Linda Yaccarino’s career has been about change. As chairman of advertising sales and client partnerships, she remade NBCUniversal’s ad sales organization and its relationship with its customers. Accomplishing that, she turned to reimagining the entire TV advertising business.
Working at NBCU, Yaccarino said, she gets to enjoy the adrenaline and youthful energy that comes with being at the center of pop culture. Decked out in a magenta scarf, she had another “pinch me” moment in September. That’s when she went to Central Park, where Jimmy Fallon was hosting the Tonight Show as part of a sponsorship deal with T-Mobile.
It wasn’t always easy.
Peggy Green, the former chairman of major media buying agency Zenith, remembers the early days of Yaccarino’s career, when she was at Select Media before becoming head of ad sales at Turner Broadcasting System. “We were two women who had two very senior jobs in the industry,” Green said. “We both had sort of the same approach to our jobs. We wanted to consider doing things differently.”
Pushing New Ideas
Under Yaccarino, Turner was among the first cable programmers to sell commercials in its original scripted programming at a different price than its acquired programming. Green’s clients Toyota and Chase sponsored TNT’s original drama The Closer. “She came up with the idea, and I liked the idea, but then you have to sell it to your clients,” Green said. “She gave me the ammunition to sell it to the clients.”
“She really looked at things differently, so that would be the first time I recognized that Linda was going to do something different than anyone else,” said John Muszynski, chief investment officer for Mediavest Spark. He didn’t particularly like the higher prices Yaccarino wanted, “but she was always looking for a way to make her assets look more appealing and, in turn, we’d be willing to pay more money for them.”
Turner president David Levy, who was Yaccarino’s predecessor and then boss, credited her with making Turner a leader in the ad sales business.
“First of all, she’s very strategic,” Levy said. “She had a good mindset for setting strategy and producing results. She’s very driven and very ambitious. She has a drive like nobody else. A work ethic like nobody else.”
When Yaccarino left to join NBC, Levy said he was proud of her. “She’s a tough competitor,” he said. “That makes us all better.”
Yaccarino noted that when she joined NBCUniversal as head of cable ad sales in 2011, it was actually the fourth time she’d been with NBC, including an internship.
Comcast had just bought NBC and wanted to bring all of its ad sales operations under a single executive, starting with its cable networks, said NBCU CEO Steve Burke. Yaccarino was the only person he interviewed for the job.
Creating a single sales team meant integrating systems and changing the culture at NBC.
“I knew it was going to be a hard job, and it was a hard job,” Burke said. At one point, Yaccarino told him she could do the job in less than a year. Burke laughed.
“We had a lot of days where she said, ‘I’m not sure I can get this done,’ ” he said. And there were days when she would cry in his office and at home at the end of the day.
“The first couple of years challenged your fortitude, your conviction and your vision,” Yaccarino said. “But we built in the process a terrific team that spread the word about being better for our clients.”
Eventually, she said, there were more good days than bad ones. “It just started to gain traction and momentum.”
Business was good, too. When Yaccarino started, other networks were able to charge 20% more for ads on a cost-per-thousand-viewers basis than NBCU’s networks did, and changing that was a priority. “You can’t do it in one year, but you can do it over a three- or four-year time frame and she’s done that,” Burke said.
Yaccarino has also pushed NBCU to be among the leaders in advanced advertising, working with parent company Comcast and others to better target ads and measure their audiences and effectiveness.
And at a time when TV ad dollars are being siphoned off by digital giants like Google and Amazon, she’s worked to lead the industry to make TV commercials more competitive and improve the experience for viewers watching ad-supported TV.
“Increasingly now, she’s able to turn her sights towards the future,” Burke said. “What’s great about Linda is she’s never satisfied with the status quo.”
Jo Ann Ross, president of ad sales at CBS, praised Yaccarino for trying to address the industry’s issues. “She’s a smart woman,” Ross said. “It’s not going to be so easy to fix these issues, as we’ve all learned, but I commend her for pushing that agenda.”
At this point, Yaccarino is hardly done. “Quite frankly, the change in the industry that is so desperately needed hasn’t happened yet, or at least it hasn’t happened quickly enough,” she said.
As the daughter of Italian parents herself, and with husband Claude Peter Madrazo coming from a similar background, she says her home life has been pretty traditional. “Mommy’s job was always talked about,” she said. “It was part of our family construct.”
There was organized chaos at times. “It was a big web of family and friends to support the lifestyle we chose, and it gave our family better opportunities than we would have had had we not made those choices.”
Yaccarino’s son, Matthew, was recently promoted to senior account executive at Studio 71, and daughter Christian is a pediatric nurse at New York Presbyterian Hospital. “They’re on their own,” Yaccarino said, noting that Christian has moved out. “I’m heartbroken. She left Momma.”