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, Disney’s Rita Ferro on Wednesday and WarnerMedia’s Donna Speciale Thursday is Jo Ann Ross, CBS’ president and chief advertising revenue officer.
While Ross will be making her 17th upfront appearance for CBS next Wednesday, another mainstay will be missing from the Carnegie Hall event: former CEO Leslie Moonves, who departed the company in September following more than a dozen sexual harassment and intimidation allegations. His replacement, Joseph Ianniello, recently agreed to extend his acting CEO title through the end of 2019.
As she prepared for Wednesday’s presentation, Ross spoke with Adweek about her upfront strategy, how the event will be different without Moonves and why she’s in a Super Bowl state of mind again, just a few months after CBS aired the big game.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Adweek: This is the first CBS upfront event in two decades that Les is not going to be a part of. How did having a new CEO change how you planned this year’s event?
Ross: How we plan the event really has not changed at all. This will be my 17th year on stage; my first year was May of 2003. We have our playbook and we tweak it every year. We try to stick to tried and true. This year obviously Leslie will not be there. Joe is our new CEO—I’m not going to comment right now as to whether or not he’s speaking [because] we never reveal the program. We’re thrilled Joe has gotten the six-month extension. Beyond that, my job is to bring in revenue and that’s my obligation to the corporation and my obligation to my advertisers is to make sure that they get the best of our content and they get what they want from us, and we deliver on our promises. So that’s what we’ve been focused on day in and day out. It hasn’t changed our core mission. I’m really looking forward to next week at Carnegie Hall. We have a really strong playbook and we have a great team behind the scenes that produces it. Get ready for some fun.
Has your upfront approach changed at all from last year?
I don’t think you’re going to see any wholesale changes from us this year. We know what we’re doing; we’ve been successful at it. We’re already engaged in conversations and have been engaged in conversations with our clients and the agencies since March. People are engaging in different ways. The agencies are looking at more data, and we will be there if they want to look at something that’s different than age and demo. You’ll probably see some more dollars committed to the data-driven linear platforms, but I also think that premium content, whether it’s on the broadcast network, on OTT or in any other way you can receive it, is going to be in high demand. So I think it’s going to be a very healthy marketplace.
One question hanging over CBS going into this upfront is the same as last year: whether or not the company will merge with Viacom. I’m assuming you’re approaching that the same way as before, which is that you’re just focusing on the company as it exists right now?
You’re absolutely correct.
This will be your first upfront in 12 years without The Big Bang Theory. How are you feeling about that, and what properties will you be looking to fill Big Bang’s absence in this upfront?
When you see the schedule that we reveal, that will also reveal itself as an answer to your second question. I’m a huge Chuck Lorre [Big Bang’s co-creator and executive producer] fan, and I’m a huge consumer of CBS content, whether it’s on Showtime or the linear network. I bleed CBS blue. I’m personally going to miss Big Bang in a very big way. I feel that we have enough shows that are going to be on the schedule and returning to the schedule that clients will want to buy for that audience. Chuck Lorre is a genius, and we love him and we love Big Bang. It’s sad to see them go, but I get it.
This won’t technically be part of this year’s upfront talks, but starting in February, you’ll once again be selling Super Bowl inventory for 2021’s game, after CBS swapped telecasts with NBC. What does that mean as a company, to have another Super Bowl just two years after the last one?
For me and for my team—Bogey [John Bogusz, evp, sports sales and marketing] and Tony [Taranto, svp of NFL sales]—we’re really excited about it. When we first had those conversations months ago with the NFL and [CBS Sports chairman] Sean McManus about this, I think to a person in the room, we were all excited that we didn’t have to wait three years. So we’re going to hit the ground running, and if conversations during this upfront with some of our big sports advertisers lead to, “Well, what about Super Bowl in 2021?” and lead to us trying to construct deals, we’ll certainly be looking at that. I’m very, very excited about it. I think it’s a great thing. We wish Fox a lot of luck with their efforts [for next year’s Super Bowl], and we’ll be watching them closely.
Anything else you want to add about the upfronts?
The thing that I’m most proud of, is that as there has been disruption in the marketplace and certainly here at CBS, my sales team on the linear and interactive sides has remained very stable and very committed. We have not been distracted by the goal that we have.