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THE IMAGINEERS, TELEFUSION AND ABZ

The Inevitable Collision

The big question, in the mid-to-late 90s, was how Disney was going to survive its inevitable collision with the internet. At the time, the company made two bets:

One was on a functioning business unit named “Disney Go.” They took existing businesses like ESPN and the Theme Parks and moved them to the internet. They made money. It looked good.

The second bet was on a small group of thinkers, integrated within the Disney Imagineers, who were charged with creating a visionary “blue sky” plan for the company.

I had the extraordinary privilege of being part of that blue sky team. Spoiler alert: The guys who made the money won. This case study is a lesson in how you can have great ideas and genuine vision and still go down in a blaze of glory. 

It’s also about a small phoenix rising from the ashes: Zoog Disney.

The Backstory

One evening at a dinner party, someone said to my wife, “Fred likes that computer stuff, right? He knows about that? I have a friend who’s looking for computer people to help with a project.”

It’s hard to overstate just how primitively and naively media people were approaching the internet in the 90s. In some companies, there was actually a debate over whether internet activities — from web pages to forums to gaming — should be placed in the IT department. 

Around this time, Michael Eisner and Mike Ovitz (yeah, this was when Ovitz was at Disney), decided to fund a small group of Imagineers to study what would happen when Television and the Internet collided. At the same time, they also funded the Disney GO unit to bring a number of its businesses to the web. (Which is why you see the url “ESPN.GO.COM” flash in the window when you go to ESPN on the web.) 

Our dinner party friend sent me to see Gerry Laybourne, who had recently come to Disney after an astoundingly successful career at MTV Networks, where she founded Nickelodeon. 

Gerry had (and I believe still has) a rule of hiring: the “60 second rule.” “I know within 60 seconds if I want to work with this person or not.” It’s totally gut. Of course, a lot of due diligence goes into getting in front of Gerry. But as someone who’s done a ton of casting, I know that what she’s saying is true: You know the minute someone walks in if it’s wrong and you can trust your gut if it’s going to be great. 

Within 60 seconds, Gerry and I were talking about The Well (where I still have an email address that dates back to 1986), websites, “push” and “pull” media (the subject of a recent Kevin Kelly Wired cover), and what was going to happen when the internet “collides” with traditional media.

Gerry assembled a group of producers and creators who had experience in creating new forms of media. She matched them with a small group of the Disney Imagineers who had been brought in by Ovitz to re-imagine Disney in the internet age. 

Ovitz treated these technology people like rock stars. He recruited Bran Ferren, Danny Hillis, Alan Kay and Eric Haseltine, among others. He feted them in the exclusive dining rooms of the Disney building. He gave them carte blanche to explore wherever and whatever they wanted to. Alan Kay was building an alternative coding language for kids. Eric was working on far-reaching mobile technologies. Danny introduced Gerry and our working group to Marvin Minsky, and Seymour Papert at MIT. On the Imagineer side, we worked with brilliant people like Eddie Sotto. 

Early on, we realized that what we were creating wasn’t media that would replace media, but someting that was going to transform media. We called it “Telefusion,” and went to work for many months on a presentation about the challenges inherent in the coming collision.

As a creative and someone who would one day manage creatives, the 18 months or so that I spent working with Disney and the Imagineers taught me probably half of what I now bring to the table in my work. 

THE IMAGINEER WAY 

(For a history of the Imagineers, try Marty Sklar’s books, or at the very least his Wikipedia page.) 

Anyone who has ever set foot in a Disney park ends up being in awe of the imagination, attention to detail and wild creativity on display. All of that is a result of “Imagineering.” Thanks to Walt Disney, John Hench, Marty Sklar and other founders of the group, there is a framework and discipline that powers all of that creativity. The most astounding thing about it is that this creativity is reliable and dependable. They’ve built a well that dips into the human river of imagination, and the bucket comes up full almost every time! 

Telefusion had access to a team of new Imagineers who had been brought in to imagine what Disney would look like on the internet. Recruited from Apple, Microsoft and the MIT Media Lab, they differed wildly from the animators, architects, filmmakers and engineers who built the parks. But they were working with the same set of creative disciplines. 

This was a dream job. Where else would you get a phone call on Monday to attend a brainstorm on Wednesday, and then be told “Oh, and we’re meeting at the Wilderness Lodge at Disney World. We’ll stay a couple of days.” 

Not only were we meeting in theme parks and technology meccas around the country but, thanks to the Imagineer badges some of us received, we could go behind the scenes whenever we wanted. One evening, I found myself staring up at a ceiling full of wires and circuits while someone muttered “I think the yellow one goes straight to President Lincoln.” I also saw a guy wearing the bottom half of a Donald Duck costume, sucking hungrily on a cigarette during his break. By the way, this is why no one under a certain age is allowed backstage… they don’t want to traumatize anyone.

If you’re going to understand Imagineering, you might want to start with a form of brainstorming called a “Charette.” The Charette gets its name from the early days of Disney animation, when a cart that would be rolled by the desks of animators, architects and artisans at the end of every working day. Charette is the French word for Chariot. 

These brainstorms were highly disciplined and designed to produce results. They used many of the same brainstorming tools that we’ve all seen in various forms: vision boards, mind-maps, sticky notes, etc. etc. The difference between an Imagineer employing these tools and the average person is the difference between watching someone whistling outside Carnegie Hall and a concert violinist. 

The main thing Imagineering taught me was confidence that you WILL find an idea. It’s ALWAYS scary to throw yourself into a creative endeavor. And the Imagineers were no less scared. But they had decades of experience at throwing themselves off the cliff and coming back with something wonderful.

One of my favorite Imagineer-Charette stories involved a brainstorm that had been called to design a second water park in Disney World. The original water park, Typhoon Lagoon, had become jammed with visitors. The Imagineers were charged with creating another. They spent two days trying to come up with something wildly imaginative, but every idea was wrong in one way or another. 

They were wrapping up after the second day, ready to throw in the towel, when one of them just blurted out, “The water is snow melting. It’s melting snow at a ski resort.” In a couple of hours, Blizzard Beach was conceived. 

Once you have the story, everything falls into place. You just have to trust yourself. 

Many of the other rules/disciplines that the Imagineers employ actually match up with creative principles I’d experienced working at Letterman, with Norman Lear, and at Twitter.

  • Have a clear story. Like Blizzard Beach, there’s a very clear storyline to everything the Imagineers do, whether it’s the Animal Kingdom or Cars Land. 
    • That story HAS to be powerful, emotional and clear. Which reminds me of another very cool bit of Imagineer lore I picked up:
      • For YEARS, an Imagineer named Joe Rohde (a man who joked “I put the earring in Imagineering,”… click that link!) pushed and pushed to have Disney create something within Disney World that would celebrate animals and the planet. The board kept dismissing this as a “zoo,” and kept rejecting the multi-multi-million dollar investment this was going to take. Joe kept saying “This isn’t a zoo. You’re going to be so close to the animals, you’ll feel like you’re part of their lives!” 
      • The board gave Joe ONE MORE chance to pitch the idea. He put a “ringer” in the room, who asked him, point blank, “I don’t get it. What’s so special about being close to an animal?”
      • At which point, Joe opened the doors to the board room and brought in a giant Bengal Tiger, who paced around the board room for a moment. Everyone was silent. 
      • “That’s what’s so special.” 
      • He got his money. The Animal Kingdom is wonderful. 
  • Know your audience and see the world through their eyes. This is VERY much like Norman’s “What does the audience see.”
    • One of the most humbling experiences in my life was when I visited the Haunted Mansion. I made what I thought was a pretty funny joke at the part of the ride when it looks like a ghost is sitting next to you. Then one of the Imagineers showed me the ride from backstage… turns out every third or fourth person makes the same joke. And feels  just as funny and smart. 
  • Give them what they need to know right now, just to take them from one step to the next. The Imagineers are geniuses at this. For example, as I’ve been told, the storefronts on Main Street are slightly tilted so that you see less of them when you enter the park (they want you to move forward), and more of them when you’re leaving (they want you to visit). 
    • At some point in my time watching the Imagineers, I jotted down: Approach, Encounter, Engage. I think that’s a pretty fair summary of their work — and what you want to do with users / audiences everywhere. 
  • Make sure the audience knows where they are. Walt Disney insisted that there were “Wienies” everywhere in the park. A “Wienie” is a landmark that you can see from anywhere, that tells you where you are. Cinderella’s Castle. Space Mountain. The big ball in EPCOT. You get the idea. Or, as Sheldon Scwhartz once said “Puzzled People Can’t Laugh.” 
  • Don’t overload the audience. They’ve got a story in their heads. You’re giving them just enough information. If it’s delightful and great… that’s good enough! Don’t throw something else in, just to have something else. 
  • That Said – Always ask yourself “Can I Make This Better?” And then do it! 
    • There’s a great story about the early days of Disneyland. People were cutting diagonally from corner to corner, on the grass in front of Cinderella’s castle. They were wearing a trail into the grass. One of the Imagineers asked Walt if they should put in hedges or bigger fences. “No, build a sidewalk,” Walt said. 

I could go on — like I said, there’s great books written about the Imagineers, and the best of them are by Marty Sklar, who went from being “the kid” on the team in the 50s to the leader of the Imagineers into the 21st Century. 

SO… WHAT HAPPENED TO TELEFUSION? 

How did our Imagineer work influence the pitch we made to Eisner & Co? 

We titled our project “ABZ.” The idea was that we could use digital to take kids from from A to Z. This was entertainment aimed directly at what we knew was at the heart of the internet (even in the mid-90s): Everyone would be able to find out everything about everything. 

One of our frequent brainstormers, Drew Takahashi, had kind of a breakthrough moment one day. We were talking about sets/set design/TV. We had a moveable whiteboard on wheels. He took the whiteboard and turned it around and wrote ABZ on the back.

“ABZ is the inside, the ‘works,’ the behind-the-scenes of everything.” That’s what kids would want from an internet entertainment brand: Transparency. Authenticity. See how the sausage was made, in an entertaining way.

We had a story: it’s all about an “inside out” world where kids are on the inside. 

All of that made ABZ a “learning” brand, and that’s what we pitched to Eisner & Co. We talked about how kids would go everywhere BUT Disney on the internet if the company didn’t make a full-scale push to embrace them. We showed how we could “ABZ” the audience and lead them quickly into the behind-the-scenes of everything Disney, from ESPN to Animation to their favorite ABC shows. 

We had great ideas, great thinking, and great passion. Looking back, I think all we were missing was a Bengal Tiger. 

They passed. Maybe because we used the “E” word: Education. Maybe because we didn’t really know how we’d make money (we had a kind of Nickelodeon “If we build it” plan). 

After 6 months of work, we were all decimated. BUT… (AND HERE’S AN IMPORTANT LESSON)… some things survived. One of them was The Zoogs. 

SNATCHING VICTORY FROM THE JAWS OF DEFEAT 

Anne Sweeney, Rich Ross and the people at the Disney Channel (all of whom had once been hired or worked for Gerry) had been watching ABZ from the sidelines. After Eisner passed, they presented me with a challenge: The channel had a solid block of programming on Sunday afternoons aimed at Tweens. (I don’t remember all of it, but one show, Bug Juice, was a reality show set at a summer camp. It was pretty terrific.) The block re-ran on Saturdays.

Ratings on Saturdays were dismal. They thought that maybe they could build up some interaction on the web for their tween audience during the week and drive them to watch the re-runs. 

One of the creative people I was working with came up with an idea for a group of characters who lived in the “Zeether,” the land where digits flowed. She called them Zoogs. It was a brilliant idea. We all pitched in, creating characters, a land, and a set of games/forums and activities that kids could watch on the air during the original episodes on Sunday Afternoons, and then see their results (names, comments, high scores, etc.) during the Saturday reruns.

The Zoogs had a great story! 

It looked like this:

It worked. Really well. Mission accomplished.

OH… And Gerry left Disney and founded Oxygen, based on the principles of TV and interconnectivity we had all explored during our time together. 

So… You learn to generate ideas. You learn to concept, produce and deliver. You do your best work…and usually something survives.