When it comes to legacy, Robert Iger has some very large acquisitions to take credit for, including Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. But those deals would have never come about had the Walt Disney Co. CEO and chairman not been willing to take risks.
“I’ve learned over the years that while you can’t be dismissive of risk, if you are too focused on it, you don’t get anything done,” Iger told producer and Imagine Entertainment topper Brian Grazer during the HRTS Newsmaker Luncheon panel on Wednesday. “While I’m aware of the risk involved (when making deals), I focus more on opportunity.”
Grazer used the hour with the Mouse House chief to reflect on Iger’s prowess for picking up companies that could build Disney’s brand and bottom line. Panel took place on a day that Disney’s stock hit an all-time high.
But despite Iger’s success, he was quick to remind Grazer and the attendees inside the Beverly Hilton’s ballroom that “I also put ‘Cop Rock’ on ABC. You’re building me up as a knight in shining armor, but the longer you’re around, the more failures you have on your resume. Greatness and mediocrity are sometimes separated by small details.”
When Iger brokered a deal to buy Pixar, in 2006, there was much controversy surrounding the steep $7.4 billion pricetag.
But Iger, who personally negotiated the deal with Steve Jobs shortly after taking the reins of Disney from Michael Eisner, said the decision was made because the Disney company “may have started with a mouse,” the way Walt Disney liked to put it, “but it also started with animation,” which is its legacy.
At the time, Disney’s animated film biz needed a boost, and Pixar’s value was in its future films, not its existing assets.
“My legacy, our success, would be tied to animation,” Iger said. “I had to get animation right at the company before anything else.”
Iger reflected on his relationship with Jobs, whom he described as “relentlessly honest and candid, which was good to experience,” adding that the former Apple exec would call to let Iger know that he watched “the movie you released last night and it sucked.”
Negotiations to buy Pixar went more smoothly, Iger admitted, when he was upfront with Jobs on his “need to buy Pixar.”
“The cards were on the table and they were face up,” Iger said. “I just thought he would respect that. It probably saved us a couple hundred thousand dollars of a $7.4 billion deal.”
Iger said he has borrowed heavily from Walt Disney while running the company.
“I’ve tried to pull from the formula Walt created,” he said. “He was an unbelievable futurist. But if you live too much in the past, you get stuck. Walt thought long term. I love that. You have to have some sense of what could happen and have some control of your destiny.”
Iger described his days as “tickers that keep going by with subject matter, subject matter, subject matter.” His job as a brand manager is to deal with the bigger picture of the company.
“You cannot run a company like this singularly,” he said. “You hire great people and be there for them. You can’t control every decision. There are too many that need to be made.”
When it comes to competition, Iger said the trick is to “work very hard to be seen as a competitor to the competition. I like to be obsessed with competing, but beat everyone else at making your stuff great and accessible. I’m a fierce competitor but I’m not fiercely focused on what other competitors are doing.”
Trust is also key, with Iger saying he shares a lot with his executives, including the acquisition of Lucasfilm, which remained a tightly kept secret in Hollywood until its announcement.
“Trust becomes a big component of my leadership style,” he said. “Trust people implicitly until you can’t anymore.”
Iger called the current television landscape “the true golden age of TV. Viewers have never had it better,” referring to the to the quality of the content itself and to the various platforms, including mobile, through which viewers can access programming at any time.
But protecting networks’ largest source of revenue, advertising, remains an issue that needs to be dealt with, Iger admitted.
“We’re both victims and perpetrators,” he said of the networks pushing more programming onto other platforms. “It’s incumbent for us to figure out a more modern manner to service the advertisers.”
Still, embracing new distribution methods was necessary in order to grow the business.
“If you don’t challenge yourself in your own business model it’s going to happen anyway,” he said.
Iger chalked up Disney’s move to become one of the first companies to put TV shows on iTunes or embrace digital distribution and even experiment with release windows to his interest in technology and curiosity.
“We have to all be curious,” Iger said. “It’s what enables us to change and be better competitors. I look at (technology) as more opportunity than threat. It allows us to reach more people and make our products better. It makes our company more efficient and gets us closer to our customers.”
The company’s theme parks will soon introduce a “Magic Band” that will enable theme park guests to plan their trip in advance and reserve time on rides or order food at restaurants before they get there and use it as a digital wallet.
“It’s fairly risky and very expensive,” Iger said. “You’ll spend less time looking for things to do and more time doing things.”
Disney also has analyzed its own videogames when it comes to violence.
“We’re willing to be part of a dialogue on what our role is and what it should be,” Iger said.
Iger candidly admitted that he is afraid of little but often thinks about what it takes for a brand that was founded in 1923 to be relevant in 2013.
“I worry about our ability to sustain creative success. There’s always risk in the creative process. I like honesty when it comes to criticism. No one sets out to make anything bad. If anything bugs me, or worries me, it’s making anything that’s not good.”
You can “never let a brand rest on what it was,” Iger said.
Movies, for Iger and Walt Disney, must be able to “stand the test of time,” he said. “There’s much value creation associated with that. In a sea of unbelievable relentless choice you have some value if you have a powerful brand.”