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An Evening with Disney

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Story by Yip Jie Yin Editor | Photo credit to Public Affairs

Andy Bird is the Chairman of Walt Disney International. Currently on a 12-day world tour, Mr. Bird stopped by Yale-NUS College on the evening of March 7 2016 to give a talk on “The Importance of Localisation: Establishing Disney’s Place in the Global Marketplace. In an exclusive interview with The Octant prior to the highly engaging session, Mr. Bird discussed his job as Chairman, Disney’s social responsibility, how his educational background—he has a degree in English Literature—has shaped his professional life, and some of his favorite Disney films. Excerpts from the interview follow:


What does your job entail?

So, I’m broadly responsible for developing the company’s business outside the United States. And what that entails is working on a strategy to ensure that both the products that we create and the businesses that we operate are locally relevant to each market. Rather than being the Walt Disney Company China, the Walt Disney Company Singapore, the Walt Disney Company Brazil, we’ve got to ask ourselves the questions “how do we become the [Singaporean] Walt Disney Company, rather than the Walt Disney Company Singapore, which is sort of a representative office of the US, how do we become Singaporean?”  I am responsible for leading a team with 45 offices around the world [with] tens of thousands of cast members and employees and we help devise strategies [on a] market-by-market basis and grow the company. That’s my job! Kinda fun, huh? It’s like solving puzzles, because every country has its own unique set of dynamics, its own level of development and it can vary.


Do you have any examples of the challenges that you overcame in expanding Disney in different markets?

The biggest challenge is finding the right people, giving them the right tools and training to go and represent our company and empowering them, and trusting them. Because, if we are going to build the Indonesian Walt Disney Company, we need to go and find really clever, really smart Indonesians! Because they are going to be better at doing that, than me! You can write great papers and have great presentations, but if you don’t have great people, the paper doesn’t translate into action.


Considering how Disney forms a big part of one’s childhood and in the socialization process of young children, what kind of social role and responsibility do you think Disney has?

Huge. We are not only a family brand, we are a very consumer-facing brand. We owe the public the responsibility to make sure that we never stray from the core DNA and that it’s consistent. The Disney you would experience here is the same Disney you would experience in the UK, and the same as you experience in LA. We take that responsibility very seriously, and [because] we are guests in these countries, we need to be respectful of culture, respectful of traditions, respectful of the [community]. So we spend a lot of time on outreach, big volunteering programs and [our] CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] program, because I want [us] to be involved in the communities that we do business in, so we try to give back. It’s a very, very important thing in today’s day and age and you would expect that of Disney. You have to hold yourself to a much higher standard, so we take all of those areas of our responsibility very, very seriously.


How has your educational background in English literature and language helped you in your professional life?

One of my favorite authors was Virginia Woolf and the notion of multiplicity of consciousness. And that’s my brain! I’ve so many different things going on simultaneously and my head is like a Virginia Woolf novel. I think, to do my job—and that is just a general note of advice from me—curiosity is a great attribute to have. And I have always been very curious. I was curious about the origins of the [English] language and I found that fascinating and that curiosity has carried over into my professional career.


What are your favorite Disney films? Is there one film that you would recommend everyone to watch?

My favorite Disney character is Goofy. Well, I have a couple [of favorite Disney films]. When I was growing up in England, I remembered going to see 101 Dalmatians and I loved Toy Story, because the main character is Andy, but also [because] it’s such a revolutionary feature film. And more recently, I’ll tell you a film we have coming up this year that you have to see. It’s The Jungle Book. They have taken the 3D technology that you’ve seen in Life of Pi, and multiplied it by a factor of x. And it’s fantastic. The only human in the entire film is the lead, Mowgli. Everything else is computer generated, and it’s fantastic.


Is there one book that you think everyone should read?

The trouble is, when I did English literature I read so many books. You read two Shakespeare plays a week, which is awesome. I actually really like Wilfred Owen, one of the First World War poets. [And] T.S. Eliot. Can’t go wrong with a bit of T.S. Eliot.


Favourite Disney song?

“Let It Go.”

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