Media All-Stars 2003: National TV/Cable – Donna Speciale

Nurturing 150 employees and 70 accounts has kept her ‘alive and challenged.’

Donna Speciale never expected to be in charge of the media-buying unit for Grey Global Group’s MediaCom Worldwide. But as the daughter of a media director for a Providence, R.I., ad agency, it seems she was destined to do it.

After working in Providence immediately after college as a broadcast supervisor for Leonard/Monahan, Speciale moved to New York in 1989 and accepted a position as senior network buyer with Grey Advertising. “I never said I was going to be the head of buying when I came to New York, but Jon [Mandel, global buying officer of MediaCom] kept giving me appointments and I kept taking them,” she says with a touch of humility.

Now she’s moving on again. Last week, it was announced that Speciale, executive vp/director of national and local broadcast for MediaCom, accepted the position of president of broadcast for MediaVest, replacing Mel Berning, who left to take the top sales position at A&E Networks.

But it’s her work for MediaCom that has earned her All-Star status. Mandel had been in charge of Grey’s media buying for several years while Speciale climbed the corporate ladder to eventually become his co-No. 2 as vp/manager of national broadcast. He named her his successor in 1999 after Grey formed MediaCom. Speciale was 36. “When hiring and promoting, we always look for people who have passion, and Donna has passion,” says Mandel. “Donna cares about doing a good job, doing the right thing for clients, and, when they don’t get the business, helping vendors understand why we couldn’t do the deal. She is respected by people on the inside and on the outside.”

Inheriting the job from Mandel, whom most in the media business would agree is a larger-than-life personality, was tough. They have very different management and negotiating styles, but, almost five years later, with the support of Mandel, Speciale has made the department her own. “Donna has really put her stamp on the department and kept up with all the changes in the marketplace,” says Peter Olsen, senior vp, director of national broadcast.

In the face of massive consolidation, expanding media options and an economic crash, Speciale helped build an efficient media-buying operation. This was accomplished, in part, by making local and national media buying a more seamless operation (she was given oversight of local broadcast buying about three years ago), but she also created more synergy between the buying and planning departments and established a nurturing environment not only for her staff but also for those with whom she conducts business. She has been instrumental in bringing in new business and, during a period of cutbacks and lay-offs at the height of the advertising recession, Speciale did her best to keep morale up, her colleagues say.

Speciale has been managing a team of 150 people, as well as 70 accounts ranging from GlaxoSmithKline to Warner Bros. films to Staples. “Every day is different with a new set of challenges,” she says. “I have to understand everything because it just might affect my business, but it keeps me alive and challenged.”

Of course, with two kids at home, Speciale doesn’t think only of work. In fact, her home life is amazingly full considering how much time she spends on the job. Speciale runs three miles about four mornings a week, works out with weights, plays a mean round of golf and cooks. And much like her work, when it comes to cooking, she relishes the big projects. “The bigger, the better. Thanksgiving. Christmas. I love it,” she says with glee.

Her children—a daughter, age 6, and a son, age 10—and her husband are, naturally, Speciale’s top priority, but she does save a bit of herself to nurture her staff. “One of the best things about Donna is that it is very important to her to create an environment so that people can shine,” says Mandel.

“She is the perfect editor,” he continues. “She can take someone’s good ideas and make them great, but all the while letting those with the ideas have ownership of them.”

Under Speciale’s guidance, MediaCom senior vp Stacey Sullivan negotiated a key promo spot for the Warner Bros. film Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines during the 2003 Super Bowl, in which ABC sports commentators interviewed Arnold Schwarzenegger on the field about the film. During the 2002 Super Bowl, Olsen and vp Michelle Krumper helped client Subway get some extra exposure on Fox. The sub shop was the sponsor of Fox’s first Nascar race, The Subway 400, so MediaCom’s client was promoted every time Fox advertised Nascar during the weekend of the Super Bowl game to which it had rights.

“Donna understands the needs and goals of the client and applies them to relatable media strategies,” says Marci Grebstein, vp of media and consumer marketing for Staples. The Staples core customer is the small-business owner who doesn’t have time to consume a lot of media but watches a lot of TV news. So Speciale created an all-news strategy to reach the office-supply retailer’s elusive customer. “She steps in, assesses the situation, listens, digests the information and makes a wise choice,” adds Grebstein.

Speciale explains that she and her staff do a lot of analysis and intelligence-gathering before negotiating with a media sales executive on behalf of a client. It’s her prep work as much as her commitment to never part ways angry that makes things go so smoothly. “We can’t always adhere to everyone’s wishes, but the vendors feel [the negotiation] was fair,” she says. “It is very important to me that no one walks away mad.”

Says Olsen: “She can be a pit bull when she needs to be, but she also knows when to back off if it is in a client’s best interest.”

Among Speciale’s proudest accomplishments is having put one of the first advertisers in the reality TV series Survivor. Reebok, which is no longer her client, provided the “buffs,” or head cloths, to the contestants of the original Survivor on CBS and remained the exclusive retail sponsor of the show for the first three seasons.

The business pitches she can never forget were the ones for the pharmaceutical company now called GlaxoSmithKline. The company underwent three mergers in five years to finally arrive at its current incarnation, so Donna and her team had to essentially pitch the same business three times in three years. And each time, MediaCom won the account. When asked how Speciale’s team was able to pitch the business three times and win, Jane Cowden, director of broadcast buying for GlaxoSmithKline, says: “Donna and her broadcast team are just very media-savvy. MediaCom’s pitches have always been dynamic and unique, but more importantly, they deliver the strategies and commitments made in the pitch.”

Above all else, Speciale prides herself on the staff she has put together. “I have an amazing team,” Speciale says of the MediaCom crew, which includes fellow All-Star Anne Elkins, senior vp/director of local broadcast. “The people have kept me here through the years. We play hard, but we do it together and have a lot of fun. I get a charge out of that.”

Megan Larson covers cable television as a senior editor for Mediaweek.