Michael Eisner and culture

Eisner Who is Michael Eisner?  We know this much: until recently he ran Walt Disney Co. 

But important particulars are unclear. 

If you read the press surrounding his last days at Disney and the treatment that appears in DisneyWar, you could be forgiven the impression that Eisner was punching above his weight.  You say to yourself, "Ok, not so smart."

But the interview in today’s Ad Age gives a different impression.  Eisner is smart and penetrating.  You can hear the snap of intelligence, the power of a mind that goes right at things.  You say, "Ah, sighted!" (This intersection in the Venn diagram is underpopulated.  "Real smart" plus "real worldly" is rare.)

Now the question is this: does Michael Eisner know the market place?   More particularly, does he know the cultural aspects of the marketplace?  Ad Age’s Claude Brodesser-Akner’s raises the question.

Ad Age: One of the ironies of spending two decades as the head of a big media conglomerate is that you’re paid to have your finger on the pulse of what’s cool and where popular culture is going, but the job almost makes you the most isolated person on the planet. How does a 65-year-old multimillionaire stay connected to what’s cool these days so that he knows he’s headed in the right direction?

Eisner replies:

Well, we’re all much more connected now by new media, so you’d have to be pretty much brain-dead not to be connected. I have the benefit of being in the baby-boom generation, which was always the largest part of the population. I never spent any time thinking about popular entertainment: I just lived it. And I don’t think about it now. You’re informed by the very nature of being alive. A good story is still a good story.

Eisner says he stays in touch with culture because:

1. he is part of the biggest cohort in our culture, boomers. 

2. he lives his life, and this life is, as all lives are, soaked through by the media streams.

3.The growth of new media, and faster access to old media, gives him access to the information he needs. 

Well, let’s have a look at each of these.

1. Yes, Mr. Eisner is a boomer.  Does this mean he knows about culture. Well, I guess it means he knows about boomer culture.  But are we not obliged to acknowledge that boomers are moving away from contemporary culture at speed.  Symptoms?  They don’t quite get The Simpsons, not to mention Family Guy or American Dad.  In sum, being a boomer means a person is out of touch with contemporary culture.  Chances are the counter culture of the 90s was a mystery. Chances the social networking and new media are a bit of a blur.

2. Yes, everyone’s life is soaked through with media content.  But when I turn on the radio when driving to the store here in Connecticut, what I hear is Van Halen and Kenny Loggins.  "Soaked through," yes.  "In touch with," no. Now, as the former CEO of Disney, Eisner had a seat at a very interested window, to say nothing of access to the best consulting advice money can by.  And this no doubt gives him a deeper knowledge than most of us.  But, notice, he is not claiming this as his defense.

3. Fair enough, the new media give us extraordinary opportunities to stay in touch, from YouTube as the raw feed of contemporary culture, to the many critics and commentators who work these turbulent waters. Maybe he "hooked up" here in ways that make him knowledgeable and prescient. 

So, one of Eisner’s arguments appear patently wrong (perhaps even self incriminatingly so), one of them appears unlikely, and only one appears possible.  Frankly, we would expect an answer more robust. 

What’s troubling is that line, "I don’t think about [culture] now. You’re informed by the very nature of being alive."  As long as there were three networks, a handful of influential newspapers and magazines, with New York and Los Angeles the ports through which innovation had to pass to find its way to the mainsteam, this might work.  But as we know too well, cultural innovation has exploded.  If we want to stay in touch, we have to think about culture now. 

Of course, it’s not clear that Eisner is very different from the average senior manager or CEO.  Cultural competence is not being cultivated by the American corporation.  But now that it’s (belatedly) clear that Eisner is one of the smart ones, one of the decision makers who will insist on depth and clarity, one of the captains of industry who owe their position to special stores of knowledge, well, we want a better answer to Brodesser-Akner’s  question. 

We only need to add a circle to the Venn diagram to see why.  Real advantage will go to those who are real smart, real worldly, and well informed. 


Brodesser-Akner, Claude.  2007. Eisner on Dentists, Topps and ‘Foolish" Writers Strike.  Ad Age. November 12, 2007.  here.

Stewart, James.  2005.  Disney War.  New York: Simon and Schuster.

Last Note:

Do I need to justify the question asked by Brodesser-Akner?  Here goes. 

Brodesser-Akner’s question is important for the following reasons:

1. culture supplies the foundations & architecture of consumer taste & preference
2. cultural trends help churn consumer taste & preference
3. cultural basics and trends both now change more, more often & less predictably
4. we have to know about culture to be Michael Eisner

9 thoughts on “Michael Eisner and culture

  1. Donald A. Coffin

    Ah, if Eisner is 65 now, then he was born in 1942 (if I can still do arithmetic). The conventional dating of the “baby boom” generation is those born between 1946 and 1964. So Eisner is not a member of the “baby boom” gerneration. He’s one of the rarities, born during WWII. The period from 1933 to 1945 was a long “baby bust” period.

  2. Peter

    Of all the 20th-century age cohorts the baby-boomer generation is the most complacent and self-obsessed, IME. One would be a very rare baby-boomer, and an even rarer boomer-CEO, to take serious cognizance of the culture of the cohorts before or after the boomers. It is telling that the person who best understood the MTV Generation and Generation Y was Florence Skelly, born three decades before the boomers.

  3. srp

    I think Grant’s persistence on this subject is starting to make an impression on me. Should we give MBA students and managers “cultural homework?” As one of those people who tends to ignore a lot of the mega-popular stuff like American Idol or Lindsay Lohan (although I’ve been known to watch Dancing With the Stars), I sometimes feel like there is a tradeoff between being informed about interesting (to me) stuff and being “in touch” with the currents of popular culture. Maybe if we tell people they have to do it, it’ll be classified as “work” rather than goofing off and will get taken more seriously. On the other hand, I’m not sure a dutiful look-in to cultural phenomena conveys the same understanding as spontaneous immersion and enjoyment.

  4. german dziebel

    For academic anthropology, culture has long been a symbol and substance of the discipline, rather than a raw objective reality. Ignoring the culture can therefore also be an informed (meta)cultural decision leading to the establishment of a new “living” cultural start-up. This is something we anthropologists can learn from corporate America. Meanwhile anthropology has to become part of any business curriculum just because it’s the only source of instant strategic and managerial insight that a corporation can get almost for free.

  5. Daniel Rosenblatt

    A possible defense of Eisner would be to note that boomers have a lot of money–being in touch with them in the kind of introspective/intuitive way Eisner claims would therefore be useful even if it implied being generally a bit out of touch. This would work better if most marketers were interested in a much younger demographic–but maybe not Disney: I would imagine that the overwhelming majority of parents of young children, the primary consumers of Disney products, are boomers, or at least were for most of the last 20 years. So Eisner’s response could well have described the basis of his own successful practice without being generalizable to other fields.

  6. Mary W

    Heh. Eisner’s answers sound like what I’d expect to hear from most CEOs, alas.

    In this time of the Long Tail and the nichefication of society, staying in touch with “culture” (broadly defined) actually requires more thought and effort than it did during the times of mass media, when you could read a handful of nationally ranked newspapers and magazines and feel assured that you “knew what was going on” in the world.

    I can’t help but think that some of the negative responses to “keeping in touch with popular culture” stem from the old perceptions of “high culture” versus “low (popular) culture,” when pop culture was seen as what the rubes did — ie not of interest to educated, important people. Like many other old either/or distinctions, that one is breaking down in a big way.

  7. Tony Liccione

    I have a sports marketing proposal that I have concerning a sports trademark which I own and I wish to present my proposal to Mr. Michael Eisner. Mr. Eisner has acquired the Topps US trading card company and is bringing back for all to enjoy ‘Bazooka Joe’…..What I have may bbe of great interest to hard working Mr. Eisner and I would like his address and fax# to present him with my proposal! Thank you and I hope someone can help me with my request. Sincerely, Tony Liccione, anthonyl71@aol.com

  8. Christopher Obafemi Kasumu

    I would like to contact Mr. Michael Eisner on behalf of the less priviledged and suffering children of the Republic of Benin in West Africa whose voice cannot be heard due to the fact that they have no access to the internet and no education at all to start with. My direct phone is + 229 97 17 40 50

  9. Obafemi Kasumu

    I would like to contact Mr. Michael Eisner on behalf of the less priviledged and suffering children of the Republic of Benin in West Africa whose voice cannot be heard due to the fact that they have no access to the internet and no education at all to start with. My direct phone is + 229 97 17 40 50

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