Jo Ann Ross on ViacomCBS’ Ad Sales and Upfront Strategy—and Why She’s Not Retiring

In her first interview since the merger, she talks about her new role at the combined company

jo ann ross
After 27 years at CBS, “I wasn't ready to hang it up, as has been rumored," Ross said. Sasha Maslov for Adweek
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When CBS and Viacom announced their plans to merge last August, some in the industry speculated that Jo Ann Ross, who had presided over CBS ad sales since 2002, might take it as an opportunity to retire. Instead, settled into her new corner office high up in ViacomCBS’ Times Square building two and a half months after the merger was completed in December, Ross finds herself busier than ever (“there’s not enough hours in the day!”), juggling meetings with company execs, her expanded ad sales team and clients.

“I wasn’t ready to hang it up, as has been rumored,” she said. “Hopefully, those rumors have been put to bed once and for all.”

Indeed, instead of taking an exit package from CBS, Ross is doubling down on her workload. Last October, she was named president and chief advertising revenue officer of domestic advertising sales at ViacomCBS, getting the top ad sales job at the combined company over her Viacom ad sales counterpart, Sean Moran.

Since then, Ross has been working tirelessly to learn the ins and outs of Viacom’s assets, combining the two companies’ ad sales teams and preparing for the first upfront as a unified company, she told Adweek in her first interview since the merger was completed.

Bob Bakish, ViacomCBS president and CEO, sang his new ad sales chief’s praises during last Thursday’s earnings call. “I’m thrilled with Jo Ann’s leadership,” he said, adding, “I’m confident we are going to be extremely well received in this next upfront. … I’m extremely excited about our domestic ad picture.”

So is Ross, who met with Bakish “several times” last year before agreeing to take the job. Ultimately, “it was an opportunity that really excited me. It was a fresh take on what I could do from an ad sales perspective, having a much bigger portfolio,” said Ross, adding that at CBS she often had “portfolio envy” when looking at other media companies.

She was also drawn by the prospect of leveraging CBS and Viacom’s combined digital assets, and the chance to work with new people and learn new things after her 27-year career at CBS. “You have to keep learning and experimenting, and I feel strongly about that,” Ross said. “It was a lot of things that went into it, but it was really just seeing where the industry was going and what this would become in terms of this unbelievable portfolio of assets.”

Since the merger closed in December, Ross has been getting up to speed on the various Viacom properties, including influencer marketing company Whosay, multichannel network Awesomeness and the experiential opportunities offered through VidCon.

“At CBS, we did not have that depth or breadth of asset that they have. So that learning curve has been incredible for me,” said Ross, who has also quickly gotten up to speed on Viacom’s advanced marketing solutions (AMS) offering. “I didn’t really understand it until I got here, and it works beautifully. Clients love it.”

As she completes a crash course in all things Viacom, Ross has been working to combine the CBS and Viacom ad sales groups.

“The priority for us going forward as a unified sales team is to have the best players on the field, to use a sports analogy. So in order to figure that out, I have to get to know all the different teams,” said Ross, who has also been meeting with the various Viacom key players to get a sense of that company’s portfolio.

“The biggest change is getting to know a whole new group of people that depend on me for guidance and leadership,” she said. “It’s been great. Every day is a new group of friends. And hopefully when they leave my office, we’re still friends!”

Meanwhile, she’s also staying in the loop with her CBS legacy team—and her clients. Ross spent time at CES and the Super Bowl, and has been meeting with marketers whenever they are in New York.

Her ad sales leadership team, unveiled last month, is comprised of “really strong people from both disciplines, already working together. We’re doing these deep dives on holding companies and [going] client by client, line by line.”

The team includes COO John Halley, serving as chief operating officer of advertising revenue and evp of advanced marketing solutions, who “has got the depth and breadth that I need in terms of all the cable channels and all of the Viacom digital video, which I didn’t know anything about,” Ross said. “He’s been great to work with.”

Setting her leadership team also led to the departures of several ad sales execs. While layoffs are still looming for ViacomCBS overall, no major changes are planned for Ross’s group ahead of upfront talks.

As she meets with the combined team, Ross is crafting her overall sales strategy while looking at how CBS and Viacom each operated in the past and going though “holding company by holding company, account by account,” she said. “We’re taking very deep dives right now.”

ViacomCBS’ go-to-market strategy might be different for each brand, but “we want to simplify it for the clients,” Ross said. “We want to make the negotiation process very easy. We want to be transparent, and we want to offer solutions along the way. And I think that’s what clients want to see. They don’t want to be force-fed.”

She added, “Maybe the upfront takes a little bit longer this year, maybe it’s a little bit shorter—but I promise you that by the time we need to go to market, we will have our act together.”

Upfronts: best of both worlds

Speaking of upfronts, Ross will be combining the previous approaches of both Viacom and CBS. This year, she’ll continue the intimate agency dinners that Viacom has been holding since 2017 in lieu of more lavish events, and will also throw the traditional CBS presentation at Carnegie Hall.

The agency dinners will start in late March, but it’s “too early” to discuss which ViacomCBS execs will join her and Bakish at them, according to Ross. (Previously, all Viacom network chiefs would participate.) “We are working on that.”

The Carnegie Hall event during May’s upfront week, meanwhile, “is tried and true. We have a formula that works, and now the formula only gets better because we have more assets to bring to the table. As always, the focus will most be on the primetime schedule, but there will definitely be some Viacom mentions along the way, as it should be,” Ross said. “We do not reveal anything until you’re in your seat at Carnegie Hall with a big bundle of cash. So that will be the same.”

Ross will continue the Carnegie Hall upfront presentations that frequently feature her front and center.
Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS

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