Numerous celebrations were held as CBS ad sales president Jo Ann Ross turned the big 6-0 in June. Her husband, Dr. Michael Zelman, took over a friend’s restaurant for a surprise party for Ross and her CBS colleagues. There was a big dinner at the Four Seasons and a party in the Hamptons. And she went to Paris with girlfriends she’s known since 1967 at Sacred Heart Academy. “It was like Sex and the City after 60,” Ross jokes. “I’m still writing thank-you notes.”
Geri Wang, a former colleague and now a competitor as president of sales at ABC, says Ross’ family is “amazing,” adding: “She treats her friends and her colleagues like they are part of her family. That’s why she had so many birthday parties. She’s got a very wide circle of admirers.”
And a wide circle of friendly competitors, too, says Rino Scanzoni, chief negotiating officer for GroupM. “All the top-flighters at the other networks attend [her parties] because at some point they probably all worked for her,” he says. “There is a lot of competitiveness, I’m not going to sell that short, but there is admiration. She is really sort of the Godmother of sales.”
The Godmother grew up on Long Island as part of a big family. Her father encouraged her to believe she could be president of the United States. “I thought I wanted to be in Washington,” she says. “Actually, this is even better.”
Her first jobs were in retail, which meant working Saturdays and ruining her social life. She wanted a Monday-through-Friday job and learned enough about selling to land an assistant’s job at ad agency Bozell & Jacobs, where her boss, Paul Wigand, taught her the fine points of reading a Nielsen pocket piece while riding between cars on the Long Island Rail Road.
Ross advanced, becoming head of national buying before jumping to sales. “Even then, she was a force to be reckoned with,” recalls Fox News executive VP of sales Paul Rittenberg, who ran daytime sales for ABC and hired Ross. “Outgoing barely begins to scratch the surface in terms of her personality.”
Rittenberg had considered Wang for Ross’ job, and assigned Ross to handle Grey Advertising, where Wang was group director. Ross called on Wang, saying she knew Wang had wanted the job, but that she wanted the relationship to work. “She’s got such a great combination of class and courage,” says Wang, who soon worked with Ross at ABC Daytime. “How elegant of her to be able to tackle that specific situation head-on, which is what she does with everything.”
Joe Abruzzese, then CBS’ head of sales, hired Ross to run Olympics sales for the network at a time when the field of TV sales was dominated by men.
“She works very hard and has established great relationships,” says Abruzzese, now president of sales at Discovery Communications. “Jo Ann is a good thinker. She executes extremely well and is loved by her staff. She did a great job with the Olympics. Then she did a great job running CBS.”
When Abruzzese left CBS in 2002, Ross was promoted to president of sales at the network. “It may have been the best decision I’ve made in my entire time at CBS,” says CEO Leslie Moonves, who is prone to promising Wall Street big ad price increases that Ross delivers. “She is the heartbeat of the place.”
Chris Geraci, president of national broadcast at media agency OMD, says Ross “gets the full picture” of what he aims to do while “at the same time she is an extremely articulate representative of one of the most iconic brands in media.”
The promotion at CBS made Ross the first woman to lead sales at a big broadcaster. “At the time, I was just very happy I got the job,” Ross says. “But, yeah, I’m proud of it. I think of myself as a role model not just for women but for anybody who’s entering the business.”
While Ross says she’s gender-blind, her promotion was a big deal to others.
“When I got into the business, national TV was basically the boys club, and now we have another two heads of sales at two other major broadcast networks who are women,” Scanzoni says, referring to ABC’s Wang and NBCUniversal’s Linda Yaccarino. “Frankly, I’m not so sure that all would have happened unless Jo Ann took the first crack at it and showed everyone that she’s very successful and can do what any guy can do and, in many cases, probably a lot better.”
“It’s not by happenstance she has been a groundbreaker and has paved the way,” adds Shari Cohen, coexecutive director of national television at Mindshare North America, who says she considers Ross a dear friend and terrific business partner. “She has an unbelievable charm about her that endears her to people so that they want to do business with her. She’s wickedly funny although, as I like to tell her, she’s not funnier than I am.”
Ross’ sense of humor goes on display at CBS upfronts, where she’s worn a waitress uniform from 2 Broke Girls and a dress that flashed messages like “Your Ad Here.”
Though she has a busy schedule, Ross makes time to be a mentor, recently helping a friend’s daughter get an interview at Fox.
“You just make sure you take the time to sit down with people if they’ve got any questions or to help them and guide them in the right direction,” she says. “I still believe this is a great business to be in.”
But changes in the media business translate to less downtime. “One of our accomplishments is that we’re usually ahead of the curve in terms of what we’re communicating to the street or how we’re handling issues,” Ross says. “We don’t go into the bunker. We’re really out there. What I’m most proud of is the fact that I have what I consider to be the best sales team in the business.”
Off duty, Ross spends time with family, friends and her dog. But for fun, she says, “I watch CBS and I watch it with commercials intact.”