Bob Iger on Ron DeSantis, Creativity, and the Future of Disney

14 minute read

Disney’s old and then new again CEO Bob Iger was early for his 2023 TIME100 cover shoot on a soundstage at the studio lot, as he pretty much is for all his appointments every day. And he managed the photo session as carefully as he manages Disney’s many intellectual properties—from Thor to Mickey—making sure he understood what photographer Paola Kudacki wanted while also ensuring it aligned with his own aims of not looking awkward.

That was perhaps more impressive since Iger, 72, is already in the awkward position of stepping back in to head the company after his handpicked successor, Bob Chapek, lasted fewer than three years. Chapek’s dismissal came on the heels of a meeting in which he could not find the appropriately sober-but-optimistic tone to reveal to shareholders that Disney had lost billions more than expected on its new streaming service. It also came on the heels of a political feud in Florida and internal uproar over redistribution of power within the studio.

On the day of the shoot, Iger was fresh off a recent round of victories. The Disney stock price was up 9% since he took back the CEO reins, after falling 44% in the 12 months prior. He’d effected a round of cuts whose victims included Ike Perlmutter, the executive who sold him Marvel, one of his most valuable purchases, but who had recently become a thorn in his side. And Disney was making headlines for out-maneuvering Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who had been trying to limit the media giant’s power in his state by appointing new officials to a local council that Disney formerly ran, only to find the council had previously divested itself of any power. All of that and it wasn’t even 9 a.m.

Iger sat down for an interview about how he is managing this very different phase of Disney’s journey, where he gets advice, and if he feels influential.

How surprised are you to find yourself back at the helm of Disney?

Very, very surprised. It’s not something I anticipated doing. But I’m certainly happy to be here.

What do you see as your prime responsibility at the company now?

I was brought back for a reason. The company had gone through a very difficult period, exacerbated by a global pandemic. And more than anything, the company needed stability, needed to establish a set of priorities and focus on them. The only way you end up getting to success is by deciding what the opportunities are, and then organizing your people and your company to go after them.

A lot of media companies are going through similar turbulent, resource reallocation processes as Disney is right now. Do you feel like that you’re being watched to see how you handle them?

Yes, I do. There’s no such thing as not being watched in this job. And while I’m aware of that, it doesn’t have much of an impact on how I lead or behave.

Is there anybody to whom you’re looking who’s done a similar thing?

The person that I think most of, that I was fortunate enough to have observed very closely, is Steve Jobs. He was brought back to a company that he had founded—very different circumstances. But speaking with him when I did, and reflecting on what his experiences were—I’ve taken a lot from that. One is when you are brought back, and you agree to come back, you have to do so with unbelievable enthusiasm, and not an ounce of hesitation. And then you have to know very quickly what it is you’re expected to accomplish and what it is you can accomplish. And then go at it with incredible resolve, incredible zeal, and incredible energy.

When you were asked, was yes your immediate answer?

It was not something I was contemplating. I had been out for about a year, 11 months. The Chairman of the Board of Disney set up a call with me. When I told [my wife Willow Bay] about the call, she immediately questioned what it would be about. I think she actually said, ‘They’re probably not going to ask you back.’ And I said, ‘Well, what if they do?’ And she immediately responded, ‘Yes.’ I have such respect for her instinct, that when the call came and I was asked by the chairman of our board to come back, I responded, yes without any hesitation. There are certain things that I felt I needed to stipulate. But it was a quick decision.

How much of the way that you’re navigating these challenges now is instinctual to you and how much of it is experience?

It’s definitely both. I was the CEO of the company for 15 years and the executive chairman for two. I was also [COO] for five years. I’m also well aware that today’s environment is different. Even in the year that I was out, things have shifted. You have to be capable of adapting quickly, which is something you learn leading over time.

One of the tasks in front of you is to save $5.5 billion in Disney’s annual budget. Is there any part of that process that can be creative?

The $5.5 billion was a number that we came up with that we thought was not only achievable, but that was necessary to the bottom line success of the company. While reducing costs is not one’s favorite thing to do, it is a necessary thing to do often, particularly as conditions change. And in many respects, it does force a discipline and a focus, and maybe a sense of urgency, and I think that can result in, I wouldn’t say necessarily creativity as much as a resourcefulness and focus on what’s possible, and what’s necessary.

Your reorganization of the company puts a lot of control back in the hands of creators, which has been your signature management style. What makes you think that creative people are good at figuring out such things as distribution channels and ad sales?

There’s nothing I’m more sure about than the decision that we made and the need to tie accountability—and to some extent, a degree of control—over the business side of our business with the creative side of our business. If you are the manager of creativity, then it is absolutely necessary that you have complete accountability for the results of the creativity that you’re managing, not just in terms of revenue generation, but in terms of how much you spend on what you create, how much you spend to bring it to market—not just distribution costs, but marketing costs. One of the things that is most important for those managing creativity is a very, very defined, and very, very tangible feedback loop.

You made some news recently by firing several executives, including the guy who sold you Marvel, Ike Perlmutter. Do you handle those personally?

There are times I handle it personally and there are times that I don’t. I’d rather not get into details about this one. This was a necessary step in the direction of us creating a more efficient company. There was redundancy specific to the way Marvel was being managed.

So the campaign that Perlmutter championed to get [activist shareholder] Nelson Peltz on the board didn’t play into the decision at all?

This decision would have been made regardless of that.

One of the biggest decisions you’re facing is the fate of Hulu, whether Disney will buy it out. There’s a deadline approaching. What are the considerations that you’re thinking about as you make that decision?

We own about two thirds of Hulu, and Comcast owns the other piece, and they actually have the right to put their piece to us, in other words, force us to buy them out. If they decide to do that, then we have no choice but to buy them out.

One of the ways that Disney is trying to maximize its resources is to increase the longevity of its franchises. How do you not kill the goose that lays the golden egg?

The answer is really to continue to fuel it with great creativity, particularly storytelling, to not underinvest, actually, in those. And to respect the past, but also be completely capable of and willing to be relevant by some degree of modernization; understanding that the world has changed and while certain stories stand the test of time, others don’t. You have to be incredibly adept at being able to read the read the room, so to speak, or the world, in order to maintain brand relevance, character relevance, franchise relevance.

In a period of wanting to shrink expenditures, you’re still talking about ambitious spending on creativity?

If you look at the reductions that we’re making, they’re designed to invest the right amount of money in great creativity. The more efficient you are at running a company, the more you can spend on what is the most necessary. In this case, it’s quality and creativity.

What are the influences on how you curate Disney’s output?

We want to continue to make programs that don’t necessarily fit into one of our core brands, but we probably should make less of them. I think actually curation is a good thing, because it probably forces more discipline on us in terms of quality. The more you make, typically, you dilute quality. And we’re looking to do the opposite.

So, fewer, bigger things?

Not necessarily bigger. Fewer, better.

Disney and TIME are both 100 year old companies. You’ve worked for Disney for a long time. Do you see staying with one company for a whole career as an option for people in the future, or is business changing?

I’m now pausing for a moment to realize that I’ve worked at this company for half of its existence, which is pretty crazy. I was extremely fortunate that I started working at a company and in a business that experienced phenomenal growth and expansion over the course of the five decades that I worked in it. I didn’t have to leave a company or even an industry to get more opportunities. So I think it’s not about whether whether a person commits to staying for a long period of time or not, it’s whether the company they work for and the business that they’re in, provide them with the kind of opportunities they expected for their own for themselves for their lives.

Can you change a company and keep the values?

I actually think that if you study great companies over time and you try to figure out why some companies stand the test of time and others do not, you would quickly conclude that most companies fade away because they’ve abandoned the core values that created the company in the first place. That, in the interest of staying relevant, they distance themselves from the essence of what they were. There is a way to completely adhere to those same values but to present them to the world to your customers, and to your employees in much more relevant ways.

Speaking of values, I’m interested that ESPN invested $250 million in DraftKings, the sports betting outfit, while Disney decided to take Marvel characters off poker machines. Is gambling something that Disney is interested in investing in?

Not really. ESPN is interested in figuring out a way to enable its consumers, who are watching sports on television or mobile devices or whatever, to participate in some form of sports betting without having to leave the experience completely. It’s basically trying to increase engagement.

You don’t seem that thrilled about it.

I was probably on the more conservative side about this for a long time. But I’ve changed because I think the acceptance of sports betting has grown significantly. And my desire is to see that the company continues to serve its consumers well, without us really, I think, distancing ourselves from values, because we’re not actually causing the bets to be made. We’re just enabling people to link to companies that do that. I don’t think it’s an issue.

What did you do with your first paycheck?

You have to understand that I started in 1974. My salary was I think, $150 a week, and I got a check every two weeks. I got what would have been a $300 check. My rent in New York City was $300 a month. So one of my checks always paid my rent. I had to live on the other. I have no idea what I did with it, except that I spent it because I had to spend every single cent that I made in order to live.

If you could influence went to one person to do one thing, what would that be?

I would try to influence myself to relax a little bit more.

I cannot let this interview finish without asking you about the situation in Florida. Did you checkmate Ron DeSantis?

Disney World opened just over 50 years ago. It was the vision and the dream of Walt Disney, probably the most ambitious thing he ever did—turning swampland in Central Florida into a business that employs over 75,000 people, that is visited by tens of millions of people every year, that is a major tourist destination in the United States, and for the state of Florida, that creates huge value for our company and its employees, and for the state of Florida itself. Our sole goal in Florida is to continue creating that value for all those constituencies. All we want is a relationship with the state that enables us to continue to do that. We have the wherewithal and we have the desire to continue to invest there to grow that business so that we can hire more people so that we can increase our attendance, and so that we can basically increase more value for the Walt Disney Company and for the state of Florida. It’s that simple.

Usually, you’re very much a let’s-sit-down-and-get-past-our differences guy, and much less a let’s-go-to-the-mattresses guy. Is there no trying to meet with the governor?

I do not view this as a going-to-mattresses situation for us. If the governor of Florida wants to meet with me to discuss all of this, of course, I would be glad to do that. You know, I’m one that typically has respected our elected officials and the responsibility that they have, and there would be no reason why I wouldn’t do that.

One of your tasks now is to find a new Disney CEO. How will the search be different?

Well, it’s not only one of my tasks; it’s the primary priority of the board. They’re meeting on a regular basis, defining what qualities we’re looking for and what people we might want to consider. Given the events of the last couple of years, it’s not only a priority, but will get more time, more attention, more focus than it did before. We’ve always viewed it as an important decision. But given the fact that I’m not here forever and and we had some difficulties these last couple of years, it’s getting more attention than than it has in the past.

Correction, April 13

The original version of this story misstated one of Bob Iger’s roles during his tenure at Disney. He was COO for 5 years, not CFO.

Bob Iger Time 100 Cover
Photograph by Paola Kudacki for TIME

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