Ahead of the most distinct, transformative upfronts week in a decade, Adweek is sitting down with a different ad sales chief each day. We’re starting with the newest top ad exec and the newest company: Marianne Gambelli, who last October was named president of ad sales for the freshly spun-off Fox Corporation.
Gambelli, who had overseen ad sales for Fox News and Fox Business Network since 2017, took over for Fox Networks Group ad revenue chief Joe Marchese. Marchese left the company after the Disney-Fox merger was finalized and after Fox Corp (including Fox Network, Fox Sports, Fox News and Fox Business Network) was spun off in March. She previously worked as Horizon Media’s chief investment officer before taking on the Fox News job and spent 22 years in ad sales at NBC, most recently as president of sales and marketing.
Ahead of her first Fox Corp. upfront, Gambelli talked with Adweek about what marketers should expect from Monday’s presentation, Fox’s top upfront priorities and her different approach to new ad formats.
Adweek: You were named to your new position in October, which gave you several months to prepare for the Fox Corp. spinoff. What did you do focus on?
Marianne Gambelli: It was an exciting time, because I was asked to put the organization together that I thought was appropriate, given the new assets. So we spent that time doing “voice of the customer” research, we had consultants come in, we looked at the portfolio and we reorganized based on the new Fox assets. It was a very busy time, but it was also an exciting time, because we got to reinvent the way Fox went to market [and] the way we approach things, and then obviously we had to split the organization and we were reorganizing because we were trying to get ready for day one. So the day the deal closed, we were already in place and ready to go.
With all that heavy lifting behind you, how are you approaching Fox Corp.’s first upfront?
We’ve been on the road. We started with the news upfront in March, then we took the sports group on the road, and then we took the entertainment group on the road. We’ve had a lot of positive reaction to Charlie [Collier, the CEO of Fox Entertainment] and our development slate. Obviously, our sports speak for themselves. I think people are excited about the new company. Talk about premium content at scale, without a lot of the rest. So I think people are really excited to see what we’re going to do and about working with us in a different way. Our message to them has been [that,] because we’re smaller and more nimble in this new organization, we can even bring them closer to our content and to our audience.
How are you structuring Monday’s upfront event? Will it seem similar to the previous Fox upfronts, or are you trying to shake everything up?
We’re going to try to do a little bit of both. [laughs] We’d love to blow it up and start all over again, but at the end of the day, there wasn’t a lot of time, and we still did have to get our messaging across. So we’re going to approach it more holistically and make it more interconnected. We’ll still give most of the time to entertainment, because obviously people are there to see the new shows and what our slate looks like. But sports plays such an important role in who we are, and we have WWE [Smackdown] and new assets that we picked up that we’re really excited about, so we’ll lean into that. Probably a little less than we’ve done in the past, but the intent is to share the stage as much as we can.
This will be your first broadcast upfront since you were at Horizon. What advantages will you have now that you have spent some time on the client side during talks?
I have a better understanding of what clients are looking for, and I think I can sift through a lot of the noise because there are so many different levers that we can pull, whether it’s a data play, innovation, content creation or a marketing approach. I feel I can bring all of that to bear and understand exactly how the clients view it, as opposed to sales people, [who] tend to sell things and not look at it from the client’s point of view.
Your predecessor, Joe Marchese, rolled out several new ad formats at Fox, including six-second ads and JAZ pods. Which ones will you continue to offer?
We did a great job of pushing that envelope and turning the whole industry on its ear a little bit, and [we] opened up the door to a lot of great ideas. Our assets have changed, so the idea is to right-size innovation for who we are today. The beauty about the company is that we’re smaller and nimbler, so the idea is to customize those. We’re looking at “fast breaks,” which will be an evolution of JAZ. We’re looking at some other things, but instead of just doing them to do them, we’re going to work with clients to make sure that it makes sense for what they’re doing. So we’re not going to say, “Here’s a format and you have to buy it.” We’re going to say, “OK, what works for you for this campaign?”
You mentioned Smackdown earlier, which will be a shiny new tool in your arsenal this upfront. What kind of opportunities do you see for clients there?
First of all, working with [WWE chief brand officer] Stephanie McMahon and the WWE organization has just been incredible. Their ability to create storylines and innovate with marketers is incredible, beyond anything I’ve ever worked with before. So I’m really excited about that. It’s kind of a hybrid: It’s being produced by Sports, so I think it’s going to have a look and feel that will be a little different. But the storytelling will be very entertainment-focused. So it’s going to live in both worlds at Fox. This will be the first time it’s on broadcast, which is a big deal.
Fox has the next Super Bowl, so what are your Super Bowl upfront plans?
This is the fifth or sixth Super Bowl that I’ve sold. I started my career in sports sales, so I know a lot about Super Bowl. Again, it’s a huge platform. We’re out in the marketplace, we’re having conversations right now, again approaching it the way Fox does, which is a little more innovative—definitely more connected to the clients. We’re working with the NFL. They’re trying to innovate and work around the game to make it more exciting [with the fewer ad pods]. And obviously we have a big investment in NFL with Thursday and Sunday, so that’s a big focus of what we’re doing.
The Masked Singer took everyone by surprise this season and should give you a nice revenue stream for Season 2. How are you positioning that in the upfront?
It’s going to be one of our signature shows. The beautiful thing about it is, it’s ripe for integrations and custom content, online extensions and cross-platform promotions, so we’re looking at all those angles. We’re also looking at some prediction pods which will air in select programs throughout the year, will harness the social conversation around key shows and create a moment of shared community. The pods are designed to increase engagement and attentiveness of viewers throughout the commercial break. So it’s a great show to innovate around, and look at the ratings! It’s a double-positive.
Fox News and FBN were siloed in the previous structure. Will marketers be able to buy across the entire portfolio now, and what is Fox News’ place in the new structure?
We split up the organization into three verticals: entertainment, sports and news, mostly because sports is so big in terms of what we have to sell; sports needed its own focus, so I wanted a dedicated team. There’s a lot of upfront activity around entertainment—not so much of it around news, although it is a big part of it—and with sports, you’re in market all the time. We can transact within those verticals. There’s a lot of clients that want to do all three, so we will work together where it makes sense. The idea is to share information, go to market together when it makes sense, so they are fully part of this new sales organization. There are no silos anymore.
With WarnerMedia dropping out of OpenAP last month, you also could have potentially gone in a different direction. Instead, you created OpenAP 2.0. How important is OpenAP to this new organization and why did you and the other partners double down on it?
This was an important initiative for all the companies that started it, and we know that the industry is evolving beyond age and sex [demos] and going to more targeted demographics. We know we have to automate the system and use data, and OpenAP is set to do that. We believe in OpenAP.
Speaking of targeted advertising, Fox’s TrueX platform went to Disney as part of that deal. Where does that leave you on the advanced advertising front going into the upfronts?
We always have used other vendors, we didn’t just use TrueX. So there’s plenty of people out there that we are working with to create these engagement models. It just frees us up to do whatever fits: whatever third parties the client wants to work with, whomever we feel is doing it better. It liberates us, actually, to do things in a more innovative way, as opposed to only having one alternative.
Many people in the industry have worked with you for a long while, but what should those buyers who haven’t worked with you as closely before know about you and how you do business?
Fox, as a company, has always approached things in a different way, in terms of working harder [and] delivering better. … When we go into a negotiation, we deliver on what we promise. You will always get a straight story from us. We will always work harder for you. This organization allows us to do that, because we don’t have all the complexity that other places now have. We will customize our approach to match what makes sense for you.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.