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It's a Small World. And Getting Smaller ...

It's a Small World. And Getting Smaller ...

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What a treat it is to welcome back guest columnist Andrea Monti (Mickeyfantasmic). Andrea has quickly become a favorite here at JimHillMedia.com, thanks mostly to his insightful columns which reveal quite a bit about what the Walt Disney Company is really up to overseas.

This time around, Andrea uses the recent arrival of ESPN on European cable systems to talk about what Disney is planning to do to expand its brand internationally. More importantly, he identifies some of Mickey's top players in the European arena. So why is this important? Well, where do you think Jay Rasulo - the new head of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts - came from? That's right. Walt Disney International.

And - given that most Mouse House insiders suggest that the Walt Disney Company will be expending most of its energies over the next 10 years into expanding internationally -- now might be a really good time to start taking notes. Just so you can keep track of Disney's next generation of key corporate players as these guy try to pull a Rasulo. Use all the good work that they do overseas as their "FastPass" to the top of the Mouse House corporate ladder.

Enjoy,
jrh

 

I was at one of those wonderful dinners at a friend's house Saturday night. One of those really enjoyable evenings where you see old University friends. The usual bunch of joke a lots and generally spend the night eating, drinking and chatting about the old times and what's presently going on in your life (boy do I feel old for my 25 years after this sentence ;-)).

After a few hours, we where pleasantly relaxing on the sofas and switched on some digital television; searching for something fun and interesting to watch (and comment). After a few minutes the house's owner switched onto ESPN Classics saying "this is a new channel which started broadcasting last week and always has interesting sports to watch "...whilst I started becoming pale in the face; cleaning my throat and thinking about how best to put to my friends what ESPN actually was I heard some party members saying "oh it must be some small new company which wants to tap into the Italian - non football fan based- market".

Ok... that was enough; in a few instants I realised how much different Europe is for Disney from the US. How much misunderstanding there is about what type of media company the "Walt Disney Company" actually is, what it does in Europe, the US and the rest of the world. And why- more often than not- Eisner writes sentences like "the US market provides 80% of Disney revenue, but has only 5% of the world population, if we only can improve the average spending in Disney products to 80% of the US level in the 5 major markets (Germany, Italy, France, England and Japan) we could provide your company with an extra 2 Billion $ revenue" in the annual letter to shareholders (a similar to the above phrase was present on the 1999 annual report).

See what I mean, gang? Eisner, and all of the Walt Disney Company know about this "international problem", the simple fact that the Oversee market doesn't see Disney for what it really is (a world media conglomerate) but only as the producer of kid oriented movies, animated classics and theme parks where Mickey and Donald are overwhelmingly present.

Getting back to my evening- as an example- I started explaining to my friends that ESPN is actually the world's leading sports channel, present for many years in most US houses and has 3 major channels in the US, plus a few outlets worldwide. I went on describing the different sports which the US sees (unlike in Europe where soccer has all the interest) and the fact ESPN is actually controlled by the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), which is one of the 4 major US Television channels, and one of the 3 historical ones (CBS and NBC being the others).

While my friends were trying to follow my description, I went on to explain that -- in 1995 -- the Walt Disney Company actually went on to buy the ABC network- along with all its assets- and therefore ESPN. And that -- for the time -- (Well before the AOL- Time Warner acquisition of '99) this was the most important acquisition in World Economic history.

The point for us Europeans is that ABC, and until recently also ESPN, have little- if none- appeal or visibility in the European panorama. Disney on this side of the Atlantic majorly comes down to EuroDisney ("hey didn't it go bankrupt? Oh it actually changed names did it? A second park? You get in with the same ticket right?" ... sigh), the Disney stores (where 80% of the stuff in the shop is plush or bean bags), a few Disney Channels (which broadcast on Satellite Digital systems) and - this is the incredible thing- the major source for the whole world- in Disney Publishing.

Think about it, my fellow Disney lovers. Especially there in the US you know and think about Disney as an "all across the board" company. Mickey and his pals can attach their brand name to all sorts of products and still be coherently seen and felt as a presence on the market. Here in Europe, Disney cannot and is not synergetically linked to ESPN. Of course, it is pulling the strings of the launching of the Channel. And -- of course -- the ESPN offices share the same floor and space with the Disney Channel ones. But the audience will never feel this link- at least not for a few years, until Disney Company management will feel it can be useful to cross promote its products on that outlet.

Eisner, Iger and their Vice Presidents are all well aware of this "misbalance" of perception and penetration (which obviously leads to lower revenues) and have - for a few years-- taken active steps in a direction to fulfill this "international void".

Want to know how much important in this world scheme Jay Rassulo- newly appointed Disney theme parks chief- has been and will be in the future? Well picture this: Since 1999, a new division of the Mouse House has been created; and -creatively- named "Walt Disney International". As most of you might know, its first president was Robert Iger. Iger was directly picked up from the top spot at ABC and quickly gained the number 2 job at this mother of all Divisions within a year from this new naming. Mostly by (without much following from Eisner) signing a win-win deal with the Hong Kong government for the opening of HK Disneyland in late 2005/ early 2006.

But how many of you know that at the same time Gilles Pellisson- CEO of EuroDisney SCA until 2000, when he left and Jay moved up- was then told to jointly report to 2 people? Both Pressler (as he was the theme park chief) and Iger's number 1 man in Europe; Etienne de Villiers.

This man, Etienne de Villers, has since then held the title of "president and managing director of Walt Disney International -- Europe, Middle East and Africa." From his office in London, de Villers leads a "brain team" of all the Presidents of the major countries of his regions. Plus he holds synergistically meetings with the management team of EuroDisney SCA so to promote all Disney European products synergistically and in the best possible way through all possible outlets.

These country managing directors are: Claus Gydesen, 39, for Germany, Austria and Switzerland and is based in Munich. Philippe Laco, 44, for France and Benelux and is based in Paris ( he was formerly vice president and general manager of The Disney Channel France since 1996). Laszlo Hubay Cebrian, 53, for Spain and Portugal (who opened Disney's first offices in Portugal in 1980 and has managed Disney Consumer Products operations in Spain, Portugal and Germany as well as overseeing television and theme park marketing operations in Spain in prior years). Stuart Warrener, 48 for Central and Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa, based in London. Mats Caneman, 49 for the Nordic Region based in Stockholm.

For my home country (Italy, and -- for now -- Greece), the CEO is Mr Umberto Virri. Virri has served as president of Disney Consumer Products Italy since 1990, overseeing all merchandise, publishing and interactive activity for Disney, including a portfolio of more than 30 magazine titles. Virri is a 23-year veteran of Disney and in addition to his current role, Virri oversees Accademia Disney, a highly regarded training program for character artists in Milan.

As you might imagine this team of Disney executives all report still to the president of Walt Disney international, who now is Michael Johnson, and have all been vital to the spearheading of new Disney businesses in these countries. All of these Disney heads (having personal basis of this) have been extremely happy with Rasulo's promotion last month. Some of these team members have known the man since the early eighties and know what he is capable of, and what he has done both for Disneyland Resort Paris and for the European market and its perception for Disney.

It is important to understand, my American friends, that the Walt Disney Company is much more than what it appears to be in our own home market and its next-door neighbor.

De Viller and all the national managing Directors, Jay Rassulo and many more- less known- Disney mangers are and have been a vital part in making Disney what it is today. Some of these executives have been in the company form as long as Eisner, and some even more. These moves to broaden their range of control can help review the magic and fulfill Walt's wish to "inform and educate the whole family" (as the very idea of Walt's last dream EPCOT was, remember?).

For us Europeans (or citizens of the world, as I like to think of myself often), it is fundamental to "open our minds" and understand that this corporate strategic marketing plan form the Walt Disney Company. This plan will really kick into gear on the heels of Jay's promotion and will lead to an even stronger presence of the mouse in Europe... and I surely hope that, unlike prior to the EuroDisney opening in 1992 (when the park was named a "cultural Chernobyl" and Mickey as a "greedy rodent") the wide wings of the Mouse house product range will be able to provide us with even more quality products.

Hoping to have helped both European and American readers understand better the inner workings of the Walt Disney Company's European and International divisions, I would like to wrap up this piece by sharing a friendly word of welcome to ESPN in Europe and specifically in the Italian television market.

Ciao

Andrea "Mickeyfantasmic" Monti

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