The client fixer: Peter Olsen

Mar 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The next time some wised-up show business cynic sneers about how cutthroat The Business is and about how on Madison Avenue nice guys always finish last, just say this:
Peter Olsen.

“Peter Olsen wins the Bob Cesa award for nicest guy in the business,” was how Neil Baker, senior VP, ad sales, E! Networks, put it, referring to Twentieth Television’s well-liked ad sales executive. “For years, anytime you asked anybody about Bob Cesa,” Mr. Baker continued, “you got one response, `What a nice guy!”’
But it’s not because he’s a nice guy, that TelevisionWeek has named Mr. Olsen, senior VP, manager national broadcast, MediaCom/Grey Global Group, our National Media Buyer of the Year.
Mr. Olsen is the Media Buyer of the Year because the strapping Scandinavian with the towering 6-foot-6 frame knows how to play the game and win. Or as he might put it, he knows how to play the game so that it’s win-win.
Take, for example, a quintessential Olsen deal: the pact between Fox and MediaCom client Subway, the quick-service restaurant chain, for a NASCAR race entitlement. In a clever piece of negotiating judo, the NASCAR Subway 400 also ended up being last year’s Super Bowl bargain of the year.
“He’s always talking to people on both sides, saying, `What are your problems? What can I fix for you?”’ said Jon Mandel, MediaCom’s co-CEO and chief negotiating officer and the man who hired Mr. Olsen away from NBC. “Peter was smart enough to figure out that the first [NASCAR] race they were going to have [on Fox] was a week after the Super Bowl, and he was smart enough to figure that [Fox was] going to promote the living daylights out of it during the Super Bowl.
“So we actually bought the race and … had it renamed the Subway 400,” Mr. Mandel said. “They ran more Subway advertising in the [2002] Super Bowl that we frankly didn’t pay for than they ran of anybody who paid for advertising.”
It was, as one sports writer said at the time, the best Super Bowl advertising buy ever seen. “Fox loved it because they were really able to jump-start their NASCAR sales,” Mr. Mandel said. “NASCAR loved it because they were able to get another [advertiser] into NASCAR in a big way. Subway loved it because we not only had a huge success with that race, but we also got all this Super Bowl coverage.”
Mr. Olsen recalled that Subway bought one unit in the 2002 Super Bowl but got “13, 14 mentions” in the game. “Fox overdelivered our expectations,” he said.
And how was it that Mr. Olsen knew to structure this spectacular value-added deal? “This is just from him being aware and trying to solve everybody’s problems,” Mr. Mandel said.
Here’s a more recent example of the Olsen magical orb: Against the backdrop of this year’s relatively soft pro-golf ad-sales marketplace, the Phoenix Open became the Phoenix Open Presented by Staples, the office supply company that is a MediaCom client.
“About a week before the Phoenix Open [in late January] was about to happen I got a phone call [from CBS telling me] that the entitlement was still available,” Mr. Olsen said. “Staples got a great deal, CBS got some units sold, the Tour got an entitlement sold that wasn’t there before. … All three organizations benefited.”
Amid the rough and tumble of MediaCom, where Mr. Mandel and Donna Speciale, MediaCom’s executive VP and director of national and local broadcast, together exemplify an in-your-face style that is both blunt and profane, Mr. Olsen is-as Mr. Mandel jokingly described him-the “token nonethnic,” whose own oaths are as mild as they are infrequent, particularly compared with the torrent of epithets and blue talk all around him.
Picture him as the designated driver at the raucous party, the studiously nonjudgmental one whose own personal habits are beyond reproach. And if that makes him sound like a Sunday school teacher, well, he is.
“Church for me is a reality check,” he said, reluctantly telling an inquisitive and persistent visitor that he’s been teaching Sunday school, to adults as well as teens and kids, for the past half-dozen years, and that his last lesson was about Jesus’s baptism. “I read my Bible. I turn to it for comfort and wisdom,” he said. His favorite book in the Bible is Romans. “I’m a very logical person and it very logically lays out the whole message of the Bible,” he said. When he went home to Boston recently to deliver a eulogy at his elderly aunt’s funeral, he drew on his knowledge of scripture and his Sunday school teachings to talk about the meaning and the difficulties of her life.
Truth in Advertising
How does he reconcile his faith with his business, particularly with its cutthroat reputation? “This is what I’ve found,” he said. “It’s not unusual in a buyer-seller relationship to lie and to hide the truth. I basically carry myself as honestly and as ethically as I can. So far it’s seemed to work out. I don’t lie to people, whether it be clients or vendors or internally.”
And that reputation sustains him, even on the golf course. Consider the experience of Joe Abruzzese, the well-known ad sales executive who recently moved from the presidency of CBS ad sales to the same-titled post at Discovery Networks.
They were in a golf tournament, on the last hole. Night was falling and the match was tied.
“Peter rips a 4 iron,” Mr. Abruzzese recalled. “Nobody sees it. We walk up to the green.”
Peter Olsen was a mere 3 feet from the cup.
“Peter, how do I know you didn’t just drop that out of your pocket?” Mr. Abruzzese demanded. “Peter just looked in my eyes. He didn’t have to do anything else. I knew he was definitely telling the truth. I went, `You’re right. It’s your ball.’ And he won the match.”
That reputation also stood him well in the tough 2001 upfront when CBS, alone among the Big 4 networks, was holding the line on price. “He’s probably the most strategic buyer out there,” Mr. Abruzzese said. “He’s not just buying efficiencies. He’s looking for sponsorships for his clients, things like that. He thinks way beyond the numbers.”
While other buyers were taking heated-and public-exception to CBS’s Mel Karmazin-mandated cost-per-thousand line in the sand, CBS was quietly doing business with Peter Olsen, who had slipped in under the radar. “The first person we went to was Peter,” Mr. Abruzzese said. “Peter cut the first [upfront] deal with CBS.”
The result was a multiclient, multidaypart deal. “He didn’t just do prime time. He said, `Let’s do daytime. Let’s do late night. Let’s do sports with this. So the more he put in the sandbox the more flexibility we had to make all the deals work.”
The entire deal was worth “in excess of $200 million,” recalled Mr. Abruzzese. “He lined his clients up. It benefited the network and it benefited them.”
Mr. Olsen, who joined MediaCom 41/2 years ago, has been in his present position a little over two years. He currently oversees the national broadcast activity of more than 20 accounts, with total billings in excess of $1 billion. His client list includes Conagra, Diageo, Subway and the U.S Postal Service, and he coordinates MediaCom sports marketing.
He began his advertising career at Lowe & Partners. Later, in Boston, he sold advertising at WSBK-TV for telecasts of the Boston Bruins, the Boston Celtics and the Boston Red Sox. Still later, in the NBC Sports division, he sold the Olympics, the NBA, the NFL and the PGA Tour.
Mr. Olsen, 37, is married, with two young sons and a third child due in June.
At this year’s upfront, “Peter will be the first person that we call,” Mr. Abruzzese said.
Lest you get the notion that perhaps Mr. Olsen should be beatified rather than simply hailed as TelevisionWeek’s National Media Buyer of the Year, consider that he does indeed have his flaws. There is, for instance, the sin of basketball pride.
Summoning up the same kind of earnest and open look that convinced Mr. Abruzzese on the golf course, Mr. Olsen recently declared to a visitor that he can beat Trina, his 6-foot-4 assistant, handily at one-on-one, but that claim clearly has it
s doubters. Jon Mandel, for one.
“Peter keeps saying he can beat her in one-on-one basketball, but I don’t believe it for a second,” Mr. Mandel said. “I think Trina whups his ass.”
And if that’s not enough to humanize the Media Buyer of the Year, consider too his abject failure to meet the Speciale Challenge:
Ms. Speciale, Mr. Olsen and some MediaCom planners were in Florida at a Subway franchisees’ board meeting. “That night we went to one of the theme parks,” she recalled, “and all of the franchise guys wanted to go on the new roller coaster. [It turns out that] Peter, the 6-foot-6 guy that he is, is petrified of roller coasters and would not go. … Peter looks the tough part, but deep down inside he’s a pussycat who’s a closet reality [TV] junkie.”