Joe Uva admits he only speaks “un pocito,” as he puts it. But, he adds, “I'm getting better. I can order coffee.”
Uva's Spanish imposition began in April when he became president of the new Univision, the top-rated Spanish-language network. The channel plays all day long (with subtitles) on the television in his office.
But the exigencies of his job—a post he assumed after a career on the other side of the negotiating table in advertising sales at Turner and as president and CEO of OMD—don't necessarily require Spanish proficiency, only a keen insight into the vagaries of the media market.
“Joe was always a guy who knew everything about everything,” says Greg D'Alba. “And I mean that sincerely.”
Uva hired D'Alba in 1986 to be part of the CNN sales team. While at CNN, Uva quickly distinguished himself as someone with a highly intuitive, big-picture view of the industry. When he hired D'Alba, now COO of CNN ad sales, Uva had only been at Ted Turner's nascent cable news network (then derided as the Chicken Noodle Network) for two years. Four years later, he was executive VP of CNN Sales.
“Joe could walk into any room and on any subject as it pertained to media, immediately pick up and maintain pace,” says D'Alba. “He's just a student of our industry. He was always relied upon; whether you worked for him or with him, you relied upon Joe as a real resource and an innovator.”
He was also a facilitator when he needed to be, bridging the divide between programming and advertising/marketing, a relationship that can be less than harmonious.
Bill Burke worked closely with Uva in the late '90s, when Uva was president of sales at Turner Entertainment and Burke was president of TBS. “When I worked with him, he very much thought like a general manager,” says Burke. “He thought about the whole business. He really thought about why a show might be a good show, really worked with you like he's your partner as opposed to an adversary. He's that kind of executive. And people who get to know him know that about him.”
Uva can also be a very shrewd negotiator. D'Alba recalls a sales meeting during his very first upfront season that broke down literally over pennies. “We were negotiating a big deal,” he recalls. “It was two or three cents on a CPM [cost per thousand]. Two or three cents! I damn near ended my career that day.”
But Uva, having drawn the proverbial line in the sand, would not budge. “At the time, I didn't appreciate it,” D'Alba adds. “But maybe about a year or two later, I realized that the principle was more valuable than the immediate dollar gain.”
At Univision, Uva is busy bridging the divide between Madison Avenue and the Latino consumer. “I have had the opportunity to work from both the buy and sell side of the business,” he says. “I think those experiences have contributed to help me have a better understanding of all of the challenges, issues and opportunities that a media company faces, as well as what a marketer faces and the agencies' perspective.”
But he says he was surprised that myths about Univision's constituents were so entrenched: that Latino and Hispanic consumers are not the “upscale” consumers sought by advertisers, and that those who are acculturated don't participate in Spanish-language media. “Marketers generally have not kept pace with the rapid expansion of the Hispanic population that has occurred for the past several years and is likely to drive well into the future,” he says.
Having a front-row seat at the negotiating table, Uva “recognized that there was an increasing opportunity for marketers to tap into this population segment.” It is a population segment whose influence is now catching up with its numbers.
“When you think about what has occurred in terms of the numbers of Latinos and Hispanics who are becoming citizens, who are registering to vote and actually exercising their right to vote, their political influence is growing and is going to be felt very strongly in the 2008 elections,” he says.
And at a time when technology has enabled viewers to consume media on multiple platforms, brand awareness and throwback values like “brand loyalty” have never been more important. And the Univision viewer's allegiance to the network is a major selling point.
“The [Univision] viewers are a lot more passionate about their relationship with this network than English-language consumers are to English-language media,” he says.
This connection, according to Uva, stems from the culture itself: “I think it goes back to the importance of family values. The spiritual beliefs, the fact that there is a zest for life and a real passion in everything Latinos do. They look at Univision as a member of their own family, somebody they can trust, that cares about them, that empowers them, that educates them.”
Uva grew up in Westchester County, N.Y., in a very close-knit Italian-American family. His maternal and paternal grandparents emigrated from Naples. And while his professional accomplishments are considerable, he's proudest of his children, son JC, 27, and daughter Jamie, 25.
Jamie spent three years teaching English to Latino and Hispanic middle-school children at MS 223 in the South Bronx through Teach for America. (Unlike her father, she does speak Spanish.) Currently, she's a sales assistant at the Discovery Channel.
Uva also takes great pride in his work with the Valerie Fund, a New Jersey-based non-profit that provides support and health-care services for children with cancer and blood disorders. Uva became involved with the Valerie Fund when his son was diagnosed with cancer 10 years ago. Today, JC is healthy and works in the CNN sales office in Chicago.
“As leaders and mentors, we like to think we're teaching lessons,” says D'Alba. “I think what happened there was JC taught Joe something. JC taught him perseverance, positive attitude and a passion for life.”