Willner: The “New Road” Warrior

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MICHAEL WILLNER takes his winning of the CTAM Grand TAM award with a healthy dose of humility.

“I’m getting a marketing award, but I’m not a marketer,” says Willner, Insight Communications Co. CEO. “I have people in this company that deserve this award more than I do. I just get to accept it for them because of their efforts. I am clearly not a marketing guru.”

Despite Willner’s reluctance to take credit for Insight’s marketing prowess, that really isn’t the point of the Grand TAM, awarded each year to an industry executive who has contributed to the future of the industry through leadership, marketing and education and has contributed significantly to the general success and growth of CTAM.

“He has been a leader,” says CTAM president and CEO Char Beales of Willner. “[Insight is] ahead of the pack on new products, in particular, and in testing new marketing concepts. The work they’ve done with on-demand services early on set the standards and formulas that everyone else has followed.”

Beales adds that it has been Willner’s leadership outside of the marketing arena that has meant the most to marketers.

“He’s been very effective in leading the public-policy wars; he has been an advisor to CTAM as the industry consolidates; he has been helpful in our discussions to better serve the industry and be on point with what the industry needs and wants,” Beales says.

Willner started in the cable industry in 1974, joining Vision Cable as a program director after graduating from Boston University. He went on to run Vision as chief operating officer after it was acquired by Newhouse Communications, leaving in 1985 to form Insight with chairman Sidney Knafel.

Despite being the head of the ninth largest MSO in the country — with about 1.4 million subscribers, mostly in the Midwest — Willner has been the point man for many of the industry’s biggest issues. As two-time chairman of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Willner has testified before the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives several times concerning digital spectrum issues.

He also led the charge to standardize financial and subscriber-reporting metrics, a move that played a major role in restoring confidence in the cable industry after the Adelphia Communications Corp. accounting scandal broke in 2002.

Still, Willner clearly gives credit to Insight’s successful marketing plans and strategy to senior vice president of marketing and programming Pamela Euler Halling and her team in New York and in the field.

“Pam has been with us 12 or 13 years; she put it all together,” Willner says. “Dinni [Jain, Insight COO] has been very involved in the recent shift towards more retention and offers to basics and things like that.”

Willner says that Insight has increased its marketing budget for this year and is concentrating on a mix of new-product and retention-marketing programs.

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