The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Disney's new marketing chief: Can Hollywood really trust an ad guru named MT Carney?

April 21, 2010 |  2:24 pm

If you believe -- as Disney top guns Bob Iger and Rich Ross clearly do -- that the old-fashioned ways of doing business in Hollywood are kaput, then you -- and they -- couldn't have found anyone who was a better symbol of fashionable modernity than MT Carney, who is expected to be named Disney's head of marketing on Thursday. Carney is the Scottish-born founding partner of Naked Communications, a stylish communications strategy and planning firm that is best known for promoting brands without having to spend a lot of money on traditional advertising.  

Of course, brands are practically Disney's new middle name. Under Iger, the studio has been assembling a powerful collection of movie brands -- the heavy-hitters being Pixar, Marvel, Bruckheimer and Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks -- that he believes can be sold to consumers in many of the same ways that Proctor & Gamble sells its brands. I talked to several top studio marketers, and it would be fair to say that when it came to the Carney hire, their response was somewhere between skepticism and sputtering bewilderment.

As one marketer put it: "If you love movies, it's really depressing to wake up in the morning and discover that you're in a world where one of Hollywood's biggest studios thinks that it can sell a movie like a Honda." To hear veteran marketers tell it, you can screw up a Honda ad and still figure out how to sell its cars the other 364 days of the year. But if you screw up a movie campaign, the entire brand -- whoops! --make that movie -- goes down the drain in one weekend.

If Carney has a real ear for the art of selling movies, she isn't letting on. She hasn't given any interviews since news of the hire surfaced. She also took down her Facebook page and personal website, which either means that she doesn't want the media snarking about any potentially embarrassing personal details from her life or that she has shrewdly divined that she is joining a studio that is famous for being one of the most tightly controlled corporate entities on the planet.

The biggest unanswered question remains: Can Carney really reinvent movie marketing, which despite a significant amount of exploitation of the Internet, is still heavily reliant on mega-million-dollar TV, radio, print and outdoor ad campaigns to open a mainstream movie? Movie marketers scoff at the idea that Naked's concept of promoting brands without making huge media buys will work when it comes to launching a Hollywood blockbuster.

"I got news for her -- tweeting good things about Jake Gyllenhaal ain't gonna magically make people want to go see 'Prince of Persia,' said one top marketing executive. "If it was that easy, we'd all be doing it. Do you really think we'd spend $50 million to open a movie if we didn't have to?"

Carney's New Age-style marketing maxims -- one of her presentations was called "Mapping the Customer Journey" -- have been widely mocked by industry insiders, who can't imagine that notoriously bottom-line- oriented filmmakers such as Bruckheimer and Spielberg, not to mention Marvel's notoriously prickly Ike Perlmutter, will be easily swayed by soothing Faith Popcorn-like exhortations if their first-choice tracking numbers are off course the week before one of the films is due to open.

The Hollywood track record for marketing outsiders is a mixed bag. Arthur Cohen got his start at Revlon, but he was a marketing master for years at Paramount, especially since he had to survive one of the nastiest corporate cultures of all time. Bob Levin was a Chicago ad agency guy but had a long industry run, serving as the top marketer at Disney, Sony and MGM. On the other hand, Disney hired John Cywinski from Burger King, and he was a huge dud. Ditto for Brad Ball, who'd been a top marketer at McDonald's before coming to Warner Bros., where he had a very lackluster stint as marketing chief.

The key, insiders say, isn't where you come from but whether you can adjust to the insular ways of Hollywood. Carney won't just have to figure out how to market "Tron: Legacy" (the first big upcoming Disney film that doesn't already have a presence in the marketplace). She'll have to figure out how to navigate the hallways of Disney, figuring out of the hundreds of people she deals with, who is her friend and who is her enemy, who is loyal and who is working to undermine her, who has real power and who is just a studio functionary.

Taking over the marketing job at a big studio is a headlong plunge into a deep pool full of hungry barracudas. "Having a lot of clever slogans won't get you very far," said one longtime marketing executive. "There's no way to fully grasp what it's like when it's 4:30 a.m. on the Thursday before your week of opening and you see that your movie isn't getting any traction and there isn't really anything more you can do to change things. It's a bad feeling, especially when you know that everyone in town, friend or foe, will be loudly beating the drums, gleefully reminding everyone of how much trouble you're in."

In terms of learning curves, it's quite a jump, going from running the New York wing of a boutique-sized ad agency to heading up marketing for the largest family entertainment conglomerate on the planet. It's no wonder that showbiz insiders, having seen so many heavily hyped newcomers become road kill after hitting the wall in Hollywood, are hedging their bets about Carney. 

For Carney, the good news is that she isn't joining a studio that has an established clan of insiders, like Fox, Warner Bros. or Universal, where the old guard might be wary of a bright-eyed newbie. At Disney, virtually everyone, from Ross on down, is new to their job, so no one is wedded to much old, established wisdom. But as a studio marketing chief once told me: "The crazy thing about the job is that you get asked 8,000 questions a day. You can't possibly know all the answers. The real trick isn't just knowing what you don't know, but knowing where to go to find out."

I know what I don't know too, which is a lot, but I do know that Carney better have an awfully thick skin, because until she proves herself, she's going to be second-guessed by everyone in Hollywood who thinks they know more than she does.