Joe Abruzzese, President, Advertising Sales, Discovery Communications
Joe Abruzzese HOF Speech
Ask anyone who the best-dressed man in the ad sales game is, and good luck hearing anything but Joe Abruzzese. And while he wears that title well, he is even more renowned not only for a virtually unmatched track record, but also the gentlemanly manner in which he conducts business.
"At this point, he's the dean of the sales guys," says Group M Global CEO Irwin Gotlieb. "He works to ensure that everyone walks away from the deal somewhat happy. It's very hard to do."
Among countless accolades heaped on Abruzzese is that many clients past and present consider him a good friend and have used him as a sounding board for new ideas.
"I've seen some very smart guys out there and worked with them," says Tony Ponturo, former head of media for Anheuser-Busch. "I've seen some great people people. I've worked with them too. But rarely do you see that combination wrapped up in one guy, and that is Joe."
While elite sales guys are known for pitching, ironically, Abruzzese grew up playing baseball as a catcher like his idol, Yogi Berra. He was good enough to go to Seton Hall on a baseball scholarship.
After serving in the Air Force, he took a job with textile company J.P. Stevens, where he designed and sold fabrics for shirts. "They were going from basic blue, white and yellow shirts to striped shirts and checked shirts. It was a really exciting time," Abruzzese recalls. "Then they promoted me to rainwear, and it was the most boring thing."
It wasn't rain but rather alcohol that was pouring when fate intervened the day he met an NBC executive in a bar.
NBC had an opening for a manager of overhead budgets at the network. Abruzzese grabbed it and learned the business side of TV. He gravitated toward sales, first with a job in sales planning, then sports sales, before moving to CBS, where he eventually rose to president of sales in 1991.
After leading CBS' sales efforts through a series of owners, from Larry Tisch to Westinghouse to Viacom, in 2002 Abruzzese was recruited to jump to Discovery.
Mel Karmazin, former Viacom COO, says he wanted Abruzzese to stay because he always delivered, but admits to being demanding. The network's primetime schedule was gaining traction, and "I told Joe that if he didn't worry about which ties he wore each day with his shirts and suits, that he could have spent more time selling and we could have generated a lot more money faster," Karmazin recalls.
Abruzzese says Phil Guarascio, former advertising head at General Motors, and Peter Lund, his onetime CBS boss, gave him good advice at the time: "‘Make sure you're going toward something, not away from something.' And that was the final decision; I was going toward something."
The move was huge for Discovery and the cable industry. "Joe obviously brought that stature to those networks right away," Ponturo says. "Someone of that reputation and respect was now over there."
The timing was good for Abruzzese. "The network business had kind of peaked," he says. "Yet cable was really undervalued. Cable was sold, and broadcast was bought."
Abruzzese reorganized Discovery's sales force, took advantage of the flexibility offered by owning multiple networks and installed some basic rules, including a jacket-and-tie dress code.
And when David Zaslav arrived as CEO of Discovery, Karmazin and CBS CEO Les Moonves told him he'd inherited the best sales guy in television. "They were right," Zaslav says. "He's proved it every year he's been here."
When the recession hit, Abruzzese vowed that Discovery would bring in more money than it had the year before. "Through hard work and aggressiveness, Joe and his team were able to do it," Zaslav says. "We ended 2008 up 2%."
How? "Joey is loved and respected by the advertiser community," Zaslav says. "When you've got less dollars and you've got to figure out where those dollars are going to go, Joey was able to make phone calls. Go to Joe's house in the Hamptons, and there's three couples there. There's three agencies, or there's three clients. And he's not doing it because it's business. Those are the people that he wants to be with, and he's made great friendships."
He maintains friendships even in the midst of negotiating deals. "Even the toughest negotiations, he's a gentleman," says David Cassaro, president of ad sales for NBC Universal Cable and a friend since they were both account execs at CBS in 1983.
And of course, there's the clothes. "Everyone knows that he's the best-dressed guy in the business," Cassaro says. "He actually has a serious clothes addiction with a concentration on suits, shirts and ties. And shoes."
Once while in a meeting with Karmazin and Moonves, Abruzzese says he got an emergency message from Guarascio. When they connected, it turned out Saks was offering Berluti shoes for $500 off. "I said, ‘You called me out of a meeting with Mel for this?' He says, ‘Hey Joe, it's a one-day sale.' I went, ‘I'll be right over.'"
Jon Nesvig, former Fox ad sales president and a friend since their days at NBC, says, "Joey spends more money in a month on his clothes than I spent in my entire career."
Abruzzese says his voluminous wardrobe is a sign of respect for the business. He has been dressing well since his youth in Newark. He and his friends had to wear ties to class and would buy custom-made shirts for about $8.
Zaslav knows one way to get Abruzzese's goat. "I'll show up in New York with a pair of jeans and a tennis shirt," he says. "You can see he has a physical reaction."
Every few months, Abruzzese opens his closet and leaves ties on a table for the staff. "Our sales assistants, planners, I know they don't make a lot of money, so I feel obligated to get them started," he says. Wearers of particularly nice neckwear have been described as "Abruzzean."
But fancy clothes aside, Abruzzese also shows respect for clients by listening to them, and that's been a key to success. He recalls a recent meeting with Allstate's vice president of marketing, Lisa Cochrane, a client spending about $1 million annually with Discovery. His team asked Allstate about its initiatives for the year. "We listened and I realized we had solutions for five of their initiatives," he says. Soon Allstate was a $10 million account.
"Often with someone at his level, it's ‘I want this share' or ‘I want X amount of money,'" Cochrane says. "With Joe, it's all about achieving your business objectives."
"A lot of agency people have issues with sales guys going to their clients without them," SMGx chief investment officer John Muszynski says. "I've never heard anyone have an issue with Joe, because somehow Joe balances it where the agency wins, the client wins and Joe's networks win."
Abruzzese may be 63, but he's not ready to retire with his collection of Corvettes. "I'll be here for another three years, probably more," he says. "This company isn't close to the company it was when I joined. In three years it's not going to be the same. I want to grow with the company."
And that's why Joe Abruzzese will never go out of style. -- Jon Lafayette