How a Group of 'Nasty Women' Who Launched Careers at ViacomCBS Created a Vital Support Network
By Nicole Bitette
Behind every great woman, is another great woman. Or, in the case of Samantha Cooper, EVP of global content licensing at ViacomCBS: eight great women.
Cooper is one of nine women who launched their careers in the late 1990s in Viacom’s affiliate sales and marketing team. They have since formed an unbreakable support network that has bound the women together through every personal and professional triumph and hurdle over the two-plus decades since, even as most have moved on to leadership positions elsewhere in the industry. These self-described “Nasty Women” (a reference to an insult leveled against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign) are together for vacations and holidays, and during periods of illness or loss. They banter, debate, laugh, vent, and celebrate constantly on an anything-goes WhatsApp group chat that acts as their virtual support system and first-stop professional network.
“We came together at a time in our lives when most of us were young in our careers. It was before we got married or had kids. It’s a big support system that is super tribal, but deep and personal. If any of us fell and broke our hip and went to the emergency room, you’d let one of them know, and they’d take care of everything else,” Cooper shared. “When good things happen, it’s a rallying cry. When bad things happen, it’s a warm blanket. And it’s really all about girl power.”
When Multichannel News told Cooper she’d receive the Wonder Woman award this year for her many achievements over two decades negotiating deals with the largest distributors in television, she immediately informed the group. The congratulatory messages rolled in, but mostly the group wasn’t surprised as they all agreed it was a longtime coming.
Nicole Browning, who led the Affiliate Sales and Marketing team in the 90s and early 2000s, hired all of the women in the group: Cooper; Friday Abernethy, SVP of content distribution for Univision; Deena Demasi, EVP of marketing and communications for ViacomCBS’ U.S. Networks Distribution; Meg Lowe, digital distribution, revenue, and growth for NBC Sports Network; Courtney Menzel, EVP of content distribution & partnerships for EPIX; Juliette Morris, CEO of TuneIn; Alden Mitchell Budill, head of business development and content Strategy, CrunchyRoll; and Stephanie Ruyle, EVP, licensing, ASCAP.
Browning was the first of the nine ladies to receive the Wonder Woman Award, in 2002, which honors standout women in the TV and media industry. This year, Abernethy is also a recipient.
“I certainly had a hand in mentoring and bringing them on and I’m so proud,” Browning said. “They deserve every bit of accolades that they receive. I can assure you that they are wonder women in the most profound way.”
For Abernethy, she said accepting the award in the same year as Cooper is “icing on the cake.”
“It really is so special,” she said. “The narrative that women can’t get along isn’t true and we’re a perfect example of the unconditional support we have for one another and that goes for the group as a collective as well.”
A Small Group, and a Big Network
Since her start as a manager in ad sales more than two decades ago, Cooper climbed the ranks to her current role, where she helps determine which content the company will license to other distributors and platforms.
Her steady climb is a testament to her negotiating skills—something she was not always comfortable with, at least when it came to work. The group helped her build these skills by coaching her through difficult and contentious negotiations with partners over the years.
“We’re a good sounding board for each other. We help each other through the process of thinking things through,” Cooper added. “We’re all very passionate. We’re all very opinionated. And so much of this is now done over text. It’s amazing.”
Deena Demasi, who joined the group shortly after Cooper, is the only other member of the group chat who also works at ViacomCBS, where she is EVP of marketing and communications—a position formerly held by fellow group member Morris. She echoed Cooper’s feelings about the importance of the women’s network.
“I think each one of us knows we’ve got a friend, or a referral, or a contact, anywhere we need them,” Demasi explained. “We ask each other for advice and we rely on each other. We’re a very big network. Small group and a big network… All of my career conversations are with these women. Many of my life conversations are with these women.”
While the women are teammates in a way, they are also occasional competitors. Abernathy recalled often competing with them for the same jobs. This, too, is a testament to their collective success.
“There are not many of us at this level in this arena,” she says. “I think it’s okay to want something for yourself but still be very supportive and excited for someone else at the same time. Inherently we’re all very happy for each other. If it’s not one of us, then it will be someone else. So it’s better that it’s one of us.”
Introducing: The Nasty Women
“It’s deeply personal,” says Menzel. “We’ve been there for marriage, divorce, children. We are all politically oriented. We all met together on the day of the [2016 presidential] election to cry. We were all very much in transition phases when we met, not young and in college. We always make time for each other even when there is a lot going on personally.”
Menzel believes the culture at Viacom fueled the closeness that has persisted through career and life changes.
“We worked hard and played hard,” she said with a laugh. “We do stay connected through the group text on a daily basis. The personal part is so much more than the professional part. It’s rooted so deeply into a magical friendship we have with each other. We have so much fun together. We think we’re the most hilarious people on the planet.”
Even as the group rallies to celebrate achievements like Cooper’s accolade, they also unite around one another’s misfortunes. When Lowe suffered an accident a few years back that landed her for an extended stay in the hospital, there wasn’t an evening when one of the group wasn’t at her bedside.
“All my Nasty Girls came and every day or night one of them would be there spending the night, because I couldn’t move,” Lowe recalled.
When Lowe was finally ready to go back to work after several years off, she tapped into the network of women to help her find a job and reenter the workforce. She now works at NBC Sports in distribution and revenue growth.
The women get together at least a few times a year for special occasions, or just to hang out. They often met at the Perfect Pint in Times Square near the ViacomCBS office as a reminder of old times. Last holiday season, they all spent time at Abernethy’s apartment, including Morris and Mitchell, who flew in from San Francisco. Cooper and Menzel’s daughters used to babysit for Demasi’s daughters, and Menzel and Budill are sisters-in-law.
Before the award ceremony was rescheduled and became virtual due to COVID-19, all of the “Nasty Women” planned to be cheering at a table for Cooper and Abernethy. Many of them even blocked off the afternoon following the event for an extended post-award ceremony celebration. Now, the ladies will have to make do with emojis and GIFs in the group chat—maybe even a Zoom happy hour.
“We have all maintained agency over our careers, and our lives, and our bodies, and our kids, and our daughters,” Cooper said. “We’re the right combination of very, very smart, very strong, very empathetic, and just good people. I really am super proud of the group. I think we’ll be friends ‘til the day we die.”