Disney Asks Marketers to "Reengage" in Virtual Upfront Pitch

Disney Storytellers Roundtable - Publicity- H 2020

"Having more flexibility now will only mean that we will be better partners in the long run, and they will be here for the long run," ad sales chief Rita Ferro says.

With the novel coronavirus pandemic still keeping much of the country shut down (to say nothing of the protests taking place across dozens of cities), The Walt Disney Co., in advertising roadshow presentations with marketers, is offering a reassuring message to buyers that may have pulled back amid the crisis. In a year where there likely won't be a traditional upfront or traditional TV season, the company is pitching the breadth and depth of its offerings as well as its storytelling expertise as a safe place to invest.

"Disney has always been there, and always will be," the pretaped opening sizzle reel declares in the roadshow. "Forever paving the way to a great big beautiful tomorrow. It is time to restore, reengage and reimagine. We are here, we deliver."

Disney president of ad sales and partnerships Rita Ferro tells The Hollywood Reporter in an interview, "In a world where everyone has data, and everyone has targeting, and everyone has all of that capability, it is the narrative and the story and the brand and the connections to the hearts and minds of consumers and how we tell those stories that is going to stick out more than anything." 

Disney, like all of the broadcast TV networks, was forced to cancel its annual May upfront presentation at Lincoln Center and the afterparty at Tavern on the Green. Instead, it has been hosting virtual roadshows with clients, featuring custom segments with talent, sizzle reels, a roundtable with Disney executives, and even Jimmy Kimmel's annual upfront roast (read the highlights from Kimmel’s monologue here).

Ferro says that with most advertisers having "long-term relationships" with the company, it is approaching talks this year with flexibility in mind, be it shifting ad spend from one channel or platform to another, or canceling a buy entirely.

"I think flexibility means different things to different advertisers," Ferro says. "For some it might be 'I want to be able to move money from broadcast to cable to sports to streaming,' for others it may be 'I need to shift my creative messaging and therefore need to push my campaign to a few months later,' for others it may be that 'I need to get out of some of my commitments,' and for others it may be that 'I want to heavy up [buy a lot of ads in a short period of time] and don't want to pay a premium for it.'"

"Having more flexibility now will only mean that we will be better partners in the long run, and they will be here for the long run," she adds.

One example: As the country reopens, some advertisers may want to focus their spend on regions where they are open for business, while avoiding others.

"If somebody is ready to start business but not ready to start nationally, and they need to be heavy in certain markets and not be on the air in other markets, we can address that within the scope of our portfolio," Ferro says.

Ferro's team is also now selling Disney-controlled Hulu alongside its TV offerings, allowing marketers to buy ads on ESPN's linear channel, the ABC broadcast network and the ad-supported streaming service on one invoice, using one set of targeting data. The unified ad product, Disney Hulu XP, will launch Oct. 1.

"It has been something clients have been asking for for a long time, and we will be able to deliver it this upfront," Ferro says.

This morning, Disney is also announcing partnerships with Nielsen to use its addressable TV beta program, and with Samba TV to bolster its attribution and data-targeting capabilities.

Disney executives, including ABC entertainment president Karey Burke, FX chairman John Landgraf, ESPN executive vp of content Connor Schell and Hulu head of content Craig Erwich, weighed in on how the pandemic has impacted their businesses, and what they have in store once production resumes.

"The pandemic disrupted the traditional pilot season in a way we couldn't have predicted," Burke says in the roadshow presentation, noting that the network ordered backup scripts from producers and adopted a straight-to-series strategy, along with continued virtual writers rooms so that production can pick up as quickly as possible once permitted to do so.

ESPN, meanwhile, is thinking about "how we can bring the presentations to life in intimate and innovative ways," with sports likely to return without live fans. "We are thinking of new camera presentations and angles, how we can use audio to capture natural sounds in interesting ways," Schell says.

Ferro adds that Disney is hoping to capitalize on marketers that had planned to advertise during NBCUniversal's Olympics broadcasts. The Olympics have been postponed until 2021 and are usually a launching pad for campaigns. Both MLB and the NBA are hoping to resume play in July, with the NBA planning to complete its season at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando. Both sports are staples of ESPN's lineup and could return at a time when other original programming could be running dry due to pandemic-related shutdowns.

"I just think that there is a real demand for things that make life feel back to normal, and sports is one of those things," Ferro says.