Mel's Diner: An Upfront Abruzzese

Past is prologue for veteran ad sales exec and B&C Hall of Famer, who candidly sets the stage for selling season and the future of TV

THE DISH: If you’re in sales, “you probably need five restaurants that you always could go to, where they know you,” said Joe Abruzzese, president, ad sales, Discovery Communications, noting the importance of knowing where to get a good dinner and not have your clients waiting. “This is one of them.”

We’re at “Joe’s table” at Bobby Van’s, a steakhouse about three blocks from the Discovery office in Manhattan. Abruzzese and his former CBS and Discovery lieutenant Scott McGraw offered so much help populating the restaurant with clients and parties when it opened that the owners gave them their own boxes. So Abruzzese’s nameplate is right by his box, right by his favorite table.

Whatever he may keep in that box, you’re not likely to catch Abruzzese drinking during the day, Don Draper-style.

“We have a no drinking policy,” said Abruzzese, a B&C Hall of Famer who nearly 12 years ago joined Discovery from CBS, where he had led the sales team. “I had it at CBS and I brought it over to Discovery.

“When I came to Discovery, I said, ‘I don’t have a lot of rules. But one of them is no drinking at lunch, because our time is too valuable. I’ve seen—in the Mad Men days— careers dissolve because they didn’t handle their liquor,” he said. He told his staff, “By the way, if you want to go out at lunch with a client and the client wants to have a drink, please, have a drink with them. Just don’t come back.” Soon after he laid out the rule, an executive called and said, “When you said ‘don’t come back,’ did you mean ever?” Clarifying, Abruzzese exclaimed, “No, just that day!”

“The business is a lot harder now than it was in the days when there were three or four networks,” Abruzzese added, pointing to ever- increasing competition and confusion over how to use ever-proliferating available data. “So you really need to perform.”

Abruzzese’s other rule: “You have to wear a jacket and tie. Not a sport jacket. Jacket and tie, every day.”

The dress code can be tough on some junior staff salaries, so about once a quarter, Abruzzese, who is known for his style, gives 20-30 ties away. For the women, he supplies mani-pedis. “We try to set a standard, of dressing up, being professional, never being late for a meeting. Someone wearing good clothes and ties and jackets has respect for the people you’re dealing with. And if you’re on time, it shows great respect,” he said.

Having spent nearly 12 years at Discovery, 22 years at CBS and a decade at NBC before that, Abruzzese is, to say the very least, familiar with the annual upfront season, now underway. Highlights of a chat about upfront rituals and his biggest deals follow.

Are you superstitious about the upfront?

No. Well, I shouldn’t say that. The superstition is in how we present the upfront. We’re back at the same theater. I have a ring that my mother had given me from 1927. I always wear that ring.

You have some rituals, then—you wear a ring from your mom. Just on that day?

Yeah. Or when I’m giving a big presentation.… One thing I make sure I do is wear comfortable clothes.…You don’t wear new shoes. Try not to wear a new suit. You want to make sure the suit looks great, pressed. You want to feel comfortable on the stage.

0501_MelDiner_Receipt.jpgWhat are some of the craziest or weirdest things that have happened in the upfronts or that you have done to close a deal?

This was sports. This wasn’t upfront.

So, at CBS.

At CBS. We were at the Super Bowl in Tampa. We were at Bern’s Steak House.... And we’re having dinner just celebrating our partnership. [Former Anheuser-Busch exec] Tony [Ponturo], myself and [Abruzzese’s former lieutenant] Scott McGraw.

Tony looked at me and said, ‘I want to buy the Super Bowl three years from now.’ He said, ‘Let’s construct a deal.’