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Alumni in Action

Badger Executive Talks: Jim Wuthrich Navigates Disruption to Industry Success

By Jane Burns

September 17, 2021

If Jim Wuthrich (BBA ’86) wrote a book on leadership, he’d have an easy time coming up with the title. He figures Finding the Waves, a sort-of surfing metaphor, would do the trick nicely because of the way he has been able to sense what’s coming next and move with it.

“It’s not just one wave, you have to go from one wave to another to another to be successful,” says Wuthrich, president of content distribution at WarnerMedia.

A less metaphorical term would also sum up Wuthrich’s career: disruption. He has had to ride those waves for a reason, as massive changes have come at every step of his career. Wuthrich has seen content and home entertainment evolve from CD-ROM to DVD to streaming—and those are only some of the changes he’s witnessed.

Wuthrich, speaking from his office overlooking the legendary Warner Bros. Studios lot in Burbank, California, talked about navigating disruption during a recent Badger Executive Talk, a virtual speaker series featuring executives from the UW–Madison alumni community. Vallabh “Samba” Sambamurthy, Albert O. Nicholas Dean of the Wisconsin School of Business, led the conversation and fielded questions from alumni.

“I’ve had disruption at the center of everything I’ve been doing,” Wuthrich says. “For all of its unease, I think I like it because I keep coming back to it.”

With Dean Sambamurthy, Wuthrich shared how disruption has defined his career, and also gave some insights about the entertainment industry today.

Innovation from the start. Wuthrich began his career at Hallmark Cards. He was part of a then-new unit in the company called Shoebox Greetings, which was created in response to competition from companies that made irreverent and less-traditional cards. The new line might have been seen as competing with Hallmark’s core business of traditional cards, but Shoebox cards are now a staple of the company. “That was my first touch of a disruptive world,” he says.

Disruption will challenge a company from within. Companies don’t have a good track record with disruption, Wuthrich says, because it’s hard to do and it challenges the company’s core business. A good manager, recognizes that innovation within a company can create “haves” and the “have nots”—those who are generating revenue with the core business and those who are working on “the new sexy thing.” It’s important to protect the team that is innovating, Wuthrich says. “Someone high in the organization has to be looking out for them,” he says. “Ultimately you want them to be successful in what they’re doing.”

Find the story in the data. While data has the power to transform any industry and is doing so with entertainment, it needs to be used in the right way. “You can have all the data in the world but it doesn’t matter if you don’t have the business question you are trying to solve for,” Wuthrich says. While he uses data to understand details such as timing or price point, Wuthrich says the power of data has come in understanding the customers. “[Entertainment] has gone from a mass medium to a one-to-one medium,” he says. “It’s about understanding the individual and how they react to the content. That’s where data fits in.”

Be entrepreneurial with your career. Wuthrich stayed alert to innovation and followed his own interests. “It’s not a career ladder, it’s more like a jungle gym and you have to move around on it,” he says. Wuthrich left Hallmark for a startup that worked with the then-new CD-ROM technology. As the internet was making that technology obsolete, he recognized how DVDs were going to transform the movie industry. He leveraged his tech experience to get a job at Warner Bros. as a product manager for DVDs, taking a pay cut to do so.

Build an internal network. While DVDs were dominating the entertainment market, Wuthrich was already seeing the potential for digital distribution. In 2006 he became vice president of digital distribution at Warner Bros. “I wasn’t the natural pick to go into that role but because I had built a good reputation within the organization I had a lot of advocates who would work on my behalf,” he says.

The Badger Executive Talks series will continue on Nov. 10, featuring Laura Francis (BBA ’88), CEO of SI-BONE. WSB’s Alumni Events page features more information about the talks and links to view past conversations.