17 Apr Passion Play
Disney advertising executive Rita Ferro has leveraged her dedication, talent, and one-for-all approach to work to forge a remarkable career—and set a template for other Latinas who aspire to her path
By Jackie Krentzman
Growing up as the eldest of four siblings in a tight-knit Cuban American household in Miami, where her family owned and operated a food distribution company, Rita Ferro learned early the importance of valuing people and treating employees like family.
Today, Ferro, president of advertising for The Walt Disney Company, has taken that lesson to heart. She attributes her distinguished career in advertising in large part to her golden rule of business: treat your employees like you would want your manager to treat you.
“It was instilled early in me that the foundation of good management is less about you and more about your team,” says Ferro. “The momentum of team wins is greater than your individual wins.”
Instilling an one-for-all culture has been a hallmark of Ferro’s career. Over the past 25 years at Disney, she has served in increasingly greater leadership positions. She began at ESPN International (Disney owns ESPN), where she held several posts, including vice president, International Ad Sales. She later added ad sales management for Disney Media Network’s kid-driven and family-inclusive portfolio in Latin America. Additionally, she has held the positions of executive vice president of Disney Media Sales and Marketing for Disney Channels Worldwide and vice president of Advertising Sales at Disneymedia+.
Her role today is complex—just as she likes it. She leads ad sales for Disney’s entertainment, news, sports, kids, and family linear and digital TV ad-supported streaming and audio businesses. In other words, she’s in charge of advertising on ABC Entertainment, ABC Daytime, ABC News, and ABC owned-and-operated stations; Disney Channels Worldwide; Disney+; ESPN Networks and ESPN+; Freeform; FX; Hulu; and National Geographic. She also leads the integrated sales team for Disney Digital, the company’s online, mobile, and social-media offerings.
Even though she is responsible for a team of 2,000 who serve 7,000 clients, she has found ways to drill home her mantra of “Team first,” which brings along the responsibility of frequent and open communication and transparency. “It is important to tell your team when things are good but also be straightforward and tell them when things are not,” she says. “That honesty and respect go a long way.”
As does Ferro’s other firm axiom, which is that passion is indispensable. She learned in college that success and happiness stem directly from passion. Her career trajectory is an inspiration for every young person who does not succeed in school—until they find what they love.
After high school, Ferro attended Florida International University. Initially, she floundered. She and her best friend had plenty of fun while trying on major after major. “We were a disaster academically,” Ferro says, laughing. Eventually, both found their passion, Ferro in advertising and her friend in fashion merchandising (today, she is a buyer and executive at a major retailer).
“Whenever I run into her mother,” Ferro says, “she shakes her head and says, ‘When I look at the two of you, where you are now, and think back to what you were like in college, I would have said, No chance.’”
Finding one’s calling is a never-ending process, says Ferro, who after graduation went on to earn her master’s in international business from Florida International. “I have always accepted new growth opportunities, and many of them turned into passions. I always tell my team to keep searching, find new opportunities, and it will click.”
Advertising called to Ferro because every day was different. She had to grasp not only the company’s business operations but also those of each of her clients. “I need a challenge, and with the 7,000 partners, there’s never a moment to be bored. I am always learning, as each company has different priorities of what they want out of the Disney partnership. Plus, as a people person, I love learning about personal stories and hearing people’s ideas.”
Disney spoke to Ferro from a young age. When her family would host relatives from Latin America, Ferro and her cousins bonded at Disney World. “People complain about Disney lines, but we used that time to learn about each other,” she says.
Ferro may be a people person, but she is cognizant that driving success and meeting goals are also the result of embracing change and valuing the stories offered by the data. The velocity of change in her industry is breathtaking, she says.
“One needs to deliver on results and performance—it’s not just about relationships anymore,” she says. “To me, that is exciting.”
The rapid, data-driven change that is a trend at Disney and other entertainment companies accelerated after the onset of the pandemic, Ferro says, and resulted in consumers having more control over their entertainment options. The advertising industry has had to adapt to meet this new and greater demand.
“We went from a culture that every evening sat in front of the TV and knew the schedule,” she says. “Media consumption was by appointment. But COVID accelerated the uptake of on-demand entertainment. You can watch sports live, or when you want. Plus, people had more time to spend watching TV. You could watch all 10 episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale in one or two sittings. We have more access to content, and choice in how we consume it.”
As the person responsible for advertising content across so many channels, Ferro can help drive the industry’s representation of women and people of color in front of and, just as crucially, behind the camera. She says the murder of George Floyd hastened the recognition that the old way of doing business—in the case of advertising, that meant largely white people creating ads featuring other white people—was not sustainable, and not just from a moral perspective but also from a bottom-line perspective. Virtually every American is a consumer of TV and other entertainment and news content, which means the audience is vastly diverse. In order to keep people coming back, content needs to match that breadth of diversity.
“It will require all of us aligning around the importance of increased diversity in our industry so it looks more like America. That will deliver results,” Ferro says. “It is crucial that we connect broadening our lens in this way to shareholder value.”
Ferro says that while she has seen some improvement in diversity in advertising, such as an increase in Black, Latino, LGBTQ, and mixed-race couples in ads, the pace of change is too slow. Even as the market is challenged, companies and brands need to keep inclusion top of mind.
“There has been tremendous progress in bringing female voices to the table,” Ferro says. “But there has not been the same progress for people of color—in particular, women of color. When George Floyd was murdered, a rush of emotions was released, and important workplace conversations increased. While the conversations are still happening, I’m looking forward to more meaningful change on the ground.”
Her solution, one that has worked well in her career, is for women to band together and support one another. She has seen case after case in which women compete against each other in a perceived zero-sum game for positions.
“The higher up [a woman of color] goes, the less opportunity there is. The competition is so fierce and access is limited,” Ferro acknowledges. “But women need to hold each other up so there are more of us at the table, and in turn that will lead to more and more diverse representation at the top.”
When she talks about women working together, Ferro does not mean mentorship or sponsorship, though she notes that those roles are also important.
She means finding a network of women who understand your challenges at a personal level. In order to further such connections at Disney, she is the executive sponsor of its Latina Network, which supports women at the VP level and above.
Ferro also advocates for finding a smaller, more intimate peer network, a group of women who can celebrate your successes and also call you out when you make a mistake. That candor and comfort level let you know they have your back and give you the confidence to take risks and learn and grow from those mistakes.
“I find most valuable my peer network,” Ferro says. “Those are my girls. They will say, ‘Here are opportunities you might be interested in; here is what is going on at my company,’ etcetera. Our core of five ladies hold one another accountable.”
When Ferro is asked, as she often is, what advice she gives young rising Latinas in the business world, she emphasizes building self-confidence—which in part can be boosted by the support of a peer network.
“When we look ahead at the next generation of women leaders coming up, women like my incredibly talented daughter, Tati, we’ll evaluate our progress not just by the percentage of women in leadership positions, but by how high our self-confidence index is,” she says. “For women in every industry, I want it off the charts.
“There’s an idea that self-confidence can’t be taught—you have it or you don’t. I’m here to tell you self-confidence can be nurtured. You are enough, and you should surround yourself with leaders who recognize that and encourage you.” DW