vp of network sales, put together one of the early product integration deals — the AT&T “Phone a Friend” aspect within game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. She’s since been involved in many integration deals including Sears with Extreme Home Makeover and Macy’s in Dancing With the Stars.

“Integrations are part of the daily conversation with clients today,” Wang says. “And we have a voice with [ABC entertainment president] Steve McPherson,” whom Wang praises for his receptiveness to working with the sales department to execute the integrations seamlessly and without blowback from the creative community.

McPherson is only too happy to oblige. “I am a big fan of Geri Wang,” he says. “Along with Mike Shaw and me, she has helped build an incredibly collaborative relationship between the entertainment and sales departments. The integration of advertisers has become one of the central drivers of this business. More than ever before, we have to work together to be successful as a network. I know she has some plans to put her own signature on the sales organization, and I welcome that.’’

The Barbie Prophesy

On top of all ABC dayparts, Wang’s new role gives her oversight of interactive and Disney/ABC Unlimited, Disney’s cross-platform unit. While her ascension is no small achievement on a personal level, it’s also indicative of a growing trend in the TV business: women assuming powerful negotiating roles in the buying and selling of television ad time.

In fact, one of Wang’s closest friends in the business — and one of her main competitors — was a pioneer of sorts. CBS’ JoAnn Ross broke the barrier to become the first woman to oversee a broadcast network sales operation in 2002 after Joe Abruzzese left to helm Discovery Networks ad sales.

Several executives quoted for this story — Ross, Herbst-Brady, NBC Universal’s Marianne Gambelli, Starcom’s Jackie Kulesza — further illustrate how far women have come in the TV industry, even if to them it’s not a big issue. As Ross simply states about Wang’s elevation: “The right person got the job, and that person happens to be a woman.”

Adds Gambelli, another competitor as president of network ad sales at NBCU: “It’s wonderful that she’s a woman who rose up to the top spot, but what’s more important is that her promotion was well-earned and well-deserved.”

Negotiators on the other side of the table credit Wang for getting the top stripes on merit. “It’s a testimony to her ability,” explains Kulesza, svp, broadcast activation director at Starcom. “While it’s nice to see a woman promoted to this position, it has little to do with gender. Geri has always done a good job of sizing up the marketplace, and under Geri ABC will continue to be a marketplace leader.”

In a sense, Wang has been preparing for the role all her life. “When I was a little girl and played with Barbie dolls, all of my friends’ dolls were entertainers and models,” she recalls.
“But my Barbie doll was the head of a business. In fact, my mother told me never to learn how to type, so I would never have to type for anybody at work. I have always had a strong identification with self-sufficient women.”

That said, it’s been a long climb for the Ithaca College graduate who started her career as a media research analyst at Grey Advertising in New York after graduating in 1982. It didn’t take long for her to discover it was a man’s world at the time she entered it. In one of her many positions at Grey (she eventually ended up heading the national broadcast group), Wang negotiated deals to buy sports media packages for a particular client, who she doesn’t want to identify. When it was time to meet with that client’s executives in person to go over the terms of the buy, she wasn’t sent with the rest of her team because, well, she was a woman, and women didn’t close sports deals.

“It wasn’t overt sexism,” she muses, feeling far more gracious about it today than she did at the time. “It was just a male-dominated hierarchy at that time that no longer exists at most companies today. Male executives back then were more comfortable dealing with other men.”

Big Shoes to Fill

Chest pounding has become a rite of spring, and this year’s bravado got off to an early start when CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves began telling investors that he would secure double-digit CPM increases in this year’s upfront. While he probably isn’t making JoAnn Ross’ job any easier for her, Moonves’ Mighty Joe Young routine is merely a less subtle take on Mike Shaw’s old playbook.

Shaw’s public pronouncements spoke for the broadcast marketplace as a whole, but the words he exchanged at the upfront table had the greatest impact. He was the standard bearer throughout the commercial-ratings debate, exhorting his industry peers to expand the metric beyond Nielsen’s time-worn overnights. Behind the scenes, Shaw insisted on hashing out a new currency that would credit the nets for seven days of time-shifted viewing, and while live-plus-seven was watered down to C3, he’s still credited for leading the charge on reform. (On his way out, Shaw was still agitated about the compromise, spending a good part of last spring telling anyone who would listen that the industry should shift to C7 at the very least.)

As much as Wang insists that she’ll also speak out when she needs to, at least one major media agency executive believes Shaw’s absence creates a great opportunity for agencies to wrest back the agenda from the networks.

“This might be an opportunity to stick our chests out and do the pushing of our own issues and take the lead,” says the agency exec, who declined to speak for attribution. “It takes some guts to move a marketplace before everyone else, and Mike had the confidence to do that on occasion. Geri will do a very good job replacing Mike inside, but there could be a different public dynamic to the upfront this year. It may be time for the buying community to take back the lead.”

Jon Nesvig, head of Fox Entertainment sales, argues that Shaw was so outspoken because the broadcasters have no industry trade organization that can speak for them in a unified voice. (The cable industry has the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau watching its back, while syndicators have a booster in the Syndicated Network TV Association.) That said, Nesvig does not believe that Shaw’s departure will impact negotiations or the pacing of the upfront, or even to allow agencies to take back control of the agenda.

“There are a couple of people at CBS, Les Moonves and [CBS research head] Dave Poltrack, who are always pretty outspoken,” points out Nesvig. “And maybe I’ll get more active publicly again.”

Nesvig in recent years has made his voice heard when touting the effectiveness of broadcast television over new media. But like so many other ad sales execs (Wang, Ross and NBCU boss Michael Pilot all spring to mind), he gives little credence to posturing, saying that public rumbling doesn’t move the pricing needle one way or the other.

As another network sales executive puts it, “While Mike Shaw was outspoken and well-respected and will be missed, his departure will not change the course of business in the upfront for ABC or the other networks.”

Which isn’t to say that Shaw didn’t ruffle a lot of feathers during his ABC tenure. “Mike brought a lot of bravado that sometimes was misguided and divisive, which made upfront negotiations at all the broadcast networks that much harder,” says one former rival who spoke on condition of anonymity. “What’s needed is more of a collaborative tone. And that is something that Geri Wang will bring to both ABC and television as a whole.”

According to those who report to Wang, one of her greatest assets is an almost steely grace under pressure. “Prime-time negotiations are a pressure-filled, intense job, especially during the upfront,” says Michael Rubin, senior vp, general manager of Central Division sales for ABC Television. “But she has always kept her cool, kept her emotions out of it. She’s strategic, decisive and…always open-minded when doing deals. Geri never has any preconceived ideas.”

Patience Pays Off

As much as some execs may want to project their positions onto Wang, she’s her own woman. And as Disney has discovered, her intractability can cut both ways. In 2007, Wang shrugged off pressure from the parent company, which was looking for an in-house candidate to replace Lynn Picard as the head of ad sales at Lifetime Networks.

According to insiders, Wang dug in her heels, such was her desire to stay with ABC. While Lifetime has always dismissed the notion — former network president Andrea Wong spun it the other way, saying that the Mouse wouldn’t have approved such a high-level poaching by the cable ranks — one way or the other, Wang’s resolve has been richly rewarded.

Sources close to Shaw say that the 55-year-old had become fed up with the business even before the contentious 2009 upfront. Exasperated as he may have become, Shaw knew that he was leaving ABC in capable hands. And as much as Wang acknowledges that after she will be “leaving a comfort zone” — in her new role, she’ll go from managing 40 people in the prime-time sales department, to more than 220 people across all ABC sales divisions — she also says that she’s ready to take on the job.

“I’ll do my best to elevate ABC sales and take it to the next level,” Wang says. “We will be forward-thinking in our approach in every daypart and in the digital area too. We’re not shy pussycats. We’ll have candid conversations with any agency about anything.”