Walt Disney Co. has for years sold ESPN and ABC to Madison Avenue as if they were wholly different entities. ESPN, the sports-media giant, was positioned as a great way to find hordes of primarily male sports fans, while the company’s Disney/ABC portfolio of broadcast and cable networks were described as places to find women and kids.
Now the two entities will be sold side by side.
Rita Ferro, who has supervised ad sales for ABC, Freeform and the various Disney cable networks, will now serve as president of Disney Advertising Sales, a job that will encompass all ESPN and Disney/ABC properties as well Disney;s mobile, social and digital portfolio and national ad sales for ABC’s eight owned local TV stations. Disney did not indicate if Ferro would also supervise ad sales for the properties belonging to 21st Century Fox that the company is expected to purchase in 2019.
Ed Ehrhardt, the veteran who has led ESPN’s ad sales for 20 years, will step down from his role in early 2019. “This decision is something he has been planning for some time and it is very much appreciated that he agreed to stay on through the ramp-up phase of Disney’s direct-to-consumer and international unit, said Kevin Mayer, the division’s chairman, to whom Ferro will report.
The company earlier this year placed ad sales under Mayer’s aegis, a signal that Madison Avenue wants easier ways to buy commercial inventory, even across vast portfolios of media. In recent years, NBCUniversal and Fox Networks Group have placed responsibility for ad sales for broader swaths of their properties under a single executive. With audiences splintering across dozens of viewing opportunities, advertisers must work harder to get their commercials in front of the right viewers – and often require combinations of different placements to get things right. They don’t want to negotiate with separate divisions within the same company, but rather coordinate their ad plans all at once.
“Uniting our advertising sales efforts gives advertisers and marketers a one-stop shop for reaching audiences across all of The Walt Disney Company’s media properties, providing clients with the best and most effective tools and marketing solutions possible,” said Mayer, in a statement.
The move represents a big step for Ferro, whose position at the company has surged in recent months. Not too long ago, she largely held a set at the kids’ table: selling sponsorships and weaving ad messages into the schedules at Disney Channel, Disney Junior and Disney XD. But her time there gave her a close look at the rapidly changing habits of younger generations – and first-hand access to selling advertising in new streaming and social venues. She was named president, Disney|ABC Advertising Sales and Marketing in 2017,
Now she has one of the most adult jobs at Walt Disney Co.. ABC alone is believed to have notched between $1.86 billion and $2.22 billion in advance ad commitments for its fall primetime schedule in the industry’s most recent upfront sales process, for primetime, according to Variety estimates. ESPN is expected to capture around 2.29 billion in ad revenue in 2018, according to estimates from Kagan, a media-research group that is part of S&P Global Intelligence.
Walt Disney has dabbled with the idea of tying ABC and ESPN more closely together for several years. In 2014 Erhardt and former ABC ad-sales chief Geri Wang made joint appearances at ABC and ESPN upfronts to pitch advertisers on the idea of considering options from both Disney units. The following year, the company floated a plan to sell joint advertising packages between ABC’s “Good Morning America” and ESPN’s “Mike & Mike” radio show, which was going to move to New York and take up residence at the “GMA” studios in Times Square. That relocation never happened.
“More than ever before, it is critical that we continue to evolve, rethink and anticipate how we work together across all of our platforms to best meet the changing needs of our clients and consumers,” Ferro said in a statement. The move will have her vie with other TV executives who work to sell massive media portfolios, such as NBCUniversal’s Linda Yaccarino, Fox Networks Group’s Joe Marchese and Turner’s Donna Speciale.