As a rookie salesman for CNN in New York City two decades ago, Greg D’Alba faced a ban on taking taxis to call on clients. Times were so tough that salespeople were forced to ride the subway. The upside was that sometimes the young account executive got to take the train with his tight-fisted boss, Ted Turner.
At the time, the flamboyant CNN founder was quietly facing a financial crisis. But to the public, Turner was a rock star, well known from his frequent appearances on TV and magazine covers.
“He’d have people from the other end of the car yelling, 'Hey Ted! How ya doin’, Ted!’” says D’Alba. “He’d be high-fiving people. He’d look at me and say, 'See, what’s wrong with this? This is great!’”
Selling with Turner was a high point for D’Alba, who stuck with the network through the lean years. Today, he’s COO of CNN’s advertising sales and marketing unit, with responsibility for more than $400 million worth of domestic ad sales for CNN, Headline News and CNN.com and reporting to network President Jim Walton.
During his time at CNN, D’Alba has survived two mergers, when parent Turner Broadcasting System was acquired first by Time Warner and then by America Online. And he has stuck through the fallout from a nasty fight with rival Fox News Channel, which is trouncing CNN in the ratings.
But he counts as his biggest personal success surviving two rounds of testicular cancer. D’Alba was first diagnosed with the disease in 1995 and suffered a recurrence four years ago. The latest round of treatment required the removal of some lymph nodes and debilitating rounds of chemotherapy.
“Everybody says, 'How do you deal with it, how do you deal with it?’” D’Alba says. “The answer is, you don’t have a choice.”
As a student at the University of Buffalo, D’Alba was hoping for a way into media and entertainment, armed only with a fuzzy vision of becoming a movie producer. After realizing that he would start out “typing 300 pages of script per day,” he abandoned that idea and moved into radio sales.
Fortunately, one family friend was Capital Cities co-founder Dan Burke, who referred D’Alba to the president of Selcom Radio, a rep firm selling commercials to national advertisers on behalf of radio-station clients. For two years, D’Alba pitched advertisers and traveled the country visiting client stations, particularly at events such as local concerts. “I thought it was so cool, told all my friends I was representing all these cool radio stations,” he says.
WORKING BRUTAL HOURS
After shifting to New York’s top urban station, WBLS, D’Alba followed one of his old Selcom bosses, Larry Goodman, to CNN. As one of six sales reps in New York, D’Alba worked at a frenzied pace. CNN’s offices were “a dump,” where workers used trash bags to protect equipment from leaks. D’Alba scurried around Manhattan for up to 20 meetings a week and logged brutal hours. “You were never solo in the office on a Saturday,” he says.
But the toughest part was convincing advertisers that cable was worth buying. At the time, even strong cable networks had trouble getting advertisers on board, as thin ratings and meager distribution made the networks a tough sell.
“We were selling cable first; then we were selling CNN,” D’Alba says. “Cable was a new medium, a new technology. We were still convincing everybody that the medium was here to stay.”
CNN’s trump card was its demographics. Media research firms found that CNN’s audience was loaded with older, affluent men, who were otherwise hard to reach on television.
After three years, D’Alba graduated to management, for the first time taking responsibility for other sales reps’ performance. That called for a different style.
“It’s not only about yourself,” D’Alba says. “As a salesman, you work your ass off to get numbers on the boards. In management, you become an example. You find that some people have different skill sets than others.”
D’Alba proved adept at management and followed Goodman up the ladder. He eventually replaced him as head of CNN’s ad sales in 2003.
Today, D’Alba’s toughest job is going toe to toe with Fox News. Even after becoming the dominant news network in terms of ratings, Fox News fell far short in ad revenues because CNN maintains premium pricing that was set years earlier.
However, Morgan Stanley estimates that Fox News, despite selling at a discount, passed CNN’s ad revenues in 2003. Moreover, it should squeak by CNN and Headline News combined this year.
“I don’t think Fox News has been demoralizing at all,” D’Alba contends. Even as the No. 2 news network, CNN is still growing revenues, particularly because media buyers treat cable news as a distinct slot for products aimed at older, affluent adults, notably cars and financial services. “The last two upfronts,” he says, “have been the strongest in our history.”
“ENGAGING THE CONSUMER”
To keep growing, D’Alba is emphasizing CNN’s adaptability to new technologies—primarily the Web but also emerging products, such as video-on-demand and cellphone TV.
“It’s about engaging the consumer,” he says. “It’s no longer about people who are going to sell ratings points or sell programs.”
He adds that advertisers are beginning to believe in, and pay for, CNN’s ability to reach consumers in a number of ways with the same content. “That was a sales pitch six years ago,” D’Alba says. “It became a business a year and a half ago.”