WarnerMedia Still Seeks an Ad-Sales Chief, Despite Layoffs

Brian Steinberg
·4 min read

Amid hundreds of layoffs, WarnerMedia is still preparing for one crucial hire.

The media company has yet to name a president to lead its advertising-sales efforts, and has not filled the position since executives abruptly pushed out industry veteran Donna Speciale in July of 2019 after she wrangled millions from sponsors to support WarnerMedia’s most recent programming cycle in haggling that was largely driven by conversations about digital opportunities. Now, there is a sense emerging that the long search could be nearing its end.

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WarnerMedia has eyed a handful of executives to fill the role, according to five people with knowledge of some of the discussions. These people suggest a few of the candidates may have ties to new WarrnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar (above, pictured), who helped launch Hulu when it was owned by NBCUniversal and the former 21st Century Fox.

One executive who has been eyed, according to three people familiar with the matter, is Kevin McGurn, a veteran digital executive who is currently president of sales and distribution at Vevo, the streaming-video hub owned by Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and EMI. McGurn spent more than six years at Hulu as its senior vice president of sales, and has worked in similar functions at Shazam and Fullscreen. Another potential candidate, according to some of these people, is JP Colaco, currently head of partner development in North America for Apple search ads and one of Hulu’s first employees. Colaco rose to become Hulu’s top ad executive before leaving the company in 2013, but the role he has at Apple is seen as one that could be hard to leave. Joe Hogan, WarnerMedia’s executive vice president of sales and marketing, who has been leading efforts since Speciale’s departure, is also seen as a candidate for the role, according to some of these people.

A spokesperson for WarnerMedia’s ad sales efforts declined to comment. Other candidates may have been considered for the role and there is no guarantee any of the aforementioned executives will get the job.

Any executive who takes on the assignment will have to be ready to manage both billions of dollars in traditional TV sales as well as establish new expertise in matching sponsors with streaming-video content. WarnerMedia has signaled for some time that it expects to launch an advertising-sponsored version of its HBO Max in 2021.

Consumers started their longstanding migration to streaming video months ago, and that journey shows little sign of ending. “The loss of sports and expansion of cheap (often commercial free) entertainment alternatives (such as Disney+) led to yet another ugly” period for TV delivered by cable and satellite., said Pivotal Research analyst Jeff Wlodarczak in a recent research note, estimating the sector lost 2 million subscribers, or 10% of its total base in the second quarter of this year.

Kilar unveiled a restructuring of WarnerMedia last week that aims to burnish its streaming efforts. He essentially combined the company’s content-production operations under Warner Brothers chief Ann Sarnoff and assigned HBO’s top programmer, Casey Bloys, additional duties having to do with the programming on cable networks TBS, TNT and TruTV. Andy Forssell, a Hulu veteran, was given the task of managing business operations for the newly combined TV-and-streaming unit.

WarnerMedia rivals have started preparing for a day when advertisers seek out streaming video as readily as they do traditional commercial inventory. ViacomCBS last week unveiled a new system that allows advertisers to purchase commercial inventory from across the company’s various digital-video offerings, which include ad-supported video hub Pluto; the many CBS digital holdings; and Viacom’s digital assets. NBCUniversal’s “One Platform” allows advertisers to buy digital and linear inventory together, while Walt Disney has in recent weeks taken steps to pair its Hulu video-streaming hub with its various cable and broadcast networks.

WarnerMedia has some of these capabilities already built. In April, AT&T combined the company’s ad-sales efforts with a then-separate ad-tech unit, Xandr. AT&T envisioned Xandr as a business aimed at helping advertisers use data to place marketing pitches more precisely and create new commercial formats that could be used in streaming video and broadband venues. But the unit has had a rocky early tenure, with its first chief, former GroupM executive Brian Lesser, opting to depart the company a month earlier in surprising fashion.

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