JoAnn Ross, president of sales at CBS, has a work ethic that has catapulted her from a self-described retail "shop girl" in New York City to the head of a major network ad-sales organization—the first woman to hold that post at any of the Big Four networks.
But don't call her Miss Ross. She's way too down-to-earth for that. Her friends call her Jo-Jo; her colleagues at CBS Sales call her Mamma. Yes. Mamma. For reasons that are unclear even to Ross, although she suspects that it has to do with the fact that she constantly "worries about everything and everybody" that's related to work. (And with $4 billion or so at stake, who can blame her?)
Ross has spent most of her adult life in New York City, where she moved right out of college. She spent her first years there working in what were then some of the city's toniest retail stores, including Gucci and Lord & Taylor.
For a brief time, in her late 20s, Ross moved to Alaska, following a fella who thought he'd get a great job on the Alaska pipeline. It turned out the pipeline was pretty much done and there were no real jobs to be found, or anything really, beyond a J.C. Penney, a handful of bars and wilderness.
Softball games at 3 a.m. were fun but didn't pay the bills, so it was back to New York, where Ross was determined to find a career.
In 1980, she got a little help from one of her close friends, whose dad, Paul Wigand, oversaw network-TV ad buying for Bozell & Jacobs. Wigand was looking for an assistant.
The problem for Ross was that a typing test was required and she couldn't type worth a darn. But fate intervened, and, just days before her interview, she broke her arm body-surfing. She got the job, no test required.
At Bozell, Ross cut her teeth in the business, with Wigand as her mentor.
In 1984, Ross left for Young & Rubicam to work on that agency's big daytime accounts. But not for long. Six months later, she got a call from her former boss, Wigand. His number two was leaving, and he made Ross an offer she couldn't refuse.
She returned to Bozell and, when Wigand retired in 1986, succeeded him as senior vice president of network operations.
In 1989, ABC lured her away to sell daytime advertising. She was ready to make the switch. "I wanted to be on the other side of the desk," she says. "I thought I'd do well because I knew what the needs were on the buyer side."
A year later, Ross moved into prime time sales, the daypart that most sales people set their sights on. Clearly, she was on the fast track.
In 1992, opportunity came knocking again, when CBS Sales President Joe Abruzzese asked her to run the network's Olympics ad sales team. She jumped at the offer. She sold two Olympics for CBS, Lillehammer and Nagano, and then was named executive vice president, CBS Sales, in 1998.
Ross succeeded Abruzzese as head of CBS sales when he joined Discovery Communications last November. He says CBS made the right decision: "JoAnn's trademark is how hard she works and how dedicated she is to getting the job done."
Ross is also credited with creating and executing the concept of selling sponsorships for Survivor (at $12 million per package).
Buyers say the transition from Abruzzese's leadership to Ross's at CBS Sales has been seamless. "She really focuses on the client and works hard to understand their needs," says Mel Berning, president of U.S. broadcast for MediaVest.
Berning says her efforts helped move along the $300 million cross-platform deal with MediaVest client Procter & Gamble.