Interview with Michael Lynton, Chairman of Snapchat

Jordan Taylor, Contributor
Pippa Lamb, Editor Emeritus

From starting out licensing coloring books at the Walt Disney company, to Pearson’s Penguin group, AOL Europe, Time Warner International, and then running Sony Pictures, Michael Lynton (MBA ’87) is one of the most experienced executives in the media and entertainment industry. Most recently in 2017 Lynton stepped down as CEO and Chairman of Sony Pictures to become Chairman of Snap Inc. Pippa Lamb and Jordan Taylor caught up with the HBS grad to learn more about his career path.

On a snowy morning in January, ninety students assembled in Aldrich Hall to hear Dean Nohria host Michael Lynton (MBA ‘87), Chairman of Snapchat (SNAP US) and former Chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment. The topic of the case study: how to lead during a crisis as CEO. Lynton is well placed to speak on the topic. As company chief during one of the most challenging periods in Sony Pictures’ recent history, Lynton oversaw the release of its controversial comedy “The Interview” and the cascading chain of events that ensued. A tumultuous international fallout with North Korea, delicate negotiations with the Sony Pictures’ commercial stakeholders, and one of the worst cyber attacks in U.S. history.

While the cyber-attack took center stage for the HBS case study, lessons from Lynton’s remarkable career in the media, technology and entertainment industries span far beyond those infamous days of disquiet. After graduating from Harvard Business School in 1987, Lynton began his career at the Walt Disney Company, where he moved from Disney Publishing to eventually becoming President of Disney’s Hollywood Pictures. From Disney he moved on to hold a number of senior leadership roles across the media industry, including Chairman and CEO of Pearson’s Penguin Group, CEO of AOL Europe and President of Time Warner International.

Most recently in 2017, after thirteen years as Chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures, Lynton stepped down to become Chairman of Snapchat – a role that can be traced all the way back to the company’s nascent beginnings, less than a year into its existence. “My kids and my wife loved the app,” Lynton explains. Intrigued to learn more about the company their family was spending so much time on, his wife sent a message to customer support and Evan Speigel instantly replied. A few hours later, he was over at the Lynton residence for dinner, and as the expression goes – the rest is history.

Curious to learn more about Lynton’s journey through the increasingly interconnected worlds of entertainment, media and technology, The Harbus caught up with Michael to discuss his path to and from Harvard Business School.

Tell us about your path to HBS. Did you always know that you wanted to come back to Harvard for an MBA?

No, not at all. When I left Harvard College I went to go and work on Wall Street, which was a very common thing to do in 1982. I spent around three years doing it in New York, then Australia, then London, and to be frank, I was a little bit stranded. I wanted to get out of investment banking, because I didn’t care for it, and I wanted to get back from London to the United States. And I didn’t really understand how to switch careers; London at the time was not an exciting place to be (outside of finance), and my sister who also went to Harvard College had already got into the business school. She said, “Well, why don’t you apply to business school and that will allow you to get back to the United States. If you get in, we’ll just go together, and you can figure out your way from there”. So that’s what I did. It was sort of a default choice, not something that I was actively or eager to do. But I’m very glad that I did go in the end.

A lot of students take HBS as a time to explore different career choices. When do you arrived at HBS, did you already know that you wanted to move into the media and entertainment industry? How did you navigate that decision?

That was also an accident. After my first year in the summer, my sister and I went to go work for our family business in New Jersey, which if you can believe it, is making and selling venetian blinds. Then in the second year, I didn’t really know what to do, but an old boss of mine (going back to my First Boston days) had met a guy called Steve Burke who was working in the consumer products area the Walt Disney Company, and needed a person to do business development for him. So I rang him up sometime February or March – I really didn’t know what I was doing at that point – and I flew out to LA. We got along and he offered me a job. So after graduating, I went out and worked at Disney in the consumer products area, starting out licensing colouring books. No sooner that I got to Disney, Steve left the job he was doing, and I went into the publishing area. So it was sort of serendipity. It certainly wasn’t a plan.

Do you feel that HBS shaped you?

What’s weird for me about my experience at HBS, is that in terms of people – and they were a great group of people – I didn’t become great friends with very many of them, for whatever reason. At the time, HBS opened my eyes to a lot of aspects of business. The first year in particular, was a spectacular academic experience. In the second year, everyone was a little bit distracted – myself included. Interestingly, very little of what I learnt in the classroom actually came into play until, I don’t know – almost ten years after I left the school. I think part of that is because they focus so much on general management, which you don’t really get a chance to use until you have a position that requires general management. And that obviously doesn’t come right out of business school.

Were there any memorable classes or cold calls?

I remember the marketing class really well. I thought it was superb. And weirdly the finance class – despite the fact I’d come from investment banking – was meaningful to me. it was taught by a guy called David Mullins who was very brilliant.

Going back to after HBS, you were at Disney. Can you talk about your subsequent career choices and how you made the decisions to move between each of those companies?

Well my cardinal rule, was that I never left something, I always went to something. So for the most part I was pretty happy in all of my jobs, and the only reason I ever decided to leave a job, was because there was something else that seemed more interesting. And not necessarily something that made me more money – on occasions, it made me a little less money. But it always seemed as though I would learn a lot, and that I would be given enough resource and responsibility to do something with it.

I think the second piece that I always sort of chose things (perhaps less so in the last case with Sony) that were less “in the limelight”, or “glamorous”. That way, you were given plenty of leeway to do things, because there weren’t lots of people around you scrambling to do what you were doing. Nobody at the Walt Disney company wanted to licence colouring books, trust me! Or even for that matter, being in the children’s book publishing business. And for that reason, you could go off and get a lot done, they’d give you plenty of resource to do it, and you’d got a lot of responsibility early on. Personally, I always wanted to do something in an operating role. I never had any interest in doing something at the corporate level, so a lot of people (who did very well too) went from HBS into that side of the Walt Disney company. They were paid more, and certainly got a lot more access to the Chief Executive and the President, but they didn’t actually get to make decisions or operate things, and that was what I was really interested in doing.

In your session with Dean Nohria, you talked about the challenges you faced while you were CEO at Sony Pictures. What is one piece of advice on leading during a crisis that you would you give to students, as they go into leadership roles?

I think.. And this, I learned earlier – some of it was through Steve Burke and others, It’s very important to make decisions. And I know that sounds like an odd thing to say, but I think you can get bogged down. Certainly you have to get as much of the information as you can. You can get bogged down in trying to get all the information under the assumption it will naturally lead you to the right decision. But in my experience, many of the most difficult decisions are always at the margin, that’s why they are difficult. You’ve got to make a decision, otherwise you just sit there and do nothing. And particularly in a crisis but more generally, doing nothing can be as harmful as doing something. But I know the reverse has also been proven to be the case. And you’ll get it wrong a lot of the time, but if you don’t have the courage to [make a decision], often you can really get hurt or hurt your business.

How did you end up investing in Snapchat and ultimately becoming their Chairman in just few years? What was that journey like?

Well, we were living at the time in the west side in LA which is where Snap started, and my kids started using it very early when there were very few people using it, and then I started using it, and my wife started noticing how much I started using it even when the kids weren’t around. She wrote Evan Speigel one day over customer support email just saying how much she liked it.

What year was this?

It must have been a year into it or less, maybe. And she said [in the email], “If you ever want to talk about it, I’m a big admirer”. She loved the idea that it brought conversation back to the internet with a lack of permanence. What happened then was that he responded instantly and was actually over to our house for dinner that night. And at the end of the conversation (the two of them were having a long conversation, I was a fly on the wall) she said “Gee I’d love to be able to be helpful or invest”. He said “Well, it would be helpful, for complicated reasons, but let’s talk more”. Post that, Evan would come and see me twice a month because his offices were right down the street from the studio. He was in Venice and we were in Culver City. And we would walk around the studio lot. And one point he had to raise more money from venture firms, which meant he had to form a board and I joined his board. And subsequently when he decided to take the company public, he needed a chairman, and there I was.

That’s a crazy story, looking back.

Crazy story, yes.

Could you talk a bit about the relationship between the traditional legacy companies and some of these up and coming tech media startups? You represent someone who has bridged the two. How has the relationship between them evolved over the years?

I’ve seen it evolve over the course of 25 to 30 years. When I was first at the Walt Disney Company, in the late 80s and early 90s, a ton of conversations took place between Apple and Disney. Over the course of all of those years, there was tech in the north and entertainment business in the south and it was one of those situations where you say ‘The two of you should really meet…’ And any time the two did get together, it was extremely awkward. No one really knew how to talk to one another. The tech guys didn’t know how to get into the entertainment space and the entertainment guys didn’t know what the tech guys were talking about. The only person who really managed to bridge the gap was Steve Jobs on the Pixar side. When I first took the job that I had at Sony, I can’t remember the exact circumstances but [Jobs] brought together all of the heads of the studios. I can’t remember the specific topic of conversation, but at one point, Barry Meyer, running Warner Bros at the time said “We have great engineers, we can do what the tech guys can do”. And Steve Jobs looked at him and said, in the only way that Steve Jobs could, “Let me ask you a question. If you were a great film director, would you work for Warner Bros or Apple? If you were a great engineer, would you work for Apple or Warner Bros? The answer to that question explains why each of us do what we do”.  

A lot of that has changed over the past 5 or 10 years, and a lot of things have collapsed to make that happen. Everything from the hardware side of it, with iPad, the iPhone, to software with the internet has changed but what’s consistently been the case is, I still think, is a tremendous lack of understanding between the two sides of the ledger in terms of what the other is good at and can do. I don’t think the tech side of things understands storytelling very well and I don’t think the entertainment side of things really understand what the tech guys can do. And quite honestly, I think both underestimate the other. But it’s also clear that because of the importance of the platforms, whether it be Facebook, Google, or distribution, like Netflix, they are getting closer and closer together. I don’t know ultimately, whether or not they are getting closer and closer together by halves (meaning there will always be a distance between them, and they never really are going to be comfortable with the other). I’m not sure they are ever going to meet. I think they are closer than they have ever been – you only need to go to an awards night to see the tech and entertainment people co-mingling, and they are certainly socially closer together, but there’s a fundamentally different mindset between an engineer and a person who’s a storyteller.

Snap sits in the middle of this collection of companies because it’s a platform for storytellers, but yet, it’s also a technology company. What’s the culture like at Snapchat that enables this combination of facilitating creativity as well as high performance?

I think that really emanates from Evan. I think Evan himself has, of all the tech people I know, has among the highest regard for the power of traditional media, whether that be filmmakers, television producers, news outlets, and he really has a ton of respect for it. That’s one of the reasons Discover is Discover. I think the other thing about Evan, which is also visible in Snap, is that he has a tremendous sense of fun and humor, which comes across, and I think he also feels, not that everybody doesn’t think that creativity and innovation is important, but he truly believes it is, and they want to enable people who use Snap to do that. And most of that culture and sentiment in my opinion comes from Evan.

And you’ve really seen him from the beginning. Based on your wife’s inviting him to dinner begin a year in, so it must have been amazing to see him evolve through that journey as well.

He’s evolved, but I will always say he’s had a pretty clear vision.

Given all that you’ve said, what are you most excited about in the industry right now? And what do you think is most challenging about the media and entertainment industry?

Well, I think what’s exciting and what’s most challenging is oddly the same thing. Clearly right now all of the models are getting thrown out the window because of distribution is changing so radically. In the case of the music industry, it took them the better part of two decades to get through that and find a model that works on the other side which they finally have done with subscription music services. I think the movie business is just entering into that process, I don’t know how long it will take. And I think the television business is all over the place. Obviously that presents enormous challenges in terms of economics and advertising, what does and doesn’t work, and all that kind of stuff.

The other side of it though, is you’ve got more [content] being made than ever before, and that gives an opportunity for a lot of people to get a time at bat. What I do notice of late, because I’m a big consumer of this stuff, and this is obviously highly subjective and personal, is that despite the fact that there’s a remarkable amount of stuff being make, there’s a remarkably little amount of stuff that’s really good. One thing that was always true in the book business, which has a very low barrier to someone writing a book, and the same can be said for music. It was never really true until now for television and film, is that there were really only a certain number of really great books that were written and published every year and the same with music, and it didn’t matter how much money you threw at the problem. It’s just the scarcity of the talent or the idea whichever the case might be. That might be proving itself true for the television business too. I think there’s a limit. It’s not like you throw more money at the problem and you get more great things. I think yes, we got a few more great things, but now we may be hitting the limit.

What advice would you give to students as they set off on their careers?

Well, I think the conventional route is rarely the route that leads to happiness or success, I believe that.You can just as easily find your way to great things by following an alternate route. I think having gone to Harvard is a blessing and also a burden. It’s a burden in that often times people feel like because they went to Harvard they are in some way entitled to certain things, although that may have been more true of my generation than not. The truth of the matter is, the minute you get out of college, nobody cares where you went to school, it’s just about the work. It’s literally just about the work, and I think at times people forget that. To be reminded of that is not sure a bad idea either.

Jordan Taylor (HBS ’18) graduated from Harvard College in 2012. Prior to HBS, she was chief of staff at Mic.

Pippa Lamb (HBS ‘18) worked for the British government in Beijing and Shanghai before transitioning to J.P. Morgan focusing on tech and consumer investing. Pippa is a Fulbright Scholar under the British Friends of Harvard Business School Program. You can follow her on Twitter @pippalamb.