Rita Ferro on Pulling Off Disney's Upfront Event Without Jimmy Kimmel

The ad sales chief has already set the date and venue for next year’s presentation

As upfront week winds down, Adweek is sitting down for postmortems with all the presenting ad sales chiefs, including NBCUniversal’s Mark Marshall, Fox’s Marianne Gambelli and TelevisaUnivision’s Donna Speciale. Now, it’s time for Rita Ferro, Disney’s president of advertising sales and partnerships.

Disney brought several big names to its Tuesday upfront event at the North Javits Center, including Kim Kardashian, Kevin Feige and Angel Reese. But like with most of the events throughout the week, the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike complicated things, leaving many entertainers, including the company’s annual upfront roaster, Jimmy Kimmel, out of the presentation.

Despite any added difficulties, Ferro had nothing but compliments about the company’s new venue, confirming to Adweek that Disney would hold its upfront presentation at the North Javits Center for two more years, and that next year’s presentation is already locked in for May 14, 2024.

Ferro chatted with Adweek about the importance of bringing in big stars despite the strike, challenging marketers around DEI and what it’s like closing things out without Kimmel.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: You made it through upfront week. Looking back on the event, what are you proudest of?
 I think the event turned out as great as I envisioned it to turn out. The venue was fantastic. It really suited us in terms of what we hope to do, which is show the depth and breadth of Disney in terms of how it comes to life on that stage. We had an extraordinary lineup of talent and athletes and content on the stage across all of our platforms, which really conveyed the show must go on when you’re Disney. And so regardless of whatever challenges and dynamics we have to contend with, we always want to make sure that we’re delivering what people expect, and I feel like most, if not all of our clients who were there, gave us that feedback. They felt it was one of the strongest events this week that was very clear on its messaging, very clear on the value proposition being anchored in the best of sports and streaming and live entertainment, making sure that clients understood that interoperability was at the core of how we think about doing business together so that they can plan, buy and measure across our portfolio.

And also, creativity is still at the core of everything that we do. So we know people think of us for that, but that they understand the value is not only in the best storytelling in the business but also in the quality of the technology and data offering that we’re bringing forth, which is becoming more and more important as clients are thinking about how they’re going to activate their media in real-time, whether that’s direct or through programmatic channels, etc.

You were at the North Javits Center this year. What were your thoughts on the new venue, and will you be back next year?
We have it for a couple years. It was a great space. It’s a blank space, which is sometimes the best and sometimes the worst because you have to do so much work to it. But because it was a blank space, it allows us to create the exact intimate experience that we wanted. Even though it was enormous, you still felt surrounded in terms of the content and how we presented it. And I loved that. Then you just have to go upstairs to the after party and what a beautiful room that was. The teams reimagined that space: elegant, sophisticated and appropriate from an afterparty perspective of what it looked like and felt like in the room and gave you a great space to hang out at after the party. I love that we can do it in the same space.

You talked about the importance of doing things live. But obviously, not all presentations this week were in person. Was there ever a conversation to do it virtually?
We’ve done some virtual presentations. They’re fine when there isn’t an alternative, but there’s nothing like experiencing something live. The Walt Disney Company is an expert on events. We do them at a grand scale many times throughout the year. And the emotion that you feel, the ability to be part of a communal viewing experience like that where you get to see in real time a personalized presentation for that audience, it just is never going to be the same in a streaming environment.

And by the way, it was a very dynamic situation because we were going on Tuesday, and depending on what happened Monday, things would have had to change on Tuesday depending on how things responded or changes, etc. So the team did an extraordinary job, and our partners in putting it together did an extraordinary job. And I’m thrilled with all of it.

And to clarify, when you’re talking about things changing, would that be talent not being a part of it?
Yeah, or maybe people, based on going to the events on Monday, maybe customers were not comfortable passing through picket lines. You just don’t know. You don’t control these—there are uncontrollables, and you want it to be flexible, make sure people felt safe and that they were in no way going to be put in a position that was uncomfortable for them, whether that was talent or the audience attending the event.

Some other publishers didn’t have talent. But you had big names such as Serena Williams, Kathleen Kennedy and Kevin Feige. Why was that important? And how did you pull that off?
They love working at Disney, and they love what they do every day. Kevin Feige is a great example of one of the best storytellers who is the biggest Marvel fan. He gets to create content and franchises around property and characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that he loves as much as any fan in the audience. And when you have someone like that who can speak to the content, there’s nothing better, and we were thrilled to have him and Kathleen there. They are part of our, as we say, our cast, our employees, and so they were going to be committed to be there. But they are talents as much as they are parts of our company. So it was it’s thrilling to get the chance to have them on stage because Marvel and Star Wars are some of the most important pieces of Disney+ as a platform.

You acknowledged the challenges of putting together this year’s show on stage, but how did the writers strike affect the presentation?
We’re very supportive of the writers and their ability to get the right terms around the deal that they want to do. Ultimately, we were respectful of that and understood when anybody said I’m not going to be there because I am a writer or I’m stepping away because I’m in solidarity with the writers. We absolutely understand that. We missed some of our tried and trues. But we’re looking forward to getting to the other side of this so that we can actually continue to drive the incredible storytelling that we have planned to do so across our platform, and then next year, get back to—I always say to my team, “Imagine, if the stage looked that good this year, what it will look like next year when everyone is back?” We’re going to have to curate it a little more. I don’t know that you guys are going to sit there that long.

Also, Jimmy Kimmel, who was even part of Disney’s presentation after getting Covid-19 last year, wasn’t there this year. How do you plan around that?
Well, you can’t plan around Jimmy. Jimmy is the best. And we definitely missed him this year. But we totally understood why he decided to step away this year. And I can’t wait to have him back next year. Because I mean, to me, it doesn’t matter if he’s on the box or in person, he’s amazing. And you saw that last year. He was not in the room, and it felt like he was in the room, and he was hysterical. I can’t wait to have him back at our upfront, and I know he will be next year.

DEI was a message you wanted to get across, and you challenged marketers from the stage to be intentional. Why was that important?
It’s really important. We started that ask for a commitment as part of the upfront years ago because the intentionality behind what we’re doing in that space from a company perspective and all of our storytellers and creators has been really important in terms of how we think about the investments, who are the right talent to have in front and behind the camera, how are we thinking about all of the consumers that we touch? I said, “Multicultural is mainstream.” It is. When you think today of, whether it’s Latinos or African Americans or LGBTQ+ or women in sports, there are so many ways that you could really get involved and be a driver and an innovator as a brand to showcase audiences and the audiences that matter to the consumers that buy your products and services.

If the stage looked that good this year, what it will look like next year when everyone is back?

–Rita Ferro, president of ad sales, Disney

What were the priorities you wanted to get across? Obviously, the presentation started with sports.
We wanted to make sure clients understood sports is a big business for the Walt Disney Company, not only across ESPN but across our broadcast network. When we think about what we do on social and having a presence across a broad landscape of sports coverage, whether it’s news and information, whether it’s live sports, whether it’s best in class talent, whether it’s how we cover the game around the game. All of that is a really important strategy. And by the way, it is for marketers too, because if you look across the marketplace today, where it’s not as robust as it has been in the past, the one area that continues to see growth and demand on a regular basis is sports.

And that is because sports are culture, they’re live, they happen simultaneously, there’s a way to experience it that’s communal in terms of how you do it on social at the same time that you’re seeing the game live, how you see the enhancements around the conversation. And I feel like you got that from that presentation. And we started with sports, which is unique and different for us, and also that we’re signing some of the biggest sports talent in the world when you think of Serena Williams. That was a moment. Where Serena: In The Arena is going to be such an important piece for us, and she is my favorite athlete of all time. So I was as thrilled as anyone in the audience to have her there with us.

You also talked about Disney’s tech and reach.
The scale and reach of our platform is unmatched in the marketplace. When you think of the scale and reach of our streaming platforms, I know everyone’s putting out stats of their monthly active users, but we have over 100 million monthly active users in the U.S. And the scale that we deliver on those audiences, and the technology that underpins that portfolio of streaming services is unrivaled in the marketplace. And so I wanted to make sure clients understood that, and that’s where the interoperability was so important because the ability for them to buy direct or to leverage any of our technology partners to really be able to buy in real-time, whether it was guarantees or biddable in the marketplace, all of that is enabled by a tech and data stack that allows you to leverage it in the way you want to.

And, by the way, we haven’t even talked about how you had 100 Samurai sword-fighting through the crowd at one point for FX’s Shogun.
Oh, my God. That was something that the team who worked on that show was really excited about. I hadn’t actually seen it until the rehearsal the day before. It was more beautiful than I ever imagined it was going to look, and it was a stunning way to almost end the show because it was such a moment. But it just speaks to our storytellers’ love to innovate around great content, but then bring it to life, and that was a different way to create that experience than a video. The video was great. Don’t get me wrong. But how great was seeing those performers live across the aisles and experience that?

What’s been the feedback you’ve been hearing?
All of the key messaging in terms of what we presented on stage, I’ve heard back differently from different parties. Everything resonates a little bit differently. Some people love the sports stuff. Some people told me too much sports. Some people said, “Oh my God, your data capabilities are exactly what I’ve been looking for.” So there was a piece for everybody and ultimately everybody was able to take out of that presentation what they wanted, which is why sometimes they’re like, “Oh, these presentations—not this year, but some years—tend to be very long.” Yes. Because you want to make sure that everything that you have available to a broad base of marketers—think of the amount of marketers we work with on an annual basis—they have seen something in that show that resonates.

In terms of sports, as a Cavs fan, I loved seeing Donovan Mitchell. You also had Serena, Angel Reese, the Mannings, Damar Hamlin. Where would you even cut back?
Every one of those sports stars. When Serena came out, you heard the gasp. When Damar Hamlin came out—I saw it on the teleprompter in the back—everybody was standing and happy. How do you pick any of those guys to take away? The women from women’s sports, women’s basketball, give me a break. There’s not one I can say we would’ve taken out that one. None of them. They were all there with a purpose.

What can you share about negotiations? Is there a point where the writers strike affects things?
We have a great fall schedule planned, one way or the other. So I think we are continuing to have conversations. The market is active, and we are engaged with many of our partners already. Again, Disney tends to be at the front of the line. We own the scale and size of what we have, and sports and streaming are a priority for most marketers if you ask them across the board, and we have probably the largest footprint in both of those. I can’t think of anyone who has a larger sports footprint than we do and definitely not a streaming footprint. So I’m very excited about the opportunity of what that’s going to mean for us. No question. By the way, it is not the robust market of other years, but there’s definitely brands who want to get in and make sure that they have the right relationships and business terms in place to be able to work with them, and that’s what we’re working through right now.

Is there anything you’d do differently for next year, or things you want to continue?
We’ll have a postmortem in a couple of weeks. I want to bask in the glory of this week and in the light of this week that I thought came out so great. I was so happy with the team. They worked so hard. It takes 200 days to put this event together. People underestimate how much work it takes. And the last two weeks were really dynamic times given the strike and being thoughtful and making sure that the show looked beautiful, regardless of how much talent was in or out. And we had the right strategy and messaging that ultimately paid it off for marketers.

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