Michael Hirsh: the father of Canadian animation
Michael Hirsh, described as ‘the Canadian product of mixing Warren Buffett with Walt Disney’, is a giant in the animated television sector, having co-founded the renowned Nelvana with Patrick Loubert and Clive A. Smith in 1971, and continuing his career in children’s television to the present day. Nelvana has produced some of the most memorable and highest-quality cartoons of all time, including The Care Bears, Babar, and The Adventures of Tintin.
“When I was a kid, about four or five years old, I made my career choice,” Hirsh explains. “I wanted to grow up and either be Mickey Mouse or Superman. I watched a lot of cartoons and read a lot of comic books, and eventually realized that it would be easier to be Mickey, so that helped my decision.”
Hirsh’s path was set. He and his partners founded Nelvana on a shoestring – just enough for the business registration fees – and the first seven years were dedicated to learning the business.
“Every few years we’d risk everything in innovation,” says Hirsh. “Over 30 years at Nelvana, we had at least five major crises, all of which required different solutions. At any one time it would have been better to declare bankruptcy, but we said ‘hell no’ and continued to work through the disruptions to find a solution. We lived on the edge and never stopped being risk-takers.
“When facing a business crisis, it was a hard lesson to learn how to manage it, how to solve the problems and get to the other side. It was challenging, but I learned how to keep everyone calm, cool, and collected.”
Taking risks paid off. Nelvana, in Hirsh’s words, gave birth to Canada’s animation industry, and created a global impact.
“A vast amount of people got their careers started through Nelvana,” Hirsh says. “They got trained by me and my partners, and are now running their own successful studios – not only in Canada but in other countries. In the process, we pioneered many of the worldwide coproduction, marketing, and distribution techniques which have become standard industry practice.”
It’s no wonder Hirsh is recognized throughout the industry as a leading business and brand-builder. The company’s first big break came a few years after its inception, when George Lucas chose Nelvana to create a 10-minute Star Wars cartoon which led to two series – but even more important to the business was Hirsh persuading the owners of The Care Bears to have Nelvana produce their film and series. This placed Nelvana firmly on the map.
“We really focused on our core business: kids,” says Hirsh. “We then grew into computer animation with the acquisition of Windlight Studios, and from there we computerized our 2D traditional animation and added 3D. We started our own distribution company, allowing us to retain rights of our properties, and became very good at securing the rights to other valuable properties.”
Nelvana was sold to Corus Entertainment in 2000 for $540 million, and Hirsh continued as co-CEO until 2002. Two years later, he led a consortium which acquired the remnants of Cinar Corporation, became CEO, and rebranded it as Cookie Jar Entertainment.
“Having sold Nelvana and staying on for two more years, I missed having my own company,” says Hirsh. “In Cinar I saw the opportunity to build another kids’ entertainment company using the skeletal bones of what was already in place.”
Cookie Jar Entertainment went on to become one of the world’s largest privately-held children’s entertainment companies. It was acquired by DHX Media in 2012, at which point Hirsh became Executive Chairman and served on the board until the end of 2015.
Hirsh is – rightly so – extremely proud of having built Canada’s children’s television industry, giving opportunities to over 10,000 artists. He has been granted the honor of many awards over the years, including three Daytime Emmys, and his expertise has also earned him invitations to act as keynote speaker at various industry events and film festivals. But after working for so long in children’s television, how has the sector changed since 1971?
“It has gotten better and better,” Hirsh says. “All the changes that have happened in TV have helped made kid’s TV better. When I first started there was no real market in Canada, and the US had three stations with CBS, NBC, and ABC. Now, there are at least 1,520 kid’s TV channels in Canada and the United States is the same. Platforms like Netflix and Amazon have also added unlimited shelf space, creating greater opportunity for an even larger variety of programming, satisfying the needs of children and parents.”
Now, Hirsh is a principal with The Entertainment and Media Finance Group Inc., also known as TEAM. TEAM serves producer and distributors with innovative interim financing, merger and acquisitions, international production structuring, and financial advisory services, which simply furthers Hirsh’s long-running contribution to the world of television programming.
As a consistently successful entrepreneur, what advice would Michael Hirsh give to others looking to gain a foothold in this industry?
“Whenever times get tough, visualize Bugs Bunny or Roadrunner crossing over the canyon, never looking down and just getting to the other side. The cost of you looking down is falling. Keep moving forward and stay focused, envision your goals, and they will be achieved.”
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.