“You are too short for Goofy” said the Disney costume expert. “You’d better find another character.”
We were inside an underground world, adjacent to Walt Disney World, but hidden. I was a new employee – about to dress up as a character, to learn what the magic is all about - from the inside out.
Momentarily crushed, I suggested Pluto – another childhood favorite.
“Nah- you are too thin,” snorted the costumer.
We eventually settled on Friar Tuck.
I spent the next 4 hours learning about my character. This included the fitting - then how to ‘stay in character’. And critically - how to deal with the sauna-like environment inside the stifling gorilla-like suit.
It was all worthwhile - once the pearly gates of Walt Disney World opened and ‘Friar Tuck’ plus the more recognizable Disney Characters entered the fray - hundreds of kids who thought the magic was real approached us.
About the same time, then CEO Michael Eisner promised Wall Street the company would continue to grow at 20% net profit a year. New films, new divisions like cruise ships and licensing had sparked tremendous growth – Disney was back and sticking to a formula that worked.
But Eisner and the Board wanted more. Organic growth would not be enough.
Disney had to go shopping.
So the company went on a buying spree –first acquiring Miramax films then ESPN and ABC.
We were particularly excited by Miramax - a serious film company; and we Disney-ites welcomed a change from fantasy.
Until we realized that the deal was led by the bottom line – Miramax’s films often made money and lots of it – and that Disney magic did not mesh with Miramax magic.
The cultures didn’t sync. The general public eventually wondered how the two brands could co-exist. The first co-release was about a Priest who molested kids.
The Money got in the way of the Magic and soon our growth diminished. The company lost its way – and half its market value. It took 10 years to recover.
Every company goes through the growth conundrum at some point. You create, refine, re-brand a product or service. Company leaders then demand faster growth. Something gives.
It doesn’t have to be just about Disney’s brand of Magic.
A few years ago, I asked Olivier Mariee why he went into the insurance business. The Global director of Marketing for AXA paused, as if deciding what reason to give. His answer surprised me: “My girlfriend’s father died young –and without warning, of a heart attack. He was the only income earner. The family was grieving. Worse, the future was grim - they had no other source of income. They were terrified and alone. I asked if they were insured – they had no idea, it had all been so sudden. So one day, I went to their flat which was a mess and searched through boxes and drawers in the night. I didn’t know what I was looking for. But eventually I found a well worn piece of paper, a policy – the family had a lifeline.
For Olivier, and his company AXA, this was later to be called the ‘moment of truth’ – insurance speak for what companies do to help when people really need support.
AXA spend a lot of time balancing their quest for growth and profit with passion for being there for customers when they really need the support. Without this ‘moment of truth’ – this magical delivery of service at time of need – there would be no business. Whenever AXA cuts corners to make profits and cuts this area – they suffer as Disney did – significant long term loses. They must balance their own Magic v. Money equation, too.
At this point, think about your own company – how often do you struggle making the balance right between making money and keeping your product’s potency? Are you the one driving for more revenue? Or protecting the mojo that built the company in the first place? Do you find yourself justifying commercial decisions in order to meet a ‘stretch’ target that often has little connection to reality? Or questioning why customers start to leave – and realizing it’s because what brought the company to a successful place has lost its value and edge in the pursuit of profit.
I am wrestling with this with my own company today, a company built on music magic. In March of 2009 I was at a bar with two friends, listening to a band called the “Friendly Fires”. They were great. But it was hard to hear them because half the people in the bar were talking or texting or drinking – instead of focusing on the music.
So my friends and I went to my mate Dave’s house in North London – inviting 8 more friends and then waiting for Dave - a singer-songwriter – to share his music. Oh and we told everyone to shut up.
All your could hear was my mate’s grandfather clock ticking when the music began. It was amazing.
We did this again the next month – and by the third time there was a line out the door to get in. Eventually we started to film these events – by then called ‘songs from a room’ or Sofar Sounds.
No matter where or when we did it though – we demanded people respect the sanctity of the event – no texting or talking just listening.
Four years later, it went Global – people running these same Sofar Sounds events across dozens of cities. We didn’t think about making money yet – only capturing that music magic in the room.
Today we are in 92 cities across 5 continents – and only now thinking about commercializing what we built. It’s worth FAR more because it grew so fast via the purity of the idea, and allowing anyone to come who couldn’t afford a ticket, as it was a donation-led event.
What keeps us up into the night is considering how to keep the vibe of what we’ve created and face the commercial music.
Now then - not everyone can afford this ‘hobby’ approach before turning it in to a business. But whether you dress up as Mickey Mouse, ensure you are insured or begin to ticket secret gigs – don’t let the money get in the way of the magic.
Click Here to hear: You Can Do Magic by America (you will be humming it for days).
Picture: The late Bill Bixby (aka Bruce Banner) from the short-lived 1970s Paramount crime/ magic drama: The Magician