Ian Schafer (2015 AAF Hall of Achievement honoree)
From movie studio to stealth sports media launch
Ian Schafer began his career in 1997 with digital agency i-Traffic, essentially because he wanted to help create advertising for The Walt Disney Co., which later hired him and put him to work on Miramax. He became VP of new media for Disney through 2002, leading digital and media innovation for Miramax.
“I knew at a very young age that I wanted to live at the intersection of media, entertainment and technology,” Schafer said, and Disney made that possible.
“I felt like I got a master’s degree while working there,” Schafer said. “Part of what enabled that was how dysfunctional the environment was. I was able to kind of exploit that to get into meetings that I otherwise wouldn’t be in. I felt that working there taught me how to be an effective generalist.”
The dysfunction Schafer is referring to, of course, is Miramax’s link to co-founder and now-convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein.
“The dysfunction became more and more evident,” Schafer said. Outside of Weinstein, from a marketing perspective, he felt Disney wasn’t innovating fast enough. Miramax acquired a DVD business because it didn’t trust Disney to distribute its films, but Schafer also had doubts about DVDs being the future of home entertainment.
That led him to launch the agency Deep Focus, and convince Disney to become a client rather than replace his role internally. Early on, Deep Focus did award-winning work for the launch of “Kill Bill.” Success bred work for other Hollywood studios, then record companies and cable networks, where Schafer helped “these companies get out ahead so they were seen as big innovators instead of the biggest laggards.”
That in turn attracted business from big non-entertainment brand marketers, including Microsoft, Nestlé and Unilever, he said. Ultimately, Deep Focus was sold to Engine in 2010, and Schafer stayed on through 2017.
“I felt I needed a break from other people’s brand growth,” he said. “And over the years, I had built up a strong frustration with business as usual.”
While watching coverage of Davos in 2018, he recalls the commentary from a climate activist that “it’s like sending a bunch of arsonists to a convention talking about how to put out fires. I remember seeing a photo of a poverty exhibit with a guard sitting in front of it, and I’m thinking, this is exactly how not to solve the world’s problems.”
From that grew the idea of Kindred, a community of “purpose-driven leaders” dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion and environmental, sustainability and governance advancement.
The initial idea was around building events, the first of which was scheduled to take place in May 2020. “It turned out to be one of the most 2019 ideas ever,” Schafer said. The pandemic, and later the murder of George Floyd, changed things quickly. Kindred shifted to become a virtual educational platform for executives seeking education about how to bring positive change.
For his next act, Schafer currently is working on a sports media company in stealth mode.
“I believe in the power of storytelling,” Schafer said. “And I also believe in what athletes can do, and now say, to inspire millions to take action.”