NAME: Debra O’Connell
TITLE: Executive VP, Ad Sales and Marketing
COMPANY: Disney-ABC Television Group
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Creative deals made since the Disney-ABC sales reorganization; Disney VoluntEARS efforts
QUOTABLE: “In 2018, I am looking forward to continuing to test and learn in new environments, whether through ad formats or creative executions, and layering on technology to all that we are doing.”
When Rita Ferro, president of Disney-ABC Ad Sales, learned that the company was going to be reorganizing from three different sales organizations to one, there was one person she knew for sure she wanted to have by her side. That was Debra O’Connell, now executive vice president, sales and marketing, Disney-ABC Television Group.
“I specifically hand-picked her based on her skill set and drive, her success in building and managing teams and her understanding of how best to work with business partners,” said Ferro. “We are very aligned strategically in what we define as success and what we both know is important.”
That sales reorganization happened last February, when Disney-ABC Television Group ad sales was shifted from three teams that served ABC, Freeform and the Disney cable networks — Disney Channel, Disney XD and Disney Junior — to one team serving all of those properties, including linear and digital networks and Radio Disney.
The intention is to allow clients to run tailored campaigns across Disney-ABC networks that reach consumers from childhood to adulthood. For example, Walmart might want to advertise baby food to new moms, toys to younger kids, books and movies to older kids and economical prices to parents.
Results Through Creativity
“We are looking to drive results through creativity,” O’Connell said. “Doing that is breaking through the day-to-day clutter that advertisers can feel because there are so many [sellers] hitting them up for potential sponsorships. Our [intellectual property] is important to driving results because of the engagement we get. We offer the opportunity to reach consumers at all life stages.”
For example, ABC partnered with Dick Clark Productions to lock down a record number of sponsors for Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve With Ryan Seacrest 2018. Sponsors included Allstate, Pepsi, Planet Fitness and Uber. The broadcast showcased two new ad formats, branding the on-screen countdown clock and splitting the screen during commercial breaks. Disney-ABC also worked with those sponsors to create custom content. Pepsi and Uber took their turns on the countdown clock, with Uber reminding viewers from 11: 30 p.m. to 1 a.m., “If you drink, don’t drive.”
In another example, ABC partnered with Mitsubishi Motors North America to market its Eclipse Cross during ABC News’s coverage of the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21. The car made its first appearance that morning on ABC’s Good Morning America and the automaker was the exclusive sponsor of the network’s two-hour special, The Great American Eclipse, which aired from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. that day.
Finally, Jimmy Kimmel Live! returned to Brooklyn for a week in October, each night featuring a major integration with a different brand, including Bank of America and Google Home Mini. The Google Home Mini spot featured a flashback of Kimmel’s actual family eating dinner together and arguing; it then returned to the present day to show Kimmel resolving the argument by asking Google for help.
“Advertisers are understanding what we are trying to do by taking that initial step with us,” O’Connell said. “Since last spring, when we first started bringing our groups together, we’ve seen a very large increase in the types of creative executions that we are bringing to marketing.”
O’Connell has prepped for these changes over her 20 years at the company, with posts that include president of ABC National Television Sales (where she led national ad sales at ABC’s eight owned stations in New York; Los Angeles; Chicago; Philadelphia; San Francisco; Houston; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; and Fresno, Calif.), along with several posts within the multimedia sales and marketing divisions at ABC Television. She began her career as an account executive for two of Liberty Broadcasting’s radio stations, and as marketing director for DiCarlo Distributors.
While O’Connell’s job requires expertise across all facets of television advertising sales and marketing, it’s her people skills that allow her to really shine, Ferro said.
Good at Getting to ‘Yes’
“Debra knows how to build relationships. She understands that it’s how we’re going to get to ‘yes.’ She understands that it has to be a mutual win for both us as a company and for the client,” Ferro said.
O’Connell also applies this philosophy to the way she hires the people around her. “No matter the size of your business, you have to have a great team,” she said. “I’m a big believer in hiring the best people — smart and hard-working, of course, but that they are good people at heart is the most important aspect of that equation.”
While overseeing a large team, O’Connell manages to put her family first and make time to volunteer, both through the Disney VoluntEARS, which has connected her to groups such as the Boys and Girls Club, and at her daughter’s school.
“I feel like anyone who has success in their life can find time to give back,” O’Connell said. “Paying it forward is always the best medicine for anyone.”
Said George Bodenheimer, who recently returned to ESPN as interim CEO and was an early mentor: “Debra always knew the issues and the facts and she was able to articulate a vision. You could tell that she had that ‘it’ factor to become a serious leader. She’s committed to the company, but her family comes first. She’s dedicated to her family and dedicated to the company, and that’s a winning combination.”
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