Lee Ann Daly On the Spot

ESPN’s svp of marketing says she was an “activities gadfly” in college, and since then, she’s worked in advertising (at Grey and Ammirati Puris Lintas), co-founded a comedy-based radio-production company (Are These My Shoes?) and studied to become a chef at New York’s French Culinary Institute. Since joining ESPN as vp of advertising and program marketing in 1997 (she was promoted two years later), Daly says her goal has been to “have enough brains to let a good idea happen.” The 42-year-old Indianapolis native is married to commercial director Frank Todaro.

Q. What was the biggest surprise about moving from the agency to the client side?

A. That you still have to service clients. I consider the entire company to be an internal client for me. You still have people you have to persuade and bring along.

What do you miss about agency life?

Pitching new business, and the camaraderie and team environment of that. Also, problem solving in the production area, where you’re learning new technology on a much more intimate level than I can in this job.

What’s the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?

Leaving a very good advertising agency, Ammirati, to start my own business, because it was like my MBA. It threw me into the deep end and forced me to learn about cash flow and all the things you don’t worry about when you have a finance department.

The dumbest?

Not taking a senior vp of marketing job with Excite! in 1995, when I could have made probably about $20 million [in options].

Do you think the Rush Limbaugh incident hurt the ESPN brand? The press lambasted the marketing department for hiring him.

I think we have to take risks. If you don’t, you miss opportunities. Rush was a risk. And so we took it, and it ended not as we’d hoped. It was appropriate that he resign.

If you could change one thing about the advertising industry, what would it be?

I would challenge them to use the media strategy as the driving force for the work they do, as opposed to the creative idea.

Most agencies say they already do that.

I know that they claim it, but I don’t really see it. My question is, excuse the sexist language, but, “Are you man enough to begin with an Internet campaign that’s really a great Internet campaign? Do you always have to start with a TV campaign?”

About how many calls a month do you get from agencies that want to pitch ESPN?

Me, about five a month. But I have two vps in my group, and they each get at least five.

What’s the strangest opening line?

“You have to work with us!” Just really bossy right off the bat. This was late 2001, when the market was in big trouble and everyone was terrified. People got mean and nasty. So much so that they were nasty to my assistant if she wouldn’t immediately put them on the phone with me. I called back a couple of them and made them send flowers to her.

What do you look for in an agency partner?

They have to be sports fans. That has to be an authentic aspect of the agency. Believe me, I’ve had people come in and pitch over the years, and you’re sitting there thinking, “Oh my God, where do I begin to explain why this isn’t going to work?”

Are you a sports fan?

I am, but I don’t reflect the core fanatic.

Compare the agencies ESPN works with.

Concept Farm always comes up with a surprising answer that’s somewhat quirky. Ground Zero comes up with things that are very passionate about sports—getting to the soul of the sports fan. Wieden [in New York] finds the smartest way to get you to look at things a little bit differently.

How did working with Ralph Ammirati affect your approach to advertising?

Ralph, to a great extent, was about not overcomplicating things. Letting things speak for themselves. Simplicity and minimalism are a big part of what I derived from him. He was also an authentically compassionate person. He had a great sense of humor. Hopefully, personal style is a little bit of what I got from him. He was very direct and sometimes cutting, but it was always in the service of trying to help you to learn.

What’s your favorite ESPN ad of all time?

One is before my time. It was when the New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup. These guys [the team members] are saying, “I took the cup to my restaurant out in New Jersey, and everybody drank from it.” What starts to dawn on you as they cut from one guy to the next is that they all have cold sores. It’s just hilarious. Under my watch, in the brand campaign, there are all these different fans watching games on television [in Wieden’s “Without Sports”], and the line is, “Without sports, who would we coach?” Half the people are saying, “Yes, yes!” and half are like, “Ugh, no!” And basically, they’re coaching the action.

What prompted your stint at cooking school?

My grandmother was a kosher caterer, and I grew up in a family of cooks. It was 1988, and I felt I had come to a plateau in my career. I had taken some sculpting classes. But I always found myself in the kitchen. I went to classes from 5:30 p.m. till about 1 in the morning while I worked [at Grey]. Any learning experience, whether you change your career or not, elevates you as a person, because you have faith in yourself in ways that you never understood you might.