Master of the win-win deal

Feb 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

MediaVest is tough, one network seller was explaining recently. Historically, the media buying agency has been among the toughest negotiators this seller said he has faced. To be frank, he said, for the most part they’ve been a bunch of hard-asses.
“What Mel’s done in a very short period of time is he’s brought to MediaVest a sense that they don’t have to beat us over the head all the time to get what they want,” the seller explained. “He’s very, very good at working the buyer-seller relationship as a partnership that can be win-win for both sides.”
High praise indeed for a man who has only been at MediaVest, a unit of Bcom3 Group’s Starcom MediaVest, for about a year.
Mel is Mel Berning, 47, MediaVest’s New York-based president of U.S. broadcast. Though he started on the agency side of the table, he became a seller at NBC in 1986.
“He’s got the bigger picture in mind,” is the way Lynn Picard, executive vice president of advertising sales at Lifetime Television puts it. “What’s great about Mel is he understands the value of building long-term strategic partnerships-that we’re all in this for the long haul. He’s worked at a network, he’s worked at an agency, and he’s got that understanding of what each [entity] needs. He’s very good; he’s tough, but people want to work with Mel. He gets things done, and it’s rewarding to work with him.” Mr. Berning seems to have learned his balanced, common-sense approach to media by working both sides of the media-advertising fence.
He started his career fresh out of Columbia University’s business school by taking a media position in the advertising business at Benton & Bowles, a forerunner of today’s MediaVest. He rubbed shoulders in the 1980s in Benton & Bowles’ media department with executives including Irwin Gotlieb, now CEO of WPP Group’s MindShare, and Phil Guarascio, who last March retired as vice president of advertising and marketing for General Motors Corp.
“I loved media, and I loved journalism and television, and the business was always intriguing,” he said. “What was intriguing here [at Benton & Bowles] is it is exactly where the business side matches up with what advertisers are trying to do and what the media companies are trying to do. It’s a great place to know and understand what makes the [advertising] business go, to examine how media is valued by advertisers and what objectives it can drive forward. You get a really interesting window into a lot of different worlds.”
After a couple of years at Benton & Bowles, Mr. Berning left to work as a seller, taking positions with CBS Cable in 1983 and then the Disney Channel before accepting a media sales position at the NBC Television Network.
“I joined NBC selling daytime, working with Larry [Hoffner], who was head of sales at that time,” Mr. Berning said. “I sold daytime for two years, sports for two years, prime time for two years, then managed the news daytime, was vice president, Eastern sales, served as vice president, pricing and planning, and did a yearlong project called Quality. It was [NBC’s parent General Electric Corp.’s] training program. I rattled all around the NBC organization.”
Along the way, Mr. Berning impressed others, including Mr. Hoffner, with his knowledge and insight.
“I always thought he had good insight into what was going around,” said Mr. Hoffner, formerly chairman of the NBC Television Sales Network Group. He had “a very high what I call an `AQ,’ an awareness quotient, which is a matter of someone who just knows what’s going on around him. I always felt that Mel was quite competent, capable and an excellent negotiator. Oftentimes, there is no absolute right or wrong answer. We deal in judgment and feeling … because one thing sets up another thing in the buying and selling business.”
A year ago, executive changes at the former Benton & Bowles MediaVest provided a timely opportunity for Mr. Berning to rejoin the company, which by that time had become MediaVest. “It was like coming home,” he said.
“Irwin [Gotlieb] and Donna [Salvatore, CEO of MediaVest USA] had been ahead of the curve, spinning off the MediaVest media operation as a stand-alone company,” Mr. Berning said. “But Irwin had just left to go to MindShare, and other people had left as well, and Donna and I were talking one day, `What if you were to come back over here?’ It dovetailed nicely with the opportunities … of a transition at MediaVest.”
Mr. Berning is the first to admit that “everything has changed” in media since his early advertising days.
“What we hear from a client like Procter & Gamble or Kraft is that they have increasing pressures to meet challenges in their business, and they’re coming to us to help them … untangle the choices,” he said. “Then there’s all of the sellers of media, the broadcasters, the cable companies, syndicators, all have pressures on their businesses as well, so our job today is to try to understand what both sides are trying to do and find a way to match up those interests and objectives.”
What Mr. Berning has gained from his years with NBC and other broadcasters is an enhanced perspective of what both clients and media vendors experience.
“I bring a little bit of the vendor’s perspective,” he said, speaking of his knowledge of getting deals done that offer both vendors and advertisers what they’re looking for.
“We have always been very good at brokering deals that are good, hard deals, and what I try to bring [to MediaVest] is that perspective: How can we do deals in the new environment that might bring to vendors some solutions to some of their problems. Some win-win solutions.”
What Mr. Berning likes most about being back at MediaVest is bringing together the pieces of the media puzzle to create a plan that works for everyone involved.
“We’re focusing on trying to create deals that have a lot of different elements of value for our advertisers, not just do a CPM deal,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of deals over the last year where we’ve tried to focus on enhancing the value of those deals. We did one of the first `Millionaire’ enhanced deals with ABC for our client at the time, JC Penney. Just a month ago we did a cross-platform with Viacom Plus for Kraft’s salad dressing brands. It was interesting because we were able to include a lot of different platforms, drive a common theme across those platforms, and use some interstitial programming in some interesting ways.’