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New TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer Explains Why He Left Disney

Todd Spangler

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Kevin Mayer traded mouse ears for TikTok’s teen memes — and he’s very excited to be leading the rapidly exploding short-form video service, whose mission, he said, is to spread “joy and creativity.”

Mayer last month announced his exit from Disney, where he had led the Direct-to-Consumer and International segment, to become CEO of TikTok. His departure didn’t surprise Disney watchers — after he didn’t get the CEO nod to replace mentor Bob Iger — but his arrival at the teen-skewing social video company TikTok was unexpected.

“I was doing great things at Disney,” Mayer said, speaking Thursday on a Creatv University webinar led by Creatv Media founder/CEO Peter Csathy. But, he said, “There comes a time in anyone’s career when you have to make a choice.”

Mayer said he will “always have a huge amount of fondness” for Disney, where he had worked for more than 20 years over two different tenures and most recently oversaw the launch of Disney Plus. Regarding his moving on from the media conglomerate, the 58-year-old said, “It seemed like the right time – I’m not getting any younger.”

According to Mayer, the opportunity to join ByteDance — the fastest company to hit $15 billion in revenue by far than any other company in history, he claimed — was a unique chance he couldn’t pass up. “There aren’t many companies like ByteDance and TikTok,” the exec said. In addition to serving as TikTok’s chief exec, Mayer is COO of Beijing-based ByteDance.

In perhaps a bit of a stretch, Mayer said TikTok actually has “similarities to Disney”: At a very high level, the strategy for both of the companies is to deliver content as accurately as possible to consumers who are interested in it.

Disney Plus has 8,000 pieces of content, according to Mayer. At TikTok, “here we have users creating millions and millions of pieces of content,” and the TikTok platform delivers that in a targeted way “with extreme precision, and it’s very robust — that is a very cool thing that doesn’t exist elsewhere.”

Mayer contrasted TikTok’s business with that of other social-media and video companies like Facebook, YouTube or Snapchat. “The mission of TikiTok is different,” he said. “It’s to engender creativity of its users, and matching that creator to the precise audience they ought to be reaching based on artificial intelligence.”

TikTok recently hit headlines over claims by the app’s users that they helped sabotage turnout for Donald Trump’s rally last week in Tulsa, by reserving thousands of tickets. Mayer, who said he heard the movement was started by a 51-year-old grandmother on TikTok, said he didn’t know “the degree to which it actually worked. We had nothing to do with it, other than that it started on TikTok.” (The Trump campaign maintains that the bogus ticket requests had no effect on either crowd forecasts or attendance.)

L.A.-based Mayer joined TIkTok on June 1, amid the widening national protests over the killing of George Floyd. That same day, TikTok said a “technical glitch” made it appear as if videos with #BlackLivesMatter and #GeorgeFloyd hashtags had zero views. The company apologized said it is working to better support Black creators.

The week he started, Mayer said, TikTok content went from “happy and joy all over” to riots and protests. “We have the responsibility to be that platform when people want to express their anger and belief in social justice.” He added that right now, “Maybe the most important thing isn’t joy, it’s social justice. And our product reflects that.”

TikTok has been on a massive growth curve, growing from an estimated 18.8 million monthly users in 2018 to 45.4 million in 2020 in the U.S. alone, according to research firm eMarketer.

Of course, Mayer has several hot-button issues to address at TikTok. Among those are the ties between TikTok parent ByteDance and the Chinese government, which has raised concerns among U.S. lawmakers about the security of the platform.

“There are a lot of politics going on,” Mayer said, asserting that “We are not really a Chinese company.”

On another front, consumer groups allege TikTok has continued to violate a U.S. children’s privacy law. (Mayer didn’t specifically address that issue in his talk; the company previously has said, “We take privacy seriously and are committed to helping ensure that TikTok continues to be a safe and entertaining community for our users.”)

Mayer did acknowledge that a big challenge for the company is “moderating content to make sure we have the right guardrails,” especially given that there are different standards in the U.S. versus, for example, Dubai, Buenos Aires or Mumbai.

Earlier in the conversation, Mayer spoke about his time as Disney. He called ex-CEO Bob Iger “a fantastic mentor” and recalled how, while at the company, Mayer led the company’s M&A strategy to buy Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. Disney bought Marvel for $4 billion, a property today “that’s worth many, many times $4 billion,” Mayer said.

Mayer also said Disney’s pay-one window output deal with Netflix in the U.S., which started in September 2016 and is now rolling off, actually helped pave the way for Disney Plus to be a fast-follower in the subscription VOD space. “They were willing to pay more than anyone else,” he said. “That was a big moment in the entertainment industry, when Netflix became a real streaming powerhouse.” He said any “nervousness” he felt about fueling the rise of Netflix was “misplaced.”

“Without Netflix, we would not have had the success we had” with Disney Plus, Mayer said, which has signed up almost 60 million subscribers worldwide since first launching last November.