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.

Yaccarino will make history in 2018 as the first ad sales chief to oversee three of the world’s biggest sporting events in the same year: the Super Bowl, Winter Olympics and the World Cup.

Next year you’ve got the Super Bowl, Winter Olympics and the World Cup. It’s never happened before that one person has overseen all of that in one year, and who knows if it will ever happen again.
Hopefully, I’m living in Italy then, having a big, giant glass of Barolo.

How long have you been preparing for those three events? 
There are specific kinds of cycles to those sales. We’re knee-deep in Pyeongchang right now, but we’re never not selling the Olympics, to the point where we’ve already had conversations with certain folks about Tokyo [Summer Olympics in 2020].

Then there’s the World Cup.
We were preparing strategically and staffing up for close to two years on this, because this is the first time Telemundo has ever had the Spanish-language rights. For the World Cup, there are very specific windows of when you can start selling and talking to customers. We got the green light to start selling it, and it has been beyond exciting.

When did you start selling the Super Bowl?
The day after the previous Super Bowl. But when we went into the market this year, we approached it quite a bit more aggressively than maybe others have brought it in the past, just because of our relationship with football itself—we have the biggest footprint because we have Sunday and Thursday nights—how much inventory you have, and what purpose that serves a marketer.

You’re asking upwards of $5 million per Super Bowl spot. Are you getting that?
For a vehicle that is going to deliver over 100 million people live in one day, where all eyes are focused on and people are talking about the spots that run in there, we feel pretty good about securing the revenue that we need to secure.

In the upfront, your NFL revenue was up 5 percent, which would put to rest any lingering buyer concerns about last fall’s NFL ratings declines.
It’s one of the strongest, most impenetrable brands on earth. We’ll see if it was a ratings blip—there’s been theories that it was election related—but the NBC schedule on both Sunday and Thursday nights is very strong this year, so we’re very bullish on that. Don’t worry; Sunday and Thursday will still be in the top 5 for this year.

How do you think the scatter market will play out? Did scatter money move into the upfront?
I think more than people realize yet, quite a meaningful amount of money shifted back to television from “digital,” and I put that in air quotes. Is there money that moved from scatter to the upfront? I believe so. I think it will vary by segment. Particularly for broadcast prime and the first-tier networks, I think that you’re going to see a strong scatter market, because more money came in the upfront and then there will be obviously more scarcity.

Then, the rest remains to be seen in terms of, how does the digital chaos play out? How do brand safety guarantees play out, and measurement chaos and all that junk? I think it will have a material impact on the very solid position that premium content, or TV, has, going into the ’17-’18 market.

Your letter to Nielsen last fall claiming that their Total Content Ratings weren’t ready set off a chain reaction that resulted in them delaying their rollout plans. Where do you think Nielsen is now with TCR?
We’re happy that there’s progress being made after some pressure emerged from that letter. I know recently Hulu has finally been added and there’s a couple of other things. We are working very closely with Nielsen to keep the momentum going. Does that mean that total audience metric is “ready for prime time”? No.

How competitive are you when it comes to the other ad sales teams? 
How competitive am I? (laughs) I am probably the most competitive person you’ll ever meet. That being said, I’m actually competitive not as it relates to my colleagues or peers. I’m competitive for me and my dream team over here to be the best as perceived by our clients. When I first joined the company, it was, we need to get best in television. Check the box; we’re pretty good at that. But now, our competitive set has evolved. How can I be the best solution provider to my big marketers, and how do I compete with those who were once considered edging up on TV companies in the past, like a Google and a Facebook? So NBCUniversal, I’m happy to report, is right in that consideration set right now because of the giant strides we’ve made in data measurement in our Audience Studio, because of our client partnership team and because of the insights in business solutions that we offer.

Could NBCU become involved in the new OpenAP audience targeting platform from Fox, Viacom and Turner, or do you want to see how the rollout goes first?
We definitely don’t need to wait for the rollout. NBCU is very open and supportive of an industry-wide solution. It would make all the sense in the world for such a big swath of the inventory availability in the marketplace to be part of OpenAP. We’re just considering if we can make it work in conjunction with what we have working in the market already.

Chris Loupos

Since you joined NBCU in 2011, what has been the toughest part of getting things to where you are today?
I inherited over 10 different sales teams that were mostly on different systems, never met with or spoke to each other, and were inadvertently competing against each other. Imagine you were Procter & Gamble. You were hearing from, in some cases, 10 or 12 different salespeople depending on your brand, and they were smartly using that against us corporately, because you had all these different negotiations going on. The idea at the time—and I was called a heretic when I first presented it to some important folks here—was bringing the portfolio together, because obviously it wasn’t being done out in the marketplace.

So we decided to bring it all together, and that’s when culture shock set in. We worked really hard for the next couple of years to invest in people, invest in systems and obviously invest in data, and we thought that that would create a very logical pathway to get there.

What do you do for fun?
My No. 1 hobby is watching television, whether it is as an obsessive viewer of This is Us or catching up on Will & Grace. I do watch shows on other networks a little bit, like Billions and Veep. Being somewhat of a frustrated fashionista, you’ll get an addiction to Flywheel. Beyond that, my husband and two kids are an incredible obvious center of my life, but after you mix all those things together, there’s not a lot of time to do anything else.

What’s next for you?
I’m looking forward to taking home a giant bag of Emmys for This Is Us and Saturday Night Live. That’s next on my list, after my trip to Italy.

And after that?
I am very much dedicated to fixing this measurement problem in the industry overall, and NBCUniversal continues to plan on being leaders in that. Make no mistake about it: just because the upfront is over doesn’t mean we’re going to accept lowering the bar to allow for what I think is inferior measurement commerce terms going on in the digital scape, because we think it’s bad for the marketer and it’s bad for the consumer.

What will you focus on next at NBCUniversal? 
We’ve been at it five years, and Steve [Burke, NBCUniversal’s president and CEO] often refers to it as the first chapter. So we’re just starting the second chapter, and who knows what more partnerships or acquisitions will look like? If you and I were sitting here 24 months ago, we didn’t have Vox, Snapchat, BuzzFeed or Apple News.

In fact, Apple News didn’t even exist two years ago. 
Yeah, and Snap technically is just about 5 years old. And that now consumes such a big portion of my day, everyday. So I really believe we have just only gotten started. It’s very exciting.

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

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