How NBCUniversal Ad Sales Chief Mark Marshall Keeps His Cool as Tough Upfront Negotiations Loom

Industry veteran details plans for Olympics and why NBCU is investing big in ad tech tools on Variety podcast 'Strictly Business' Mark Marshall has been given a lot of time to prepare for NBC Universal’s annual presentation to advertisers

Published Time: 09.05.2024 - 18:31:35 Modified Time: 09.05.2024 - 18:31:35

Industry veteran details plans for Olympics and why NBCU is investing big in ad tech tools on Variety podcast 'Strictly Business'

Mark Marshall has been given a lot of time to prepare for NBC Universal’s annual presentation to advertisers. Last year, he only had 72 hours.

Marshall, a longtime second-in-command at NBCU’s ad-sales division, at about this time last year found himself unexpectedly in charge of the company’s “upfront” process — an annual sale of advertising that has in recent years generated approximately $7 billion in commitments from sponsors — after the abrupt departure of his colorful predecessor, Linda Yaccarino. She had served in the role since 2012 and surprised her corporate bosses and dozens of clients by taking a new job as CEO of X, the social-media hub once known as Twitter.

NBC typically dazzles Madison Avenue with talk of BravoCon, “Sunday Night Football” and “Saturday Night Live.” Marshall was being asked to do just that when the chatter around the company was about anything else.

Within hours of Yaccarino’s departure becoming known, Marshall got a call from Mike Cavanagh, president of NBC’s corporate owner, Comcast. The executive “called and said, ‘This is not how we thought today would start, but you are the interim leader, and you need to help us put on a really good show.” Marshall recalls. All of this happened in the middle of last year’s Hollywood writers strike as well, meaning Marshall had fewer scripted series to show off to the advertisers who gather each year to study NBC at Radio City Music Hall.

“It started that crazy,” says Marshall in a recent interview. “So the rest of it has seemed pretty normal.”


LISTEN: Mark Marshall Talks Olympics, Upfronts and Why NBCUniversal is Becoming a Technology Company on Variety‘s “Strictly Business” podcast


Even so, Marshall, 54, is hip deep in an industry that is anything but stable. Audiences who once flocked to TV are migrating to streaming. Advertisers who once threw millions at any program on the NBC schedule are now working with much more precision and want to know how to find smaller pockets of likely customers, rather than constantly hurling their pitches at traditional TV crowds that continue to shrink.

At first blush, this isn’t the guy who is supposed to talk to you about programmatic sales and streaming ad formats. Marshall got his start in Chicago, working for Pat Robertson’s Family Channel right out of college before it got snapped up by Rupert Murdoch in 1997. “My first day in the office, we all held hands and did a prayer before the meeting,” Marshall recalls. “I didn’t see that one coming, but it was a great place to learn.” Since that time, he’s helped manage ad-sales staffs across the U.S. for the former Turner Broadcasting and NBCUniversal, where he was previously known as the exec who had final say over ad sales for USA Network, “This Is Us” and some sports initiatives.

Yet he is someone with whom marketers ranging from Apple to Toyota must reckon. NBCUniversal and Walt Disney Co. are viewed as the media companies with the strongest, most diversified portfolios of media assets in the 2024 “upfront” market. NBC may best be known for “Law & Order: SVU” and the Olympics, but it also has cable networks like MSNBC, USA and E! that, while still grappling with the effects of streaming, have more of a built-in community than some of their counterparts at Paramount Global or Warner Bros. Discovery. Its streaming outlet Peacock is not the biggest, but it has in recent months shown new strength by broadcasting an NFL Wild Card game with solid audience response. And NBCU has worked to make the process of buying digital and linear inventory together easier, rather than selling each separately.

Viewing all video buys under a single umbrella willhelp, Marshall argues. Many advertisers worry — with justification — that they are running their commercials too many times in a bid to follow viewers as they jump from screen to screen. Buying inventory in cross-media packages, he argues, has in many cases at NBCU cut down on so-called campaign “burn-out,” and has driven better consumer response without having to expand the size of an ad commitment.

He still faces a tough market. With Amazon Prime Video bringing a large batch of digital commercial inventory to the upfront for the first time, there’s suddenly a glut of the very stuff the networks are counting on to help them win business. That is likely to create more pressure to “rollback” what have in the past been sizable rate increases. And Netflix and YouTube are also eager to pick off ad dollars that flow to NBC.

He is likely to make the pitch that NBCU’s programing is of decidedly higher quality than what advertisers will find elsewhere. “If you take digital as a whole, I think you’re doing a disservice to something like ‘Poker Face’ or an exclusive Wild Card game on Peacock compared to something long form on a made-for-advertiser site that runs video as well,” he says. “I think people are going to get more precise about what streaming means.”

Senior media buyers say Marshall can navigate heady negotiations. “Mark is more than a sales exec. He is a true business partner who understands the value that his platforms can deliver for our clients, and he always find -

s solutions that benefit both parties,” says John Muszynski, chairman, Publicis Media Exchange, one of the nation’s biggest buyers of commercial inventory on behalf of clients. “He is a pro’s pro who operates with integrity — he is honest, fair and always true to his word.”

Since taking the top job, however, Marshall has unexpectedly raised eyebrows. In one of his first big acts, he lured Allison Levin, a senior executive at Roku who was the company’s first ad-sales hire, to become a president at NBCU. To Madison Avenue, the move speaks volumes about NBC’s new ambitions to move quickly from being known simply as a seller of 30-second ad slots to a vendor of all the kinds of audiences — expectant mothers, car buyers, late-night soda drinkers — that one can find via digital means.

He also played a role in reversing some initiatives launched by his predecessor, Under Yaccarino, NBCU took a very vocal role in pushing media agencies to adopt new kinds of audience-counting currencies other than Nielsen’s. NBCU had even struck a deal with one of the measurement giant’s upstart rivals, iSpot, and was pressing clients to sign up to make iSpot the next de facto tabulator of video eyeballs.

Media agencies didn’t like being made to choose one type of yardstick, however, when so many have become readily available, and NBCU’s entreaties and nudges were beginning to wear. Under Marshall, NBCU scrapped much of a new measurement business it had launched, spearheaded by a former senior Nielsen executive, and instead began to work with in joint efforts with some of the other media companies.

“He’s someone who knows how to work within a large system,” says Kelly Metz, chief investment officer for U.S. operations at Omnicom Group’s OMD. “Incremental change is how you do this. It’s not abrasive change, If you want to steer NBCUniversal” in the ad world, “it has to be incremental change that is widely embraced over time. He’s definitely the guy to do it.”

Marshall says he’s asked NBCU’s ad sales team to view the work through a particular lens. “Our job is to make our advertisers’ marketing more effective today than it was yesterday,” he says. “It’s definitely narrowed our focus.”

NBCUniversal remains interested in pushing for new ways of measuring video audiences, he says, but the company may be better able to make that happen by taking part in a joint industry committee that has been set up to help vet new audience technologies or working with other industry groups.

“You probably haven’t heard from us directly as much” on measurement, he notes, but the company remains interested in pressing for change. “We are still very involved in it. I think our approach is that measurement is not a single media company solution. That’s actually what ‘walled gardens’ are,” he says, making reference to digital companies that in the recent past refused to have their audiences vetted by third parties. “We think the solution is finding something that works for marketers in different forms. Measuring a candy bar and a Mercedes the same way is not the way for any advertiser to buy their media.”

And he is pushing NBCU deeper into the sale of so-called “strategic audiences,” or specific groups of consumers that are seen as more interested in a particular product, whether it be diapers or dog food. Levin’s arrival heralds the significance that type of sale has in the market, but NBC isn’t pulling out of TV, either. “You don’t want to lose the big reach of linear, but the precision of digital allows you to be much tighter in terms of who you are talking to,” says Marshall.


Buyers are also struck by what Marshall is not — his predecessor. By the end of Yaccarino’s 11-year run as NBCU’s ad chief, the company had expanded its sales efforts to nascent e-commerce and audience data initiatives, and a sprawling set of executives was trumpeting every incremental effort with rapid-fire publicity efforts. But NBCU had also gained a reputation for throwing ideas at the wall to see what stuck — and, sometimes, scrapping offers introduced during the upfront by the time the fall season launched.

Marshall has “got a midwestern ethos,” says Matt Sweeney, the chief investment officer for the U.S. operations of GroupM. He won’t “tell you ‘I can do something today when I can’t.’” But he will ”tell you what we can do together and what we aren’t doing. That’s refreshing in this marketplace.”

Marshall will need the regard of the people he’s negotiating with on the other side of the table. With just days to go before he goes back to Radio City, this time with a full year under his belt, he’s already working on his sales pitch. With so much streaming video in need of ad support, “the lower quality content will start to really get punished,” he says, “while you’re going to see the high-quality programing hold up.” He’ll be hashing that out over the next several weeks.

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