Back during the 1984 upfront, when Gary Carr was a media buyer at SSC&B:Lintas, well-known syndication salesman Rich Levy was trying to get him to buy a schedule in a new strip called The Oprah Winfrey Show, along with the spots Carr wanted in Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune.
Levy promised a good deal on the spots. He also asked Carr to do him a favor and hire his son. Carr did so, helping to launch the meteoric career of David Levy, now president for sales, distribution and sports at Turner Broadcasting.
"If I didn't hire him, someone would have," recalls Carr, now head of national broadcast for agency TargetCast tcm. "He was likeable, hard working. I knew in two days that this guy was eventually going to be a salesman. From day one you just knew he was destined for something."
Levy says he remembers going on trips to NATPE with his dad and falling in love with the media business. A bunch of his buddies from Syracuse University started an ad agency where he did a little bit of everything. But he set his sights on New York and at SSC&B was assigned to buy cable for accounts including Heineken, Cover Girl and Steak & Ale.
But he soon realized the salesmen he was meeting with made more money and he got a job with Cable Networks Inc. selling spot cable across the country. He had to become familiar with all of the cable networks, including CNN. Levy's efforts were noticed by CNN's head of sales, Farrell Reynolds, who hired him for Turner Broadcasting 25 years ago. "I came in and interviewed, and they said, ‘OK, here's your office,'" Levy recalls. "It was a good day, and I've been here ever since."
At Turner, Levy moved from domestic sales to international sales, where he was helped by Ted Turner's connections with world leaders. He returned to the U.S. to head sales and sports, and in 2009 added distribution to his portfolio. He is now responsible for all of the company's domestic revenue.
"Obviously Turner is a great company," Levy says. "It has great brands. It has an infrastructure that oozes innovation and allows people to think outside the box. And when you're successful, they promote you. That's something about this company. It's always been a growth company."
Turner CEO Phil Kent started working with Levy on international business. "He always does the right thing. He always puts the company's interests ahead of his own," Kent says. "More important, he's very inventive, very entrepreneurial."
Kent sees Levy as the living legacy of Ted Turner within the company. "Like Ted, he gets very focused when he thinks something is important for us, whether it's achieving certain minimum pricing in the upfront, or getting or renewing a sports rights deal, or an acquisition like we just did with The Bleacher Report," Kent says. "He just does not give up until he figures out a way to convince everyone else, and he does."
In some of those discussions, while he usually gets what he wants, he may mangle some well-known expressions to get there, those close to him say. Some Turner executives are even known to affectionately collect such "Levyisms," like "Let's not put the carrot before the horse," Kent quotes with a chuckle.
But Kent is also impressed by how Levy has "a great nose for the market and a great sense of when to close deals. He's willing to walk away from hundreds of millions of dollars because he thinks we deserve something, and it's served us well. He has a steel gut when it comes to crunch-time negotiations."
In the advertising market, Levy's often drawn-out negotiations with GroupM's Rino Scanzoni-also being inducted into the B&C Hall of Fame this year-are well known. "He's difficult because he's smart and he has a view of what he believes he can accomplish and he carries that view out flawlessly, " Scanzoni says. "That makes it a challenge. It's not personal. It's business. David and I probably have the highest mutual respect for each other."
National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern praises Levy's marketplace knowledge when it comes to negotiations. "Nobody comes as well prepared," Stern says. Levy also understands the NBA's business. "He could run one of our teams. He could run our league. But we like him at Turner because we love their success, their revenues and their increasing ability to pay the rights fees, which we're sure he will conclude our product is worth," Stern says.
Stern says he's gone to "more than a couple of games" with Levy, his sons and his wife. "We feel that he's simply a partner in our business, and frankly, that's the tradition that we have with Turner."
Levy also has helped Turner grow, using NBA and NCAA basketball to grow its networks and get into digital. "He has transitioned Turner Sports in the best possible way," Stern says. "It's been an absolute pleasure watching him grow into this enormously important, expanded role."
Levy is newer to the distribution world, but Derek Chang, executive VP at DirecTV, who is due to leave at year-end, says Levy has learned quickly. "The most important thing David does understand is the value of these relationships, " Chang says. "These are ongoing relationships where not everything is in the contract. There's a lot of other stuff that people want to try to do together, and David will, to his credit-he's a salesman through and through-try to sell you his pitch. And when that doesn't work, he'll get realistic, and his next question is, ‘OK, how do we get something done?' I think there's a spirit of cooperation that is probably fading from our industry."
Levy is a very outgoing guy, Chang adds: "Anytime I'm at a major sporting event, I just have to text him ... because I know he'll be there."
Linda Yaccarino, now president of advertising sales for NBCUniversal, worked for Levy for 10 years and saw Turner grow over that span. "It takes a really innovative leader and deal-maker to do that, and being someone who worked for him for a lot of years, I can tell you he drove a big part of that, and he should really be proud of what he's contributed to that company," Yaccarino says. "He has a big fan in me. It was quite challenging working for him. Now it's much more fun competing with him."
Turner's Kent adds that Levy has a whole other side, though, beyond his career. He points out Levy's commitment to fund-raising for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. "His golf outings are legendary," he says. Levy's also on the Ad Council board and actively involved with his alma mater. "He's got a really good heart," Kent says. --Jon Lafayette