Keith Turner is a team guy. When he got cut from the baseball team at St. John’s University in his freshman year, he transferred so he could play at C.W. Post. Even though he got cut again as a senior, he knew he wanted to keep the feeling he got from sports.
During a distinguished career in advertising, Turner would play on all-star ad teams at Grey Advertising and CBS before managing one at NBC, where got to sell baseball, basketball, Wimbledon, the Super Bowl and the Olympics. “For a guy who wanted to be around sports, it was amazing,” he says.
Marianne Gambelli, Horizon Media’s chief investment officer, worked with Turner at Grey and under him at NBC. At Grey, “he could hold his own in a crowd, so you knew he was going to go places,” Gambelli recalls. At NBC, “he was like a coach. He liked to inspire. He liked to get the best out of everyone and bring a group together. That can be very powerful.”
Turner grew up in a large Irish family on Long Island. Two of his uncles sold radio ads. “They wore nice suits and they dated good-looking women, so I thought maybe that’s something I should investigate,” Turner recalls. He got turned down by every New York radio station before landing a job with Grey.
Turner bought sports and in 1981 met Joe Abruzzese, who would go on to become president of ad sales for Discovery Communications but then was selling sports for CBS, on a street corner during Super Bowl week in New Orleans.
They went into The Absinthe House at 1 p.m. and emerged as fast friends at midnight. They also did business together, with Turner buying about 40% of the inventory for the next year’s Super Bowl.
But Turner wanted to be in sales. When Abruzzese became CBS’ head of sports sales, Turner was one of the first account executives he hired. “I knew then he’d become a great account executive,” remembers Abruzzese, also a B&C Hall of Famer (class of 2011). “He knew the TV business inside and out, he was affable. He had great guts.” They had good times together—so much so their boss decreed they never be together in any city other than New York, according to Abruzzese.
To Abruzzese, that CBS Sports sales team was the gold standard. It was not surprising when NBC hired Turner away. He was soon heading sports sales under network president Randy Falco. NBC needed to sell $5 billion worth of ads to cover its deal to air five Olympics starting with Atlanta in 1996. Turner closed unprecedented 10-year deals that covered half of that before the Atlanta torch was lit, Falco says.
After 10 years, he became head of sales for all of NBC, which was dominant. That didn’t make selling easier. “The more dominant you are, the more expensive you are,” Turner said. Still with “Must See TV,” NBC’s Thursday ad revenue beat the other broadcasters combined.
In 2003, Turner led NBC as it sold a record $3 billion in the upfront in a single night. Back then, there were about 20 agencies buying. “They didn’t get the view of the marketplace that we did. We had a dozen shops registered and all of a sudden we felt, there’s a lot of money there,” he recalls. “We started around 9 o’clock and we were at a plus-12 [12% above the previous year’s CPM]. At around 4 in the morning, just before we were finished we were close to plus-20. It just kind of snowballed.” They realized they’d reached $3 billion but it was too late to celebrate. The next week, Turner took the sales department for a cruise around Manhattan. Next year NBC had another $3 billion upfront.
“We did things at NBC as a sales organization that had never been done before and won’t be done again,” Turner says. “Not just one person does this. This is a team that accomplishes what we accomplished.”
After the network’s fortunes turned, Turner left NBC in 2006. “I was watching Jeopardy! at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and my wife came home and said, ‘Really? This is what you’re going to do now?’ That’s when I decided it was time to go back to work,” he recalls.
The NFL hired Turner as head of ad and sponsorship sales. “He’s a boss that was encouraging and focused on the success of the team and the people,” says Renie Anderson, senior VP, sponsorship and partnership management. “You want to work hard for him and not let him down.”
Turner was captain and quarterback as the sponsorship team beat the NFL’s IT department in a flag football game at MetLife Stadium. “All of us were sweating and he didn’t have a hair out of place,” Anderson says.
Three years later Turner got a call from Falco to join him at Univision. “If you’re going to run a sales organization in media, at least for me, having Keith come was one of the first things I had on my list,” Falco says.
“People love working for Keith. They love the support that he gives them and the fact that he’s always championing the people that work for him. They repay that by delivering great results.”
Though familiar with the market from his work with Telemundo at NBC, selling Spanish-language TV is “the hardest job I’ve ever had,” Turner says, but he adds, “the passion the Univision people have for this brand is like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
Turner’s affinity for the business rubbed off on his daughters. Kelly is at Viacom, Meghan is responsible for media and marketing at Genomma Labs and Erin is with Hulu. “They went to a couple of games where they sat in the front row,” he says.