The View From The Top – A Conversation with Robert Iger, luncheon recap
Bob Iger became CEO of Disney in October 2005. In his first week he made a precedent-setting deal with Apple to put TV shows on iTunes. In his first year he brought Pixar into the family, reinforcing Disney’s traditional strength in animation. Next up was the acquisition of Marvel, then a partnership with Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks and then most recently the acquisition of Lucasfilm and the STAR WARS universe. Apple, Pixar, Marvel, Spielberg and STAR WARS in a matter of a few years, how do you follow that? With an HRTS Newsmaker luncheon, of course.
On January 23, 2013, Bob Iger walked onto the HRTS stage at the Beverly Hilton for a candid discussion with Academy Award-winning producer Brian Grazer.
Grazer began by saying that “you’re well-known as CEO for many things but definitely for the acquisitions of three very important content companies”, going on to ask “how do you see risk? How do you see it in relation to Pixar and the other acquisitions?” Iger said that “there’s risk involved with most of the things we do, particularly since most of the things that power Disney are creatively-based and there’s always risk in the creative process”, adding that “I’ve learned over the years that while you can’t be dismissive of risk - particularly in the corporate world where advisors and lawyers and Board members are all asking about it - if you are too focused on risk then you don’t get anything done”. Iger’s philosophy is that “CEOs of companies that need to grow cannot be risk-averse, so while I’m always aware that there’s risk involved in these big decisions, I focus far more on opportunity”.
As for the deal with Apple and iTunes, Iger said that “the day that the Board called me to tell me that I was the new CEO, I called Steve Jobs”. Jobs had experienced some difficulty with the previous management at Disney and so when Iger suggested that they meet, Jobs said “okay, I think you’re just more of the same” but agreed to the meeting anyway. Iger said that Jobs was “relentlessly honest and relentlessly candid, not only honest with his beliefs but he speaks those beliefs very vocally”. This was something that Iger really appreciated, except for the occasional Saturday when Jobs would call him up and say “hey Bob, I saw the movie you just released last night and it sucked”. Iger was a big user of iTunes for listening to music and his light bulb moment was to put Disney/ABC television content onto the service. Jobs came down to Hollywood and show Iger a prototype for what was then called a video iPod (2005 is ancient times in the digital world), a device that fit perfectly with Iger’s plans for video distribution. Making this initial deal built a good deal of respect and trust between Jobs and Iger, which later became key to Disney’s acquisition of Pixar.
As for Walt Disney himself, Grazer said “I know you’ve been a very big student of his”, going on to ask “how has Walt’s philosophy, the way he views the present and the future, affected your point-of-view?” Iger said that “in 1961, Walt sat down for a 20-hour interview, and I’ve listened to that interview in its entirety and listened to parts of it again just to remind myself”. On personal level, Iger said that “I like hearing the voice and I like the mindset” and on the corporate side, “I’m a big believer at the company of respecting the past, not revering the past but respecting the past”. Iger added that he constantly strives to balance the heritage that is Disney with the need to innovate. Of Walt, Iger said that “he was an unbelievable futurist”, a man who wasn’t thinking about the next year or two so much as the next decade. Walt Disney strongly believed that there needed to be an element of storytelling in every Disney business, Iger telling Grazer that “believe it or not, there’s a story behind every attraction, behind every restaurant, behind every hotel that we build. You may not see it, it may not be evident to you, but you actually feel it when you experience the attraction or the hotel”. In fact, “the people who made Disneyland were filmmakers first, the people who created all those attractions were the same folks who made Walt’s first animated films”. Iger said that “it’s not quite secret sauce, because I just disclosed it, but it’s a very important ingredient to the experience that we create”. As for his personal philosophy on leading the Disney team, Iger said “trust people implicitly until they prove otherwise. Some leaders don’t trust anyone until they prove they can be trusted, I like doing it the other way”.
Looking at the broader marketplace, Grazer asked “how do you view competition?” Iger said that “you can become very quickly daunted by competition, it’s so omnipresent, and so I like for us to work really hard and to be seen as competitive by everyone else out there”. That being said, “don’t focus on your competition, because there’s little you can do about it, just focus on what you’re making, what you’re doing, who you’re working with, who you’re hiring, where you’re going as a company. You don’t have time to focus on what the competitor is doing”. So, rather than being obsessed with your competitors, “be obsessed with competing, be formidable as a competitor”, since “if you’re obsessed with what everyone else is doing then you’re not obsessed with what you’re doing”.
On the technology side, Grazer asked Iger about Disney’s new MagicBand initiative. Iger said that “I happen to like technology, I tend to view it as more opportunity than threat”. As for MagicBand specifically, it’s a way for theme park visitors to interact with Disney, to know more about the company and to become more known to the company. As for potential privacy concerns, Iger pointed out that it is voluntary, that customers will voluntarily provide their information since in general, “people will be generous with information about themselves if they believe that information will be used to make their experience better”. So, park visitors can wear an encoded band that connects wirelessly to the cloud and “have stored in the cloud information about themselves and about their visit that would make their visit better”. Part of the idea is that you will be able to reserve time on Disney rides and attractions, plan your visit online in order to prevent you having to stand in line. You can also make restaurant reservations in advance of your visit and even order and pay for the food you would like so that it will be waiting for you when you arrive, saving you again from having to stand in line and then decide on what to order, pay at the register, etc, everything that currently takes up time that could be spent enjoying a ride or attraction. Iger said that the overall philosophy is that “you’ll spend less time looking to do things and more time doing things”.
Gathering the view from 40,000 feet for the TV executives in the room, Grazer said “the television world has changed, where do you think it’s going?” Iger replied that “in many ways, it is the true Golden Age of TV. I know that’s a cliché but there’s never been more of it and it’s never been higher quality”. For content developers and producers, “you have so many more places to go with your creative voice, with your creative vision, and that’s exciting”. As for network executives, “the business model that TV programmers today face, while interesting because of the growth of new revenue streams, on the advertiser’s side those revenue streams are challenged more than ever before. I believe that programmers today need to take real chances both with their programming and with the way they monetize it”. Advertisers are still there with a lot of money and a demand to reach more consumers, and so “we have to figure out how to best do that”, and specifically “we have to figure out how to best reach people in an era where they’re watching television in so many different ways”.
Grazer raised the issues of brand protection and growth, leading Iger to ask “how do you manage a brand that was created in 1923 by Walt Disney and manage to keep it relevant in 2013 and beyond?” Looking back over the 20th century, many top brands were eclipsed by new brands powered by new technology. In order to stay ahead of the curve, Iger said that “we do a lot of research globally on brand equity, and you’d be amazed at how often we appear as a Top 5 brand in markets all over the world”. The key to this is “great people and great creativity and being innovators and being forward-thinking and never letting a brand rest on what it was, always thinking about what it is today and what it could be”. As for his role as CEO, “I’m a brand manager, I do that more than anything else, there isn’t a day that passes when some issue related to the brand doesn’t come up”.
In closing, Grazer asked Iger “do you ever break into a sweat, does anything keep you up at night?” and Iger said “I’m not that fearful of a person but like everybody I’ve got my array of anxieties, I’d say in terms of the company that the only thing I ever really worry about is our ability to sustain creative success”. Along these lines, Iger related that “nothing bothers me more than walking out of a screening that we’ve done and we all look at each other and know it could have been better”, adding that “I don’t really lose sleep over it but if anything bugs me about what I see every day, it’s that, it’s not making enough things that are good”.
Photos by Chyna Photography - See these photos and more on the HRTS Smugmug page.