Donna Speciale sees herself as a change agent in a business that’s been evolving faster and faster.
She joined Turner Broadcasting as president of ad sales in 2012 after a long career as a top media agency executive leading the shift from purchasing television, cable and digital separately , to buying video holistically as president of investment at MediaVest.
The evolution continues at Turner. “We’re trying to get the industry into data capabilities and audience targeting,” Speciale says. “The fact that I have an agency mindset over 25 years has been really helpful and a great competitive advantage to help build these capabilities.”
Turner president David Levy has worked with Speciale for years. They’ve been friends since Levy sold Speciale’s client SmithKline Beecham a sponsorship in the Goodwill Games and hosted her in Russia in 1994. He tried to hire her a few times. Finally he had the right job at the right time.
“I knew we needed to rethink how we approached clients and agencies with our media mix,” Levy says. “We didn’t have a lot of top agency people here. I thought Donna would bring that skill set.”
Speciale reorganized the Turner ad sales force into a single unit, no easy task at a company with a culture as strong as Turner’s.
“She learned to work with each of the different network heads to get the collaboration she needed to get the sales force structured the way she needed to get it structured,” Levy says. “At most companies, when you bring somebody in at a very high level, an outsider, a lot of times they get rejected. And I will tell you right from the get-go, she was embraced. She had a lot of credentials coming in which gave her a lot of street cred. When she made a statement and she had an idea, people listened.”
Speciale got into the business because her dad was a media director. During college, she interned at Leonard Monahan Saabye, in Providence, R.I., which hired her when she graduated. After a few years, she felt New York calling. She went to New York, met her future husband on Fire Island and landed a national buying job at Grey Advertising.
“Here she was, this kid from a pissant agency in Rhode Island,” recalls former Media-Com CEO Jon Mandel, who hired Speciale at Grey. “She was clearly smart and she had the attitude. She was very multifaceted. That came through loud and clear even then.”
She was able to get problems with the networks solved. “It’s not because she just batted her eyes and sweet talked you,” Mandel said. “She would go in with a solution, and if they didn’t like her solution they were obligated to come up with another one.”
When Grey spun off its media operations to form MediaCom, Mandel made Speciale head of investment for the agency. “She’s an excellent manager of people. She has the unique ability to make everybody want to come to the same conclusion,” he says.
“The thing about Donna is, usually people are happy around her. She knows how to create a good work environment. And people are loyal to her and she’s loyal to them. I think that’s the mark of a great leader. And that’s what she is,” Mandel says. “I loved her so much I figured out how to break the nepotism rule so we could hire her dad in the print group. Donna wanted her dad to have a job, so I hired him.”
Hall of Fame media buyer John Muszynski respected Speciale when he was buying kids shows at Starcom and Speciale was a competitor. “She was a straight-shooter and I always felt like she got it.”
Muszynski unsuccessfully tried to get her to move to Starcom in Chicago. And when a big job opened up at sister agency Media-Vest, he passed her name along to Starcom MediaVest Group CEO Laura Desmond, who hired her.
Now that Speciale’s at Turner, “she still understands what marketers are trying to accomplish and she also understands the situation agencies are in and she tries to find solutions to problems rather than just saying ‘no, this is the way it’s going to be done,’” says Muszynski, now chief investment officer at SMG agency Spark.
Media buyers also appreciate the way Speciale is creating data-based marketing products using Turner’s media portfolio. “We’ve built a lot of this into some of our upfront deals,” says Chris Geraci, president for national broadcast at OMD, also a 2015 B&C Hall of Fame honoree. “Their upfront presentation was excellent and right on the mark. She did a good job talking about how TV, using that tremendous impact we’ve got with the content, combined with new sources of metrics can be very powerful. She driving that forward and I applaud her for that.”
Speciale is also proud of the work-home balance she struck while raising two children.
“Being a woman in this business has a lot of responsibilities because a lot of women look up to you,” she says. “I want them to want my job.”
She says she tells young women that if their career is important, make sure to marry someone who will help carry the load at home. “I couldn’t have done it without the having the right partner in my husband,” she says of Gary Reisman, CEO of research company LEAP Media.
“We’ve done a good job of teaching our kids the value of dual-income households, the value of each parent contributing and working on their own,” says Reisman. They tag-teamed, making sure at least one parent was always there for the kids. Sometimes that was tough for their daughter and son to understand when they were young, but that changed, Reisman says. “My daughter’s college essay was about how she aspires to be like her mother.”