CDO interview: Lisa Valentino, executive VP for client and brand solutions, Disney Advertising Sales

The entertainment giant is bringing marketing, data and technology together to make the most of its growing digital advertising opportunities

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Disney combines digital, data and creativity to win advertising opportunities

Lisa Valentino isn’t your average digital leader. Rather than rising through the ranks of the IT department, she has spent her career developing pioneering marketing and data strategies for some of the world’s biggest companies. Now, as executive vice-president for client and brand solutions at Disney Advertising Sales, she is putting all that experience into practice.

“It’s the best job I’ve ever had in my career because it sits at the intersection of creativity and data and technology – and that’s really the future that we’re racing towards and it’s a unique position,” she says.

Having previously worked in senior leadership roles for Yahoo, ESPN and Condé Nast, Valentino joined Disney in April 2019. She has run a range of data-led initiatives since joining the company and says technological innovation will be crucial for the business moving forward.

“The next decade for Disney – and our CEO, Bob Chapek, is talking about this publicly – is about creative and storytelling excellence,” she says. “That’s why you come to Disney, but that is very much connected to innovation – especially as it relates to data and text. So, it’s an exciting time and an exciting company to be part of.”

Valentino’s role at Disney involves three key prongs. First, she manages the creative marketing department that makes the most of Disney’s intellectual property across 1,000 clients annually, whether that’s entertainment, sports or news.

She also manages data enablement for the company, which includes data scientists, analysts and solutions-oriented architects. It is a leadership role that involves managing a “significant revenue” business that is data-enabled across every screen and platform.

Finally, Valentino refers to her management of “addressable business”, which includes leading people who specialise in sales strategy and marketing. That responsibility touches on a range of areas, including automation, self-serve systems, programmatic advertising and performance marketing.

Valentino says it’s a broad role that gives her the opportunity to help shape Disney’s broader business strategy moving forward.

“Most people in my position are either heavily weighted into data and technology or heavily weighted into content and creative,” she says. “My teams sit in this unique spot where we straddle both.”

Her broad job description shows how data sits at the heart of Disney’s long-term business strategy. It might seem, from an outsider’s perspective, that a strong background in marketing and sales makes Valentino an unusual choice to run data enablement for a global business. But she believes her career background makes her the perfect fit for the role.

“My background is 100% data,” she says. “Yahoo was a data company, Condé Nast should have marketed themselves as a data company, because publishing companies sit on a wealth of first-party data.

“They pivoted by re-engineering their stack to be data-first and that’s driving a lot of their business today. So, yes, I have been in the data business – not necessarily for tech companies per se, but more for media companies.”

Building the right infrastructure

Valentino says Disney’s interest in data dates back more than five years. The company has spent time developing a proprietary technology platform known as the Audience Graph, which helps advertisers identify distinct segments of the audience and to place commercials across linear and digital media.

The organisation has now taken the next step towards developing its Audience Graph, pulling all its first-party data and advanced modeling capabilities onto one platform, known as Disney Select. Marketers can use Disney Select to find the kinds of audiences they would like to target across a range of characteristics, such as buyer behaviour and household characteristics.

Valentino says the business recognised that it needed a single source of truth for its data across these platforms. Disney is using cloud data warehouse provider Snowflake to protect, securely share and make the best use of the data it collects.

The company is using Snowflake’s Media Data Cloud to launch a new clean room, which offers brands access to more than 1,000 user segments across Disney’s platforms. These brands can then use Disney’s data-modeling capabilities to undertake deeper insights on the commercials they intend to run.

“Not only have we built an Audience Graph that is fully functioning, but now we’re in enhancement mode”

Lisa Valentino, Disney Advertising Sales

“Not only have we built an Audience Graph that is fully functioning, but now we’re in enhancement mode,” says Valentino. “The relationship with Snowflake makes access to data much faster because our Audience Graph now sits inside of Snowflake.”

By running the Audience Graph and Disney Select on Snowflake’s platform, the company’s data engineers don’t have to spend time orchestrating, organising and building out pipelines to deliver data from different sources. Having a single copy of data, meanwhile, gives Disney scalability when it wants to develop new, data-led business projects.

Disney Advertising Sales has seen demand for data capabilities grow with clients – the number of campaigns using data of any kind to target audiences has increased by 56% in the past year, representing 110% revenue growth. Valentino reflects on the ongoing digital transformation at her business and out into the wider marketplace.

“Just think about the challenge and the opportunity Covid-19 created in the past two years, where the way people consume entertainment content has completely shifted,” she says. “Clients are relying on marketers at brands to help guide them on that shift. And so, that’s a role that we play – and we use this type of data infrastructure to fuel that conversation.”

Delivering innovations

At the beginning of March 2022, Valentino and her team will be hosting the company’s annual Tech + Data Showcase. Here, they will focus on new announcements across automation, data and measurement, which Valentino says are her team’s key three priorities for the next year.

“One of the big areas inside of automation is self-serve,” she says. “We launched our self-serve platform a year ago with the intention of opening a wider span of access to Disney for local businesses. They can literally log on to a platform with a credit card, enter in their objectives and be live on any of our Disney properties within minutes.”

Valentino says the company has a huge amount of ambition when it comes to helping advertisers buy commercials automatically and programmatically across a range of territories around the globe. She says that ambition is being backed by significant financial and development resources.

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Valentino and her team will present their blueprint for change over the next two to three years at the Tech + Data Showcase. Disney Advertising Sales anticipates an increase of more than 80% in automated revenue and expects programmatic sales to account for up to 50% of Disney’s addressable and linear revenue by 2024.

Valentino recognises that programmatic, data-led sales is a growing business for Disney – and she says there’s much more to come.

“We will continue to be very aggressive in product innovation,” she says, adding that the company’s majority ownership of streaming platform Hulu will help to create new ways to push content to consumers.

“With Hulu, I think we have had such tremendous leadership on creating new viewer-first experiences in streaming and really thinking about avenues like commerce and how you bring commerce closer to consumers through all of our platforms,” she says.

Following the consumers

Valentino acknowledges that the technology decisions she is making are the kinds of choices that might once have resided solely with the IT department. However, the underlying nature of technology in all businesses means every function must have a strong grasp of its digital ambitions – and that is particularly true in marketing.

Analyst Forrester says more than 20% of the marketing budget is already used for technology. What is more, one-third of marketing organisations have a dedicated technology team. Forrester says businesses that want to deliver growth will need to make sure that marketing chiefs work with IT leaders to reconfigure the business through the lens of the customer. That is something Valentino recognises, too.

“It’s a trend in the market,” she says. “And what I would say is that at Disney, it’s a collaborative process between the business and technology – and those worlds are coming closer and closer together. We inform each other and responsibility for technology no longer sits with one person or one type of role inside the company.”

Valentino says the collaboration between business and technology is a fluid process. The pace of change means Disney must be connected in real time to the demands of clients and consumers. However, following customer trends remains the key to success, she says – and that is true for all business looking to gain a competitive edge in the digital age.

“If you follow the consumer, they will tell you where to go,” she adds. “Our primary job is to is to drive monetisation through the data we collect. But that dataset has the potential to inform a lot of areas because it’s basically a blueprint on the consumer’s demands.

“And so, data starts to direct us in terms of partnerships and renewals, whether it’s sports partnerships or entertainment partnerships for talent, or new types of product we might want to build or invest in or buy. It all comes back to using data, insight and our Audience Graph, which is all about developing a view of the consumer.”

The message from Valentino is simple – the combination of data and technology is critical to everything Disney is looking to achieve.

“Stay close to what we’re doing over the next six to eight months,” she says. “Technology is guiding everything we do – every moment that we have now, the underpinning of that is technology.

“Your first reaction might be, ‘I never thought about Disney as a data company’, but we are, because we spend a lot of time thinking about how data and technology make our relationship with the consumer stronger. The two are absolutely connected, and it’s a big area of focus for us.”

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