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Disney names Ricky Strauss head of marketing

Former Participant Media prez succeeds MT Carney

Marketing mavens got their wish when Walt Disney Studios tapped Participant Media president Ricky Strauss as the Mouse House’s new No. 1 pitchman, putting a familiar face back into the department’s top seat.

Industry reaction over the weekend was favorable: Once derided for his decision to hire from outside the biz, Walt Disney Studios chief Rich Ross is now considered the smartest man in the room.

But it’s not as though Ross is abandoning his demand for innovative film campaigns. Strauss’ mandate will be to carry out Ross’ wish to make marketing dollars work more efficiently by stretching beyond traditional ad buys and physical marketing materials.

He replaces the exiting MT Carney, who was always considered a threat to marketers at other studios. With a Madison Avenue background, no studio experience and marching orders to shake up traditional thinking, success for Carney would’ve meant Hollywood’s marketing machine wasn’t performing at its peak. And that could have encouraged more studio toppers to consider hiring outsiders.

So Carney found herself in the middle of a negative word-of-mouth campaign that few execs could have survived, with rumors of her exit beginning even before she moved into her Burbank office. Not only was Carney under pressure to turn around the studio’s campaigns, she also had to sell herself to Hollywood, where marketing execs admitted to Variety that there was a campaign to discredit her.

Although Disney execs repeatedly said they were happy with her work, few hires at any studio in recent years have faced the kind of unfriendly reception Carney received. With Carney’s decision to end her contract early and move back to New York to be closer to her family, Disney can once again make the movies, not the figure behind them, the focus of its marketing campaigns.

Hiring of Strauss is not a change in direction for Ross, who still made “outside-the-box” thinking a key. As Participant Media president, Strauss shepherded the company’s unique, socially conscious campaigns that turned to social media and partnerships with brands and organizations to target specific auds.

Participant also has focused on areas such as the environment, health care, human rights, food safety, peace and tolerance with its films that include “Syriana,” “An Inconvenient Truth,” “The Cove,” and “Contagion.”

Strauss comes to the job with considerably more film marketing experience than Carney, having spent 16 years as a senior marketing executive and senior VP at Sony before moving over to Participant.

He now has much bigger budgets to play with. While the campaign for sci-fier “John Carter,” out March 9, already has launched, Strauss can put his promo mark on the rest of Disney’s slate this year that includes Marvel’s “The Avengers,” on May 4, Pixar’s “Brave” on June 12, “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” on Aug. 15, Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie” on Oct. 5 and “Wreck-It Ralph” on Nov. 2.

At Participant, Strauss has already worked with the Disney team in recent months in overseeing marketing and outreach for the Touchstone-distribbed DreamWorks’ hit “The Help.” Participant is also behind DreamWorks’ “Lincoln,” out this year.

In his new post, Strauss will oversee global marketing for promotions, publicity, research and synergy across all distribution channels for motion pictures released under the Walt Disney Pictures (including Walt Disney Animation and Pixar Animation), Marvel Studios, and Touchstone Pictures banners, including DreamWorks Studios’ pics released through Touchstone.

“Disney, Pixar, Marvel, and DreamWorks Studios are among the world’s best and brightest brands,” Strauss said. “I look forward now to getting to work with the exceptional team at Disney, doing some of the most innovative marketing in the industry.”

Carney was one of Ross’ first major hires, appointed in April 2010, on the heels of his promotion from Disney Channels Worldwide boss to the film studio chief post in October 2009. But she was never going to be embraced by Hollywood, no matter how many hits she launched. A co-founder of Madison Avenue ad shop Naked Communications (whose clients included Coca-Cola, Kraft and Google), she was part of Ross’ efforts to reinvent pic promotion. Ross sparked to her career mantra of, “There’s always a better way,” even if that meant hiring consultants to advise on campaigns.

When films fail at the box office, the marketing chief is usually the first to take the blame — and to get the boot. But Carney doesn’t leave embarrassed.

Since her appointment, “Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides” passed $1 billion worldwide, “Tangled” surprised many when it was able to attract a broader audience to the female-skewing Rapunzel tale, which earned $591 million globally and “Cars 2” revved up more than $500 million. But there were also flops, most notably “Prom” and “Mars Needs Moms.”

Now the job of reinventing Disney’s marketing belongs to a guy who knows the old ways, too.

“With 25 years of industry experience, he brings a deep understanding of all aspects of the film business as well as incredible skill in branding and cutting-edge marketing,” said Ross.

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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