Even iconic brands need fixing from time to time. But instead of the easy fixes, Bob Iger played the long game by addressing Disney’s cultural issues head-on with a three-pronged strategy, making it a stronger, more profitable company with greater depth in its overall brand. The takeaway for CEOs is that, yes, culture—and persistence—matter
Shanghai Disney is one of the biggest investments that
you’ve made on your watch, perhaps one of the biggest in the company’s history.
How does it fit into your priority of expanding global growth?
Setting aside the investment Walt made in central
Florida to create Disney World, the biggest investment we made in our history
was buying Capital Cities/ABC—a $19.5 billion gutsy investment by Michael
[Eisner]. Pixar was the second-largest at $7.3 billion. Shanghai Disneyland is
the third. In terms of non-acquisition, organic investment, it is the biggest.
No question. In terms of the company’s future, it is the most exciting. You’re
looking at the most populous city in the most populous country in the world.
[It’s] a market that Disney is known in but one in which we haven’t really
penetrated deeply [until now] for a variety of reasons.
It has the potential to ground our brand or build a
foundation for our brand in China that could pay off for generations to come.
In terms of global growth, it’s just huge.
We’re already bringing our movies to China, and China
is now the No. 2 movie market in the world, but [it’s] growing, and will become
the No. 1 movie market by the end of this decade or the very beginning of the
The movies that we make—Marvel, Pixar, Disney, Star
Wars—are not only valuable brands in China, but these franchises will all have
a presence eventually in this park. It certainly sets up our movie business
better in what will be the No. 1 movie market in the world.
Clearly, there will
be consumer products opportunities that grow from this. But more than anything,
it’s people having a connection to Disney, an affinity for Disney, and an
experience with Disney that will serve the brand and its businesses well for a
Acquiring ESPN along with ABC didn’t seem very
important, but it became a Cinderella, contributing around 45 percent of Disney
revenues. Where do you take them from here?
Technology has the potential to be ESPN’s biggest
friend in terms of growth. Because ESPN’s mantra or guiding principle is to
serve the sports fan anywhere, anytime, technology can give the fan even more
access to what the fans are most passionate about. A primary example is smart
mobile devices. Such devices enable you to watch your favorite sport, your
favorite athlete, your favorite team, wherever and whenever you want. And that
gives ESPN a tremendous opportunity to serve their fans in even more impactful
Not only will technology enable ESPN to cover sports
better, cover more sports and give the fan an even better experience, but it
will provide much more accessibility than ever before. That should power ESPN’s
growth rather significantly over the next decade. Mobile technology is the most
exciting thing—by the way, not just for ESPN—but for our other businesses,
Disney, Marvel, Pixar, ABC and all of our critical brands.
Having been on the board of Apple since late 2011,
what takeaways have you been able to incorporate into Disney and what
influences has Disney had on Apple?
Apple today is what Steve Jobs created—high quality,
relentless pursuit of perfection when it comes to their products and
unbelievable attention to design and aesthetics. Everything they do adheres to
those values and attributes of the brand. I observed from Steve and adopted
some of his priorities as our own. Seeing him do it gave me even more impetus
or drive to do similar things—or to do what I had wanted to do anyway.
There are similarities in what I brought to Apple. For
example, we’re both big believers in the power of brands and the need to
continue to feed brands with innovation. I bring a little bit more experience
as a CEO of a global company perhaps. I like to think that I can offer some
advice and perspective to Tim Cook, who I respect tremendously, as a relatively
newer CEO. Obviously my media experience is valuable, as I am the only board
member with that experience. I’m now more of an elder statesman.
Is it true that Steve Jobs once called you up after
seeing a Disney film and said, “Bob, that movie sucks.”
That’s true. He did. Steve and I used to talk a lot;
and frequently, he called me on weekends because it was a great time for us to
not only catch up but to muse about all sorts of things.
One afternoon, he
called to say, “Hey, Bob, my son and I just went to one of your movies, and it
sucked.” And I said, “Well, you may think it sucked, but it did $100 million in
box office this weekend, so there are a lot of other people [who] thought
otherwise. And while I think that there were some things about the film that
could have been better, I respectfully disagree.”
I liked being challenged by him in that regard because
even if I disagreed with him, there was always a kernel of truth to what he had
to say. There was always something; it wasn’t completely wrong. It drove me to
want to demand even more perfection and excellence. He had that impact on me.
In fact, I talked about this at our management retreat last fall—the relentless
pursuit of perfection. While it can easily be a turnoff, something that you’d
want to run from because who needs that kind of criticism, I always took it as
Steve Jobs may have been Disney’s largest shareholder,
but if I ever said to Steve on a call,
“You are a member of the board,” or “You
are our largest shareholder,” he’d say, “Stop. I do not want to be called
either. I want to be thought of by you as a trusted advisor and a friend.” Anytime
I mentioned board member or shareholder, he reminded me of that. Finally, I
decided to accept him as a trusted advisor and a friend, and he proved to me
over time that that’s exactly what he was to me.
If Walt were alive today, what do you reckon he might
say about you?
Funny you would ask. I spoke with Diane Disney, one of
his daughters, about that before she died. I actually wrote her a note: “If
Walt were to see those gorgeous cruise ships plying the oceans, or even Walt
Disney World, or imagine Shanghai, what would he think?” Interestingly enough,
for a guy from the Midwest, he had a real curiosity about the world. He would
be blown away to know that China would be the home to a product that was so much
a part of who he was and what he stood for—Disneyland.
But if he also saw Pixar, or Star Wars or Marvel—think
of the storytelling and the characters and the places that these stories exist.
[Take] ESPN, for that matter. I think he would be unbelievably proud. This is a
bit presumptuous of me, but what the heck, maybe I’ve earned the right to be
and also to see, on any list about brand respect and admiration that exists in
the world today. [This is] a company that he founded; the brand that he created
is still at or near the top of those lists. I mean, what could be a better
affirmation for the principles that he embedded in the company that he created?
Fuente: Chief Executive
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