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Donna Speciale: Her Own Drummer

Feb 26, 2007  •  Post A Comment

By Jack Feuer, Special to TelevisionWeek

There are media agency leaders who are great speakers. There are some who are deep thinkers. Some are wonks for whom no detail is too small to gnaw over.

But only one media agency leader would announce a sweeping transformation of her organization to her staff by rappelling down a 30-foot wall.

That’s what Donna Speciale, president of investment and activation at Starcom MediaVest Group’s MediaVest, did in the fall of 2005, when she and her top management returned from an upstate New York retreat to unveil their plan to turn the broadcast group into a postmodern, 21st-century buying force called VIA that would include integrated broadcast, print and out-of home.

Donna Speciale is “not going to ask you to do anything she’s not willing to do herself — and she’s willing to do anything,” said Pam Zucker, MediaVest senior VP of marketplace ignition, commenting on the rock-climbing gambit at New York’s Chelsea Piers.

“I take challenges,” said Ms. Speciale. “If something is difficult, you go for it. I am a daredevil.”

We could go on. The softball games. The fantastic golf game. The running around a track with the Olympic torch in her hands. We could point out that Ms. Speciale, like her father, her brother and her teenage son, is a drummer. That she also has a young daughter. That she’s involved in a dizzy litany of causes and organizations. But that’s just the tip of the tale.

Her longtime boss at Grey and then MediaCom, Jon Mandel, calls her “spunky.” Ted Harbert, president and CEO of client E! Entertainment Networks, calls her “focused.” Discovery Networks president of ad sales Joe Abruzzese recounts that she has “an unbelievably open mind to new ideas.”

Ms. Speciale is a change agent. But that, too, is an insufficient description. What she is, really, is a media-business action hero, a once-in-a-generation combination of smarts, skill, charisma and daring. Donna Speciale is the Lara Croft of the media agency business.

And, not coincidentally, TVWeek’s 2007 Media Buyer of the Year.

The record speaks for itself — loudly and crystal clear. VIA, announced late in 2005 but officially launched in the beginning of 2006, was hailed by the press as a “bellwether” of how media shops will have to operate in this new media world. Ms. Speciale and her team trailblazed with remarkably effective innovations such as branded entertainment content wraps for The CW and a clutter busting ad-reduction deal with TNT that halved the number of commercial minutes in the network’s prime-time movie broadcasts.

So many innovations, so little time. It’s been a whirlwind since Ms. Speciale left her longtime professional home at MediaCom to replace Mel Berning as head of MediaVest national broadcast in 2004. It took about 18 months for her to get her cultural sea legs at the Starcom MediaVest Group agency brand, but once she did, she embraced the SMG cultural touchstones of team-building, buttoned-down organization and execution, and vanguard risk-taking with a vengeance.

There were the comedy blocks with TBS. The Weather Channel study that linked ad recall to environment. Ms. Speciale’s involvement in an endless series of industry efforts to improve all aspects of the business. She added AWNY’s Working Mother of the Year award last January to a shelf that already groans with trade press and industry accolades. She’s just been elected to the board of the National Association of Television Program Executives. (And in typically honest fashion, she put her inimitable stamp on the commercial-ratings discussion when she told the press last year that she was “pissed off” at Nielsen.)

Oh, and how about Ms. Speciale’s pivotal role in MediaVest winning a combined $1 billion in new billings from Wal-Mart and Wendy’s last year … in two weeks.

It’s All Good

What you really need to understand about “Spesh,” as she is affectionately known (or “Donna Spesh” on formal occasions), is she’s the complete package. Thinker and performer. Wonk and athlete. Mom and manager. Steeped in media industry history and experience but completely without fear in experimentation. (In an e-mail, Greg Ross, head of North America Media for client Procter & Gamble, applauds her “strategic approach to integrating ideas or insights that are accountable and oftentimes unexpected.” And when was the last time you heard a global client use the word “unexpected” as a compliment?)

“The thing I like the most about Donna is she combines skills that are unique in the traditional buying landscape,” is how SMG Group/The Americas CEO Laura Desmond, the dynamo who turned MediaVest into a power after taking the helm in 2002 — and who hired Ms. Speciale away from MediaCom in 2004 — describes her MediaVest investment chief. “She is an excellent leader and manager, a very strong client resource, and lastly, she is willing to challenge convention and do new, innovative things.”

Most action heroes tend to be laconic loners; not Spesh. She has an infectious zest for life that is irresistible. “A work-hard, play- hard mentality,” as Ms. Desmond puts it. Ms. Speciale’s team calls her “the Connector” because once you work for Donna, you always want to work for her again.

Ms. Speciale is great at getting buyers and sellers on the same page, too. “She is always ahead of the curve, challenging us to think two steps ahead in the chess game,” said Dave Cassaro, Comcast Networks president of ad sales. “And then she’s always willing to collaborate with us to [create] new programs — and deal with the new media as aggressively as possible.

“But more than anything else, Donna is not satisfied with being a couple steps ahead. Her goal — as it is for many folks at SMG — is to reinvent what we do so we will be prepared for a world that is changing right in front of our eyes.”

And for such an accomplished and aggressive player, Ms. Speciale is endearingly self-effacing … and funny. When told she was going to be named Buyer of the Year, she recalls being “really honored and happy that the industry at large felt strongly enough to nominate me.

I was also going home with strep, so it made my day.”

The Connections

One could say Donna Speciale was destined for the media business. She grew up in it.

Her father, Mike, is a longtime adman who worked in New York at HBM Creamer and moved his family to Rhode Island when the agency opened a Providence office. (He’s now at a shop in Las Vegas.) Young Donna tagged along at many of the functions, and her recollections are vintage Speciale.

“I saw the advertising business through a kid’s eyes, so when I went to college [Ithaca in upstate New York at first, then Bryant College back home in Rhode Island] I made a decision to work in advertising to get credits. I interned at Leonard Monahan Saabye and that’s what started it. I love the people, the atmosphere, everything. I was playing softball games with them, against other agencies and vendors, when we actually had some time on our hands. I just saw it as my personality and who I was. It was a great match.”

Then Jon Mandel,

himself a larger-than-life industry legend, plucked the plucky young professional from what he characteristically jokes was the “Leonard Nimoy” agency and brought her down to the Grey Advertising media department as a buyer.

She would spend 15 years at Grey and its successor, MediaCom, ultimately rising to run national broadcast when Mr. Mandel advanced to be co-leader of MediaCom.

“She had a passion to be somebody someday,” Mr. Mandel remembers. “I watched her grow up, learn the art and science of the business. She was self-sufficient, knew when to fix things and when to go with the flow. A lot of people have walked through the doors of our business and gone on to greatness. She’s one of them.”

Perfect Match

When Ms. Desmond took over at MediaVest, the mission was simple: Reinvent the shop. But first, Ms. Desmond needed to find the warriors to make it happen.

She didn’t know Ms. Speciale personally, but she kept hearing people gush about the MediaCom broadcast head. Ms. Speciale mad
e it onto Ms. Desmond’s list, a short list of only three candidates. The two met, chatted on the phone a few times, then had dinner on a cold night at Aix on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — far, they hoped, from prying eyes.

“First, we ordered exactly the same meal and didn’t discuss it ahead of time,” said Ms. Desmond, ticking off all the good omens from that evening. “I think it was a fish dish. The other thing I remember is we just hit it off and talked all night about the business, people and philosophy. I didn’t realize that we closed the restaurant down. Suddenly, it was well after 1 in the morning and all the waiters were standing around waiting for us to leave.”

From her years at Mr. Mandel’s shop, a media institution, Ms. Speciale knew how to block and tackle. She was an able manager. But that’s not nearly good enough for an action hero. Spesh wanted to be the one throwing a touchdown on fourth and 14. She wanted to be a quarterback.

“I had to do it for myself. I need to,” Ms. Speciale said about her move to MediaVest. “I knew who I was, and now I needed everybody else to know it.”

In truth, it was a slam-dunk. Donna Speciale, steeped in industry tradition but absolutely fearless about innovation, dedicated to her team and able to attract world-class talent, fun to be around but the hardest-working person in the room, is the very model of an SMG executive.

Take the deal with The CW. Ms. Speciale and her team didn’t wait to see what the upfront would bring with the new netlet. They went after it.

When the merger of The WB and UPN that formed The CW was announced, MediaVest set up a meeting. Ms. Speciale, Ms. Zucker and Brian Terkelsen, executive VP and director of the shop’s branded entertainment unit, connective

tissue, met with The CW leaders. “We said, ‘Stop thinking like a traditional network. You’re brand-new and nothing is set in stone. Think differently,'” Ms. Speciale recounted. “We brainstormed and we said, ‘We have the clients that are willing to do this with you if you are willing to go out on a limb.'”

The content wraps — every one of the 90-second segments called “CWH,” a texting tag that stands for “C what’s hot, hip and happening” — have had 100 percent retention. As Spesh says, “That is huge now with what is going on with commercial ratings. The average drop-off is 10 percent.”

When asked what the next battleground will be, Ms. Speciale shows her wonk side. Not more breakthrough tech.

Not a new channel. She doesn’t want to talk about bells and whistles.

She wants to talk about blocking and tackling.

“With the creativity we’re trying to do — creating content and changing messaging — the resources and brainpower is just massive,” she said. “We have to create buying fundamentals that are so efficient we can use our resources to be think tanks versus being data inputters. And vendors have the same problem.”

It’s just like music, according to Donna Spesh.

“The drummer keeps the beat for the entire song,” Ms. Speciale said. “If the drum is off beat, the whole thing falls apart.”

But it takes a team to make it work. “Music and media are both creative expressions that can’t be produced to their potential without people,” she said. “Yes, you have your tools. But both need talented human beings to give them emotion and life.”

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