The digital domain continues to be where the action is in the TV industry, with Apple’s reported announcement of a new OTT platform later this month just the newest development in video’s ongoing transformation.
Keeping their fingers on the pulse of this rapid change are B&C’s 2019 Digital All-Stars, a dozen front-line executives representing a range of disciplines: advertising/media, content, distribution, local TV, entrepreneurship, technology and more.
These honorees have made a tremendous impact over the past year and they’re charting the course ahead, too. Read more about them in the pages that follow in profiles compiled by B&C contributor Stuart Miller.
Senior VP and Chief Revenue Officer, CNN Digital
BACKGROUND: Christine Cook oversees sales strategy for CNN’s overall digital portfolio, which includes premium verticals, mobile products, programmatic, emerging businesses and Great Big Story. She started her career as a teacher and then moved into the media world, with her first job with the Convenience Store News website. She founded the first New York Times Digital international sales office, in London. Then, she worked for The Financial Times, IAC/InterActiveCorp, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, The Daily and Flipboard. She was senior VP and global head of advertising partnerships at Flipboard.
“The common bond between all those jobs was that they were all about the transformation and evolution of how consumers consume content in a digital world,” Cook said, adding that she always loved journalism. “It’s exciting to find new platforms and new angles, making the most of digital video on websites, on apps, now on PlayStation, Apple TV and in other OTT opportunities. The fragmentation of platforms is my sweet spot.”
ALL-STAR STATUS: Cook joined Turner in this newly developed job last year, to oversee a holistic sales approach across CNN’s digital businesses and bolster revenue opportunities. Cook also partners with the Content Partnerships team and Courageous Studio to activate the KPIs [key performance indicators] of ad partners across CNN’s digital footprint.
“When I was a teacher I saw that everyone learns differently, and I’ve applied that here when setting up the new team,” she said, adding that the company is sitting on a “gold mine of information” about their consumers and her team needs leverage that data. “Now my job is to find how we go to market in the best interest of both the client and consumer, to ensure the assets are delivered for each RFP and we are not just selling products.”
INNOVATION: “My job is new, but it’s ‘what’s old is new again,’ ” she said. “The company used to be focused on digital, then it switched to go for crossplatform sales. Now we’re back, creating my position where all I do is think with a laser focus about what can the network do for anyone who does anything digitally with us.”
Managing Director, Communications, Media and Technology, Accenture
BACKGROUND: Early in his career, Farshad Family was a leader in McKinsey’s Global Media, Entertainment and Information practice, serving clients in the media and telecom sectors. “McKinsey gave me a good overview of the media space from broadcast and cable to digital startups to even outdoor and newspapers and radio,” he said.
From there, Family went to Nielsen, where he built a business in India serving clients in television, online and telecom. He then managed the U.S. local media measurement business before becoming senior VP of digital enablement, overseeing development of such products as client-facing APIs, mobile apps and analytics.
“Nielsen took me quite deep in the TV space, grappling with how technology is changing things and how to work with media companies,” he said. “It has been an interesting journey.”
ALL-STAR STATUS: Family has scaled up consumer-facing internet businesses and has worked on sales-force effectiveness in digital and television businesses. “I spend a lot of my time on advanced advertising in the television and video space, helping media companies tell richer stories that go beyond age and gender as a way to compete against the pure-play digital competition,” he said. “The ‘traditional guys’ still have tremendous scale and compelling content and a brand-safe environment, but they need to layer on new segments. I also help advertisers target more effectively.”
INNOVATION: At Accenture, Family has led OpenAP, the advanced advertising platform launched by Fox, Turner and Viacom, and joined by NBCUniversal and Univision. “It has proved to be a great forum to have all these companies coming at this to address the competition more effectively,” he said. “It’s about expanding the pie.”
Executive VP of Development, Fox News Channel and Fox Nation
BACKGROUND: John Finley has been with Fox News since 2000, beginning as an executive producer on shows such as Hannity & Colmes and Hannity’s America, and later working his way up to senior VP of development and production, bearing responsibility for the creation of Hannity, The Five, Outnumbered and The Greg Gutfeld Show. He also helped develop The Man Who Killed Usama Bin Laden, a documentary about Navy SEAL Robert O’Neill, and helped plan the network’s 2016 presidential debates.
ALL-STAR STATUS: Finley was promoted in February to his new title. He has overseen the development of the streaming service Fox Nation, including all short- and long-form programming on the platform. The service launched in late November with the stated goal of creating a “Netflix for Conservatives.”
“I’m more of a programmer who moved into digital than a digital person,” he said, “and I’m still involved in things on the network side as a producer and programmer.”
Finley said working in digital does, and does not, feel different, partly because the measurement is now subscriptions, not Nielsen ratings. “We’re learning a lot very quickly about what appeals to our audience,” he said. “It’s still fundamentally television production, but when you’re formatting linear TV you’re confined by the program’s duration and by commercial breaks. In the OTT space, variations work well: We can do a program that’s two minutes, 10 minutes or 45 minutes. It’s the ultimate freedom. We have the liberty to try lots of things.”
INNOVATION: “No one else is doing a mix of live and VOD,” Finley said, pointing out that Netflix’s programming is all on-demand while Facebook Live is the opposite. “We’re first in the market with this model and we’re breaking new ground.”
Director of Telco and Video Distribution Partnerships, Google
BACKGROUND: Jennifer Koester came to the digital world from a career in law, working in the entertainment and advertising department at Manatt Phelps & Phillips LLP and Hall Dickler Kent Goldstein & Wood LLP, and in the intellectual property and information technology department at Brown Raysman Millstein Steiner & Felder LLP. As an attorney, she brought her experience to Cablevision Systems as VP of privacy, product management and subpoena compliance.
She then became senior VP, advanced advertising product and data analytics at Cablevision Media Sales, where she was responsible for developing linear TV, VOD, digital and data products. “My focus was always on the balance of emerging technology with regulatory issues and practical business applications,” she said, adding that as outside counsel she wrote Google’s first ad guidelines. “It was the intersection for entertainment and advertising and privacy and the law.”
ALL-STAR STATUS: Koester joined Google in 2016. She focuses on the convergence between linear and digital and the gap in between, pointing to innovations like Google Ad Manager and Dynamic Ad Insertion. “What makes me successful is having experience in both, and helping solve problems for our partners,” she said. “I’ve built a team with a similar skill set and experience. We bring solutions to market that let video distributors and telco companies future-proof their applications and work with partners to roll out new platforms and understand the business and regulatory issues in everything we do.”
INNOVATION: Google Ad Manager works to let partners deliver seamless, customized and measurable ad experiences everywhere audiences are watching, including connected TVs. To support this, Google Ad Manager partners use Dynamic Ad Insertion to put video ads into live, linear and on-demand content to combat buffering and poor ad playback quality. Replacing commercial breaks in the online broadcasts of linear TV streams with digital video ads from Dynamic Ad Insertion enables partners to increase view-through rates and revenue.
“We are reimagining the commercial break,” Koester said. “We’ve been able to bring digital sophistication to the linear set-top world with adjustable product. Google Ad Manager works across every platform. The leadership comes from Google’s internal and external commitment to this. That’s really important.”
President of U.S. Digital Products and Marketing, Discovery Inc.
BACKGROUND: Karen Leever was working at QVC when she learned the company was launching QVC.com. “I immediately went to the vice president of the division and said, ‘I want to be part of the team.’ I knew I wanted to be doing something brand new.” After more than a decade at QVC and HSN, she moved on to Kmart.com and then to DirecTV, where she spent 10 years, finishing as senior VP, digital and direct sales. Then she joined Discovery. As executive VP and general manager of Digital Media she extended the reach of Discovery’s digital brands and businesses and launched the company’s TV-everywhere GO apps, which now generate more than 40 million streams per month and boast 40,000 titles of live and on-demand content. She also implemented the company’s first full-service digital agency.
ALL-STAR STATUS: Leever now oversees Discovery’s 18 TV-everywhere GO apps. HGTV, Food Network, Travel Channel, DIY Network and Cooking Channel were the latest additions to the suite of apps on all platforms. They brought in 20,000 more titles, doubling the amount of available content. “It’s amazing how fast the whole ecosystem has grown,” she said. “We are bringing all our best practices to these brands now, ramping them up to our platform and expanding the content significantly.” Leever manages the design, development, engineering, analytics, operations and monetization of the company’s growing U.S digital businesses.
INNOVATION: “For the first two years our apps and the design were a little cookie cutter with the same template throughout,” she said. “Now, we are moving into bespoke apps, starting with Investigation Discovery. All will be geared to using the advanced demographics and psychographics of that brand and the consumers. And we will refine each using consumer feedback.”
Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer, TripleLift
BACKGROUND: Ari Lewine has long been an entrepreneur: at age 17, while at Washington University in St. Louis, he noticed how students studying for finals also had to deal with prepping to move out and put stuff in storage. So he founded a company to handle those chores and, as CEO of University Trucking, made it the largest student-owned and student-operated business in the country. He sold the company and then worked in business development for Oyster.com and in sales for AppNexus before co-founding TripleLift in 2012. “I felt there was something inherently broken with ads,” he said. “Banner ads or ones you were forced to watch to unlock content are not sustainable in the long term, and ads should be something consumers welcome, or at least don’t despise. We wanted to brand the message into content, to work with a studio and showrunner on product placement in real time, so you might see a Coke ad while your neighbor sees one for Gatorade.”
ALL-STAR STATUS: Lewine focuses on native ads, using TripleLift’s technology to help move ads from interruptive breaks to in-content ads tailored specifically to each viewer. TripleLift is currently moving to the over-the-top (OTT) market with new ad opportunities for the screen. He focuses on an array of tactics. “In-Action Six” brings an ad in during a break in the action during live events, while still keeping the action in a small window. “Overlay” puts an ad relevant to what is happening in a program in the corner of the screen. “Brand insertion” dynamically inserts ads into a TV show, like on a billboard in the background of a scene.
INNOVATION: “From the rise of Netflix people are used to an ad-free experience but the cost to produce content keeps going up, so the big challenge is to create program and brand integration, to get the the brand message into content,” he said. “And we want to use new technology to create ads relevant to viewers so the ad from Toyota might be a minivan or sports or sedan for different viewers.”
Senior VP, Digital Media & Growth Marketing, HBO
BACKGROUND: Diana Pessin has been with HBO since 2002, after a stint as an accountant at Arthur Andersen and marketing and branding jobs at Colgate Palmolive and Sportscapsule, a startup internet venture. At HBO, she spent more than a decade as the director of e-commerce and marketing, developing digital media and promotional campaigns. She led the e-commerce expansion throughout the European Union with a multi-language, multi-currency and mobile-optimized storefront. Then, as VP, digital media and acquisition, she was on the team that launched HBO Now.
“All my work has been about understanding the stories that numbers can tell,” she said. “The bulk of my career has been in marketing, allowing me to merge my creative and strategic skill sets with an analytic skill set.”
ALL-STAR STATUS: Pessin was named senior VP, digital media and growth marketing in January as part of HBO’s effort to put all customer lifecycle marketing under one umbrella. She now oversees subscriber acquisition, marketing analytics and the HBO Now retention program. Leading the digital media team, she oversees renegotiations with partners like Google, Facebook, Condé Nast and Twitter and translates the business objectives across HBO’s various business units into digital paid media strategies to support campaigns. Under her leadership, the network has had triple-digit growth over the last three years in data-informed media buying.
“We really transformed the way we think about how we leverage data, including our first-party data, to activate and make campaigns more relevant and targeted,” she said. “That began with the launch of HBO Now.”
INNOVATION: Pessin guided the development of HBO’s advertising-technology ecosystem and plays a critical role in HBO’s partnership with AT&T and advanced-advertising unit Xandr, evaluating how to leverage data to fuel the company’s targeting approach and evolving measurement capabilities. “We built our own advertising technology stack in the last 18 months within HBO,” she said, explaining that this will improve HBO’s ability to collect data and more effectively advertise the network across many media platforms. “We are more nimble now.”
Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder, Connekt
BACKGROUND: David Rudnick’s career as a media executive stretches back a quarter-century, with experience at Discovery, TV Guide, TCI and Liberty Media and at Turner Media Group, where he was chief operating officer. At those companies, he worked on development and implementation of next-generation video and programming, including involvement in the early electronic program guide TV Guide on Screen. He then founded The Band Inc., a company that worked on creating foundational new media experiences around advertising, video and data systems. When it was acquired in 2010 by Delivery Agent, an interactive commerce company, he became that company’s chief technology officer six years.
“I’ve had different roles on the content side, the software side, working in full vertical distribution,” Rudnick said of his time before co-founding Connekt in late 2016 to focus on driving additional average revenue per unit (ARPU) for networks, distributors and advertisers. “I’ve seen all the different perspectives, so I can look at the shifting sands of the industry in terms of content, advertising, distribution and technology with clarity and see where the industry needs to go.”
ALL-STAR STATUS: In December, Connekt reached a deal with ABC to launch an online store selling merchandise from the network’s hit shows. Rudnick said that’s just the latest example of how the company’s patented AI-driven platform can engage consumers through smart-TV ad, content and commerce experiences. (Other partners include LG, Nielsen, and CBS.) With Sony, Connekt enabled the company to offer viewers a “Buy Now” button that lets owners of their smart TVs purchase thousands of products from hundreds of brands and retailers, directly from the screen.
INNOVATION: “We’ve had a number of patents issued in the last year,” Rudnick said, including the technology used with Sony. ”We have redesigned our platform to work in the current ecosystem with artificial intelligence in a cost-effective way.”
Senior VP, Group Director, Digital Services, Showtime Networks
BACKGROUND: Early in his career, Brian Swarth worked at Warner Bros. Pictures Interactive Marketing and MTV Network Affiliate Marketing before becoming senior director, strategy and business operations — content distribution and marketing for MTVN. Then, he became managing director of digital client strategy at Zemoga before coming to Showtime. He is now in charge of every aspect of the programmer’s digital and social marketing, manages digital partnerships and was part of the launch team for the Showtime streaming service. Swarth said his previous jobs gave him experience not just in the consumer aspect of the job, but also in understanding operations. “I can go under the hood with the digital design team,” he said.
ALL-STAR STATUS: Last year, after Swarth and his group redesigned Showtime’s website, it attracted 28 million unique visitors. The team now connects Showtime with nearly 50 million fans monthly across nine different social platforms (including Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat) and generated nearly 600 million video views across a multitude of platforms, a growth of 11% over the previous year. Showtime also stays on the cutting edge with things like Facebook messenger bots. “We try to use more data driven insights in marketing, to help leverage those insights to get the right message in front of the right person at the right time,” Swarth said.
INNOVATION: “Our relationship has evolved with our talent and showrunners so they are getting the point of storytelling through digital marketing and they want to help shape and craft that,” Swarth said, pointing to limited series Escape at Dannemora and how creator Brett Johnson and director Ben Stiller got really involved in a multipart, behind-the-scenes podcast. “They are really embracing ways of bringing viewers much closer to the story,” he said.
VP, Digital Content, Tegna
BACKGROUND: Joanie Vasiliadis started in an entry-level job at Tegna’s WUSA in Washington, D.C., working her way up to her current role in less than six years after graduating college. She leads innovation, strategic direction and implementation of content for Tegna’s 49 local TV stations and two radio stations in 41 markets across the U.S. She built Tegna’s central content team and expanded it in scale.
ALL-STAR STATUS: Last year, Vasiliadis diversified audiences through SEO, YouTube and new loyalty products like newsletters, helping Tegna climb from No. 4 to No. 2 in Comscore ratings among broadcast station groups, Tegna said. She has been responsible for launching digital hits like “HeartThreads,” a series showcasing positive, shareable content on Facebook Watch and across Tegna’s local broadcast outlets, syndicated television programming and digital footprint. Last fall, she oversaw the creation of An Imperfect Union for Facebook Watch; the series has since been extended for the full year. It is produced exclusively for Facebook Watch, but trailers and portions of each program are shown on Tegna stations to extend reach. “That is just one piece we are developing in terms of how we find our audience.”
The investigative project “Mothers Matter,” which chronicles the high rate of death for African-American women during pregnancy or just after childbirth in the U.S., was released to Tegna stations on digital platforms first.
INNOVATION: To streamline the operational side to support content distribution, Vasiliadis has deployed Tegna One, a new, homegrown content-management system that integrates data into the story creation process, making it easier to quickly publish video and enabling stations to optimize content for a wide variety of distribution platforms. This has saved Tegna millions of dollars and helped fast-track coverage of complex, breaking news.
“We were always reliant on third parties and did not really get to set agenda on this front or control our own destiny, so bringing it in-house was the first smart move,” Vasiliadis said. “Then we made it an inclusive process. We surveyed all our stations and did focus groups and observed workflow to see what was getting in the way and what TV reporters did and didn’t want.”
“It is a culture change here for the news teams to move forward as one content team instead of a TV team and a digital team. We didn’t roll this out as a tool for digital but for all our content creators. Now we keep track of who is using it and how it is being used.”
VP of Marketing, fuboTV
BACKGROUND: Yale Wang joined fuboTV in 2017, heading up North American marketing efforts, focusing on implementing data-driven digital marketing strategies to drive subscriber growth. He started as an investment banker before joining the streaming OTT network DramaFever, where he spent five years before it was sold to Warner Bros. “That was a big career switch,” he said. “My girlfriend, who is now my wife, was a DramaFever user and I started wondering about this loyal fan base. Even if it was a niche, it seemed there was room for growth and to supersize the audience. That has served me well here.”
ALL-STAR STATUS: Wang says his accomplishments — fuboTV doubled its subscriber count to 250,000 in one year at a time when many others are shedding subscribers — are part of a team commitment. But those aren’t just any subscribers, he said. “We focus on getting the best subscribers, not just subscribers for subscribers’ sake,” Wang said, explaining that he steers clear of free trials or bargain rates that lead to churn.
Instead, fuboTV focuses on targeting consumer needs to launch packages and upgrades designed to appeal to its target audience. “The amount of data that is useful in marketing is actually small,” Wang said. “We identify the best cohorts of our audience and we leverage our data so we’re marketing to people who become profitable customers so we can grow in a cost efficient and sustainable way.”
INNOVATION: “We’re a small company — we have fewer than 200 employees — without a lot of resources, but we innovate,” Wang said. “We offer 4K content around sports, including for MLB and English Premier League content. Sports is a great place to innovate with our engineering, and now we’re bringing that to news and entertainment.”
CEO, Thunder Experience Cloud
BACKGROUND: Wong co-founded Thunder Experience Cloud in 2008. The company started off by building the original Creative Management Platform for easily producing and scaling ads. Then, Thunder expanded into testing and tracking ads for brands with its Dynamic Creative Optimization and Experience Measurement solution. “We started on the publisher side, serving broadcasters and the media, but in the last few years we moved to supporting primarily the buy side, the advertisers,” Wong said. “We are the only open, people-based ad server to track who saw the ad and when and where and did the ad work [as intended].”
ALL-STAR STATUS: In the last 18 months Thunder has been leading the industry in creating a new open measurement standard for sharing data across platforms, according to Wong. “Every channel now self-measures, so you go from a cable company to a digital video company and it is hard to assess what each is really reaching and it is hard to assign credit and to see if it’s actually the same user,” he said.
INNOVATION: “We’re developing a new standard that will help advertisers to combine data tied to a person, but it’s privacy-centric so they won’t actually know who the person is and it won’t compromise any proprietary publisher assets.” Wong foresees new storytelling formats, with options like “Pause-a-tising,” where you pause video to watch an ad at a more convenient time than right in the midle of the viewing experience. He also believes ads will evolve to be viewed across all platforms, so information doesn’t have to be crammed into one 30- or 60-second pod — a viewer might see it first on TV, then later while streaming it on their phone. “Also, I think ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ ads will become increasingly popular.”