Disney|ABC's Rita Ferro on Selling Across Platforms

By Jacqueline Cutler WomenAdvancing Archives

A banner congratulating Rita Ferro on 20 years at Disney|ABC was draped across an outer office.  There were flowers from friends and colleagues everywhere. Ferro, the first President of Advertising Sales under the company's recent restructuring, was finishing a call with a woman she mentors.  She then settled in for a long chat with me about her whirlwind past few months, helming the first Upfront where Disney|ABC sold across all of its platforms, and leading a team in a perpetually changing ad landscape.

Ferro moved from her hometown of Miami to Manhattan to begin her career with the company at ESPN, working as a Manager of International Sales. Moving from the language of sports to leveraging her fluency in Spanish and Portuguese, she has since held a variety of positions, including Vice President of Advertising Sales with Disney Latin America.  Ferro, who lives in New Jersey with her husband and daughter, gamely answered my questions.

Jacqueline Cutler:  How did selling across all platforms develop?

Rita Ferro:  Last year, two to three agencies asked us to negotiate as a group.  This year it was the right time to do it before the Upfront, and it just made sense.

Jacqueline:  Disney|ABC spans all ages and demos. How does that work selling for shows as diverse as Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Scandal?

Rita:  Disney|ABC is a house of brands, not a branded house.  We have really strong brands with really strong audiences.  There are times, for example, when women are in mom mode, watching Disney Channel with their kids.  Then they put the kids to bed and mom grabs a glass of wine and that's when you talk to her in woman mode.  Procter & Gamble has everything from beauty care to Swiffer.  The same goes for men.  Retailers speak to men across multiple facets and different opportunities, depending on the time of season, such as Walmart spending money on sports.  As we [Disney|ABC] think about opportunities, we challenge ourselves to think, "How can we utilize these beats for the annual planning cycle?"

And it's more than just about media.  We think about what other types of promotions are out there.  Disney|ABC has tremendous appeal -- our clients understand the scope of our audience.  Together with ESPN, Disney|ABC reaches every member of the family with Disney, Freeform and ABC.

Jacqueline:  I've seen positive reports, but what's your take on how the Upfront went and what were the surprises?

Rita:  It was a very strong Upfront and a very strong scatter market.  We did very well.  We wrote 7% more.  The surprises?  The fact that it was a robust market.

Jacqueline:  What are the strategic challenges and built-in benefits of combining three formerly separate organizations?

Rita:  The benefits are the opportunities, when you think about brands seeking fewer but deeper partnerships.  Disney|ABC is an organization that is not only focused on our consumer, but on providing our clients with the best opportunities for their brands.  We are an outward-facing team rather than an inward-facing team.  It is now one team that thinks about strategic ideation.  Using P&G again as an example, they're going to talk to women 18-49.  It will look different on Freeform and it will look different on ABC and it will look different on Disney.  The drawbacks are integrating three teams, which operated separately for many years, into one.  It's going to take some time to be fully assimilated, but we're all working together well.  The success of Upfront is attributed to that teamwork.  

Jacqueline:  What are your priorities in terms of altering talent requirements, such as ABC's leadership in advancing multi-cultural talent both on screen and within your leadership?

Rita:  The newly formed senior leadership team is actually all women -- four great, strong women.  I think we do a great job with women, and we need to increase our diverse talent.  There's a great amount of multicultural talent out there and I want to bring it in.  Obviously, being a Latina, it is important to me. 

Jacqueline:  How are Gen Z team members being incorporated into decision-making?

Rita:  Think about the transformation of the media business: You don't know what you don't know.  We have a big population of Gen Z at ABC and Freeform and I am trying to make an organization that is much more horizontal than vertical.  Gen Z is so valuable in terms of where the business is going.  I spend a lot of time with them and making sure that I am hearing what is relevant.  Internally, I ask how they are spending time consuming media, what they are listening to, what they are doing and what they are working on.

Jacqueline:  Why are their viewing patterns important?

Rita:  I came from the kids' portfolio so I was able to see it before it actually happened.  They'll be the Freeform viewers in a couple of years, so understanding Gen Z and understanding what and how they consume is important for how and what we are going to package and bring to market for different clients.

Jacqueline:  What are your three top priorities for next year?

Rita:  Building out our data, building out our technology and building and creating that one team.  Hopefully within six to 12 months we'll be one fully integrated Disney|ABC team.

Jacqueline:  Who have your mentors been and what are the best lessons they imparted?

Rita:  Diego Lerner was my boss in Latin America.  He was the kind of boss who dangles you off a cliff but doesn't let you fall.  If it didn't work, it was his failure and if it worked, it was your credit.  Jimmy Pitaro is one of my bosses today and is also brilliant.  He is always the first person making sure everyone feels heard and respected.

Jacqueline:  Are you able to mentor anyone?

Rita:  We have a formal mentor program to take the next level of managers up.  I have a mentee at ESPN -- a woman with three young kids.  She is Cuban and we wanted her to see a working mom.  Mentoring her is amazing.  I feel as if I get as much out of it as she does.

Jacqueline:  How did growing up in Miami contribute to where you are today?

Rita:  Growing up in Miami it was a little bit of a bubble.  We knew a world where everybody was Latin.  Latin culture dominated in Miami.  I was educated in private, Catholic schools.  I went to college.  My dad had his own business, and my mom raised the four kids.  I am the oldest.  We weren't "rich, rich" but we were comfortable and that was what I knew.  My family worked really hard; that was the example set for me and I followed it.

Jacqueline:  What shows do you watch?

Rita:  I am a huge Scandal fan.  I also love Billions and I am a huge Food Network fan and HGTV fan for shows like Fixer Upper.

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