Rita Ferro Previews Her First Combined Disney Upfront

What buyers will see (Jimmy Kimmel!) and what they won’t (a two-hour event)

Ferro hopes Disney's first combined upfront presentation lasts no longer than 90 minutes. Disney
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Ahead of the most distinct, transformative upfronts week in a decade, Adweek is sitting down with a different ad sales chief each day. Following Fox’s Marianne Gambelli on Tuesday is Rita Ferro, who is presiding over the first upfront since the Disney-Fox merger was finalized.

In September, Ferro was named president of Disney advertising sales, overseeing all Disney media properties including, for the first time, ESPN, as well as the TV networks Disney acquired from Fox like FX and National Geographic.

Disney will be holding a single combined upfront event—which had previously been focused solely on ABC, and last year, ABC-Freeform—Tuesday at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall in New York. As part of that shift, ESPN will no longer hold its traditional stand-alone Tuesday morning event.

As she prepared for Disney’s first combined upfront, Ferro spoke with Adweek about her plans for Tuesday’s event, why the presentation won’t turn into a marathon and her top upfront priority.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: After you were promoted last September, you had several months to prepare for the close of the Disney-Fox merger. What did you focus on during that time?
Rita Ferro: It’s funny, because of the way some of these mergers work, I had very little intel on the business and the [networks] there, so what I did at the beginning was focus on the integration of the ESPN and Disney-ABC businesses at the time, which, by the way, are still far and away the biggest. We worked really hard to make sure that we were focused on, from a marketplace perspective, the sales expertise by industry, which I think is only going to be more important as we start to see an evolution in data, technology and ad products that are custom to the industry and the advertiser much more specifically than have been in the past. So there was a focus around that and then, as we built the team across all of our businesses, making sure that we were prepared to, when the Fox deal went through, plug those folks in right into the industry teams, the agency teams and everything we would see inside that business.

Had you known all along that you would be doing one combined upfront event this year, or did that decision come after the Disney deal closed?
We knew we were going to do one event when we brought ESPN together with Disney-ABC, because those were the two big events that happened at upfront week. We knew that advertisers would appreciate forgoing the [ESPN] event in the morning and having one event with the best of the Walt Disney Company on one stage. Frankly, it’s been what they’ve been asking us for for years. Then having Nat Geo and FX round out the totality of our opportunity to go to market with, it just made sense. When you see these brands on the stage together—after we announced the deal, we actually had Freeform, FX and ABC together in Chicago doing development [presentations]—it’s incredible. Because they are so unique in their audiences, fans and content that they serve, they help lift each other. It’s like one plus one plus one is five, not three. So I think it’s going to be an extraordinarily impactful upfront event.

How are you approaching the event and making sure everybody gets their spotlight without this turning into what seems like a never-ending marathon, which is always something buyers worry about?
We have given guidance to our brand partners that this is to show the best of the best. We’ve spent a lot of time doing road shows up until now across all of the brands with all of our major agency and brand clients. I would say we’ve had hundreds of presentations over the last eight weeks, and we’ve spent a lot of time on really going into the deep dive by brand and by clients depending on who we were speaking to in that room. This show is really the culmination of the best of the best across all of these brands with the content owners speaking directly to our brand’s advertising partners to talk about what they are most excited about with their individual brands. You’re going to see it. I think you’re going to see how it actually flows really nicely because it’s focused on all of the advancements we’ve made in data and technology. It focuses on super serving audiences and how these brands serve their audiences. And so, it tells a really nice story that’s very complete and yet, at the same time, super easy to understand.

So this won’t turn into a marathon?
I’m super sensitive to the notion of people feeling overwhelmed, and yet, at the same time, I just had breakfast with the head of investment from one of the major buying companies. I said, “My target is 90 minutes,” and he’s like, “I would sit through two hours if there’s a lot you want to tell me and it’s relevant. I just don’t want it to be video after video without the story.” And I said, “You’re not going to get video after video, because that’s not the format of what it is.” Yet, at the same time, we know people love to see [ESPN’s] Kenny Mayne, and he’s there, and people love to see Jimmy Kimmel [who will be there, too]. Then we have a great surprise act at the end that I think people are going to be really excited about.

There’s entertainment in between [the spotlight on each brand], so we have Kenny, we have Jimmy and then we have that final performance to make sure that it’s not all videos coming at you and drowning you. Even if [the videos] are separated by brands, at some point you’re like, “I can’t stand it anymore, end the torture!” So, we’re giving you some breaks with some very funny men who are, as you know, hysterical, and then ending it with a fun performance at the end.

We’re doubling down on reach, engagement and effectiveness across the portfolio.

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.