09 February 2022 |

What’s missing in media? Creativity

By Adam Ryan

Media companies are in the business of creativity. 

Whether it’s going from a blank Google Doc to an essay filled with insights, or from a notepad with rhymes to the most successful Broadway play of all time, creativity is the core of every media business.

Yet, when it comes to the business of media creativity is lacking. Did you know… 

  • Out of the top 100 publishers in the world by revenue, none of them were created in THIS CENTURY? 
  • Out of the top 10 media companies, only 1 of the top 10 was created this century? (Shout out to Netflix)

Now, I know computers are a more recent invention, but in comparison, 3 of the top 10 software companies by revenue were launched within the last decade.

Why are media companies so… old? 

My opinion: a lack of creativity, which has led to a lack of innovation. 

This lack of innovation has created decades of comps for investors that give the perception that investing in media creates mediocre outcomes. That perception has led to low valuations and relatively small amounts of capital being invested into the industry — and without capital it’s incredibly difficult to push the boundaries. 

My goal with this essay is to challenge all 2,300 of you to think differently about the business of media. My goal is to make our cultural impact be equitable with our economic impact. 

How do we do this? Creativity.


There are few media companies that have truly embraced creativity in both their production and business models than Disney — and this is no accident.

In 1952, Walt Disney formed an engineering team to design an amusement park. The man behind Mickey Mouse imagined a world where characters could come to life and create an experience that would be fun for both children and parents. 

Spoiler alert: Everyone thought he was crazy.

His brother and stockholders were adamantly against the theme park. The production company was successful, why shift directions? They thought it would be a waste of money, resources, and ultimately, a distraction.

But Walt did it anyway. 

He continued building the engineering team to design the park, placed them in a separate building away from Disney’s offices, and even formed a separate company — WED Enterprises — to keep his brother from knowing how much he was spending on the project. 

The engineering team had one core mission: Use groundbreaking technologies to tell stories in immersive and innovative ways. 

Three years later, Disneyland opened to the public. 

The first day, July 21, 1955, the park drove more than 10,000 visitors. The live telecast aired on ABC to more than 90M people — the largest single TV program in history at the time. By week 7, the park had hosted more than 1M guests. 

By 1965, WED Enterprises was so critical to the success of Walt Disney Productions that it was purchased as a fully-owned subsidiary. In 1986, the unit was renamed Imagineering — a term that Disney first used in 1962, merging imagination and engineering. 

Today, Disney Imagineering is the creative engine that makes Disney run.

Source: https://twitter.com/titlemax/status/1079784484822757376 

Framework for Imagineering

The success of the Disney Imagineering unit stems from a simple yet effective framework centered around collaboration.

1. Blue Sky (What could it be?)
We usually gather around an inspiration: finding a way to bring a specific Disney story to life; or imagining an attraction, themed land or show for a particular park; or advancing a specific genre of technology; or even designing an entirely new line of business. We start by doing our research: whether that’s in a library or a movie theater, a laboratory or a far-off place. We connect with other partners across both Disney Parks, Experiences and Products and greater The Walt Disney Company to understand their priorities and help address common challenges. We pay attention to menu planning by thinking about business needs to identify where a physical project could one day live. And most of all, we think about our guests and how our own inspiration could one day lead to theirs.

2. Concept (What is it?)
Once we have our big idea, we move it forward into high-level creative development to begin to understand the specifics of how the experience will look, sound, smell and feel. Discipline by discipline, we collect expert recommendations and thoughts about how we can begin to enumerate and visualize all components of the project, from a special effect to the smart infrastructure in the facility that keeps it protected, cooled and powered. We sketch, we sculpt, we experiment, we learn. At this phase, we bring together a team with the specific kinds of know-how that will be required to make this particular creative idea sing.

3. Feasibility (What does it take to make this a reality?)
Now that we know what we want to create, we have to make sure that we can. Making the impossible possible takes a lot of foresight, careful consideration, planning, estimating and dedication. The team works together to iterate and determine how we can support and reliably deliver all parts of the project, be it ship or show, restaurant or roller coaster. As ideas evolve, Imagineers work together to find ways to balance all of the parameters that will allow us to deliver something great. And that evolution is an important part of design. Because ultimately, even when our team of world-class designers sets out to offer the world something it’s never seen before, we still have to obey the laws of physics.

4. Design (What are the details that bring it to life?)
For many Imagineers, design is the heart of the project. The team focuses their attention on the details of each component, finding ways to thoughtfully develop and communicate plans for the thousands of individual pieces that will one day come together as a cohesive whole. Design is all about iteration: refining version after version of an item or scope of work until we know that we’ve gotten it right. Whether it’s new ride systems or specialty paint finishes, fireworks or fire alarms, visual effects or lighting fixtures, trees or trash cans, we set down on paper (or more likely, in a digital model) exactly how we want to see it made. And we define materials and methodologies that will make it real. We cross check the work of different disciplines to make sure they will integrate properly. We mock up items and spaces at full scale. And we use sophisticated prototyping and previsualization tools to be certain that we never lose sight of what we want our guests to ultimately experience.

5. Production (How do we build it?)
Now, designs become reality. Production is the phase where Imagineers oversee the fabrication and creation of every part of the project. And this can be a worldwide process; we literally travel to the ends of the Earth to create the best possible version of every piece, be it art glass or ironwork, game engine or precision optic. We collaborate across time zones and continents, and we get our hands dirty. We amass mountains of steel and concrete and entire cities’ worth of infrastructure. And we track it all with phenomenal project management tools and expert logistics to make sure it all goes exactly where we need it, when we need it. Imagineers take as much care with what guests experience as they do with the behind-the-scenes elements that support and preserve the show. Whether it’s onstage or off, built or programmed, Imagineers are behind it all, guaranteeing that our designs and intent are achieved with integrity, fidelity and quality.

6. Installation (How does it all fit together?)
Hard hats on heads and boots on the ground, Imagineers hit the field as the hundreds of systems and thousands of details are installed, constructed, tested and adjusted on the project site. In the dead of night, parades are rehearsed, seams are welded, and rivers are filled. Engineers and designers program Audio-Animatronics® figures, tune sound systems and ride attractions over and over until the feeling of the motion and the timing of the show are just right. A sense of thrill at seeing the project come together is inevitable. As the dust is swept away and the finishing touches are put in place, Imagineers can actually experience their vision firsthand — as thousands of guests soon will.

7. Opening Day (How did we do?)
There’s nothing quite like watching the first guests as they exit a brand-new Disney experience. Opening day is the truest test of Imagineers’ design prowess. Did the attraction thrill? Did the theatrical experience awe? Does the land feel immersive? Is the café enticing, the shop charming, and the hotel room comfortable? When the results are spectacular, the celebration is genuine but brief because there’s still work to be done. Documentation must be archived and support must be available to the cast members who will run and maintain the experience. And soon enough, that itch to invent something new can no longer be ignored. It’s time for Blue Sky again.

This process has enabled Disney to flourish for more than 70 years. The Imagineering team has been responsible for 300 patents and the innovation of Disney, including:

  • Disney Stores
  • FastPass at Disney Parks
  • Disney Cruise Lines 
  • 4 of the key attractions at the 1964 World’s Fair
  • The Tower of Nations at the 1960 Olympics 
  • ABC Times Square Studio
  • Anaheim Stadium (home of the Angels)
  • Linear Induction Motor to create a rail system at the parks
  • The creation of Audio-Animatronics
  • Virtual World Simulator (their latest patent)

My challenge to you

This is the challenge I have for all of you: Build a system to allow your team (or hire a new team) to try to imagine the impossible for your company. 

  • Is it a totally new type of experience with content? 
  • Is it utilizing web3 tech? 
  • Is it something that moves the industry forward?

Now is the time to push boundaries, not later.

And, please, don’t get caught up in the P&L or cash flow at first. Think about the experience of your audience. Think about what the industry needs. Think about how you can create something generational.

Walt Disney moved the entertainment industry forward by not allowing anything — his brother, investors, or cash — to get in the way of creativity. That leadership has created a company that today has a market cap of $260B+. 

I know one of you reading this has the same genius within you. It’s time for media to get creative again.