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A story well told

The following story originally appeared in the spring 2017 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine - Ed.

You never know how good or bad you have it until you’re a perpetual guest at a child’s tea party.

For a couple of months I stayed with a friend in Los Angeles, and every afternoon her little girl Sophia, usually in a Frozen dress of some fashion, poured me a cup of low-calorie tea, air-flavored.

“Be careful,” she said. “It’s very hot.”

I fake-burned my lip, and she told me to blow. She poured tea for Anna and Elsa, Ariel and Pocahontas, Belle and the Beast. The Princesses are very in right now.

“You shouldn’t give any tea to that Beast,” I said. “He looks very mean.”

“The Beast is good!” she said, very protective-like. “He does nice things.”

“Well, what about this sister in the blue?” I said. “You can’t just go around freezing everybody. That’s a bad curse.”

“No,” Sophia said. “Elsa has powers.” She whispered powers like it was a secret, like she was the only one who saw the movie. She did her hands like a freeze ray. “Powers just mean you have to be careful. Her sister helps her.”

All at once I wanted to watch Disney movies with the whole country. In two minutes I’d learned about truth, illusion, power and responsibility toward others, and I still had half a cup of invisible tea. We made the trip to Disney one day while I was out there. We met Anna and Elsa and many other princesses. I spun Sophia in a giant teacup until we almost lost our corndogs. That night, I’d never been more somber that I’d never had a little girl of my own. Sometimes we forget what makes the world spin.

The Walt Disney Company is known for bringing magic to life. Its blend of high artistry and age-old storytelling is so enchanting that sometimes we mistake it as a thing for children. As adults, sometimes we let imagination atrophy on the shelf or believe that stories have only a small place for a small childhood time, but that’s not really true. William & Mary prides itself on being one of those safe havens where students are still encouraged to wed their dreams and imaginations with the technical skills to achieve them, and maybe for that reason it’s no surprise that so many alumni have gone on to grace the Magic Kingdom.

Illustration by Yuta Onoda

Cindy Davis ’80, Susan O’Day M.B.A. ’85, and Andrew Sugerman ’93 hold very different executive roles at Disney, but each of their fields — marketing, technology, and storytelling — are indispensible toward the larger picture and remind us that imagination and true teamwork can still come together in the modern age to create an undeniably fine product. The Walt Disney Company has always been about a journey and the transformations that come for those bold enough to dream, and the stories of these three remind us that when headlines are grim and imagination seems to hold no place in the world, we’re simply not being creative enough.

If you’re not sure about whether or not you like a television program, there’s a good chance Cindy Davis could sit on the other couch and tell you. As executive vice president of the consumer experience for the Disney-ABC Television Group, Davis holds one of the most coveted positions in marketing, and her years of experience have trained her to measure behaviors that would be invisible to most of us. Oldest of four girls, Cindy grew up wanting to be a tax attorney from the time she was in the sixth grade, and you can make of that what you want.

If it weren’t for a chance encounter in the first semester of her senior year, Davis might not be on such familiar terms with Mickey. “After taking all of the very hard accounting classes at William & Mary, I took a marketing class as an elective and realized it was my passion,” Davis explains. “I went up to the professor in the second week of class and said, ‘Let me get this straight. Companies will pay me to understand consumer behaviors and get inside their heads to understand their wants and needs?’ and he told me, ‘Yeah, it’s a whole industry.’ So I changed my major, first semester of my senior year. My parents probably thought I was crazy. But my advisors and professors really encouraged me to pursue my passion.”

And the truth is that her decision was a little bit risky, but that choice led Davis to a host of marketing opportunities that seemed to culminate in a very good job as an executive at Wal-Mart. And outside of watching The Wonderful World of Disney every Sunday night with her sisters or watching Tarzan with her son, the entertainment world seemed very far away until Disney decided that Davis’s balance of creativity and analytics were the perfect combination for what they had planned. The move brought Davis to sunny Burbank, Calif., and she explains her job better than I do. “I help our company better understand the 150 million viewers who watch us across Disney-ABC television every week,” she explains. “Whether they’re watching Scandal on ABC, Shadow Hunters or Pretty Little Liars on Freeform, or Mickey and Roadster Racers on Disney Junior, if we can understand them and what’s important to them, we can create more engaging content and make sure they have the best access to it.”

There is no doubt that The Walt Disney Company is very interested in characters and relationships, and it is well known that at Disney, a well-told story is the secret sauce. But in an age in which most people are either very busy or glued to their phones, Davis and her team in Burbank work very hard to find out how hard you’re really watching. “We’ve always done lots of analytical work around understanding what aspects of a show really motivate and engage people,” Davis explains. “The industry measures the success of a program by Nielsen ratings, and of course we want to know how many people watch a show. But what we really want to know now is how engaged our viewers are in the program.” Are your eyes on the screen or on your phone? Are you slouching or snacking or focused on the action? Davis, as well as artists and advertisers, really want to know. Right now, Davis’ team is working on creating a metric to better gauge viewer engagement. “We’ve been taking a more observational approach to research, using sophisticated cameras and translating that video into data. Basically we’re watching people watch TV. We take a group and focus on how they’re engaging to better figure out what people love the most and why. Are you leaning in? Are you really a fan?”

For her part, Davis is clearly a fan, which is good since so much of her job is about measuring what creates a true fan. She’s also very proud of the inclusive programming that her company offers and what that brings to a viewer. “Our programs help people see themselves and the people around them in a new and different way, and celebrating differences is something that’s truly important to us,” Davis says. “It’s nice to see what it’s like to live in a family that’s not exactly like yours.” And in all of her roles, the ability to analyze data makes those accounting classes all the more valuable. “That accounting background has helped make me a creative person who cares just as much about measurable results. Art and science, right?” she laughs. “That’s been the cornerstone of my career. I’m always the person in advertising or marketing who loves the creative process but who really wants to measure the results.”

When asked about the world, Davis is very hopeful about that alchemy where science and art meet. “Leaders should encourage and inspire that combination. Every problem can’t be solved by big data. I’m the biggest supporter of analytics you will ever find, and it’s a huge part of my job, but the best results are at that place where creativity and imagination intersect with data and analytics. In the highly creative world of entertainment — and I work with some of the best minds in the business — we get to bring insights to the table that combine art and science, and for me that’s a very exciting place to me.” Cindy is the sort of alumna who makes the accounting professors either hide the alumni magazines or liberally pass them out, and that is absolutely my favorite kind of person. And more importantly, she is proof that wishing on a star sometimes pays off, especially if you have the tools to navigate.

“I’ve always liked Pinocchio,” Susan O’Day tells me from her California office. “Only until he lived in the most honest and generous way did he get his life’s wish.”

I couldn’t tell you for sure, but I don’t think that her nose grew. If the tale of that curious and endearing marionette has any basis in the algorithms of real life, O’Day must have been pretty good. As chief information officer and executive vice president of enterprise technology for The Walt Disney Company, O’Day is a technology guru at one of the most tech-savvy companies in the world, and I’m sure most children just squeal when they hear where she works. O’Day was born in Massachusetts but grew up in New York, and after attaining her undergraduate degree in mathematics from St. Lawrence University, things weren’t looking too sunny or magical.

“I was working in retail at Lord & Taylor, making $13,000 a year in Manhattan, and I thought that maybe there was something I needed to do to make more money,” says O’Day. “There was a woman who was working there who had her MBA, and I just thought that was so impressive. So fairly late, I decided to go back to school. I loved William & Mary and how diverse it was.”

As chief information officer, O’Day and her team are responsible for making sure that Disney has the technological infrastructure and know-how to better make its vision come to life. “I focus on partnering with our business segments and our great brands so that we can use technology to deliver really engaging consumer experiences,” O’Day says. “That also includes managing risk and the day-to-day managing of our business.”

At a company as all-expansive as Disney, you can imagine what that means. From the animatronics throughout the park, to the internal and external systems used across Disney’s many websites and apps and programs, to the precision technology used while creating a Pixar movie, being responsible for even a fraction of the technology at Disney is no small thing. Technology is evolving so quickly that some of us have trouble using our phones, but adapting to those challenges has become a way of life for O’Day. “IT or technology in general is going through a huge transformation. With Cloud and automation and mobile and all of those pressures you’re seeing that are transforming business functions, they’re equally transforming the business of technology. Technology is transforming others, but technology is also transforming itself. Being part of helping lead that transformation at the Walt Disney Company is both exciting and challenging at such a tech-friendly company.”

While so much of O’Day’s job includes working with her team to make sure systems run smoothly while keeping Disney on the cutting edge, so many aspects of what we love about Disney would be impossible without her expertise. The place where story and technology work together is so interesting to those of us who fall asleep over empty pyrotechnics, and Disney is very mindful about that dynamic. O’Day tells it best: “John Lasseter, who’s our chief creative officer and one of the founders of Pixar, has this famous quote that ‘the art challenges technology, and the technology inspires the art.’ The two have this very symbiotic relationship. The art and story are the most important, but the technology really inspires the story to be even bigger and broader and more creative and more immersive. For Disney, it really is all about the storytelling across all our brands. Even with ESPN, they focus on telling the story — not only what’s happening during the moments of the game, but also the story before the game and where that storyline goes after.”

But if a cartoon mouse gets a lot of the glory or her storytelling counterparts are more quickly credited for their imagination, that’s okay with O’Day. She is humble about her role and the indispensible things her team does to help bring us the stories and experiences we hold in our hearts forever. “Technology is meant, by design, to not be visible in that telling,” she says. “But Disney is a very technical company, and it has been since the early days. It’s not that we’re hiding the technology. It’s a relationship in which one is in service of the other, and everyone at Disney understands that the story is the clear and natural priority. We have people who focus on the latest technology, but we never have to wrestle with how we should approach that relationship.”

When we look around the world and the problems that lie ahead, sometimes it is easy to feel overwhelmed or pessimistic. Some days, the newspaper feels like a stack of gloomy, unsolvable problems. But O’Day and the team at Disney seem to find solutions at that place where precise measurement meets high art. “It is about imagining or thinking about what could be and then figuring out how to make it real,” she says. “That marriage of imagination and actual innovation is what makes a project come to life. Our creative units at Disney are amazing. They live to come up with these stories that are compelling and wildly imaginative, and our technologists and the people who enable them are all about how to innovate and how to create technology that can allow those ideas to become real. I don’t think anyone here feels anchored by the past. It’s not that we feel as if we have to preserve what Walt did or do it exactly as Walt did it, but it’s more about capturing the spirit and the essence of what Walt was trying to do and to take that into the modern times.” What I like the most about Susan O’Day and the people at Disney is that they seem very proud of the joy they bring customers. She is proof you don’t have to be a dwarf to whistle while you work, and I promise my nose isn’t growing.

Andrew Sugerman is executive vice president of publishing and digital media at Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media (DCPI), and if you think that’s a mouthful, I thought so, too. Like his colleagues in this piece, those letters have a lot of responsibility anchored to them. But like most folks he started out with a few letters (B.A., for example), and worked his way up. Andrew was raised in an Army family, which gave him a wealth of experience in places like Germany, North Carolina and Virginia. He grew up with eclectic tastes and a passion for art, music, sports and business, and that’s why he found William & Mary so appealing. “The school had a blend of liberal arts, but it also had key focuses that interested me, like the undergrad business school. And the student body was the right size. It wasn’t like the large Midwestern state schools, and it wasn’t as small as many of the New England liberal arts colleges.” It was also where Sugerman met his wife Sarah ’92 — whom he calls his navigator — and it sounds like he would have been pretty lost without her.

Sugerman’s current job at Disney requires him to supervise a global team of storytellers across many traditional and digital channels. His choices help ensure that content is consistent with the Disney brand while also engaging a wider, evolving audience. Right now, Sugerman is combining a number of diverse storytelling groups into a cohesive unit. This group includes traditional storytelling venues such as the books, magazines, and comics put out by Disney Publishing — the world’s largest publisher of children’s books and magazines — but it also includes the Disney Digital Network, which puts out many of the videos, social media, and mobile apps that hold the Disney brand.

Whether it’s creating digital shorts, publishing online content on, or discussing a new line of books that many parents will read to their children at bedtime, the goal of Sugerman’s team is to provide that slow-cooked quality that we associate with The Walt Disney Company, which must be a challenge in an evolving media space. Over 90 percent of the data we have in the world has been created over the last two years, and Disney has worked hard to meet that high-paced demand. “We’ve spent a lot of time on how we can make our Disney content more relatable to different audiences,” he says. “We’ve identified a lot of authors who were great in their own right in the stories that they told, and we paired them up with our story worlds to create new content.”

If Disney Publishing’s 700 million yearly products aren’t enough, Sugerman’s team also has to account for daily content and videos, the apps, websites, e-books, and the social media posts that now make up our world. A Disney movie takes years to create, but many of Sugerman’s storytellers have to work quickly to meet the growing demand for instant online content. For his part, Sugerman leans on the characters and storytelling that helped get Disney to this place. “My favorite character growing up was always Donald Duck. I just thought that as a character, he wore his emotions on his shirtsleeve. He puts himself out there and doesn’t hold back. And growing up, I loved the blend of animation and live-action film in movies like Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which really unlock the imaginative aspect. But Disney also has the films with the songs that interweave songwriting and storytelling. The Lion King is one that stands out to me. The music and the lyrics were such a cornerstone of the emotional connection.”

While storytelling is now a major part of his life, Sugerman made his first big splash with the company while building up Disney English in China. The program incorporates key Disney characters and literature into their teaching components, using them as fun tools to build English literacy. “We spent several years building Disney English up to tens of thousands of students,” he says. “I remember before I left China, I went to the first graduation ceremony for the kids who had gone to all five years of the program we launched. I remembered some of the kids from the day we first opened, and they’d had no English acquisition then at all. But after these five years, there were some kids up there who were delivering speeches in English, and they were so heartfelt and amazing. It was a direct result of what we had established, and it was gratifying because we had built something that was on-brand for Disney, but it also delivered valuable results to many children and families.”

But if Sugerman now spends his life surrounded by stories, he’s not alone. “Storytelling is one of those things that is overarching, and it’s not just about a screenwriter sitting at The Walt Disney Company working on a film,” he says. “Storytelling is something that every person on the planet is engaged in at any given point. Whether you’re posting something on Facebook, telling your spouse what happened that day or teaching something to your children, stories are the way in which we communicate. And that goes back as far as early human communication goes. And whether it’s conflicts that people overcome or the character development at the personal level, it just seems as though storytelling influences the way we look at the world around us and how we interpret things. It influences how we can imagine things and how we problem-solve and think about what we’re going to do in the future through the lens of other people’s stories.”

Mr. Sugerman is in a position in which imagination is at the tip of his coworkers’ tongues and feels relevant to his life, but he’s the first to admit he’s certainly not alone. “It almost doesn’t matter what job you do, what career you pursue, or where you live,” he says. “Imagination is probably one of the most valuable skills and something I believe needs to be exercised as much as possible. And more important than imagination is people having the confidence to then really focus in and act upon what they imagine. Imagination that is not acted upon is a loss to that person and potentially to the greater world. Imagination is only good if it’s heard.”

It has been a long time since I’ve had a good tea party. I haven’t met Mickey in many weeks, and I don’t know if I remember how to spin a teacup. But Disney is one of those few places that stick with you because they are in the business of transforming hearts and minds.

I still remember my first trip to Disneyland. I remember the first time I cried to Bambi (and the last one, with Sophia). And I guess that’s a business — a big business, if the paper is correct — but why does my heart remember only the pleasure? Sometimes we look at storytelling as one more thing that tilts us away from reality — and the reality is this is sometimes true. Sometimes we have to put down a device or click off a television or even close a good book to attend to the beauty right in front of us.

Or sometimes we have to remember, in an age of conflicting headlines, that some tell stories that should politely make a nose grow. But applied imagination is still that last old magic that spins us toward a better world, one in which goodness still wins. As the oceans rise and the bees dwindle, as we worry over headlines featuring prolonged war and political quagmires and the extinction of wholesale breeds, sometimes we forget that the very best cures are the ones so old that even children know them by heart. Sometimes you have to take, but it is far better to give. Sometimes we must spoon out a little medicine, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for sugar. There really is a circle of life, harmonic as stars or any wheel of fortune, and we all live a little better when we blow heat off our fake tea.

Cindy Davis must add great financial value to Disney as she measures the viewing habits of the American audience, but her programs also allow millions of people to examine complex topics in a way that brings delight. And Susan O’Day might live in a world of numbers that most of us can’t fathom, but she was also selling clothes one day and decided, “I want my life to be a little different,” and that’s a magic we can all understand. And Andrew Sugerman might often provide direction for website storytellers, but that’s a craft so old that you could burrow in caves the rest of your life and never find the oldest trace. And more often than we realize, as we hurdle through a world of imbalance, stories teach us the great lessons and remind us of great hope.

Sometimes a woman toiling in the cinders is only one night away from putting on threads to dance at the palace. We may become a real boy if we can only learn the value of truth, and sometimes a frog is really a prince. A dashing prince may be a villain, and a beast may be either bad or good. Sometimes a curse is really a gift biding its time to blossom, and only love can save a frozen heart.

Stories remind us we must measure and think carefully to know what is so. And in our darkest days, those stories feel like old fables, bromides and lies to calm simple minds. But as long as there is imagination — paired with the courage and skills to bring it out—we’re never more than one spark away from rewriting a sure tragedy into a comedy. There are a million things you can say about Disney and its people, but that balance and accumulation of skill is the thing that turns the world. It isn’t one storyteller. It isn’t one tech expert or marketing genius. It is the concept that we are one but we are also many. And as Sophia might remind, good is not a façade but an action.

So when the day turns dark and all hope seems lost, when a powerful sister throws up hands and screams, “We are dead, I am cursed,” another sister may step in and say, “You’re not cursed, you are just so powerful. And my heart’s not frozen, not quite yet.”