WWhen I joined Disney to work in their movie division in 1995, game-changing events were taking place in the industry. My first task was to market the original Toy Story in Asia, which was distributed by Disney when Steve Jobs' Pixar was still a small computer animation studio with big ideas.
So here was this groundbreaking, technologically advanced, strange-looking computer-animated full-length movie about kids' plastic playthings. The animation purists decried the move. Marketers around the world scratched their heads and had to think hard on how to sell this one. It was breathtakingly different, truly inspired. But — how to make this work? People in Asia didn't know these toys. The genre didn't fit into anything we knew before.
The countries that marketed the movie based on the coolness of the technology underperformed. They couldn't engage audiences to want to see the movie on the basis of wow and pixels.
The ones that did succeed focused on one eternally powerful principle: the story and the characters that make up that story.
The story — as John Lasseter, Pixar's (and now Disney's) creative genius and director of the original Toy Story would tell you — is everything. You can pile on the eye-popping effects, but what really matters is how and where it transports you. The characters, well, they need to engage us, endear us, amuse us, annoy us — whatever. Just make us feel something.
Newspapers have a lot in common with Disney. For a start, we're both storytellers. True, our stories have to be grounded in fact versus fantasy. But just like a Disney movie, our stories have to engage our audiences, transporting their hearts and minds into a world of discovery and experience, however harrowing, uplifting, eye-opening or just mildly entertaining those thoughts might be.
Fast forward 15 years and Steve Jobs' Apple has done something equally revolutionary again. He has shown us how a new platform — the iPad — can change the experience of storytelling. Once again, the consumer technology guru has his name attached to another game-changing event in the movie industry, providing a new window through which to experience your favourite stories and characters, through apps and interaction.
Only this time, it affects us, too. We've been getting used to life outside paper, just as movies have been getting used to life outside the silver screen. First came the internet, then home entertainment systems, then smartphones. But this is the first time we've come across a medium that enables us to take our storytelling to a new level — one that's like reading a newspaper, only amped up several notches.
But let's pause for breath. Yes, the iPad is here. And by Christmas there will be many more tablets, requiring multiple different apps. With limited newsroom resources still putting out a daily newspaper, limited production deadlines and a fledgling pool of developers and multi-media editors, how do we take this raging bull by the horns?
For a start, we should learn a lesson from both Disney and Steve Jobs. Whatever you do, do it well. As technology and the tide of consumer demand changes, we need to focus on what makes us unique, who we are as a brand, and what unique stories we tell. Then relish the opportunity to maximize the unique attributes of our chosen new platform to tell our stories more effectively, rather than just plopping in a ready-made product developed for another medium and making do.
As to our all-star cast, well, we can't own our columnists and milk the downstream rights quite in the same way that Disney owns Woody and Buzz. But we can ensure they are engaging characters that support our brand story and help us push up the daily appetite for the next installment.
I'll close with another lesson learned from Mr. Jobs: seamless integration of marketing and product. We need to engineer integrated news organisations where marketing, editorial and product development are much more closely aligned. Mr. Jobs is unique in that he has a natural skill in both marketing and consumer product development — to the point where the lines are blurred, but the brand personality is inherent throughout. Not many of us have a foot in both camps, so we need to rely on powerful teamwork.
So come on, Clark Kent. Let's leave the stuffy old Daily Planet newsroom and join Woody and Buzz at the Pizza Planet!