Frances Manfredi: Roundabout Success Story

NBC Universal's Manfredi took the long route to the sales executive suite
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Frances Manfredi has always been a film buff, but judging by her successful deal-making philosophy, it seems Wall Street may not be at the top of her list. The 1987 Oliver Stone classic featured Michael Douglas' money-hungry Gordon Gekko promoting the mantra that "Greed is good." But Manfredi has prospered by shunning that modus operandi and instead embracing a piece of advice she received long ago from current Fox Television Network president Ed Wilson, for whom she worked twice in the past.

“We were talking about a deal, and I told him I thought I could get another hundred grand out of our partner,” she remembers. “He said not to do it, that to let the other side walk away feeling they have won something is critical. It's all about the relationship.”

That belief has helped propel Manfredi to her current role as executive VP and general sales manager for cable and non-theatrical sales at NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution.

That's a long title. So, too, was her road to a successful sales career. The Brooklyn native grew up a film and TV fan, but as the daughter of an Italian father, she also had visions of working in international trade. After earning an M.B.A. at New York University, Manfredi began in the publishing business before jumping at a chance to move to Florence to study the Italian language and arts while working as a translator.

After coming back to the States “for all the wrong reasons” (she broke up with the guy about a month later), she landed a job at CBS in finance in 1990. That got her in the door of the entertainment industry, but she had no interest in just crunching numbers. Manfredi wanted to move into sales.

“My first day, I called the head of international sales and said, 'I want to come work for you,'” she remembers. “He laughed and said, 'Who the hell are you?' I started interviewing for every sales job and got turned down from all of them.”

Frustrated, she turned in her notice at CBS after two years, but on literally the last day there Manfredi got a call back from that international sales executive. “He was just tired of taking my calls, to be honest,” she says.

Actually, someone in the department had decided not to return from maternity leave. Manfredi was offered the job on a trial basis, and jumped at it. She found her spot and stayed at CBS for 10 years in various roles.

She began working for Wilson when CBS' domestic distribution group Eyemark was created. That was also where she met current NBCU Domestic Television Distribution President Barry Wallach, for whom she works today.

“Being turned down, told something is impossible or not probable, doesn't mean no to Frances; it actually means the complete opposite,” Wallach says. “Frances enjoys the process of turning the impossible into the improbable, and most of the time she succeeds when others would have long ago quit and moved on to something else.”

Among her duties, she handled straight cable sales and also worked on the upstart CBS News Productions group, which fed shows like Biography to A&E.

But one of the deals she was most proud of was landing in-flight CBS product on American Airlines. ABC owned the relationship with American that several networks coveted, and Manfredi said despite the sense it would be a long shot, CBS put together an offer. To do it, she went to every department at CBS from news to sports, and was able to line up an innovative package of programming. After a long courtship, she got the deal done.

In 2000, Manfredi left CBS to spend time with her new daughter and launched a successful consulting practice, with CBS and NBC among her clients. But by October 2001, Wilson and Wallach, now at NBC, pulled her back in full-time. As a consultant she had been acting as a de facto cable sales chief, a role that was formalized as she sold product ranging from Saturday Night Live to Crossing Jordan.

While climbing the ranks within NBCU, she has enjoyed identifying new buyers outside her traditional targets, such as a recent film package sale to E! and the sale of Heroes to G4.

But her real challenge is spearheading sales efforts across multiple platforms as the marketplace continues to transition. “All the different platforms were separate for so long, but little by little they all started to dovetail,” she says.

With that, her potential targets to sell NBCU product have expanded beyond cable networks. One of her favorite recent deals was with online movie rental service Netflix, allowing subscribers to access NBC shows such as Heroes and The Office a day after their network airings.

“I like to look at these businesses as being where basic cable was once,” Manfredi says. “Basic cable was buying anything, and not on a niche basis. If it was cheap enough, they'd put it up. Now they have come to such a focus on branding. Ultimately, it will be exactly what happens on the Internet—you need a target audience to start with.”

As the business evolves, Manfredi knows she has to get more creative. But while it won't always be easy, she still is sticking to that piece of advice from Ed Wilson long ago.

“It's tough now. We have to make lucrative deals and get what we want,” she says. “But I still think it's got to make sense on both sides. Doing a deal that rapes and pillages the buyer doesn't serve you down the road.”


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