In The Ride of a Lifetime, Robert Iger charts his trailblazing career from the backrooms of an American TV network to CEO of Disney. Along the ride, he offers us an insider view of the workings of a media conglomerate, including Disney’s blockbuster acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and 21st Century Fox. Widely regarded as one of the world’s most innovative CEOs, the book brims with great insights and life lessons that Bob Iger has accumulated over the course of his stellar career.
Bob has several amazing anecdotes about the Pixar acquisition. He ranks his first visit to the Pixar office as one of the ten best days of his career. He has high praise for Pixar’s creative geniuses John and Ed, who welcomed him warmly and showed him elements of the films they were working on—rough cuts of scenes, storyboards, concept art, original scores, and cast lists.
He talks about the great rapport he shared with Apple and Pixar chief Steve Jobs and how the flamboyant visionary had won over the Disney board into agreeing over the deal. At a board meeting in January 2006, there were apparently several board members who were still opposed to the deal, but the moment Steve, John, and Ed started talking, everyone in the room got transfixed. The trio had no notes, no decks, no visual aids. They just talked—about Pixar’s philosophy and how they worked, about what we were already dreaming of doing together, and about who they were as people.
There’s also a dramatic and poignant moment near the end of the Pixar chapter. Just 30 minutes before the press conference where they were to announce this massive merger, Steve took him on a walk to confide in Bob that his pancreatic cancer had returned and because of that, he wanted to give Bob an eleventh-hour chance to back out of the deal. Bob didn’t waver on the deal, but the news hit Bob and his wife, Willow Bay, hard on a personal level.
“Instead of toasting what had been a momentous day in my early days as CEO, we cried together over the news.”
During their research, while planning for the acquisition of Marvel, Bob and his team had put together a dossier that contained a list of about seven thousand Marvel characters. I loved the fact that Bob kept bringing up his ‘Marvel Encyclopedia’, which also made me wonder if he had the same book as I did on my bookshelf.
So, despite the likes of Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and the X-Men not being part of the deal, he was still convinced they were still getting enough characters, content, and talent. In fact, the Marvel Studios talent, led by Kevin Feige, had described their long-term vision for what would become the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The plan Feige laid out, including a plan for intertwining characters across multiple films well into the next decade, had won over Bob.
- Star Wars
In the Star Wars chapter, Bob talks about the complications in dealing with George Lucas. There was a lot of back and forth – George saying he couldn’t just hand over his legacy; Bob saying they couldn’t buy it and not control it; and the deal was almost called off twice.
Eventually, it was a change in capital gains laws that eventually salvaged the negotiations. If the deal wasn’t closed by the end of 2012, George, who owned Lucasfilm outright, would take a roughly $500 million hit on the sale. If he was going to sell to Disney, there was some financial urgency to come to an agreement quickly. He finally agreed to the deal and signed an agreement for Disney to buy Lucasfilm on October 30, 2012. He was doing everything he could to not show it, but it was apparent in the sound of his voice and the look in his eyes how emotional it was for him. He was signing away Star Wars, after all.
In the summer of 2016, Disney came close to buying Twitter. Bob saw it as a distribution platform with global reach. The Disney board gave Bob the go-ahead to finalize a deal, but he soon got cold feet after considering the problems that Disney would inherit in addressing hate speech and felt that it would be corrosive to the Disney brand. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who was also a member of Disney’s board of directors, had been stunned, but very polite when given him the bad news. And, Bob had felt quite relieved with his final decision to have backed out of the deal.
Bob talks about ‘management by press release’, which refers to the fact that if he said something with great conviction to the outside world, it tended to resonate powerfully inside the company. The Disney+ announcement was one such instance, when Bob decided to take one of the biggest gambles of his career. The decision to disrupt businesses that were fundamentally working but whose future were in question—intentionally taking on short-term losses in the hope of generating long-term growth—was no mere thing. Routines and priorities would get disrupted, jobs would change, and people could easily become unsettled as their traditional way of doing business began to erode. It was an uncertain path, but in hindsight, the right path, as Disney gained 28 million subscribers within the first 3 months.
- 21st Century Fox
Iger devotes most of the final three chapters to the staggering $71.3 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox, although I was surprised at how little Fox’s ownership of X-Men and Fantastic Four characters factored in the decision making process.
I loved Bob’s whiteboard brainstorming after the mega acquisition was complete. The first thing he did was separate ‘content’ from ‘technology’. Disney had three content groups:
- Movies (Walt Disney Animation, Disney Studios, Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Twentieth Century Fox, Fox 2000, Fox Searchlight)
- Television (ABC, ABC News, our television stations, Disney channels, Freeform, FX, National Geographic)
- Sports (ESPN)
All these went on the left side of the whiteboard. On the other side went technology: apps, user interfaces, customer acquisition and retention, data management, sales, distribution, and so on.
His idea was simply to let the content people focus on creativity and let the tech people focus on how to distribute things. Then, in the middle of the board he wrote ‘physical entertainment and goods’, an umbrella for various large and sprawling businesses: consumer products, Disney stores, global merchandise, licensing agreements, cruises, resorts, and theme-park businesses. As he stepped back and looked at the board, he was staring at the world’s biggest media company.
The Iger household had a den lined with shelves full of books, and his dad had read every one of them. Bob didn’t become a serious reader until he was in high school, but when he did finally fall in love with books, it was because of his dad. The two of them also spent their dinners discussing world events, and as young as ten years old, Bob would grab the New York Times and read it at the kitchen table before anyone else woke up.
- Early Riser
I’d been priding myself for living up to my resolution to wake up at 7.30 in the morning, with an hour apiece reserved for exercise and nonfiction. But it was put to shame by Bob, who wakes up nearly every morning at 4.15! He agrees that it is vital to have time to think and read and exercise before the demands of the day take over.
He professes his fascination for the Japanese word ‘shokunin’ (the endless pursuit of perfection for some greater good), after watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary about a master sushi chef from Tokyo named Jiro Ono, whose restaurant has three Michelin stars and is one of the most sought-after reservations in the world.
He loved the documentary so much that he showed excerpts of it to 250 executives at a Disney retreat. He wanted them to understand better, through the example of Jiro, what he meant when he talked about ‘the relentless pursuit of perfection’.
While Bob considers the legendary Roone Arledge, former head of ABC Sports and ABC News, as a mentor, he doesn’t agree with his philosophy that excellence and empathy are mutually exclusive. Years later, when he finally got to lead people, he was instinctively aware of both the need to strive for perfection and the pitfalls of caring only about the product and never the people. This helped him create an environment where people were treated with fairness and empathy, knowing that they’ll be given second chances for honest mistakes.
- Innovate or Die
As he demonstrated with his Disney+ announcement, Bob lives by the mantra – ‘innovate or die’. There can be no innovation if one operates out of fear of the new. He also insists that he doesn’t want to be in the business of playing it safe. Of all the lessons he learned in his first year running prime time, the need to be comfortable with failure was the most profound. Not with lack of effort but with the unavoidable truth that if you want innovation—and you should, always—you need to give permission to fail.
- Be yourself
His concluding words are to never forget who you are along the journey. He says the trick is to hold on to that awareness of yourself even as the world tells you how powerful and important you are. The moment you start to believe it all too much, the moment you look yourself in the mirror and see a title emblazoned on your forehead, you’ve lost our way. He says that this might be the hardest but also the most necessary lesson to keep in mind, that wherever you are along the path, you’re the same person we’ve always been.