Special Report Cable Executive of the Year: The Right Man and Right Team for the Job

Dec 11, 2006  •  Post A Comment

When the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau was looking for a new president, Sean Cunningham was the only candidate Bob Bakish thought was right for the job.

Mr. Bakish, who was then chief operating officer of ad sales for MTV Networks and chairman of the CAB, headed the search committee that was looking for a successor to Joe Ostrow.

Mr. Cunningham had several things going for him, recalled Mr. Bakish, now executive VP of Viacom Enterprises.

“He came from the agency side of the business, so he understood that. And one of the objectives of the CAB at the time, and I guess still, was to get the agency community to shift more money to cable vis-a-vis broadcast. His background gave him credibility in that space,” Mr. Bakish said.

Mr. Cunningham seemed smart and had some constructive ideas, but the thing that clinched it in Mr. Bakish’s mind was that Mr. Cunningham was still in the middle of his career.

“A lot of people take these jobs as the last job of their career,” Mr. Bakish said. “I didn’t want that. I wanted someone who viewed this job as an opportunity to make a mark. … He’s a young guy. He’s going to be working for a long time, so I thought that gave him additional incentive to really make a difference.”

In four years at CAB, Mr. Cunningham has indeed made a difference. As the group’s president and CEO, he leads an executive team that has fully revitalized the CAB. In the process, Mr. Cunningham has earned the title of TelevisionWeek’s Cable Executive of the Year for 2006.

He has refocused the organization on making individual contacts with ad buyers on behalf of the cable industry, and has directed its resources into doing original research that makes the case for the CAB’s “One Television World.”

In accomplishing that, Mr. Cunningham eliminated the CAB’s national conference, deciding to use the funds to conduct studies instead of buying drinks.

One recent study, dubbed “Which Screen,” looks at the importance of television in a multiscreen video world.

He has revamped the CAB’s staff as well, recruiting a tight group with holes in their shoes and plenty of frequent-flier miles from being on the road to pay about 250 calls a year on media buyers and senior executives of important advertisers.

Under Mr. Cunningham, the group has helped speak for the industry, most recently in pushing Nielsen Media Research to properly account for cable in its plans to measure average-commercial-minute ratings.

Before taking the helm at the CAB, Mr. Cunningham was executive VP and managing director of media agency Universal McCann. He also worked at ad agencies Benton & Bowles, Ammirati Puris Lintas and Lowe, Lintas & Co.

His contract was renewed by the CAB in May.

“I think he’s doing a fabulous job,” said Lynn Picard, president of ad sales for Lifetime Entertainment Services and general manager of Lifetime Television.

“He’s got a great group of people and they get out there and meet with the clients,” said Ms. Picard, who is on the CAB’s executive committee.

She thinks those meetings lead to more ad dollars for networks such as Lifetime. “We only have a staff that can get out to see people so many times a year,” she said. “To have another opportunity to have clients talk about cable in general is never a bad thing. The clients bring up `We met with Sean and his group,’ so there’s definitely an impact there.”

In the following edited interview with TelevisionWeek Senior Editor Jon Lafayette, Mr. Cunningham discusses some of the CAB’s recent activities and plans.

TelevisionWeek: How long have you been doing this now?

Sean Cunningham: I’m in my fourth year. I began in June of ’03 and re-upped in my second stint. It’s hard to believe, but yeah, I’m in my fourth year of doing this.

TVWeek: What was your mandate coming in?

Mr. Cunningham: Reinvent the CAB. And I think for me that was about the approach and the people and the urgency. But to me it was just as much about get it right smack in the middle of everything, make it be highly relevant. Make the opinion of the CAB count, make the CAB be a place somebody at an agency would look to for an answer.

And I think in a way that’s probably the order that it came in. Certainly we did a lot of things having to do with restaffing. We rebranded, we got the “One TV World” message out there. We got some relevant research done. There was a whole urgency of getting us back into the middle of the conversation.

I think the precedent was set back at the beginning by [CAB founder] Bob Alter. You know, Bob put the CAB as a real resource, a real arbiter and a real force for the business, and they really wanted a return to a time when they could say those things again about the CAB-and I’ve been hearing them lately. So, I don’t think the job’s ever done. I don’t think you ever pat yourself on the back and say, you know, mission accomplished. This business isn’t like that. As you know, it’s a business that … if you’re not rethinking it, I think on a six-month cycle, you’re going to get quickly lost.

TVWeek: What were some of the signs that you did get the organization starting to move in the right direction?

Mr. Cunningham: Early on I think it was the callbacks that we would get. My first sign that we had it right was when we moved to the small group selling model. We had made the decision to take a hiatus from the 1,400-person conference in New York, and our board essentially took what they used to pour into that resource in terms of funding, gave it to me to hire sellers, to hire agency people who had a planning background, who could talk to other people with a planning and buying background.

When I first felt that the momentum was starting to really come in our favor was when we would call on, say, a group of 20 people who were a large planning group at an advertising agency and we would hear within 48 hours from one of their counterparts from another floor or across the hall, saying, what is this presentation that you guys gave to the Fill in The Blank Group? Come show it to us.

When we first started sort of habitually getting callbacks, we got to a point where we found ourselves almost never leaving a room without having to burn a disc for somebody, hand somebody a burned disc or give them a flash drive for them to take the content. …

We had all those good things happen where we’d go to a client group and they’d say, I want you to put this in front of my agency buying group or planning group, or both my agency and buying group, or the reverse would happen-and it still happens. We were at an agency recently in Detroit and they said you have to get this in front of-you know, and it was an automotive client. So I would say that turning-the-corner points were in small group selling, callbacks, referrals.

There isn’t a day that we don’t come in and there aren’t e-mail requests from people that we’ve met somewhere along the line-it could be a week ago, it could be a year ago-saying do you have X? What do you think of Y? Has Z ever been proven? And so that to me was kind of one of the first real turning points that that model, small group selling, was working. The second one we’ve had a couple of bites at, and that is that the advocacy research: the idea that we should go out and find out what the unanswered questions were and go ahead and answer them.

TVWeek: So you have mostly been out commissioning original research?

Mr. Cunningham: Yeah, in fact that’s what I was just presenting … the Which Screen presentation. … You know, because it’s the right thing to do, people will gather and let you make “the case for cable” probably once. How you’re going to get to come back again and again is if you’re going to give them stuff that’s of primary use to them. If you answer their unanswered questions, you’re just going to be held in higher light. … The first major thing we did was help people use TV, and we’re just now still in the early days of getting around with Which Screen as a presentation. Both of those came out of asking agencies and clients, “What do yo
u wish you knew the answers to,” getting a short list and then literally letting agency research people write the questions with us. They’ve been part of the process.

In Which Screen, for example, we had a whole bunch of early focus groups in May. … The screening rooms were packed, and behind the two-way mirrors were the agency people. … I think that’s how you get the callbacks. … People let you make the case for cable in front of them once. How you get to come back again and again is if you walk in with a sophisticated piece of research.

TVWeek: What were some of the key take-aways from the research?

Mr. Cunningham: I think that a lot of the critical take-aways from Which Screen were the ongoing primacy of a multiscreen environment, the ongoing primacy of TV as a primary place where people want their video conception to happen-and there were a couple of pieces to that. What was surprising to us was that we found that while everyone was sampling multiple screens-and certainly people in broadband homes have gotten used to a level of consumption of video on computers-the thing that came through loud and clear was that television is still the primary, first and most preferred device for all video forms … and the acceptance of advertising on TV was so much higher than it was on any of the non-television devices.

What is surprising people … particularly because it doesn’t polarize by age group, is what I call the unwritten contract-this idea that there is some level of expectation and acceptance ongoing for ads on television. … What was interesting is that some of the strongest scores for that were from teens. We broke out things in many ways to see, were we starting to be a nation of two different groups of video viewers, [where] everyone who was 25 [or under] was really facile in multiscreen environments and then there’s sort of more the TV generation, people who were from the one-screen era. And we didn’t find that in any way, shape or form.

In fact, we found some of the strongest opinions about TV as a primary video device … were from people under 25. The advertising contract that exists still for TV, that also exists in those younger ages as strongly as it does in older ages. What we found was that advertising contact doesn’t travel to other devices very well. It breaks down, and it breaks down by size. Whatever has the smaller screen has got the lowest level of expectation and acceptance of advertising.

We asked people what is the one device you can’t live without, and, you know, every other person said a computer. And the reasons were information, connectivity and work. Watching video was actually the seventh-most-popular thing that people do on computers. We’ve used Frank Magid & Associates, and their panel was 65 percent broadband. So we’re probably taking a look a couple of years down the road. So we thought that was interesting. And for the agencies and for the advertisers, we got again where there was request for flash drive, people literally loading pieces of the presentation into their laptops before we left.

TVWeek: Are there signs that the migration of dollars to the Internet from TV, and from cable TV in particular, is stoppable?

Mr. Cunningham: I think that what’s going to happen is that the overall video budget is going to grow. I think one of the things that we’ve seen is if we take a multiyear look at television-cable television and overall television-it’s still growing. It’s growing single digits, but it’s still growing. Internet has been growing, largely driven by search, increments of 20 and 30 percent year over year. And certainly you know broadband video is going to increasingly be part of that mix of growth.

What we’re seeing, though, is that TV is going to continue to grow as broadband video grows. We really haven’t seen a pattern yet where one is being the source of the other, if you will. So if you were to look inside of advertising, if you’ll sit there and say video, meaning digital-quality video … just video as part of the overall media mix, I think that’s your single greatest growth area going forward.

And you’re going to see that you’re going to get a lot of growth in the broadband video sector. … But you’re going to continue to see growth in linear 30-second television advertising.

TVWeek: Even though there’s a feeling that this broadband video is (a) hotter and (b) more targetable?

Mr. Cunningham: What broadband video has got going for it certainly is a suite of metrics that’s attractive. What everyone understands is that the things that came out on Which Screen are things that people-a lot of the opinion leaders and a lot of the people [who] are the money allocators in the agency and media business-have told us the real [issue] is about: We can’t think that there is the same acceptance or expectation of advertising [on broadband], that it is not the same kind of environment. Our research agreed with several other pieces of research that say the literal tolerance for length of messages is probably going to be considerably less. … When we ask people what’s the maximum length of an advertisement that you’d like to sit through, it was 42 seconds on television, with 18 seconds on the Internet-and that was maximum.

So what we’re seeing is that we’re living in an era where it’s like the only thing people seem to be doing less of is sleeping. The media consumption and the growth of people consuming video-based media is growing. But the video-based media that are on television are not getting their growth from television. In Nielsen that’s borne out in our own numbers and the flow of advertising dollars. While video is going to be a larger line item continually going forward, video is going to grow and television is going to grow. The video growth in terms of advertising outside of television doesn’t look like it’s going to come at television’s expense at this point.

TVWeek: The big issue rolling in advertising business right now is this whole commercial ratings situation. Did someone encourage you to jump in or was it something you felt was a place where you needed to be?

Mr. Cunningham: I think it was time to jump in when there were some forces at work in the business that were taking this from being a research issue and people were thinking that there might be some market advantage that might be gained from sort of a breathless charge into a real fast sprint into market of this data, and that’s not a researcher’s viewpoint. That’s someone who wants to market for advantage.

We tackled this as a research issue and a potential currency issue from the beginning, and it became clear right after midyear that there were entities in the marketplace that wanted to use commercial ratings for something other than collaborating on a research issue. … We were in dialogue with Nielsen as to all of our concerns. We had several meetings where our conference rooms were packed with all of our network researchers and salespeople and we weighed in respectfully-I think ultimately, quite forcefully-from Sept. 21 on that we weren’t going to be party to a process that was going to ultimately deliver bad data. I think that that was the beginning of the end of the charts, and ultimately I think one of the things we’ve been able to do is help steer this back to being an issue that is about research, that is about the generation of the right kind of data and usable data. … The agencies weighed in very strongly that they had zero interest in analyzing bad data.

TVWeek: Did you essentially organize a boycott?

Mr. Cunningham: We had multiple instances of bringing our members together, and we spent a lot of time working with Nielsen on identifying what were the timelines to get the flaws in the data fixed, whether it was about Monitor-Plus-and a lot of the issues were about Monitor-Plus. So we put a lot of energy into taking our members and sitting down across the table from Nielsen. … Frankly, we want to get the problems fixed because we’ve got a client base that wou
ld like to have a higher level of accountability in their television data, and we get that. And believe me, we want to deliver that. So most of our energies were how can we get the correct data, how can we get it collected, what’s the methodology for how to get it collected, how do we get it analyzed properly, how would we get it reported, and so we put a ton of energy into that. And when we made a lot of agreements with Nielsen, it became clear to them that the majority voice of their customers was that they weren’t going to … opt into a product that had bad data.

So I think that we certainly did a good job of shining a clear light for all of our members on how significant the problems were with the data. I think we built a lot of solidarity around the idea that there is no use in opting into something that is just going to generate bad data. We had, essentially, a universal opt-out at Nov. 1 and, lo and behold, I think this is now coming back to the calendar and the schedule of a research issue. So we’re all going to be attending a meeting on I believe it’s Dec. 7, and our next thing is that we are going to talk about what are the three best dreams of reporting-and I think the thing that is good for U.S. advertisers is that we’re not talking about a year’s delay. We’re talking about a few months, and I wouldn’t call it delayed. I would say a few months and we’ve got the fix in.

TVWeek: So what’s ahead? What’s on your agenda for next year?

Mr. Cunningham: I think that at the end of the day, understanding that the greatest thing that we continue to have is world-class brands that express themselves as television brands, but also other media brands-that people are looking for video solutions, which means linear and nonlinear. I think that it is keeping current with the market in our understanding of the assets that we have. And to me, the brands keep getting stronger. The economic advantage continues.

From a national perspective, cable versus broadcast. The technology that we have, the broadband technology, continues to be terrific. I think that it is going to very interesting to continue to watch as people are talking about finding more sort of finite data forms for accountability. I think it’s going to be very interesting to watch as we keep getting closer and closer to set-top box-level data. …

To me, it is again about preaching how to make a marriage with those cable brands first. … I do think everyone gets one TV world. I think it’s now time where we say it loud, say it proud: cable first. Start with the brands. Run with them as hard as you can on multiple platforms. Look at going all the way from national down to zone cable before you do other forms of media, and think of us as how you’re going to do linear and nonlinear video. I would say get that all done first. Start with the brands, drill down geographically, drill down across the platform, if you want to go vertically down, you start with the brands, you go vertically down into the zones, you go horizontally across the platforms, you do that first.

To me, that captures your linear and your nonlinear, your full spectrum of how you are going to make that sales call. … With the insights that have come out of Which Screen, we’re certainly going to need either to replicate that study or have a re-contact because of the sense that the video environment is dynamic and is changing, and the way video is being deployed is something that is still maturing. So we’re looking forward to having some time in the near future, another check-in on Which Screen.