Her Eye's on the Prize
CBS sales chief Jo Ann Ross amasses respect along with ad dollars
By Claire Atkinson -- Broadcasting & Cable, 4/27/2009 2:00:00 AM
“Rap music fan” is probably not the descriptor one might associate with Jo Ann Ross, the industry's first female network sales chief. But she often listens to Eminem or 50 Cent at this time of year, when she's working out regularly in the gym.
It's her spring training for the endless nights of negotiation and delivery pizza that upfront season entails. And she's happy to be a part of her ball club.
“I'm feeling very confident and strong and happy to be at CBS,” Ross says when asked about the runup to this recession-era upfront. She won't be drawn out, however, on details such as whether pricing will be up or down. “In a challenging market, it's our job to listen to what the clients have to say,” she says, adding that she doesn't like to negotiate in the press.
To be sure, CBS' broadcast network has a good sales story relative to some of its competition. The network is up in ratings, has a bona fide hit in The Mentalist, news show 60 Minutes is having a solid season, and unlike other networks, CBS has no make-goods.
“We are delivering what everybody bought last year,” she says.
And if that alone isn't persuasion enough for advertisers, the network's juiciest carrot will be its broadcast of next year's Super Bowl in Miami, though she won't offer pricing specifics just yet.
Despite Ross' confident demeanor, there is infinite pressure on her team to wring every dollar out of the market to help make up for losses on the local advertising side and elsewhere in the company's relatively cable-light portfolio. Parent CBS Corp. is more reliant on advertising than many of its peers in the media.
Right now, Ross is taking up to six meetings a day with a variety of clients, helping them figure out how their spots might work more effectively in various mixes of CBS programming.
“The conversation is more of a collaborative process,” she says. “There's a lot of conversation about the product and how it works differently in different venues.”
One of the many changes she's seen since taking over the job from Joe Abruzzese, now sales president at Discovery Communications, is the degree of client engagement in what gets bought.
Of course, other things have changed as well. She mentions DVR technology, a new commercial ratings currency and the fact that CBS is doing much more cross-selling across the various CBS assets. These include a high-end video site, TV.com; CBS Interactive Websites; billboards; and radio.
Internally, she belongs to cadre of women who form part of CBS chief Leslie Moonves' inner sanctum. Others include Nina Tassler, CBS president of entertainment, and Nancy Tellem, president of CBS Paramount Television Network Entertainment Group.
“I was so thrilled that Leslie gave me such an astonishing vote of confidence,” Ross says of the day she got the top job in 2002. She's been with the company for 16 years, following a short stint at ABC and before that as a buyer on the other side with now-defunct agency Bozell.
Ross is a popular person on the TV ad sales circuit. Says Jon Nesvig, president of sales at Fox Broadcasting Co.: “Jo Ann is a fierce competitor with great integrity. Even better, she's smart and funny.”
She recently roasted Zenith Media Vice Chairwoman Peggy Green, dressing up as the lady in question and providing the night's entertainment. The role of public entertainer is a side Ross has never really explored. She has four older brothers and an older sister, and credits an all-girls Catholic school with instilling in her an early sense of self esteem.
Ross turns 56 in June but still retains her interest in politics from her university days. She enjoys reading political and sports biographies from authors such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and Joe Torre. As she puts it: “It helps you deal with a lot of personalities.”
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