Caroline Frost talks to Kevin Mayer, the Disney veteran who oversaw the launch of Disney+ and who aims to turn DAZN into the Netflix of sport.
At the beginning of August, Reese Witherspoon sold her company, Hello Sunshine. Even in a world where film-stars-turned-brands have become 10 a penny, the Oscar winner made international headlines thanks to the jaw-dropping sale price – reportedly $900m. Witherspoon said she was “thrilled to be working with Blackstone, Kevin, and Tom to grow a next-generation media company”.
That Kevin was Kevin Mayer and, if this latest venture brought him more attention than he has had throughout his 25-year career, including his roles at Disney, TikTok and now DAZN, it is also the natural evolution for a man who has made magic out of identifying the next sweet spot where technology and entertainment meet.
This prophetic skill was first in evidence way back in the early 1990s, when Mayer took his first job at Disney. He recalls realising the potential for the online delivery of entertainment: “We were a bit ahead of our time. We traded a venture with some telephone companies. We were going to deliver this on-demand streaming content over the internet in the late 1990s – but the internet wasn’t ready for it, it wasn’t capable.”
By the time Mayer returned to Disney, in 2005, this time as executive vice-president for corporate strategy and development, technology was catching up with his vision. Disney boss Bob Iger commissioned him to position the company so that it could deliver content to people’s devices. Most eye-catchingly in the decade that followed, that meant embarking on an unprecedented spending spree.
Mayer explains why acquisitions were always going to be as important as any technological innovation: “We wanted to future-proof the company. We could see that technology was going to enable consumers to have more and more control over what they consumed and where. We didn’t know what that meant for our business models and how we got revenues and profits.
“We wanted to make sure we had the right assets in place [and] we had the right content and brands that mattered most to consumers – so that, no matter what happened to technology, no matter how it impacted the delivery of content, our content would be needed.
“Buy the brands because, in a world of infinite choice, brands really matter, and high-quality content would be better in the long run. We thought that doing fewer things better would be super important in the future, and that led to our acquisitions.
“We couldn’t do all of that on our own. Sometimes, you have to go buy some things – and, in hindsight, we made some very judicious acquisitions.
“It’s hard to imagine Disney without Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, Hulu. What would Disney be without those? A much, much smaller company, probably part of another company. We’d have been bought by now.”
Mayer’s achievements during his 15-year tenure no doubt helped the meteoric rise of Disney’s share price during the period.
Appropriately for a man who studied electrical engineering at college and wanted to be a naval aviator when he was in high school, it is a technological disruption that is Mayer’s own proudest memory: “I loved the acquisitions, seeing them flower and bloom, but my own personal favourite is launching Disney+ and ESPN+. I took them from the beginning, bought the technical infrastructure to launch them and assembled the team. I love leading teams.”
Last year saw some huge changes for Mayer. He resigned from Disney to become COO of the Chinese company ByteDance, which made him the boss of social media app TikTok at a time of extraordinary growth and engagement beyond the initial youth market. Unfortunately, this also coincided with some serious arm-twisting by the Trump White House to force ByteDance to sever its US operations.
While this move was halted, Mayer left after only a few months, but has only positive things to say. He reflects: “It was testing. One thing I realised is that geopolitical matters can have a huge impact. From a product perspective, it was incredible. The team were all high-quality people, good and solid. TikTok is an exceptionally high-quality product; the unique characteristics of the AI [plus] the ability to parse and get short-form videos to the audience in real time, at scale, are remarkable.
“I use it all the time and it will be a permanent part of the future of entertainment. It was unfortunate that the geopolitical factors got in the way of what I think I could have accomplished there.”
Mayer didn’t exactly go and lick his wounds, nor rest on his laurels. Instead, last October, the corporate veteran went on his own down a path that he makes sound deceptively simple. He raised $300m of capital and founded a Spac (special purpose acquisition company) called Forest Road Acquisition Group, with former Disney colleague Tom Staggs.
Mayer explains: “Spacs are ephemeral. You buy a company, you take it public and then the Spac is gone. I’m still on the board at Beachbody [one of the company’s first acquisitions]. I thought the Spac was relatively fast moving, I’d never done it before, and it was a lot of fun.”
What made October 2020 the ideal time for such a move? “There’s a time for everything.” Mayer replies. “I’d been in corporate jobs for a long time. They were great but being out of my comfort zone is being more entrepreneurial. I had the platform, some notoriety, I was able to marshal some forces together and I thought, what the hell?”
While Reese Witherspoon’s profile is headline-grabbing, for Mayer it is her business acumen and the values he shares with her team that made the acquisition of Hello Sunshine such an easy decision.
“I have a vision for entertainment that includes traditional long-form content, and the sale of that to streaming channels, but I am also a firm believer that you can extend those properties to social media and connect with influencers and followers for incredible monetisation opportunities.
“When we sat down with Hello Sunshine for the very first meeting, I gave my little spiel – the intersection of technology, content and commerce – and they opened their deck and the first page read ‘Content, commerce and community’. We had the exact same viewpoint for the future, and it’s a match made in heaven.”
Somehow, Mayer has also found the time since February to become Chair of the DAZN Group, the sports streaming company he wants to make “the Netflix of sports”. How? He barely takes a breath before replying: “By delivering what people want at a time and place that people want it.
“It expands the opportunity to see your favourite sports content wherever you may be, but it also allows you to deliver incremental values, such as different camera angles, opportunities for betting – most betting is done in-game – and the ability to have commerce opportunities, be it jerseys or NFTs [non-fungible tokens, or unique digital content]. It expands the opportunity for fans to get what they want out of sports.”
With other board roles, either non-exec or advisory, to fill in any spare hours of the day, I wonder if there is an overall mission statement for Mayer’s future roles. “A unified field theory?” he asks, still the science enthusiast. “I love operating at the intersection of technology and entertainment. I think it’s an incredible universe of opportunity, challenge, change and dynamism. That’s where I am going to spend the rest of my career. You’ll see that theme running across everything else I do.”
Kevin Mayer is an international keynote speaker at the RTS Cambridge Convention 2021.