The Past as Prologue: Why the Katzenberg Memo Endures - Michael Kassan

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As I prepare for my fireside chat with DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg at Advertising Week, my thoughts go back again and again to what may be the entertainment marketing visionary’s greatest production.

No, I ‘m not talking about Shrek. I’m referring to Jeffrey’s legendary memo in 1991 to what were then his fellow Disney executives, in which he lamented the dependence of his industry on blockbusters and huge stars, warned about the disintermediation of the theater system by the emerging platforms of the time (i.e. videocassettes, et al), and cautioned against relying on technological wizardry over good storytelling. And those were just the high points of what was a 28-page essay.

The memo was promptly leaked to the media and quickly went the 20th century version of viral. “Fax machines were humming all across Hollywood,” as the Los Angeles Times would put it 20 years later in an appreciation of the memo, which it described as “prophetic.” The entertainment trades and major newspapers all picked up on it, with many running the memo in its entirety.

Jeffrey's take on the business and where it was going has been read and re-read by people all over the world since then, including myself this weekend. Certainly, to content creators, it remains something of a bible – the ideas it champions and the insights it explores, fax machines and VCRs notwithstanding, are even more relevant in today’s marketing ecosystem than they were in 1991. For all of us.

Some ideas are transcendent. That is why they endure. And that’s why we’re still learning from the Katzenberg memo.

True, few if any could predict the emergence of something like the Twitterverse back in 1991, Jeffrey’s insistence that story comes before all resonates even more powerfully in 2013, and across all disciplines and industries. Today, not just the studios but brands, distributors, even individuals are all creators. (And a retweet is shared content, after all.)

The strategic rationale behind every content creator and every content technology provider rests on the same foundation Katzenberg used to advance his arguments in the memo. Content recommendation, for example, is by its very existence an explicit acknowledgment that the way to true consumer contact is through a good story. And the success or failure of every multiplatform campaign—which is every campaign of any consequence these days—rests as much on the durability of the story as it travels across channels as it does the effectiveness of the media plan that propels the effort.

One of the subjects Jeffrey and I will be discussing at Ad Week is DreamWorks’ acquisition of popular YouTube channel Awesomeness TV. A storytelling platform—he would have called it a medium in 1991—that was an attractive acquisition target not because it offers entry into an emergent channel but because it does so on the strength of a strategy in which, as the Katzenberg memo so famously proclaimed, “the idea is king.”

It will be fascinating to hear what Jeffrey believes are the dynamics moving the ecosystem today and what he predicts will be the forces that will take us to success or failure tomorrow. Whatever they are, I have no doubt that long-ago memo will remain relevant to them as well.

To hear more from Jeffrey Katzenberg regarding content creation and distribution – please join us on Wednesday at our official Advertising Week session, The Adolescence of Content Marketing, at the Liberty Theater (234 West 42nd Street). The show starts at 5 PM.

Michael E. Kassan is Chairman and CEO of MediaLink, LLC, a leading Los Angeles and New York City-based advisory and business development firm that provides critical counsel and direction on issues of marketing, advertising, media, entertainment and digital technology.Michael KassanMichael can be reached at

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