Disney Boss Kevin Mayer: Brilliant Dealmaker or ‘Bully’? Both, Insiders Say

The Disney+ boss and potential successor to Bob Iger is widely admired for his dealmaking prowess but he’s also feared internally for an unrelenting personal style

Disney sees big things for Kevin Mayer, the master strategist behind Disney’s bold acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox who is overseeing the imminent launch of its biggest gamble in years — the Disney+ streaming service that aims to challenge Netflix in the dominant medium for entertainment content.

But interviews with nearly a dozen former colleagues and subordinates suggest that Mayer’s unvarnished personal style has sparked concerns about his leadership and, as one ex-Disney executive put it, “a sense of dread” about the media giant’s future should he assume even more responsibility — especially as a possible successor to longtime CEO Bob Iger.

The 57-year-old chairman of Walt Disney Direct-to-Consumer & International has been described by former colleagues as a “bulldozer,” a “screamer” and someone with a “bruising and belittling style.” Three used the words “bully” to describe him. At least one senior executive has left the company rather than report to him because of these issues, according to two knowledgeable individuals.

Two other insiders told TheWrap that Mayer has been working with an outside executive coach to develop a more tolerant management style. Disney and Mayer both declined to comment for this story, but an individual close to the situation told TheWrap: “It’s not uncommon for individuals who are no longer with the company to malign and disparage those they worked with or for.” That individual also denied that Mayer had worked with a coach.

Kevin Mayer

Kevin Mayer introduces Disney+ plans at August 2019’s D23 event. (Getty Images)

In a few short years, Mayer — an MIT graduate who played offensive tackle for the school’s football team — has moved from running business strategy to amassing five sprawling areas of control within the corporation: Disney+ direct to consumer, technology, international, global ad sales and global distribution. And he is just one step from the chief executive himself.

By most accounts, Mayer has earned that rise in responsibility after his years as the company’s head of strategy, in which he led the game-changing acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and Twentieth Century Fox.

“He is in the most critical role for the future of Disney,” one top former Disney executive told TheWrap. “He is the architect of the [direct-to-consumer] strategy, and is responsible for it across Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu.”

“He’s been working with incredible success and diligence for 15 years. Kevin rose to every challenge that Bob and others gave him,” said Nick van Dyk, Mayer’s top lieutenant until he left to become co-president of Activision Blizzard Studios in 2014. “It’s a lot easier to find reasons not to do something than to do something. He has an ability to see the art of the possible in these things — that’s not an easy skill to own. Kevin has maintained an ability to apply critical thinking, be very rigorous, without sacrificing the vision of what could be.”

The steady rise suggests that Mayer may have emerged as the most likely successor to Iger, whose contract expires in December 2021 after 16 years at the company. Many use the word “brilliant” to describe Mayer’s dealmaking ability in particular.

But one obstacle to his ascension may be his temperament. Even admirers say he needs seasoning. “He’s incredibly smart, but he needs to learn a bedside manner,” a Mayer friend and non-Disney media executive said. “His job for 30 years has been to beat people up on deals.”

Mayer is known to send emails with the subject lines in all caps — “the email equivalent of screaming in person,” the  former colleague said. A Disney executive said that Mayer sometimes does send messages in all capital letters, but noted they are positive in nature.

Van Dyk also acknowledged Mayer’s brusque style: “Does he raise his voice? Yes. Does he call people to task? Yes. Is it always pleasant? No. I was at the receiving end of hard-earned lessons. But there’s a fundamental integrity to him that is a different type, like a colonel in the Marines.”

Another former colleague added: “I admire his intellect, strategic acumen and his linebacker ability to bulldoze anything in his path. On the other hand, I have witnessed his bullying, his brutality, his ego and pettiness and his self-absorption — throwing blame in every direction — and avoiding responsibility for the smallest, most meaningless failures.” Those minor lapses might include being left off a cc list or expressing disagreement in front of Iger or a board member, the former colleague said.

janice marinelli

Former Disney exec Janice Marinelli (Getty Images)

Mayer’s personal style has also led to turnover in the top ranks of the company. Janice Marinelli, the former president of global sales and marketing at Walt Disney’s direct-to-consumer and international segment, reported to Mayer when he took on global ad sales in early 2018. According to two company insiders, Mayer’s bruising style became intolerable to the veteran sales executive and she chose to leave the company this summer after 34 years.

Marinelli declined to comment for this story. Disney also declined to comment.

But according to the knowledgeable insider, Mayer once “reamed” Marinelli in front of others in 2015 for selling Disney content to the highest bidder, Netflix, and not to Hulu, where he was a board member at the time and where Disney had a significant stake. (It has since acquired control of the service following the Fox acquisition.) Mayer accused Marinelli of being too close to Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos and of acting in bad faith. Marinelli was stunned given her decades of loyalty to Disney, the individual said.

The dispute set the stage for her departure four years later, when Mayer became her boss.

In July, Mayer released a statement about Marinelli on her departure: “Janice has contributed immeasurably to Disney over the past three decades architecting and successfully negotiating thousands of innovative deals that have benefited our company and will continue to do so for years to come. I am so grateful for her insightful counsel and steadfast collaboration over the past year as we laid the foundation for DTCI and the upcoming launch of Disney+.”

Mayer’s rough style has also been noticed in the international division he now runs. “Recognizing different cultures and methods of operations is absolutely not Kevin’s strength,” said a former international executive who knows Disney well. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all strategy. There are different dynamics, different rules and regulations.” But now, the individual said, “There’s a sense that Burbank has taken back control.”

The executive’s brusque approach to managing his team is not a secret at Disney, or among his allies. “I wouldn’t use the word bully, but I’m not going to lie and say he’s the easiest guy to work for,” van Dyk said. “He’s a challenging boss and he demands excellence — that’s how he’s delivered over time.”

Two individuals familiar with the situation told TheWrap that Mayer has been seeing a coach to work on these issues, and one of them said that the efforts have paid off and that Mayer has improved. But a third person, who had also been told about the coaching, joked about how strong an intervention would be required: “Yeah, a coach with an electroshock collar,” he deadpanned. (Another individual close to Mayer denied he has worked with an executive coach.)

kevin mayer disney infographic

TheWrap

Mayer was initially recruited to work for Disney in 1993 after graduating with an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1990 — after majoring in mechanical engineering at MIT and earning a master’s in electrical engineering from San Diego State University.

He was brought in to spearhead Disney’s strategy and business development as it related to technology. From there he moved up to executive vice president of Disney’s internet group, responsible for the operations, business plans, creative direction and distribution of Disney’s most popular web sites, including ESPN and ABC News.

In 2000, Mayer left Disney for a brief stint as chief executive of Playboy.com, which surprised many given the cultural distance between the two companies. He told the Wall Street Journal at the time that he saw the role as “a great opportunity to join a great brand and continue its expansion into multimedia,” and that his friends had already called for “party invitations to the (Playboy) mansion.”

His big initiative at the time had been to shepherd the online arm of Playboy Enterprises through an IPO. The IPO was ultimately shelved once the bottom fell out of the dot-com market, but Mayer had already left the company after less than five months. At the time, the Chicago Tribune reported that Mayer left in part because he wanted to reduce the amount of nudity on Playboy’s free Web site and confine it to behind the paywall.

Mayer’s stint at Playboy is notably missing from his bio on the Disney website and on Wikipedia.

Mayer rejoined Disney in 2005 after heading up the global media and entertainment practice as a partner at L.E.K. Consulting LLC, and a stint serving as chairman and CEO of Clear Channel Interactive.

Once back under the Disney umbrella, Mayer began to model himself after his bosses, Iger and then-Chief Operating Officer Tom Staggs, dressing more conservatively. “He has done all the things Disney execs do to model Bob,” one former colleague said. “Nicer clothes. Lose weight, yell less. But he can’t contain or control himself.”

But he did move to transform the company into the dominant force in Hollywood that it has become. He played an integral role in the acquisition of Pixar in 2006. From there, Mayer led the push to acquire Marvel, Lucasfilm and the Fox assets. “The whole franchise strategy that Bob went after — that was Kevin. He did that deal,” the media executive close to Mayer said. “Marvel was Kevin. Lucas was Kevin’s idea. Everyone thought it was too rich. Kevin was the architect.”

Indeed, one former top-level Disney executive told TheWrap that it took a while to get Iger excited about the prospect of acquiring Marvel, which cost a then-stunning $4 billion but has reaped $18 billion at the global box office since 2012. “We had to talk him into a meeting,” the executive said, recalling that during the meeting Mayer pushed points to a degree that would annoy Iger.

Most of the time, though, insiders said Mayer has cannily followed Iger’s lead — including the shift from focusing on multichannel TV to on-demand streaming. “Just two years ago, he was the fiercest defender of the traditional MVPD ecosystem,” said the former top-level executive, referring to legacy cable and satellite TV. “But as Bob pivoted, Kevin pivoted too, and completely reinvented himself.”

He has also positioned himself behind Iger, careful never to steal the spotlight from the CEO.

Disney executive Kevin Mayer, No. 75, played offensive tackle during his time at MIT. (Courtesy of MIT)

Disney executive Kevin Mayer, No. 75, played offensive tackle during his time at MIT. (Courtesy of MIT)

The planned roll out of Disney+ could go a long way in informing how Mayer is viewed, both within Disney and among Wall Street analysts, and whether he is given the chance to step up as a clear frontrunner to be Iger’s successor.

Mayer’s current role provides him with crucial operational experience that he has previously lacked, managing thousands of people and vast swaths of the Disney business. It is here that his personality is hitting challenges — but that’s not the only obstacle, Disney veterans have said, noting his lack of experience with the creative side of the entertainment business.

“Sure, there’s the people piece, but also the creativity piece,” one 15-year Disney veteran who has left the company said. “What makes the company, what’s in the forefront, is that fine mix between creativity and people skills. Trying to manage all that given his personality and temperament is going to be challenging.”

So much rides on the success of Iger and Mayer’s big bet on streaming. Disney CFO Christine McCarthy said in April that Disney plans to have somewhere between 60 million and 90 million subscribers by 2024, two-thirds of which they expect to come from outside the U.S.

To help get them there, Disney is pumping roughly $1 billion into Disney+ in 2020, and plans to ramp that annual investment up to around $2.5 billion by 2024. Netflix, by comparison, is expected to spend $15 billion on content in 2019.

Disney is throwing all of its cards on the table. By the end of year one, Disney+ will tout more than 7,500 episodes of TV and 500 movies — including Jon Favreau’s highly anticipated “Star Wars” spinoff series, “The Mandalorian,” as well as a large number of existing Disney films and series from Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm.

The new service is competitively priced at just $6.99 a month and $69.99 a year — compared to $8.99 per month for basic streaming on Netflix. And to beef up its exclusivity, the company is giving up significant revenue — which outside analysts have pegged between $700 million to $1 billion a year — from content that previously went to rival streaming services like Netflix.

One close observer said this is as high as stakes get. “Kevin could wash out. They’ve priced it so aggressively — and they’re investing so much money, there’s forgone profits from taking their content off Netflix, which no one talks about. It’s a ‘bet the farm’ thing. He’s going to have a very public reckoning. If it’s a success, it will be hard to keep him from the brass ring.”

Media analyst Richard Tullo said that it’s not a foregone conclusion that the Disney+ launch will go off without a hitch. “It’s easy to talk about it, but now they have to actually launch the service and reaching their bar of 100 million subscribers is going to be a challenge,” Tullo said, rounding up the company’s projected 2024 subscriber goal. “Now if it’s successful, yeah, it definitely positions him well.”

Others, like longtime friend and Disney adviser Michael Kassan, are more confident. “In my view, he’ll be one of the leaders of the entertainment industry, full stop,” he said.

On Thursday, Part 2:  Can Anyone Replace Bob Iger? The Fraught Reality of Disney’s Succession Plan

Trey Williams contributed to this report. 

Sharon Waxman

Sharon Waxman

Sharon Waxman, is the founder, CEO and Editor in Chief of TheWrap. She is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author, and was a Hollywood correspondent for The New York Times.



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