Disney TV Marketing Chief Shannon Ryan on Working at Unprecedented Scale and ‘Being the Best Storytellers for Our Storytellers’

From “Glee” to “The Golden Bachelor,” “Empire” to “The Dropout,” “Arrested Development” to “Abbott Elementary” and “24” to “9-1-1,” Shannon Ryan has played a critical role in the launch of countless TV
series over the past three decades.

Now president of marketing for Disney Entertainment Television, Ryan oversees marketing, publicity and communications for an unprecedented portfolio of more than 200 active series at any given time across Hulu, ABC, National Geographic, Disney Channel, Onyx Collective, Freeform and other platforms. In recognition of Ryan’s track record at Fox and Mouse House, as well as her commitment to mentorship programs for girls and young women, the executive received Variety’s inaugural Entertainment Marketing Icon Award, which was presented April 24 as part of Variety’s annual Entertainment Marketing Summit presented by Deloitte at the Beverly Hilton.

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Ryan credited the strength of Disney’s team and the creative ethos that drives the company’s work across platforms and around the world.

“We pride ourselves on being real collaborators and partners with our creators,” Ryan said during her Q&A conversation with Cynthia Littleton, Variety‘s co-editor in chief. “We meet with them early. We have team meetings, we have strategy meetings. One of our biggest goals is to be the best storytellers for our storytellers. And we have to do that, whether it’s a trailer or a piece of key art or a 30-second spot. It’s our responsibility to be able to sell that show in a way that makes the creator proud and makes us proud.”

Friends and colleagues say Ryan is the rare mix of skilled strategist, detail-oriented leader and a born people-person who builds strong relationships with talent.

“Shannon is one of our industry’s most innovative and inspiring marketers and is responsible for many of the most memorable and award-winning campaigns of our time,” says Dana Walden, co-chairman of Disney Entertainment. “Her tireless pursuit of excellence is reflected in the impressive team she has built at Disney Entertainment Television. It has been a true gift to partner with her for so many years.”

The challenge of working on such a wide range of shows for what is now a truly global audience is what motivates Ryan at this stage of her career.

“The most energizing part about this job is working across such a diverse range content,” Ryan said. “An average morning can be spent reviewing spots for ‘Bluey,’ then approving a media plan for ‘The Kardashians,’ then meeting with the producers of ‘Only Murders in the Building,’ then watching one of our actors on ‘Good Morning America’ and looking at key art concepts for ‘The Golden Bachelorette.’ And all of it before 11 a.m., which makes for a pretty cool morning.”

The scale and volume that Disney now produces requires a different level of management to keep everything in sync, Ryan notes.

“I feel like these jobs are often like being a baseball coach,” she says. “You want to make sure you get the right people, put them in the right positions, provide them with the right vision and direction, then trust them to do what they do best so they can knock it out of the park.”

Ryan was barely a year out of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles when she joined Fox to work as a publicist on what is, then and now, the network’s cornerstone series: “The Simpsons.” She rose steadily through the publicity and marketing departments, solidifying her place as a key member of the senior management team that made 21th Century Fox a formidable force in television under the leadership of Walden and the former Fox Television chairman Gary Newman. In 2019, after Fox’s sale to Disney, Ryan was part of the team that was transplanted to lead the expansion of Disney’s TV and streaming operations.

Joe Earley, president of direct-to-consumer for Disney Entertainment, overseeing Disney+ and Hulu, was another core member of Fox’s team who worked closely with Ryan, first as a supervisor and now as a peer. “Shannon is one of the most talented people I know,” Earley says, noting that she has a knack for balancing “business acumen” with “creative adventurousness.”

As a marketer, “her showmanship and ability to tap into pop culture allow budgets to have more impact,” Earley adds. “Add to that the fact that she’s an inspiring leader and colleague, and is one of the funniest people you’ll ever meet, it’s easy to understand why she has been so phenomenally successful in every way possible.”

During her keynote conversation, Ryan discussed the intricacies of marketing across platforms for linear and streaming audiences. Social media is also crucial to reaching fans, but it’s complicated.

“Social is one area where you want to speak differently to the audience on TikTok than you would on Instagram or you would on Pintrest. We try to be very strategic about where we place spots. For something like ‘Only Murders in the Building’ we might do a comedy spot for one platform or a mystery-driven spot or an accolades spot. We work to make sure we’re placing them in front of the right audience at the right time to get them to watch.”

The strategy of rolling out marketing campaigns has never been more complicated, informed in equal measure by data as well as creative instincts. Ryan said the most satisfying achievement is helping to launch a show that defies convention — and easy promotional ideas.

“Sometimes you get a big shiny show with big shiny stars and it comes fully baked and you know it’s going to be a hit,” Ryan said during her keynote talk. “The shows that stand out to me are the ones that are great and you believe in and they are so special and so original” but they are more challenging to introduce to an audience, Ryan said, citing Fox’s “Glee” as a prime example.

“That was a show about a bunch of high schoolers breaking into song, singing ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ in the halls. And it was a show that we loved and believed in so much,” she said. “We put so much effort into that show to make sure that it broke through. That campaign was one that I was super proud of.”

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