Nathanson Steps Off the Disney Ad Sales Ride

Helped company boost Freeform, integrate ad technology
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Why This Matters: A top ad-sales executive realizes there will always be a work project, but traveling is important, too.

It’s been a great ride at The Walt Disney Co. for senior advertising sales executive Laura Nathanson, but it was finally time to get off.

Laura Nathanson

Laura Nathanson

Nathanson, who joined Disney in 1988 and was named executive VP, revenue and operations in 2017, has been helping longtime colleague and friend, Disney ad sales president Rita Ferro, on a series of projects, as the company consolidated its advertising operations and needed to put new structures and systems into place.

Nathanson, 61, had been talking with Ferro about retiring for nearly a year, but there was always a next project to work on, especially after Disney acquired content assets from 21st Century Fox. “All of a sudden I started realizing our company’s in an amazing position,” she said. “We’re going to be doing stuff for decades and if I keep going, ‘Oh, just one more project or one more cycle,’ I’m never going to leave.”

Peter Knobloch, Nathanson’s husband, sold his media agency, RJ Palmer, in 2012 and wanted her to retire, too. Last summer, the family went on a safari to Africa. “That was probably a pivotal point,” she said, because she discovered “I want to be able to do trips like this without checking emails all the time.”

Nathanson wanted to leave in the spring. Ferro suggested the fall. They negotiated and settled on the summer. After nearly 40 years in the business, her last day is July 5.

“Laura is a dear friend and colleague, whose contributions to the Disney Sales team have been invaluable,” Ferro told B&C. “Although we are sad to see her go, I am incredibly excited for her, and the team wish her the best of luck in her new chapter.”

There are no plans to fill Nathanson’s current position at Disney Ad Sales. Her direct reports are being reassigned, but the data and technology investments the company has made remain a top priority.

Nathanson said she doesn’t have a formal arrangement to consult with the company after that, “but what I said to Rita is that if you need me on any kind of project, I’m always around and available. My heart is sort of at Disney. I feel like I grew up and worked here so I’d always be available to help them.” She declined to comment on whether she’d continue to get an employee discount.

The daughter of noted sports producer Ted Nathanson, she started her career at ad agencies and met her husband when she was a buyer at BBDO and he was in sales at NBC. She shifted to sales with the fledgling Fox network when it had Married … with Children on its one night of programming and she helped launch The Simpsons. She moved to ABC and helped sell AT&T on the “phone a friend” lifeline for a game show called So You Want to Be a Millionaire that became a national sensation.

In 2002, Nathanson was put in charge of sales at the ABC Family cable network when Disney bought it from Fox. She helped focus it on the emerging millennial generation and turn a struggling brand into what is now Freeform, a half-billion-dollar business.

Most recently, she’s been spearheading a project to unite all of Disney’s TV brands under a single tech stack with Google. Nathanson takes geeky pride in the fact that, now, Disney sales executives can find appropriate viewers for clients all across the portfolio. “I could see, at any moment, audience usage, consumption patterns, and I can actually also see inventor and market demand. That’s pretty powerful,” she said. “It’s changed the way we go to market and the way buyers buy.”

Mentoring Stirs Pride

Nathanson is also proud of the people she has helped to develop. “There are some really talented people that I’ve helped grow up over the years and now they’re ready to take over,” she said. “It’s like watching your kids leave the house. It’s bittersweet. They can actually do this. They don’t need me anymore.”

Nathanson has just joined the board of skin care company Nu Skin Enterprises, which values her marketing background. She’s also looking forward to joining other boards, including those of the schools her daughters attended.

“I am hoping to get a little better at golf,” she said. “I will have more time to do my yoga. There are other things, but I don’t want to go public yet.”

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