Some people hit midlife and have a crisis, one that follows a cliché like running off from home or buying an expensive sports car.
In 2012, Donna Speciale took a different approach. “I had a big birthday coming up, and it was freaking me out,” she said. (She was turning 50, though she hastens to add, “I look 20.”)
Speciale was president of investment and activation and agency operations at MediaVest and was widely respected in the advertising industry. Her clients included Kraft, Mars, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and Walmart, and she had been behind the 2010 negotiation that landed Turner Broadcasting System’s media business with the agency.
“I was doing some soul-searching, wondering what the next chapter would be,” she recalled. “I wanted to try something bigger.”
Speciale didn’t have anything specific in mind, so she hadn’t started an all-out search. Then David Levy called.
KEY TO ‘PLAN A’
After Linda Yaccarino, who had headed ad sales for TNT, TBS and truTV, left for NBCUniversal, Levy, Turner’s president of sales, distribution and sports, came up with three succession ideas — “a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C.” Plan B involved promoting someone from his “incredible bench” and Plan C would have been a different outside hire.
Plan A, though, was to rearrange the company so that Yaccarino’s replacement would also oversee the division that handles Cartoon Network and Adult Swim (along with Conan O’Brien’s teamcoco.com website, adultswim.com, and, as a co-leader, Cartoon Network Enterprises), giving advertisers the additional cross-brand and cross-platform opportunities they now desire.
“My Plan A only worked, however, if I could get one person: Donna Speciale,” Levy said. Bringing someone from the agency side would offer a fresh perspective, Levy said, providing insights into planning cycles as well as what clients think about digital and mobile platforms. But that agency person couldn’t be just anyone.
“Donna has the talent, the industry knowledge and the leadership skills,” Levy said. “And since I’d be bringing someone in at the top, it would have to be someone like Donna, whose personality is a good fit. She’s great at communication and an incredible collaborator.”
As soon as Levy called, Speciale knew it was time to carpe diem.
MediaVest CEO Brian Terkelsen said he misses Speciale personally: “She’s a short person, but she fills up a room. She walks in and she is there, aggressive and smart and caring, bundled into one soul.”
But he knew Levy had made the right choice. “It was a stroke of brilliance by David,” Terkelsen said. “She’s uniquely qualifi ed for that job. She’s liked by everybody and even though she’s a tough negotiator, she leaves everybody feeling heard ... and considered.”
Speciale has loved the opportunity to come in and put her stamp on the newly restructured department. Levy’s openness to a holistic approach was what made the job appealing, she said.
“I tend to be a change agent, someone who doesn’t stand on the status quo, but who pushes forward to the next thing,” she says. “With the industry changing so rapidly, I think I have the knowledge and background to help steer Turner at this pivotal point for the future of the brands and the platforms.
“Now that I oversee the two divisions I can look at synergies and opportunities and give them more coherence,” she said, adding that she is also working closely with Greg D’Alba, who was promoted to president, news and Turner digital ad sales, another new division. “The industry now sees us as being more open in talking about all of the brands, versus a salesperson talking about one entity.”
Speciale had pushed boundaries at MediaVest, too. In 2004, she helped launch the Video Investment and Activation Group, which shifted the agency away from a TV-only philosophy.
“I’m not a tech person by any means, but I do have a bigpicture vision,” she said of the push to merge digital and TV into a single “video” mindset. She saw that networks didn’t know how to market their move into digital, and agencies had “silos with digital in one place and TV in another. I felt like someone needed to start taking the lead.”
Speciale was a good choice for that lead role, since she had been around the advertising business her entire life. Her father was a media director in Rhode Island, where she grew up. (He now works at an agency in Las Vegas and is a “proud papa.”) She “immersed herself” during an ad agency internship in her senior year of college.
She worked at ad agency Leonard/Monahan in Providence, R.I., and was starting to “outgrow” both the shop and the state. She was leaning toward looking for work in Boston, but “I met a boy,” she said, and went with him to New York.
That boy, Gary Reisman, became her husband, and he is also in the business, running NewMediaMetrics. They live on Long Island and now have two children, a son in college and a daughter in high school. “But when my daughter leaves for college, I told her, she shouldn’t let the ‘For Sale’ sign hit her in the ass,” Speciale said. “I can’t wait to sell the house and move back to Manhattan.”
Speciale started as a buyer at Grey Advertising, eventually rising to director of national broadcast for MediaCom, which was part of Grey Global. In 2004, she was lured away to MediaVest, where she remained until that fateful phone call from Levy.
TITLE: President, Turner Entertainment and Young Adult Ad Sales
CAREER: President, Investment & Activation and Agency Operations for MediaVest Worldwide; Director, National Broadcast, MediaCom; Buyer, Grey Advertising
QUOTABLE: “As a working mother, I’ve learned you have to be fl uid with your expectations and career goals. You can’t be too set in your ways. Things always happen in life.”