WarnerMedia Ad Sales Chief Donna Speciale to Exit Company

Chief revenue officer Gerhard Zeiler will lead her team as interim president

Donna Speciale on WarnerMedia stage
Donna Speciale's departure comes just a week after she wrapped this year's upfront negotiations. Getty Images
Headshot of Jason Lynch

In a surprising turn of events, Donna Speciale, president of ad sales for WarnerMedia, will be leaving the company just a week after she wrapped this year’s upfront negotiations.

Speciale, who had been with the company since 2012, is the latest big WarnerMedia exec to exit as the company reorganizes under new parent company AT&T.

WarnerMedia declined to comment about Speciale’s exit, and there was no initial word on who would replace her as WarnerMedia ad sales chief. Her departure was first reported by The Information.

UPDATE: WarnerMedia chief revenue officer Gerhard Zeiler, who was named in March to oversee Speciale and her team as part of the WarnerMedia affiliates and advertising sales group, confirmed Speciale’s departure in a staff memo and said he will lead ad sales as interim president.

Two other ad sales execs will be leaving with Speciale: Dan Riess (evp of Ignite, who had also launched the Courageous branded content studio) and Frank Sgrizzi (evp of portfolio sales and client partnerships).

During the past few months in his new role, “In all of the conversations I had, formal or informal, it was obvious that everyone understands how much the industry is transforming and that we need to change to enable us to stay at the top and lead the industry,” Zeiler wrote. “After a thoughtful review, I concluded that we also need to change the leadership structure to support the transition of our ad sales business.”

He added, “I know that change can be challenging. But remember: Change is also an opportunity, and our ambition is big. We are strengthening our core business, driving new revenue streams, and reshaping the corporate structure—all at the same time.”

Zeiler will work with a three-person operational team: Amit Chaturvedi, who will lead revenue operations, ad innovation, ad product strategy, digital sales planning and digital yield management; Katrina Cukaj, heading up linear strategic planning, research, network partnerships and marketplace image and experience; and Joe Hogan, leading sales, including agency, client, digital, direct response and content partnerships.

Speciale had just completed upfront negotiations last week, securing double-digit CPM (cost per thousand viewers reached) gains and doubling last year’s upfront spend in audience-based buys, which was a key priority for her.

In March, AT&T rolled out a major WarnerMedia restructuring that phased out the Turner brand and moved Speciale—previously Turner ad sales chief—and her team into the WarnerMedia affiliates and advertising sales group, led by WarnerMedia chief revenue officer Zeiler, who was formerly Turner International president.

Just ahead of that reorganization, two of WarnerMedia’s top execs—HBO CEO Richard Plepler and Turner president David Levy—announced their exits.

While her company’s name and owner had changed, Speciale’s upfront priorities had not, she told Adweek in May.

“Nothing’s changed. We set ourselves up last year to be much more holding-company focused, so we are talking to each individual holding company like we have done in the past. We just now are having a bigger conversation and purview with other properties now being represented. We are partnering with [AT&T’s advertising and analytics unit] Xandr where clients and holding companies want us to, but we’re going on a client-by-client or holding company-by-holding company basis. It’s not a force fit, but if anybody wants us to bring the two together and have a holistic conversation, we are doing that.”

When Speciale spoke with Adweek in May, she indicated her purview would grow. “Syndication is going to be part of it and more digital properties are going to be part of it. And more to come. We couldn’t change everything drastically all at once because it’s a big behemoth, so as WarnerMedia starts figuring out all their other different silos I will have more come underneath me,” Speciale said, adding it “hasn’t been determined yet” whether she would oversee sports as well.

Speciale had given no indication that an exit was imminent. In addition to overseeing this year’s upfront, she attended Cannes Lions as usual last month, where she told Adweek that “we are in the heart of” upfront talks, which featured “a lot of collaboration with Xandr.”

And she had been “doing a lot of modeling” to determine the ad-supported version of WarnerMedia’s upcoming streaming service, officially named HBO Max yesterday, which she said would be rolled out in 2021, a year after an ad-free version debuts.

Still, there had been some indications of growing pains under AT&T.

In April, WarnerMedia pulled out of the OpenAP audience-targeting platform that Speciale and Turner had helped create two years earlier, alongside Viacom and Fox. “As our company has transformed, our advanced advertising strategy has evolved,” said a WarnerMedia ad sales spokesperson at the time.

Speciale joined Turner in 2012 as president of Turner entertainment and young adult ad sales and was promoted to Turner ad sales chief in 2014.

Among her innovations at the company, she led the way on reducing linear ad loads in 2016, cutting them by 50% in truTV primetime shows and in TNT original dramas. She later said truTV’s entire schedule would transition to the reduced ad load by 2021.

Speciale has been one of the loudest voices among TV ad sales chiefs in trying to convince clients to move away from Nielsen age/sex demos and transact on audience-based metrics, including guaranteed business outcomes. “To those of you who doubt the value, what are you waiting for?” she told attendees at May’s upfront presentation.

She previously worked at MediaVest Worldwide as president of investment, activation and agency operations, and led MediaCom’s broadcast investment team before that.

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.