Her Company’s Name (and Owner) Has Changed, But Donna Speciale’s Upfront Priorities Have Not

She previews what’s in store at WarnerMedia’s presentation next Wednesday

Donna Speciale is trying to keep this year's upfront event 'condensed and a little bit shorter' than last year. WarnerMedia
Headshot of Jason Lynch

Ahead of the most distinct, transformative upfronts week in a decade, Adweek is sitting down with a different ad sales chief each day. Following Fox’s Marianne Gambelli on Tuesday, and Disney’s Rita Ferro Wednesday is WarnerMedia’s president of ad sales Donna Speciale, who is overseeing her company’s first upfront since it was bought by AT&T last June.

In March, AT&T rolled out a major WarnerMedia restructuring that moved Speciale and her team into the WarnerMedia Affiliates and Advertising Sales Group, led by WarnerMedia chief revenue officer Gerhard Zeiler, and phased out the Turner brand.

While Speciale declined to comment further about WarnerMedia’s decision last month to pull out of OpenAP (the audience targeting platform she helped created two years ago), she spoke with Adweek about what has changed as a result of the restructuring, her WarnerMedia ad sales team’s relationship with Xandr (AT&T’s advertising and analytics unit, which is holding its own upfronts event on Tuesday) and what’s in store during Wednesday’s presentation.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: It’s been two months since the WarnerMedia restructuring was announced. What does that mean for your team, as you go into the upfront? Are you still called Turner ad sales?
Speciale: We are now WarnerMedia, so we are now WarnerMedia ad sales and marketing. We now represent all of WarnerMedia, which now includes Warner syndication and some of Otter Media’s digital networks: Rooster Teeth and Crunchyroll.  So when we go into the upfront, we’ll be utilizing that. In my mind, it’s continuing on the portfolio focus, like we did when we broke down our silos with the different networks. Now it’s that holistic conversation that clients want. It just got a lot more simpler under our umbrella, and that’s what you’re going to see in the upfront.

Has your purview expanded or contracted as part of the restructure? What are you now overseeing?
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.

There are still a lot of questions about WarnerMedia’s upcoming streaming service, but it seems like the base level of it will be ad-supported. Will that fall under you as well?

What about sports?
That hasn’t been determined yet.

What about the global kids and young adult networks that moved over to Warner Bros. in the restructuring?
Every network that we had represented we still represent. And Gerhard oversaw international, so he’s got the global purview.  We’ve worked very closely with [CNN International Commercial president Rani Raad] on CNN. Our two global biggest brands are CNN and kids, so over time you may see a lot more connection. I believe there’s going to be a bigger [push] on global focus and global deals, and now it’s even easier to do because Gerhard oversees it all.

But those plans are more long-term, right? Not in this upfront?
No. I’ll never say never, but I am not on stage talking about global at all. If clients want to do it, we’re set up to do it.

We’re going to talk about the breadth of the portfolio from a holistic content perspective, which I think is a little different than previous years.

How does your upfront approach change this year, if at all, giving everything going on with your company?
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 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.

Is that why Xandr is having a separate upfronts week event than WarnerMedia, because you’re going into the market separately, except when clients want to work with you together?
Yes, we are two separate sales organizations. We work really nicely together in combination where it makes sense. We obviously deal a lot with them with our insights and our data which comes from Xandr. And when there is extended reach, we’ve been looking at a lot of different things that we can do with our audience product, AudienceNow, and adding their addressable and doing a much bigger extended reach conversation, which makes sense for a lot of clients. Where that’s applicable, we do it.

So aside from the name of your upfront event being different, what else is changing? How will the event itself compare to what people have been used to from Turner?
I have not changed. [laughs] You’re going to see a much more holistic approach to content, not going to necessarily go one-by-one, network-by-network. We’re going to talk about the breadth of the portfolio from a holistic content perspective, which I think is a little different than previous years. We’re going to share what’s different from last year. Our vision is the same; from a sales perspective nothing really has changed.  It is now just being enhanced and we’re now more result-focused and business outcome-focused given that we have access to the AT&T data.

Should we expect to have at least a portion of the event devoted to the new streaming service?
Yes. Kevin [Reilly, president of TBS and TNT and chief creative officer for WarnerMedia direct-to-consumer]’s going to talk about it a little bit in his speech and I’m going to touch upon it. Kevin will probably focus on it more. There’s not going to be a name [announcement] or anything like that. We’re going to touch upon what the vision is.

One thing buyers are wondering as these portfolios bulk up a bit is what that might to do the event’s running time.
Our goal is to try to keep it condensed and a little bit shorter.

What are your top upfront priorities?
Getting more adoption of audience and getting clients to lean in and, I’m hoping, agree to use AT&T data so we can change the guarantee from a demo guarantee to audience, but also business outcome. Obviously we’re still in the early stages of all this and we’ve been beta-ing, but if we can get this right the attribution model and the quicker optimization is going to be key for us in 2020, which I think is crucial. Business results and outcomes to me is going to be the headline and showing client’s results. We have been able to prove that television now can be just as targeted and create their ROI [return on investment] just like digital. Clients are thrilled about that, because we intuitively all knew that television did it, but we could never prove it.  Now we have proof points and that’s my priority.

What should buyers expect from the first WarnerMedia upfront?
We’re ready. This has been two-plus years in the making that we have been waiting for this to happen. It’s time. We’re finally at the pivotal point where we can take what AT&T has from a technology background, and their insights and data, and apply it to what we’ve been working on. So I really feel like this is that moment that we are going to make the difference, and I’m excited about it. That’s what you’re going to see onstage.

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