Talk about being able to separate your work and personal life. Ayo Davis, the executive who oversees some of the world’s most iconic children’s programming, is an unabashed horror fan at heart.
“I love horror,” she said. “I cannot get enough of a good zombie or vampire movie, I really can’t. I couldn’t have imagined two years ago I would be working in the animated space or with kids content because of my desire to watch nothing but horror all day long.”
Davis, who in 2020-21 was executive VP, creative development and strategy at Disney Branded Television, clearly has a knack for bringing sunnier material to the screen. In September, she replaced Gary Marsh as president of the content group and now leads creative and operations across Disney Channel, Disney XD, Disney Junior, Disney Television Animation and Disney Plus.
Her ascent in the kids and family realm follows nearly two decades at Disney and ABC, where as executive VP, talent and casting at ABC Entertainment and Disney Plus, she was a key driver behind series including The Good Doctor, How to Get Away with Murder and Black-ish, helping to enhance the careers of Viola Davis and Eva Longoria, among others.
She cites as her not-so-secret sauce “my ability to identify talent, and I use that term loosely. Ultimately and at the core, it really is about telling great stories:
Who you’re casting, the directors you’re hiring, the producers you’re working with. They are all big pieces of a large puzzle that we put together and the goal is to identify and create incredible stories that will continue to connect with our audience. It’s those aspects of what I did in casting that I take into this new role, and I do it daily,” she said.
“Ayo has an extraordinary eye for finding talent, as well as an exceptional ability to bring out the best in everyone around her,” said Peter Rice, chairman, Disney General Entertainment Content, to whom Davis reports. “She’s also passionate about a brand that represents some of Disney’s most iconic characters, and yet she’s already developing so many new stories that have the potential to bring joy, hope and wonder to audiences around the world.”
20th Television president Karey Burke concurred. “What has always impressed me is her strong belief in her own creative taste and instincts; she knows what she wants and she fights for her vision, and by extension the visions of the creators with whom we are in business,” she said. “She understands deeply how much the right performer in the right role can make or break a project and she settles for nothing less than getting it absolutely right.”
As she drives the evolution of classic Disney properties, ranging from a live-action reboot of Winnie the Pooh to Alice’s Wonderland Bakery, and launches new content across Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm, Davis is inspired by her own “testing demographic” — her 7-year-old daughter. “I love knowing the content we are creating actually affects her and affects how she views the world,” Davis said. “And I not only get to do it for my daughter, I get to do it for everyone, everywhere. We are creating content for larger audiences. I always say our demographic now ranges from 2 to 102 with everyone who watches.”
A Platform-Agnostic View
Those viewers are now watching on an expanded array of platforms, which has enabled Davis to expand her lens on content creation.
“Everything we’re doing, we approach from an agnostic perspective. Whether they premiere on the linear channel first and then land on Disney Plus, we now have a forever home for all of that content; it never goes away,” she said. “It lives across the ecosystem, and we want to ensure whatever stories we are telling are connecting with the right audience, we’re speaking to the right demographic and we’re going for the largest audience we can with one specific story.”
When it comes to those stories, staying ahead of the game in the ultra-competitive kids and teen market for Davis means continuing to create storylines that “are full of magic and adventure and heart.”
“We can’t ever underestimate our audience,” she said. “They are incredibly savvy and incredibly smart. That’s something we talk about all the time, and it is our goal to focus on ensuring we are maintaining a deep respect. We have to continue to expandand stretch our brand, and I certainly think we are doing that with the stories we are developing.” ▪️
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Cathy Applefeld Olson is a seasoned entertainment, media and culture journalist, and producer of video content and events. Through her continuing coverage in publications including Forbes, Billboard, XLive, Cynopsis, Broadcasting+Cable and Multichannel News, Cathy reports on evolving industry trends and personalities in business, branding, talent and technology. A passionate believer in the power of culture influencers to elevate well-being, Cathy recently launched the Forbes column Hollywood & Mind, which features interviews with entertainers, sports figures, executives and others who are boosting the conversation around mental health. She also works with music and wellness community Myndstream, for which she writes the monthly State of Mynd blog.