Kevin Mayer offered his first public comments Thursday about his stunning exit from Disney and his outlook for TikTok’s path to further growth. He took over June 1 as the fast-rising company’s CEO and COO of its parent, ByteDance.
“There comes a time in everyone’s career where you need to make a choice,” he said. “It seemed like the right time. I’m not getting any younger. If you really want to make a big splash, there’s just a timing factor to that. And there aren’t many companies like ByteDance and TikTok.”
Mayer, 58, added that he will “always have a huge amount of fondness for Disney.”
He offered the remarks during an hour-long virtual conversation with Peter Csathy, a seasoned digital investor and a former mentor at the Disney Accelerator. Csathy convened the conversation for the Creatv University educational hub, where he is founder and chairman, so the talk was less of a business session and more of a career how-to. It traced the arc from Mayer’s days studying mechanical engineering at MIT through his travels in entertainment and media.
Disney this year has seen some notable reshuffling atop its executive ranks. When Bob Iger abruptly handed over the reins as CEO February, they went to Bob Chapek, a longtime Disney vet who most recently had run the company’s theme-park division. Mayer was not selected despite winning accolades for shepherding the successful launch of Disney+ last November, to the surprise of many on Wall Street and in the industry who considered him Iger’s heir apparent. (Interestingly, when he was asked at the end of the Csathy conversation to name his most important mentor, Mayer did not hesitate: “Bob Iger.”)
Mayer was recruited to join TikTok as ByteDance looks to fortify its reputation, especially in the U.S. With most of its operations in China, the company has aroused suspicions of spying among U.S. officials. The State Department and the Department of Homeland Security this year banned the use of TikTok by employees. Mayer emphasized it is not officially, for reasons he did not detail, a China-based company.
While Mayer conceded the perception of ByteDance as a Chinese company poses a challenge in some ways, its growth trajectory is striking. It reached $10 billion in revenue faster than any other company, Mayer said, adding, “It’s not public, but presumably at some point it may go public.”
Widening out the target audience for TikTok is a key objective, Mayer said. “There’s no inherent reason why the TikTok experience couldn’t be just as delightful for you as it is for your children,” he said.
Mayer addressed the Donald Trump rally in Tulsa last Saturday, which drew just 6,200 attendees after indications pointed to an exponentially larger overflow crowd. A grassroots movement on TikTok to deceive Trump campaign officials was traced to a “51-year-old grandmother,” Mayer said, who suggested the ploy to other TikTok users.
“I don’t know the degree to which that actually worked. We’re a platform. We’re a facilitator between our creators and our audiences. Nothing to do with TikTok except it started on TikTok, by news accounts. And it went over to other platforms too.” He called it “an interesting usage of our platform. It’s something we don’t encourage or discourage. It just is. We’re very careful with our content moderation policies. We don’t want harmful or hateful or violent stuff or sexualized content on our service. But other than that, it’s there for our creators to create. And if our audience loves something, it works.”
“The reason my feed was overtaken by George Floyd videos the first week I took over is, that’s what people were watching. That’s what was recommended to me. It was important to people. So, in those moments, joy and creativity maybe aren’t the most important things in the world. The most important thing in the world is social justice and our product reflects that.”
From January to March of this year, TikTok was downloaded more than 315 million times, the most of any app in a single quarter, research firm Sensor Tower reported.
Live streaming “is a big part of what we’re doing in China” and is “a great area to expand,” Mayer said. The company pitched itself to digital ad buyers Thursday in a NewFronts presentation that overlapped with Mayer’s talk.
The operating environment for TikTok — which acquired Musical.ly in late 2017 and expanded TikTok on its foundation after shuttering Musical.ly in 2018 — shifted dramatically in the runup to his June 1 start date, Mayer observed. “TikTok went from being a happy-go-lucky, creator-driven platform with fun and joy all over it to protests” in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis. “With the success we’ve had comes the responsibility to be that platform. People need it and it’s important to people, whether it’s to express their anger or their hopes for social justice, and we want to be there for them. But it completely changed overnight.”
Mayer spent the first third of the discussion recounting his early rise and circuitous path to Disney after starting out designing aviation radar systems in San Diego. He would eventually lead Disney’s strategic planning group, where he engineered the $71.3 billion Fox acquisition as well as takeovers of Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm.
The Lucasfilm deal came in with a value of $4.05 billion because founder George Lucas “wanted to be sure he got a little bit more than Marvel,” which went for $4 billion, Mayer recalled.