Friday will mark the one-year anniversary of one of last year’s most surprising TV advertising moments: the abrupt exit of Donna Speciale as WarnerMedia ad sales chief. But even more astonishing than the timing of her departure—which came just a week after she had wrapped 2019’s upfront negotiations—is the fact that a full year later, the WarnerMedia ad sales chief position still remains vacant.
The well-regarded Speciale, who had been with the company since 2012, was shown the door after WarnerMedia chief revenue officer Gerhard Zeiler—who had been named four months earlier to oversee Speciale and her team as part of the WarnerMedia affiliates and advertising sales group—decided that the company needed “to change the leadership structure” in order to help the ad sales business “stay at the top and lead the industry,” he wrote in a staff memo at the time.
As Speciale departed, Zeiler said he would lead ad sales as interim president and work with a three-person operational team: Amit Chaturvedi, leading 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.
Buyers were told at the time that the arrangement would be temporary. But a year later, the company is still working under the same structure, with Hogan, evp of sales and marketing at WarnerMedia, heading up ad sales without the official title. And while several buyers stressed to Adweek that the ad sales team has been running smoothly over the past year, they added that they are ready for some clarity about the future of the company, especially with HBO Max’s ad-supported tier set to roll out next year.
Those answers could finally be coming within the next month or two: The company expects to select its next ad sales chief by the end of summer, according to a WarnerMedia source.
The company spoke with several candidates in late 2019, but the search was sidelined earlier this year when Zeiler first learned that AT&T would be consolidating its ad sales units and moving Xandr, its ad-tech unit, into WarnerMedia, under his oversight. At that point, according to the WarnerMedia source, Zeiler shifted his priority to focus on that new structure, which was made public in April. He also had to spend time on Otter Media subsidiary Fullscreen, which was also added to his purview in April.
After taking two months to integrate Xandr into WarnerMedia, Zeiler is ready to turn his attention back to the ad sales chief role. According to the WarnerMedia source, the new hire will likely oversee both the WarnerMedia and the Xandr ad sales teams, which continue to operate separately but now work more closely together under Zeiler. This role will not have oversight of Xandr’s technology teams, which now report to WarnerMedia chief technology officer Richard Tom, who was hired last month.
In April, WarnerMedia also named a new CEO, founding Hulu chief Jason Kilar—replacing John Stankey, who was promoted last fall to president and COO of AT&T and took over this month as company CEO following Randall Stephenson’s retirement—but that appointment had less to do with the hiring delay than the earlier Xandr move.
Who is, and isn’t, in the running
As for who will get the position, the company is still considering internal and external candidates.
The most prominent name associated with the job since last fall has been Jeff Lucas, who until May had been head of North American sales and global client solutions at Verizon Media, and previously oversaw ad sales for Snapchat and Viacom. Many in the industry have long assumed Lucas was a lock for the role, but the deal never crossed the finish line.
Lucas declined to comment about the position to Adweek, and WarnerMedia would not comment on whether he is still a candidate.
Another name that has frequently surfaced as a potential candidate is Catherine Sullivan, chief investment officer for North America at Omnicom Media Group, but she was never contacted about the position, according to a source close to her.
However, the company did reach out to several other candidates during the second half of last year. One source, who was contacted about the position following Speciale’s exit, said the company had been calling around the market but “it’s gone quiet.”
Former Viacom ad sales chief Sean Moran was also approached about discussing the job last fall, after the announcement that he would be leaving ViacomCBS following last December’s merger, but said he wasn’t interested due to his plans for the future, according to a source.
One person who had talked with WarnerMedia about the job last year said that execs could not satisfactorily answer what role Xandr, which hadn’t yet moved under WarnerMedia, would have in the company.
As the vacancy stretched into 2020, WarnerMedia execs thought the current arrangement had been working just fine—with Chaturvedi, Cukaj and Hogan reporting up to Zeiler—and felt no urgency to make a move.
The yearlong vacancy is significantly longer that the last extended opening for a TV ad sales chief: Fox Networks Group took nearly eight months before tapping Joe Marchese as its ad sales chief in May 2017, following Toby Byrne’s exit in September 2016.
While some expected WarnerMedia to make a decision prior to this year’s upfront—Marchese was named just days before Fox’s upfront presentation in 2017—the company is instead content to have Hogan head up its negotiations alongside Kirk McDonald, Xandr’s chief business officer.
Buyers agree that the WarnerMedia ad sales team has been running smoothly over the past year, despite the uncertainty over who their long-term boss will be.
“They’ve done a great job of responding to client’s needs” during the pandemic, the best of any media company, according to one buyer. Added another, “It’s got to be really difficult for everyone there” with the uncertainty. “I feel for them—but they are doing a great job, nonetheless.”
That said, buyers also think that after a year, the team needs a permanent leader in that position, especially given all the recent industry disruptions, particularly the pandemic.
“Just generally having a clear idea of where they’re headed with things would be helpful,” said one buyer. “There’s still a lot of question marks about how WarnerMedia and Xandr fit together.”
Buyers are also seeking clarity about the upcoming ad-supported tier of HBO Max, which is coming in 2021 but which they still feel largely in the dark about. One marketer contrasted WarnerMedia’s opaque approach to HBO Max advertising with the clear message coming from NBCUniversal about the ad offerings for Peacock, its own streaming service.
For now, until WarnerMedia finally pulls the trigger and picks its new ad sales chief, it remains business as usual for the company’s ad sales team.
Hogan, the likely choice if WarnerMedia elevates an internal candidate (though one buyer made a strong case for Cukaj), told Adweek in May that he had no “insight” on whether he’ll be tapped as Speciale’s permanent successor. Instead, he said, he was focusing during the pandemic on “listening and leaning into what our advertisers need to solve today and tomorrow, and perhaps maybe in the next week or next month. We’re not rooted in anything else.”