NBCU's Mandala Running With the Bulls

Cable sales exec who saw the Latin market grow is upbeat about the upfront
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As head of cable sales, Steve Mandala, 45, is among NBC Universal's most important advertising executives. The company's cable channels—which deliver viewers a cornucopia of popular shows, from Bravo's gold-digging housewives to Sci Fi's Ghost Hunters—are a multi-billion-dollar business and, when added together, tally higher in earnings than their Peacock Network sibling.

But Mandala's value has less to do with his laurels than with the fact that he never rests on them. Earnings at NBCU's cable division grew by $1 billion in the last three years to $2.1 billion.

And amidst the current economic climate—in which NBCU cable has still managed to outpace broadcast—the executive VP of ad sales for Bravo, USA, Sci Fi, Oxygen and other channels is pumped about the future of the networks heading into this year's upfront. “I like times like this,” he says. “It makes us work on the balls of our feet; we're at our best. This can make us better.”

It's an attitude that has won Mandala respect in the industry. “He's a terrific guy, he's smart and he's done an outstanding job of combining and marketing the NBC Universal cable offering,” says Harry Keeshan, executive VP of national broadcast at media agency PHD. “I know that in addition to making investments to broaden their portfolio, they've been marketing [the channels] in a more consistent, unique way than they've done in the past.”

As a kid, the Torrance, Calif.-born Mandala traveled around the country, visiting ABC stations with his father, who worked for the network. He didn't expect to go into the media business and initially resisted. His first job after graduating from USC was with a commercial production company that eventually shuttered. A headhunter pointed him in the direction of KVEA, a Los Angeles Telemundo affiliate, and he was soon hooked.

“I loved broadcasting,” Mandala says. “I love the idea of television and watched an amazing amount of it.”

Mandala benefited from beginning his career in the Hispanic television arena, an area of the business that has gone from niche to mainstream in the past decade. His job at KVEA, beginning in 1987, was to persuade marketers of the under-appreciated power of the growing Latino audience. While he's understated about his language abilities—Mandala describes his Spanish as “functional, not fluent”—he clearly retains fond memories of the business. It was, he says, “Country before country was cool…I loved working in the high-growth atmosphere, building brands and bringing in new clients.”

After rising to general sales manager at KVEA, he held the West Coast sales manager post at Univision, then spent 10 years as senior VP of sales at Telemundo. He then got his shot running the sales side of NBC Universal's cable channels when boss Mike Pilot, president of NBC Universal Sales and Marketing, recognized Mandala's energy and brought him over from Telemundo, which NBCU had acquired years earlier.

“Steve is customer-centric to the core,” Pilot says. “He has a tremendous ability to match our clients' marketing objectives with the unique selling propositions of our powerful cable entertainment brands.”

Mandala will need all his energy. Though he admits that it's taxing to figure out the current environment, “I'm not convinced that the economic troubles in banking are going to mean equal turmoil for advertisers.” With cable viewing up and money expected to move toward more efficient TV channels in this spring's upfront market, Mandala's team is perhaps optimistic about ringing their cash registers. “We are going to be realistic about the market,” he says, “but at the same time we'll be incredibly bullish.”

On weekends, you'll find Mandala at home in Greenwich, Conn., with his two young daughters. His interest in music is as eclectic as the channels he sells. He claims to have recently rediscovered two rock bands, the Killers and the Cure, while adding he's a big country music fan. It's hard to imagine him rocking out to the Cure while indulging in his other passion, fly-fishing.

Then again, when asked about his management style, he sums it up this way: “I think that I'm curious. It's about teamwork and it's about enthusiasm. Those three things describe me.”

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