John Stankey and Jeff McElfresh have been promoted at AT&T following the announced retirement of John Donovan, the outgoing head of AT&T's Communications business. Stankey will be AT&T's new president and chief operating officer, while McElfresh will head up AT&T's biggest business unit, the one that houses its mobile, wired and TV networks.
The promotions represent a win for both executives, and are noteworthy considering other top executives at AT&T -- including Lori Lee, Thaddeus Arroyo and Susan Johnson -- appear to have been passed over for the position.
"Now is the time to more tightly align our collection of world-class content, scaled consumer relationships, technical know-how and innovative advertising technology," said AT&T's Randall Stephenson in a statement on the front-office shuffle. "It’s the natural next step in bringing together the distinct and complementary capabilities of AT&T Communications, WarnerMedia and Xandr to deliver for consumers the benefits of a modern media company. AT&T is alone in the industry in being able to bring together these three great businesses for the launch of innovative consumer offers, relevant advertising and new entertainment services like HBO Max."
Stankey is currently the AT&T executive in charge of the WarnerMedia entertainment division of AT&T, which it acquired in its $85 billion purchase of Time Warner that closed last year. In his new role he will continue to work as the CEO of WarnerMedia but will also oversee two other divisions at AT&T: McElfresh's Communications division and Brian Lesser's Xandr division. It appears that Lori Lee, currently chief of AT&T's Latin American business and reporting directly to Stephenson, will not report to Stankey under the company's new reporting structure. Lee had reportedly been viewed as a possible replacement for Donovan.
Stankey's promotion also appears to represent a bit of a validation of his seemingly scattershot approach to overseeing WarnerMedia. Under his direction the business has embarked on a number of new and somewhat confusing strategic endeavors, including rebranding DirecTV Now as AT&T TV Now.
McElfresh, meantime, will take over direct leadership of AT&T Communications, As Bloomberg recently pointed out, AT&T's Communications division generated 77% of the overall company's revenue in its most recent quarter, and 84% of its profit. McElfresh is now also the executive primarily responsible for AT&T's move into 5G.
McElfresh's latest promotion caps a dramatic rise for the executive. He has been with the company for 25 years, previously as president of AT&T Communications’ Technology and Operations group, where he was responsible for the company’s network, technology, cybersecurity, data and labs operations. Prior to that, he headed up AT&T’s Vrio business and the company's operations in Mexico.
Donovan's departure, announced just over a week ago, took many in the space by surprise. Donovan has been widely credited with maintaining AT&T's networking business amid heated competition, while also driving the operator's embrace of software-define networking, its FirstNet deal and its move into 5G.