12 to Watch: Mike Pilot

Jan 29, 2007  •  Post A Comment

When Pilot told his 7-year-old daughter Lindsay he was going to work for NBC, she got excited and asked, “Are you going to be on it?” He told her no, and she lost some interest.

Then Lindsay, who watches “Nightly News” with her mom, asked, “Are you going to sit next to Brian Williams?” He told her, “I don’t think I’ll get to sit next to him, but I’ll probably get to meet him,” and she responded: “Tell him I said hello.”

Mr. Pilot is not in the anchor’s chair, but he may be on the hot seat.

As NBC Universal’s new president for ad sales, he faces the difficult task of trying to halt a revenue slide at a network that was No. 1 for years and has had to adjust to being at the back of the pack.

He’s coming in at a time when the TV business as a whole is re-evaluating how its programs are distributed and how commercials are sold. And he must do that with no experience in media sales or consumer marketing.

“The reception that I’ve gotten internally and externally has been very warm,” Mr. Pilot said, adding, “It’s been one certainly of curiosity: `Why you?’ `Why now?’ But also one of `Welcome’ and `How can we help?”‘

“It’s hard to make change,” said Charlie Rutman, CEO of ad buyer MPG, who met with Mr. Pilot earlier this month. “But seems open-minded and eager to learn.”

Even his rivals wish him a certain amount of success because a decision to accept prices that are too low could send ripples through the market.

In just six months, Mr. Pilot will preside over NBCU’s upfront, a period when as much as 80 percent of a network’s ad time can be sold in a matter of days.

Running an upfront for the first time is a daunting prospect even for executives with years of other TV sales experience. Nevertheless, Mr. Pilot sounds confident. “Activity happening at that kind of frenetic pace in a compressed timeframe is a pretty exciting concept,” he said.

Mr. Pilot has been with NBC parent General Electric since college, in sales and top management positions. “This is the third time I’ve come in to a role like this in a completely new industry,” he said. “I think to do that the right way you really have to have as open a mind as possible when you come in and don’t come in with preconceived notions.”

He has experience building and managing sales teams. “Those things become important because the business is going through a time of change,” he said. “Not a canned approach, but a set of fundamentals you can use to construct the right platform in the future.”

Coming in as an outsider is possible because GE and NBCU are confident in the strength of the NBCU ad sales staff, he said. “We have tremendous expertise in the leadership team, probably close to double that in the advertising industry, and that’s part of what allows for a fresh set of eyes to come in.”

His first order of business is to catch up with the team and be able to move out with them. He thinks that will take 30 to 60 days.

Mr. Pilot wouldn’t say whether he has specific plans to reorganize the sales staff, but he wants to shift toward having a “more customer-centric approach to how we think, to how we take our assets to market, to how we work with our partners to solve the needs of customers,” he said.

To do that, he expects to work closely with Beth Comstock, president of NBCU Digital Media and Market Development. He got to know her when she was at GE headquarters serving as chief marketing officer.

“She’s lived the life our clients are going through today,” he said. “And having that kind of partner, with the kind of sales engine that we have, to me is a powerful combination.”