Disney|ABC's Debra O'Connell on Tailoring Ads Across Platforms

By Jacqueline Cutler WomenAdvancing Council Archives

Disney|ABC's Debra O'Connell doesn't mask her enthusiasm, and why should she? She's reveling in a wonderful moment, a Golden Age of Advertising, particularly on television.  Like her boss, Disney|ABC President of Ad Sales Rita Ferro, O'Connell (pictured above) has been with the company for over 20 years.  As Executive Vice President Sales and Marketing, she strives to maximize linear and digital agency advertising opportunities across the Disney|ABC Television Group.  She also oversees an in-house creative agency noted for quick turn-arounds and tailoring ads to individual shows.

Since the Disney|ABC Television Group restructured its advertising team, some of the campaigns O'Connell has overseen include:

  • The Aflac Duck's appearance on DuckTales.  The famous quacker visited feathered friends on the animated show last fall.  Always mindful of the audience, this commercial was not shown during the telecast of the cartoon but distributed through social media and video on demand, giving web celebrity a new meaning.
  • Mitsubishi's promotion of its sports car, the Eclipse.  During ABC News' The Great American Eclipse Mitsubishi took no shade when it capitalized on the first solar eclipse in 38 years.
  • The Google Home Mini ad on Jimmy Kimmel Live!  In a funny bit for the show's annual week in Brooklyn, the Kimmel clan argued over which subway to take to Coney Island.  Google Mini chimed in, which naturally lead to more arguments.

In this recent interview, O'Connell shared what excites her about these successes and what she considers to have been the most noteworthy changes in an industry that has long fascinated her.

Jacqueline Cutler:  You're a lynchpin in the team Rita Ferro set up. Tell me about working for her and the creative challenges taken on by your group.

Debra O'Connell:  Rita has been an amazing force for me, and an amazing friend, mentor and boss.  This is my seventh role [here] in 20 years.  It is quite an evolution.  I began my career in our radio division, then moved to local television with our owned stations, and now I'm working across all of our Disney|ABC networks.  We have an amazing team and are excited about our goal of innovation and our customer-friendly approach.  In my opinion, creativity leads every opportunity.  In packaging, we offer a mix of linear, digital and social.  We offer [something] for every life stage.

Jacqueline:  How did using Mitsubishi's Eclipse to sponsor the eclipse coverage come about?

Debra:  We worked very collaboratively with our ABC News team.  They are very open to innovative opportunities.  When we explore integrations and sponsorships, we look for the right, organic partner.  When there's a national discussion, such as the eclipse, people turn to ABC News.  If you couldn't be at any of the totality locations, why not experience it with us via our array of distribution end points across television and digital platforms? Because the eclipse was such a momentous occasion, our programming team decided to make changes to the daytime schedule.  It was such a big TV event. Each anchor was stationed at every totality point in the eclipse's path.  I love working with our programming team on specials.  To me, that elevates who we are for brand partners and presents opportunities to be part of the national conversation.  The great news about Mitsubishi as a partner is they filmed a new ad during the eclipse and we captured them filming the commercial.  Best of all, The Great American Eclipse live coverage special was No. 1 in all key metrics with nearly eight million viewers.

Jacqueline:  What guides individualized campaigns?

Debra:  Everything we do is custom.  We work hand in hand with each client, asking the important questions: What would they like to convey to their potential customer?  What messages and key points are they looking to communicate?  We work to ensure it is striking the right chords, whether it's integrated or custom content.  It is very solution-oriented, so advertisers feel their message is being delivered accurately and effectively.  Additionally, all of our integrations must be organic to the content and programming it's airing in or alongside.  It makes sense for the brand, the viewer and the program. Authenticity is key.

Jacqueline:  How are you reaching different generations?

Debra:  The Walt Disney Company is the No. 1 brand for storytelling.  From our theatricals and parks to our television and digital networks, we touch every life stage across the organization.  As a viewer, you want to see and feel yourself reflected in the shows and movies you watch.  We approach our advertising the same way we approach our storytelling.  It has to feel authentic.  It has to be in line with our content without being disruptive.

Jacqueline:  What strides were made over the past year using all platforms?

Debra:  We have a growing list of new partners and continue to expand out of traditional spaces.  We have increased opportunities for partners across all of our Disney Media properties.  Our partners are pleased with what we are bringing to the marketplace. Clients are having discussions with us and looking to us to deliver [ads] in varied formats.  We have a tremendous audience that is deeply engaged and follows us across networks and programs.  We're using the strength of our content across distributed platforms in an engaging manner -- everything from sponsored posts to integrated custom pieces as well as working with our Disney Digital Network, which is key to our success.

Jacqueline:  What are you doing to attract diverse employees?

Debra:  We are very active with the IRTS (International Radio & Television Society) and have hired many people from that group.  We are focused on bringing in diverse candidates and continuing to hire the best and brightest for the future of our company and industry.

Jacqueline:  What's next?

Debra:  The next thing is to unlock the power of our audience as the industry moves to more of an audience-based sell.  It's now based on age and gender.  We have a data report coming soon called "Together-ish" that examines the evolving way that households watch, share and engage with content.  We have such a powerful audience and are looking forward to the future; to being able to use advanced technology and deeper data.

Also, I'm excited about grown-ish, [the spin-off of ABC's black-ish] that recently premiered on Freeform as the biggest comedy series launch for the network, and the 90th Anniversary of the Academy Awards on March 4.  We will then launch American Idol the following week and the Radio Disney Music Awards is the following month.  It is all great content and I'm proud of what we offer our consumers and our clients.

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