CBS' Dave Poltrack: The Man; The Mentor; The Mentee

By Jack Myers Legends & Leaders Archives

At an induction ceremony on November 9th, veteran CBS executive David Poltrack is being inducted into the International Radio & Television Society Foundation Hall of Mentorship, joining Page Thompson, Shelley Zalis and Wenda Millard.

For details, visit IRTSFoundation.org and read Steve Fajen's profile of Page here. Without question, Dave is the dean of the television and media research industry. His commitment to both innovation and integrity in the media industry is unequaled, and his 40+ year career at CBS is an appropriate testament to one of Dave's inspirations and guides, Dr. Frank Stanton, whose research leadership led to his elevation to the presidency of CBS under William Paley.  "At CBS in those early years, there was an environment in which I felt comfortable, with people right above me pulling me up," Dave recalls. "But it helped to have Dr. Stanton to emulate. Dr. Stanton was a presence at CBS."

Dave has been an important mentor to many, including me. His early work in sales development at CBS opened the door for me to be hired at CBS and to follow Dave in a position and opportunity at CBS without which I could not have achieved the success I have.

In a wide ranging interview, Dave shared details on his own career, his mentors, those he has mentored, and his contributions to the industry. "I had been working at Ted Bates Advertising for a year," he recalled, "when I was hired by Dick Kaplan to work in sales support for the CBS TV Stations division and Dick was my first mentor. He was a studied individual. In 1969 you can imagine the environment in the national sales organization of the TV O&Os [owned and operated stations]. It was Mad Men time with bigger than life sales personalities; but Dick was a calm, intellectually oriented individual in middle of the chaos. Dick was open to new ideas and had the credibility to implement them. He got his ideas accepted by sales people who might not normally be interested in anything but normal CPM validation. He was trying to be innovative when it was unheard of in the TV business. Having him as my boss gave me confidence that ideas had value and merit and that there was a place for new and innovative ways to package and present media. "

"Dick inspired and encouraged me to challenge the status quo while and at same time delivering on my primary function to support sales people the way they wanted to be supported." Sadly, Dick died very young from complications after cancer surgery, and Dave was promoted at a very young age into Dick's role and committed to leading organizations at CBS with the same inspirational, educational and supportive model.

At the same time, Arthur Taylor became CBS CEO and decided the company should have a marketing orientation in its selling operations. Dave, who was studying for his MBA at NYU at the time, was asked to develop a future-looking marketing perspective for the TV stations. His plan called for the creation of a market development unit, which was approved. "Art Elliott was put in charge and he asked me to run a marketing services unit. I transitioned out of sales support into longer term strategy, involving me in research, ROI, and analyses of how TV advertising works."

This shift led to Dave's relationship with legendary researcher, Gale Metzger, who ran SRI Research and was doing work with CBS. "He was Mr. Integrity and he got me involved in the Advertising Research Foundation and the conceptual side of research. Fortunately for me, the whole orientation to a marketing discipline was really catching on at CBS and we were able to respond to new competitive pressures from independent TV stations, which were just starting to make their mark. But at the network TV level, there was no competitive pressure; money was flowing in. As cable started to emerge, the pressure was suddenly on the broadcast network to develop more of a sophisticated marketing approach. Fortunately for me, Paul Isaacson [CBS network sales chief] saw what we were doing on the stations side, and he encouraged me to move to the network to build the same research oriented support structure."

Dave was the first person to join the CBS network sales organization at a VP level, and he was the youngest VP in the organization. This was not an easy transition. "Not a lot of people were happy to see me enter at all," Dave laughs. "But Paul supported the integration of my work into the organization."

Dave points to the key person in his career as legendary CBS-TV Network Jim Rosenfield, who at the time reported to CBS CEO Gene Jankowski, who had moved up from positions at the TV stations group. "CBS had research at the corporate level centralized with Jay Eliasberg and Dr. David Blank," Dave explains. "They were focused on programming, news, and the social value of television and its effects on society. When Jay retired, they needed a new head of research. It was anathema that the research person would come from the sales organization; the tradition was to get a person with huge credentials in social research. But Jim argued that the most important impact research could make on the fortunes of the company would come from studying its impact on advertising value. He prevailed and got me the job."

Then, as now, there were successful and thriving business practices and the TV sales and advertising businesses were built around that practice. The world changed then with independent stations and cable, as digital is disrupting it now. "Having built strong research within sales, we were able to adapt fairly effectively and be competitive in this new world," Dave points out. "I was in charge of program research also. I had to interact with the west coast side of the business and there had been no interaction before between sales and programming. They were church and state. Sales sold what they were told to sell. I needed to integrate myself into that world, with its own challenges. Fortunately, the program analyzer system was invented by Dr. Stanton. By accepting that system and not trying to impose something new on the people in LA, they embraced me. Plus Harvey Sheppard, the head of programming, came from the corporate research department and was a very research oriented program executive."

The next influence in Dave's career was Howard Stringer, who became CBS CEO during the era when Larry Tisch was chairman and leading shareholder. "Howard [now Sir Howard] was definitely a mentor and became a good friend. We felt the same way about how things should be done and he had the ability to interact and get people to do things. He was a born leader and was able to get my ideas accepted. He brought me into the inner decision making framework of the broadcast group. There was a group of us surrounding Howard as he was positively moving the network – in one year CBS went from third to first in ratings with Jeff Sagansky as the head of programming. Howard got people to accept the knowledge base that could be provided by a strong research effort, without being threatened by it.

But both Howard and Jeff left the company and Larry Tisch recruited Leslie Moonves from Warner Bros to head the CBS entertainment division. "I had gotten to know Leslie and knew him as the #`1 supplier of programs to TV," says Dave. When Larry hired Leslie, it was clear he was positioning company to be sold and to get full value. This led to the last 20 years, which have been the most exciting part of my whole career. Being a part of Leslie's team and building the company with him has been a fantastic ride. Leslie has been the perfect successor to William Paley. He's a leader who understands programming; he's a leader on Wall St; he's a leader in the advertising community. He's built and supported a lean mean fighting machine. Working with Jo Ann [Ross] is one of the reasons I'm not retiring. We have a lot of fun and it's a great relationship. Leslie has been extraordinarily supportive of everything I've done, including building a full-time research lab in Las Vegas. He has been the most important person in my being where I am today." Dave recalls one of his first substantive meetings with Leslie, when he was asked for his opinion on acquiring rights to JAG, which was being canceled by NBC. "It was an unusual move, but we had tracking research [which other networks didn't have] that said JAG's audience was building. He made the decision to do it, and JAG turned out to be one of most lucrative franchises in TV history, leading to NCIS, the most viewed show in the world today."

As an IRTS Hall of Mentorship inductee, Dave can proudly point to several past interns he hired, especially Jack Wakshlag, who was a professor at Indiana University when Dave hired him at CBS and "who went on to be such a great leader in the research field at Turner Broadcasting. Dave's "favorite all-time intern is Colleen Fahey Rush, who was Dave's student at NYU and is now chief research officer at Viacom. Dave's many mentees include Greg Kasparian, CBS' Senior VP of Audience Measurement and the key liaison between research and sales, and who has been by Dave's side for the past 30 years. Dave also singles out Eric Steinberg, his key research person in Los Angeles.

"Appreciating the collaborative value research provides is critical to what makes our department work as well it does," Dave observes.

 

 

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