Of the six major TV ad sales chief jobs that opened up last year, one of the most surprising vacancies was at Fox Networks Group, where Toby Byrne abruptly departed last September, a week before the 2016-17 season began.
Five months later, the role remains open, as the company searches for someone to oversee almost all of Fox’s portfolio, including Fox, Fox Sports, FX, FXX and National Geographic Channel (but not Fox News Channel or Fox Business Network).
In Byrne’s absence, ad sales has been run by evp of ad sales Bruce Lefkowitz, evp of global partnerships Danielle Maged and president of advanced advertising products Joe Marchese, all of whom report to Fox Networks Group president and COO Randy Freer. Thanks to a last-minute scramble, the team brought in more than a half-billion dollars in revenue for Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5. But as upfronts creep closer, buyers have been eyeing the vacancy up top, and wondering when Fox is going to fill it. “It’s a testament to Toby that everything has been running so smoothly,” said Carrie Drinkwater, svp, group director of investment activation, Mediahub. “He ran such a tight operation, in that everybody was in place. I give him huge kudos for setting them up for success going forward, with a space open for so long.”
It was that day-to-day cohesion, Freer said, that gave the company the breathing room to take the time it needed to search for a suitable replacement. “This isn’t a 12-month or a 24-month decision. This is really a three- or five-year look at where the business is going,” said Freer.
To that end, Fox Networks Group hired a search firm, MediaLink, and has been considering a variety of candidates from the agency, media and digital worlds, as well as internal contenders. “We’re looking for someone who is going to have a stronger voice externally around what brands want, and what Fox Networks Group can bring to the marketplace as it relates to audience and brand advertising, as well as for someone who thinks much more about outcomes and the solutions for brands than about ratings points,” said Freer.
That person, the company hopes, will work with brands to improve the viewing experience, with fewer and better ads, and leave the day-to-day operations to its current team. “It is not a traditional head of sales position. They are looking for something different and my job with that person will continue to be to keep us on the tracks and keep moving forward and running the $4.2 billion business,” Lefkowitz told Adweek last month as he was wrapping Super Bowl sales.
Several buyers expect the job to go to Marchese, who was the CEO of digital ad company true[X], which Fox acquired in 2014. “He seemed like the person from the start,” said one buyer. Added Drinkwater, “Since they’ve become part of the organization, everybody likes him and everybody’s rooting for him. He’ll bring a new outlook to this space, given his background and his success.” Freer said Fox expects to make a decision in late February or early March, which is right in line with its initial February target, but insisted that the field hasn’t been narrowed down to one finalist yet.
Whenever the choice is made, there are no plans for any major structural reorganizations à la Disney-ABC’s overhaul this month, where the company used Geri Wang’s departure to enact broad changes to its ad sales team, and combine sales for its various properties into a single, portfolio division, elevating Rita Ferro to run it. Still up in the air is whether FNG will make any changes to its Fox, National Geographic and FX upfront presentations; at the very least, the company expects its Fox event to incorporate a broader view of Fox Networks Group than in previous years.
And as long as Fox’s decision is made prior to upfronts, buyers say they’re fine with the company taking its time. “If there was a good six or seven months not to have someone,” said one buyer, “this was it.”