Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why Disney Needs a Visionary (but not the George Lucas kind)

Most companies that produce goods for public consumption, be they entertainment companies like CBS/Paramount or consumer electronics companies like HP, operate in pretty much the same way. They conduct tons of market research to determine exactly what kinds of things schlubs like us want to buy, and based upon the results of that research they either formulate products for our consumption or concoct an ad campaign to sell us the stuff they already have. Market research is very important to the serious people in suits who run these companies, because on their own they frankly have no idea what we wormlike members of the public want. They understand us about as well as we understand the Mucous Beings of Planet Glornax.

Now, companies that operate in this way do manage to produce useful things. I’m writing this post with Windows Live Writer on a Dell PC running Windows 7, and it works pretty well for me. However, when I drive around the college town were I live, I never see cars with Dell or Microsoft bumper stickers. You know what logo I do see, though? Apple. Those white Apple stickers that come with new iPods are in car windows everywhere. Outside of some professional sports franchises, no business organization in the world commands loyalty and affection like Apple. Every time they launch a new product, it dominates the 24-hour news cycle. Major news magazines like Time and Newsweek fall all over themselves to devote cover stories to how awesome the new product is. Apple’s success is even more amazing when you consider that the company was pretty much dead in the late ‘90s. What changed? The answer, of course, is Steve Jobs.

Unlike its competitors, Apple makes innovative products that we never knew we needed. Sure, during their late ‘80s-to- mid ‘90s Jobs-less period they came out with some impressive devices like the PowerBook and the Newton, but overall the company’s succession of traditional CEOs who ran things in a traditional way was an unmitigated disaster. Because he was one of Apple’s founders, and because the company was in such poor shape when he returned in 1997, Jobs was able to force Apple to do things his way. In fact, the way that Steve Jobs runs Apple reminds me of another company with a charismatic founder who had a unique way of doing things: Disney.

Like Apple today, Disney during Walt’s time was famous for giving us amazing things we didn’t even know we wanted, like full-length animated movies, the modern theme park, and Audio-Animatronic shows. After Walt’s passing in 1966 enough of his creative energy remained in the company (in the form of people who had worked with him) to give us some pretty amazing things, among them EPCOT Center and a new bunch of animated films that have become modern classics.

However, just like Apple in early 1997 Disney is largely coasting on its reputation these days. The uniqueness that Walt brought to the company he founded has largely been drained away by traditional corporate executives that can’t blow their nose without consulting a focus group. Unfortunately, unlike Apple Disney has no legitimate competitors, at least not in the theme park industry. It’s not going to slide into oblivion unless a visionary CEO comes along and saves it. And anyway, there aren’t a lot of visionary CEOs out there to be had. It’s easy to point to specific things that Disney is doing wrong: Team Disney Orlando is too cheap, the Disney Channel is nothing but vacuous shows aimed at ‘tweens, etcetera. However, the overall problem is that Disney is the kind of company that needs to be helmed by a visionary CEO with the unquestioned power to do whatever he wants, and it does not have that. Disney needs a Steve Jobs. Or even a Mark Cuban. If it never gets one, you can be sure we’ll see more of this:


And less of this:


And that would really be a shame.


  1. I could not agree more. We have Tom Staggs in charge of the parks, a man who had NEVER been to WDW before taking the job.

    We need someone in charge of the parks who has a passion for the theme parks. We were lucky to have Michael Eisner because he "got it" when it came to the parks and was a major fan. Iger simply sees the parks as a money source and Staggs definitely does not "get" why the parks are so special.

  2. Very nice analysis and comparison. I think it works.

    Walt (and Jobs) did what he did to please himself, with the confidence that, if he liked it, others would also. Disney is not a company today that seems to be able to function with that sort of basis...


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