Disney Unifies Ad Sales Unit Under Rita Ferro

The Walt Disney Co. is consolidating its advertising sales operations under Rita Ferro, who has been head of sale for the Disney/ABC Television Group.

Ed Erhardt, the head of ad sales for ESPN for the past 20 years, is retiring in January.

Earlier this year, Disney restructured its senior management structure, creating a new direct to consumer and international unit headed by Kevin Mayer. That unit include both the Disney/ABC and ESPN ad sales operations.

“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. “Throughout her career, Rita has consistently grown businesses through a focus on brand building and innovation. She has played a crucial role in defining new growth strategies and has been a valued partner to me as we chart a course for our businesses. Rita’s steadfast attention to the needs of both clients and consumers, her track record of successful innovation and delivery of business results make her an ideal candidate to lead our company-wide sales efforts.” 

The move makes Disney more like Its largest TV industry competitors, where all ad sales operations report to a single executive. During the recent upfront, Disney/ABC and ESPN joined to offer a data-driven advertising suite known as Luminate.

In her new post, Ferro who had been responsible for Disney’s entertainment, news and kids linear and digital TV and radio business (including ABC Entertainment, ABC Daytime, ABC News, Disney Channel, Disney XD, Disney Junior, Radio Disney and Freeform, will also handle the ESPN portfolio).

She will also continue to head sales for Disney’s online, mobile and social offerings, including the Disney Digital Network, as well as national sales for ABC’s eight owned TV stations.

“I’m humbled to step into this new expanded role, and look forward to building upon the progress the teams under Ed and I have made since becoming a part of Disney’s Direct-to Consumer & International segment earlier this year,” said Ferro, who earlier in her career worked at ESPN. “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.”

Before joining ESPN in 1999, Erhardt was VP and group publisher for Advertising Age.

At ESPN, he was a leader in the sports business, leading the industry in areas including adding out of home and cross-platform measurement to the network’s arsenal. And help develop new properties like the college football playoffs and College GameDay.

“We celebrate Ed’s years of service and contributions to ESPN,” said Mayer. “In the few months that we’ve worked closely together, he has defined what it means to lead with integrity. 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 DTCI. We all wish Ed the best in his retirement and thank him for his dedication to the Company and our clients.”

“I have been blessed to sell and market the power of sports and the ESPN brand with best team in the business over the past 20 years,” said Ehrhardt. “I want to thank George Bodenheimer for giving me this opportunity in 1999 and thank our customers for their partnership, confidence, investments and friendship. I am incredibly proud of the ESPN team’s accomplishments. And I am confident in the direction we’re headed under Jimmy Pitaro’s leadership at ESPN and with Rita at the helm of the overarching ad sales business. She and I have a long, shared history and I’ve seen her leadership first hand. Her integrity and passion for the business will ensure our continued success in the ad sales arena.”

Here is a memo ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro sent today: 

Ed Erhardt to Retire

In 1999 George Bodenheimer hired Ed Erhardt from Advertising Age to run ad sales at ESPN. Ed arrived and got to work merging ESPN and ABC Sports Ad Sales, creating one unified group that worked across platforms and setting the template for the industry as to what a truly integrated multimedia sales team could look like.

He has spent his 20 years within our walls and across the industry as a visionary leader, all the while helping ESPN achieve remarkable results. And it is therefore with very mixed emotions that I tell you Ed has decided to hang up the gloves to begin a well-deserved retirement, starting in 2019.

Ed has been trying to make this move for some time, but he has been generous enough to see the company through some changes in recent months, including serving as a trusted advisor through my on-boarding process.

Over the years, he has brought many ideas to the fore that have benefited this company from both an innovation and a monetary standpoint. Some examples are:

He’s been a pioneer in media measurement, most recently pushing the industry to adopt single-source, cross-platform measurement and leading the charge on the importance of Out of Home.

He was a key architect of the successful College Football Playoff sales and marketing strategy, which has created unique sponsorship integrations and driven additional dollars to our bottom line.

In 2010 he established one of the first in-house, branded-content creative agencies, CreativeWorks, which works with hundreds of clients to develop bespoke creative designed for an ESPN audience.

He’s been a leader in ad innovation, including the introduction of the double-box treatment, expanding the BottomLine to run through ad breaks, and creating the single-advertiser SportsCenter experience. He also forged one of the most coveted sponsorship franchises in the sports marketplace: College GameDay Built by The Home Depot.

Ed created the first sports Upfront and then took that one step further when he suggested ESPN “crash” the broadcast Upfront week in 2007, opening a door through which many cable networks followed. And Ed used that opportunity to live out his theater directorial dreams, scripting a full-fledged Broadway show ESPNUP07: A Story of Sports, Love & Cross Platform Marketing, and putting his colleagues acting chops to the test.

A press release will be distributed shortly that will announce details, including that Ed will be staying on to work with the new leader of DTCI ad sales, Rita Ferro, in the establishment of the DTCI sales organization. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Rita for many years and she is a great partner, strong leader and deft negotiator. I look forward to working closely with her in the future.

The specifics of that org structure will be announced soon, as well as how Ed’s other areas of responsibility – Marketing, Research and CreativeWorks – will be managed within the organizations.

As referenced above, Ed is a fan and supporter of live theater, especially Broadway. I expect he’ll be able to take in a lot more of his passion in his next act. And while “the show must go on” without Ed, it certainly won’t be the same.

We will properly celebrate Ed’s incredible career before he officially says goodbye but, for now, I want to offer our thanks and appreciation for his years of contributions to ESPN.


Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.