Rita Ferro, Disney’s president of ad sales, received the Frank Stanton Award for Excellence in Communication during a luncheon Wednesday in New York attended by a number of senior-level colleagues.
ESPN anchor Kenny Mayne, ABC entertainment chief Karey Burke and Direct to Consumer and International Chairman Kevin Mayer were among those paying tribute to Ferro in person. Videotaped salutes came from a range of notables, among them CEO Bob Iger, NBA great Kobe Bryant and Live co-hosts Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest.
The annual lunch event benefits the Center for Communication, a non-profit organization promoting media education and career advancement. Founded by Stanton, the late president of CBS, the center will mark its 40th anniversary in 2020. Past editions have featured honorees including Ted Turner, David Nevins of Showtime/CBS, Vice Media co-founder Shane Smith, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Once free-wheeling, roast-y affairs held at the Pierre Hotel, they have become gentler in recent years and this year’s edition relocated to the 583 Park event space and had a more wholesome, Disney-worthy signature.
Ferro, who is Cuban-American, highlighted the industry diversity push that is a key objective of the Center, whose board she recently joined. “People of color and women in this business — we don’t have enough of them,” she said. “And yet, at the same time, I look around this room and I’m inspired by the opportunity and the possibility because if this room is a reflection of what we will be in the future, everything is to come.” She also offered “transformational” advice to those coming up in the ranks. “Whatever you choose to do, do it with passion,” she said. “If it doesn’t bring happiness, just don’t spend the time doing it.”
In her introduction of Ferro, Burke recalled befriending her when they both took part in a Disney executive training program. “I knew that even if I had a stupid question or I made a dumb mistake, she would always have my back,” the exec said. “Now, a few years later, I am lucky enough to call her a close friend and colleague.”
Mayer said he had gotten to know Ferro over the past year and a half after sales operations were consolidated in his unit. “I’m enormously grateful to have her as part of my management team,” he said, saluting her drive and heart.
Mayne took a more sardonically on-brand approach during his turn at the microphone, delivering a shorter dose of his annual rip-fest on the industry, Disney and its advertisers that is a staple of the company’s spring upfront.
After rattling off the many networks and platforms whose sales efforts are overseen by Ferro, Mayne deadpanned, “There’s a lot of duplicative stuff in here, I’m not even sure …” Because he anchors SportsCenter, which recaps news and highlights across all sports, he reasoned, “I do the American League, the National League, the National Football Conference, the American Football Conference …” (He continued reciting a list of leagues and conferences.) Therefore, Mayne said, and Ferro are “kind of equals. We like to look at it that way. There’s no ‘she’s up here and I’m down here.’ We look at each other like — I’m your mentor, is really what I’m trying to convey right here.”
Mayne went on: “We want to honor her by having some fun, a little roast, is what they said this was. So right out of the gate, let’s bring up the guy that — she got him fired, pretty much: Ed Erhardt. He’s unemployed but he came back here to honor Rita. They’ve stayed friends.”
Erhardt, a 20-year veteran of Disney and ESPN, who ended his tenure early this year after Ferro added responsibility for the sports network’s sales in a 2018 reorg, thanked her as soon as he took the stage. “Getting fired was the best thing you’ll ever do for me,” he joked.
On a more sincere note, he recalled his first interactions with Ferro in the mid-2000s when she was based in Miami and overseeing ESPN sales in Latin America. Liberally sprinkling the word “totally” into her blended English and Spanish conversations, she would occasionally gripe about clients or even some less-than-synergy-minded Disney colleagues. “She’s totally someone that I’m smitten with,” Erhardt said. “I think she’s extraordinary. I am totally happy to be here with you, my friend. Congratulations.”
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