Master Mentor

Laura Nathanson is a thoughtful leader at Disney Advertising Sales
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NAME: Laura Nathanson
TITLE: Executive VP, Revenue & Operations, Disney Advertising Sales
COMPANY: The Walt Disney Co.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Increased sales revenues by eight times during 14 years as head of sales for ABC Family, where she was among the first to focus on the rising power of millennials in culture, family and society.
QUOTABLE: “I think people, even if they are doing a similar job, who feel like they’re learning, feel happier. I think they’re happy because we’re growing their minds. That’s my hope.”

When Laura Nathanson was promoted to her role as executive vice president, revenue and operations, at a newly consolidated Disney Advertising Sales unit last year, there was one part of her old job she kept: training interns and staffers.

Laura Nathanson

Laura Nathanson

“When you think about bringing together an organization of this size, the training piece is critically important, as you can well imagine, because every layer you have to think of what is relevant, what is timely,” said Nathanson’s boss, Disney Ad Sales president Rita Ferro. “You have people who have never sold entertainment selling entertainment now; people who have never sold sports are selling sports.

“Laura’s an adult in this space and so she understood what we needed to do,” Ferro said. “She was so actively involved in the integration we did across Disney-ABC. It was really helpful in how we extended that opportunity to include ESPN in an organic, easy way.”

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Nathanson is “trustworthy, honest. She has tremendous energy and she’s a very funny icebreaker,” said Ferro, who ran sales for Disney’s kids channels and worked closely with Nathanson, then in charge of sales for Freeform. She’s a champion for women, and “looked at as someone who is a beacon in the business in terms of knowledge and deep experience,” Ferro said.

A TV-Industry Kid

Nathanson literally grew up in the television business. Her father was Ted Nathanson, who was born into the Gimbel Brothers retailing family and changed his name after his parents divorced. He worked at CBS, ABC and NBC, where he directed The Tonight Show and Today. He then became coordinating producer for football and tennis for NBC Sports and directed Super Bowls, Olympics and Wimbledon tennis championships.

Jon Nesvig, who was with NBC before becoming the dean of ad sales executives at Fox, recalled seeing Ted’s daughter at big sports events.

“Her birthday is New Year’s Day, so her father was working every New Year’s Day at the Rose Bowl,” Nesvig said. “If she went on a trip with her father, she would hang out with the sales people in the hospitality suite.”

Another time, she was at the French Open, and impressed Bob Blakemore, NBC’s head of sales. “He came back raving about her,” Nesvig recalled. “ ‘You should hire her. She’s smart as hell and she speaks French.’ ”

Nathanson said she originally wanted to be a doctor, but chemistry class turned out to be a problem. She started her own TV career as a copygirl at NBC News. She later became a facilities planner for 30 Rockefeller Center and said she learned every inch of the historic building. But the sales people she’d met convinced her she belonged in advertising, so Nathanson took a job at BBDO as a media buyer working on the Firestone, Dodge and Stroh’s accounts.

“I remember one sales person asking, ‘What do you do, go home and shower and shave at night?’” she said. “I hung out with the guys. It was pretty much fun.”

Eventually, Nesvig convinced her to take a sales job at Fox, then a fledgling fourth network with just two days of programming. Nesvig hired her because she had that agency training, rather than traditional sales background.

“We had to go deeper than just the network buying departments [at agencies to make sales],” Nesvig said. “We were going to clients and planning agencies. She was a good presenter and had an honest, no BS approach.”

She spent 10 years at Fox before moving to ABC. She became head of sales for cable network ABC Family, which became Freeform.

What ties together the segments of her career, Nathanson said, is learning something new. Fox was an emerging network. At ABC Family, they were figuring out the emerging millennial generation. And in her new assignment at Disney, she’s helping clients figure out how to buy more strategic targets with advanced advertising and doing revenue yield management.

“It’s like a weird path, but it’s been interesting,” Nathanson said. “Actually, I like this side because it is taking a step back and trying to figure out the marketplace and being a little more strategic about what inventory do we want to sell, how do we want to sell it, what’s the best fit — thinking about what’s going to come next instead of just what’s happening today.”

Eye for New Talent

She is also proud of her training and mentoring role. Even before Disney consolidated its sales group, Nathanson’s internship program took young people and rotated them through different parts of the company.

“In a weird way, we integrated the intern program before we did sales,” she said.

Nathanson said she’s gotten to know some of the interns and helps place them in the industry.

“I’m always keeping an ear out. I like when you listen to some of the upcoming talent. I think you get smarter because they’re the future,” she said. “I know it sort of sounds cliché, but I definitely lean toward trying to help some of the women because when I started working, there were no rules, there was no human resources.

“There was no maternity policy in the early days at Fox,” she recalled. “I had to sort of negotiate it. Think how strange that is.”

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