Mark Marshall on Pulling Off NBCU's Upfront Event After Linda Yaccarino's Exit

The interim chairman of advertising and partnerships talks last-minute changes and that provocative Twitter joke

Now that upfront week events have concluded, Adweek is sitting down for upfront postmortem interviews with each of the presenting ad sales chiefs—and there’s plenty to talk about.

Between the Writers Guild of America strike keeping some major talent from hitting the stage to last-minute changes and major executive departures, it was an upfront week like no other. And no publisher had to deal with more challenges than NBCUniversal.

That’s because, in addition to being without upfront staples like Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers (NBC News’ talent handled the bulk of the presenting duties instead), the company had another glaring absence on the Radio City stage: longtime ad sales chief Linda Yaccarino, who left the company to become Twitter CEO just three days before the upfront presentation.

Yaccarino’s abrupt exit also gave added meaning to a joke from the event’s video kick-off, in which Seth MacFarlane’s foul-mouthed, talking animated bear, Ted, performed a song and dance about the importance of TV ads and joked, “Twitter may seem like the place to begin/but Twitter just let all the crazies back in.”

Mark Marshall, named interim chairman of NBCUniversal’s advertising and partnerships group on Friday, spoke with Adweek about the event’s quick changes, Yaccarino’s departure and, yes, that provocative Twitter joke.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: You made it through upfront week. Looking back on the event, what are you proudest of?
Marshall: I’m probably most proud of the quality of the show that was put on. It showed the breadth of our content, everything from unscripted to clips of the dramas and comedies. You’re able to see the news talent. We got to introduce the Big Ten on Saturday night, and then the Spanish-language [programming] and Peacock, so I think it was the breadth. That’s probably what I was most excited about.

With Linda Yaccarino heading to Twitter, a particular Twitter-themed joke from your Ted opening took on a double meaning and got a huge laugh from the crowd. How long was that joke in there? Were you expecting that reaction?
It had been in there for months, so it was not added in. And Linda was well aware of that line in there. So it was funny. I know people made some jokes about it, but it was in good fun. It had been in there for months.

And obviously, Linda departed for Twitter days before the show. Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBCUniversal Television and Streaming, led things, and then you closed it out. And you both acknowledged Linda onstage. How did you reconfigure the presentation after her exit?
Yeah, there was some rewriting. I was always in the presentation, so my section moved to the end. We rewrote a little bit of it. And then, obviously, Mark Lazarus stepping in at the front. That was written between Friday and Monday.

Wow, so fast.
Yeah, but the rest of the show was pretty set.

Mark addressed the WGA strike during the presentation, but how much of the event was impacted by the strike? And how did you decide to lean into news talent more?
Mark said it best from the stage. We hope that a great resolution happens on the strike on both sides. But, leaning in, we’ve typically had news show up within our presentations before as well as sports and other areas. So having them play a bigger part. They were already going to be in there. They just played a larger role than we had previously.

Some publishers chose to go without talent in the upfront. Why was it important to include the news team and have that talent on the stage?
I think there is the element of having that quality as the most watched news organization that we have, and people are familiar with them. These are the faces they wake up with in the morning, or you have Lester Holt in the evening. So it was a way to provide some of that star quality of people that they know in that environment, and I think they did a great job.

Obviously, I worked with Linda for 10 years. We were aligned in terms of getting the value for our content and our properties. So I don’t think it really changes a whole lot.

Mark Marshall, on how Linda Yaccarino’s exit will affect upfront negotations

What were the priorities you wanted to get across in this event?
We’ve spent so much time over the past year talking about data and measurement, and while those are extremely important, we sometimes lose focus that all of those things are layered on top of content. And content is really what engages the consumer and turns the consumer from a viewer into a customer for a brand. So I think we wanted to make sure that we got the story out and were able to show that content as the star of the show.

And you did it all as a live event. But with Netflix switching to virtual amid the writers strike, was that ever a conversation to go virtual?
It was never a conversation, and, actually, over the past couple of weeks, I’d gotten so many notes from clients and agencies saying, “Please do not cancel,” or, “Please don’t do virtual because one of the highlights of our year is the upfront at Radio City for NBC.” So it was a nice confirmation of the importance of this and a nice gathering for the industry.

So based on that answer, I think I already know what you’d say to this next question, but, with the presentation in the books, will we see you back at upfront week next year?
I plan on being—I hope so [laughs]. I think NBC will be there. I think our intention is to continue to do that and kick off the week. It would be nice if it wasn’t the day after Mother’s Day. But we’ll get to work on that.

You mentioned Mother’s Day on stage, and how people need to generally travel on it to get to NBCU’s upfront. You used to travel yourself. Why was it important to you to mention that?
I think we have an unbelievable history of making Mother’s Day challenging for the entire industry because of the slot we’ve been assigned over the years [laughs]. And so many people in our industry are females who are leaving their families, and I thought it was appropriate to acknowledge the efforts that they’re making to show up to our show.

You had already been tapped to lead the upfront earlier this year, but how does Linda’s exit affect negotiations?
I don’t think it changes anything on that side of things. Obviously, I worked with Linda for 10 years. We were aligned in terms of getting the value for our content and our properties. So I don’t think it really changes a whole lot on that side of what we’re doing.

Regarding the writers strike—plus other guilds, like the directors guild, are going to have contract negotiations— how does the strike affect negotiations, or is there some point later where that comes into play?
I don’t think so. We feel really great about the schedule that we have all the way through the end of this year, so hopefully, this comes to a resolution in short order. But we feel really good about it. This was not a surprise. We had been game-planning for the past year on that. So we feel great about the content that we have already shot.

You mentioned on stage that this was your first time closing things out. For next year, what do you want to do differently? What do you want to continue?
I think we are just focused on getting through this upfront of where we’re at. And every year, we do a post-analysis of what worked and what we’d like to do differently on the show. We haven’t done that to this point. But I think we were very happy and had great feedback from the clients so far.

You said Nick Jonas was your favorite of the Jonas Brothers before bringing him out to perform. Is he really your favorite?
Yeah, by the way, he is the nicest guy. I met him backstage and was super engaging. Really a nice guy. He’s the only Jonas Brother I know. He’s absolutely my favorite. I think he did a phenomenal job.

And speaking of that, you had great performers, with Nick Jonas, Grace Potter and Reba McEntire. Can you talk about getting that talent there?
I give all the credit to [Josh Feldman, global CMO, NBCUniversal advertising sales and partnerships] and team. These guys put together the show. They started working on it about six months ahead of time and obviously had many pivots this year. I thought they did a great job. And as I said, I think it demonstrated the breadth of our content, including even a musical [number] with Reba, who will be on The Voice. We just had the Jonas Brothers on The Today Show last week. It was a proud moment to see all of that content come together during the show this year.

What do you want marketers to know about how you plan to lead the NBCU ad sales team?
I think it will be the same as I’ve managed my teams over the years. This company has shown it’s not about one person. It’s about the talent that we have on all levels, and everyone is involved and all hands on deck to get through this upfront season.

Enjoying Adweek's Content? Register for More Access!