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After 22 years at NBC, where she rose to president for broadcast network sales, Marianne Gambelli returned to the agency business this year as chief investment officer at Horizon Media.
Gambelli recalls that her first agency job, with Grey Advertising, paid $8,000 a year in 1980. At that point, she worked one night a week at her family’s restaurant in White Plains, N.Y., making more in tips in an evening than she made the whole week at Grey.
Growing up, Gambelli assumed she’d work at the restaurant, but eventually decided she wanted to do anything but. “It’s difficult to have your own business and deal with family,” she says. She studied accounting at Pace University, but switched her major after taking a marketing course taught by an agency exec.
Gambelli was hired by Jon Mandel, then the widely quoted media director at Grey. She moved to Backer & Spielvogel, becoming the first woman to work on the Miller Brewing account. That exposed her to sports, and she moved from buying sports to selling them at NBC.
She shifted to primetime during NBC’s Seinfeld era, and took on responsibility for cable when NBC acquired Vivendi- Universal. She was named president for sales at NBC broadcast network in 2007 and did the first upfront deal based on the new C3 commercial ratings measurement, which includes delayed viewing on DVRs, with GroupM.
When Comcast acquired control of NBCU, Gambelli was retained as president of NBC sales. But Comcast brought in Linda Yaccarino from Turner to head all of NBCU’s sales efforts, leading to Gambelli’s departure in 2012.
Gambelli says she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next, but she wanted to learn. “There is so much going on with digital and with data that I wasn’t really part of at NBC,” she says. She did some consulting with digital companies that wanted to learn the TV business.
She had not thought about going back to the agency business, but met with Bill Koenigsberg, founder and CEO of Horizon. “It seemed like the right culture,” she says. “Bill has plans to get bigger, and I think he knew he needed different people to do that.”
Koenigsberg says Gambelli was not on his radar when her name was suggested by someone who knew he was looking to add a senior exec. They spoke for months, getting to know each other better. Now “we’re playing some very nice music together,” Koenigsberg says.
Gambelli’s mission is to bring all of Horizon’s activation units into the future. She’ll also have a key role as Horizon acquires assets. “She brings a significant skill set of management and leadership,” Koenigsberg says. “You can see how people might feel threatened about her coming in, but she’s got a sensibility and a way to ingratiate herself. People want to move mountains for her.”
Blending Big Data and Relationships
Gambelli says one of the challenges of her return to the agency business is the press of pitching new business. She’s also looking at how technology affects the agency. While exchanges and programmatic buying are becoming more important, relationships still matter, she says: “I don’t foresee machines handling negotiations, but we do need to infuse what we do with all that data.”
After joining Horizon in May, Gambelli jumped into the upfront process. “I’ve been doing upfronts for 20 years,” she says. “Why would I miss one now?”
On one upfront deal, she worked with Donna Speciale, who moved from a senior agency post to a sales job with Turner Broadcasting in 2012.
“When she was on the sales side, she was always fair, open-minded, communicative, talked it through, always got to the end result where it was always a win-win. And I think she’s going to do that again on the agency side,” says Speciale, who hired one of Gambelli’s daughters at MediaVest.
Speciale expects Gambelli’s NBC contacts to make Horizon more formidable in winning business. “There’s not one client or brand person that she has not come into contact with. I’m glad I’m on this side now while she’s on that side.”
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