NBCUniversal’s Ad Sales Queen Upended the Industry Once Before. Now She’s at It Again

Linda Yaccarino on the upfronts and her battles with Nielsen and digital advertising

Chris Loupos for Adweek

When the dust settled after this summer’s upfront negotiations concluded, it’s no surprise which ad sales chief had once again secured the biggest windfall. That would be Linda Yaccarino, chairman of advertising sales and client partnerships for NBCUniversal, who wrapped upfront sales of close to $6.5 billion for her company’s portfolio of two broadcast networks, 15 cable networks and more than 50 digital properties.

As NBC reclaimed the 18-49 demo lead last season among broadcasters, Yaccarino leveraged buyer demand for shows like breakout drama This Is Us and resurgent Saturday Night Live to secure CPM upfront increases in the high single digits, while volume was up 8 percent across the company’s entire portfolio.

Factoring in the upfront business for NBCUniversal’s three major sporting events in 2018—the Super Bowl, the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and Telemundo’s Spanish-language rights to the World Cup—that $6.5 billion figure inches close to $7 billion, according to sources (Yaccarino herself declines to confirm it). This year, she’ll oversee more than $10 billion in ad revenue for the company.

It’s another triumph for Yaccarino, who arrived at NBCUniversal six years ago, after heading up ad sales for Turner. She initially was in charge of cable and digital sales, but within two years was elevated to head up all the cable and broadcast networks under a single portfolio—a then-revolutionary shake-up that was eventually adopted by almost all of her competitors.

The Long Island, N.Y., resident was in an understandably jubilant mood as she relaxed on a sofa in her midtown Manhattan office and reflected on this year’s upfront, her battles with digital advertisers and Nielsen, and why she’s “the most competitive person you’ll ever meet.”

Adweek: Your upfront volume gains were higher than your competitors. What were you able to accomplish that others did not?
Linda Yaccarino: It’s a combination of things. I talk a lot about content, data and distribution. We have this giant mountain of content that is operating on all cylinders. We were also very strategic in how we went to the marketplace and said, “Let’s talk turkey: we are the biggest slice of what you can invest, and now there’s an ease of transaction across every screen, and we have the marketing and the data capabilities to deliver that to you.” People for the first time registered data-driven deals directly, so instead of registering by Bravo or USA, they said, we want to register this budget for the Audience Studio [data offerings]. That was a very big change, and people are looking at us differently now that we can transact in that way.

In March, you made that big commitment to transacting a billion dollars in ad inventory this year on data-based advertising via the Audience Studio. Now that upfronts are done, do you think you’re going to meet that lofty goal?
We are going to get pretty damn close. We more than tripled the amount of business we did last year, almost every single person renewed and the budgets have consistently escalated in size. That part of our business is really exploding.

You had an aggressive approach to selling Saturday Night Live last year, with a reduced ad load. 
In hindsight, as provocative as it looked back then, on a post-analysis basis, Saturday Night Live was one of the most efficient things that any advertiser invested in. Our ratings were the highest they’ve been in 24 seasons, so as much of an increase in CPM that we asked people to pay for, the ratings went up to such an extraordinary degree, it was one of the most efficient, highest ROI of any piece of content they can invest in.

The season’s last four episodes aired live across all time zones, which was a bonus to anyone who bought inventory in the upfront. Could that happen again this year?
That’s still under discussion. That is probably not going to be decided until early September. It will be a content decision.

During this year’s upfront, Yaccarino leveraged buyer interest in Saturday Night Live, This Is Us and the Sunday and Thursday Night Football packages to secure CPM increases in the high single digits and volume gains of 8 percent.

Last year, you had planned to air branded content spots during SNL. At least one spot was filmed, but never aired. What happened?
With SNL and the writing team, they’re so good at what they do, that content, environment and timing come first. So imagine last year, with the election cycle, how much it dominated the structure of the show and timing. We continue to be in very robust conversations with advertisers, and the writing team is very engaged and continuing those conversations.

So you’re saying that brand partnerships could happen this season, but it’s still in flux what form they would take?
Correct. Content comes first, and the show is live, so it has more complications and sophistications than just doing an integration in a scripted show. The demand is overwhelming, and we continue to feel good about what we can potentially pull off this season.

When NBC went back on its plans to shift This Is Us to Thursdays this fall, one of the theories was that advertisers balked at the rates you were asking for the show on Thursdays.
That is 100 percent, categorically untrue. The reality is that there is considerably more demand for This Is Us than there is supply.

How did This Is Us fare in the upfront after its breakout season? 
We’ve renewed the two core sponsors who helped launch the show last year [General Motors and T.J. Maxx] and we have new sponsors that are joining on. As big as the numbers are in live linear—because who the heck wants to go to work the next day and say that you didn’t see it?—it delivers more than double that number in delayed viewing. So every advertiser, which gets to be in a viewing environment that is so terrific and have appointment viewing, stayed with This Is Us throughout every deal. If there are any shows that can challenge legacy—and for our advertising partners to stay with on every distribution platform—it’s SNL and This Is Us.

You sold Megyn Kelly’s new 9 a.m. show in the upfront. Did you sell that hour separately instead of as part of the four-hour Today block?
For the most part, no, but for some specific sponsors who want to come in and have a dedicated exposure there, we can have those conversations. Megyn joining that daypart has been a real boon for us. There’s been many advertisers interested in the 9 o’clock hour, and I suspect that will grow once she debuts in September.

There were reports that you pushed for the 9 o’clock rate to be the same as Today’s earlier hours.
Yes, I read some numbers that were a little bit overstated. But of course, we always look to get the value from the marketplace for a time period that’s going to have such a big spotlight on it.

At NBCUniversal’s upfront event in May, you kicked off a week-long broadcast theme of hammering digital advertising pretty hard.
I call it speaking the truth. If you took the top 10 channels on YouTube and added up all their ad impressions, it’s only equal to a medium-size cable network at this company. Then when you layer on the continual measurement mishaps, the walled-garden nature and the brand safety issues, it’s very difficult to go into a marketplace and have to debunk those kind of narratives.

Of course, you have several digital partners yourself now. 
Our digital investments have been fun and robust, and I’m happy to report that none of our traditional competitors are even thinking about leaning in. In the last not even two years, we’ve got almost $2 billion worth of investments. And while we don’t claim to have it all figured out, the relationships with Vox, BuzzFeed, Snap and the one I’m most bullish about, our recent exclusive relationship that we have with Apple News, have a real mobile play, all surrounded by or fueled by premium content.

When we’re able to bring in so many more partners and distribution outlets, that obviously fuels the mother ship, because I’m not just having a conversation that says, “What are we doing with prime? How much do you want in the Today show?” It’s, “What products are you launching? And what portion of your communication plan can NBCUniversal and all of our affiliated partners deliver for you?” That’s really the cycle we’ve started to be in, business solutions, and that brings us way beyond television and selling spots in a time-fixed show. We’re a very uniquely asseted company, and I really am working my ass off to get us differentiated in the mindset of our clients.

Will you be expanding those digital partnerships?
Yes! We have reached such scale and capabilities that we just hired a fantastic new head of digital sales and partnerships, Trevor Fellows, who will focus on driving growth across our current digital platforms and collaborations, and all that we have in store for the future. We have the biggest reach on all platforms and Trevor—who comes from Dow Jones, where he was chief revenue officer—is going to help our customers connect with those audiences.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 21, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Recommended articles