7 Leading Voices at the Forefront of Video on Data-Informed Storytelling and Brand Safety

On the eve of NewFronts, Adweek convenes annual roundtable

Video: John Tejada
Headshot of James Cooper

With video blazing new audience and brand engagement, the 2018 NewFronts should be an important pivot point for producers and platforms as well as marketers getting more comfortable using video as a branding tool.

That will include direct-to-consumer brands eager to spin first-party data into next-generation marketing including video in all its forms, ranging from 6-second ads to long form as well as ad-supported OTT and social video. Adweek was pleased to once again host our annual NewFronts roundtable in partnership with the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) at our headquarters in New York. Six industry execs who live and breathe in the burgeoning digital video market, along with moderator Anna Bager, evp of industry initiatives at the IAB, held an engaging and animated hour-long conversation on key forces shaping their respective platforms, content production and businesses.

At the fore of the discussion was the importance of listening to audiences’ needs across the myriad platforms—traditional, mobile and social—to create better-quality content and more effective branded efforts for clients, many of whom are still huddled in experimental mode. And that’s largely because of brand safety concerns in this millennial-driven ecosystem with new rules and light-speed cycles of fame and fade. Facing those concerns, the panelists discussed new processes and relationship mandates that they hope will calm CMO worries that his or her video output will be seen by the right audience in an appropriate environment for messaging. Here are their words.

Adweek’s roundtable, in partnership with the IAB, focused on key forces shaping industry execs’ platforms, content production and businesses.
Raquel Beauchamp

Anna Bager (IAB): I want to start with those of you that are new to the NewFronts this year. That would be ESPN, Viacom and Meredith. Why did you decide to get involved and what are you most excited about this year? We can start with Viacom.

Kelly Day (Viacom): So this is the first year that Viacom in a long time has really heavily invested in digital content, in particular Viacom Digital Studios just launched four months ago. So it’s a relatively new venture and we were really excited to have the opportunity to tell the story about what we’re doing and to reach a wide audience in a very cohesive way and be able to talk about everything that’s going on. We’ve got a lot of new shows coming up, and with the acquisitions of VidCon and WhoSay, we feel like there’s a great story to tell.

Stan Pavlovsky (Meredith): As you mentioned, we’re sort of new to this event. Our colleagues at Time Inc. have been committed to NewFronts for the past five years and we’re bringing a couple of iconic companies together so that we feel this is a pretty good opportunity to tell the story of the new Meredith and our capabilities and our scale in video.

Travis Howe (ESPN): I think for ESPN we think that it’s an important time for us to participate to actually help set some strategy around what we see the future of sports to be, in addition to livestreaming, which we think is going to be a critical part of the digital ecosystem, but also ways in which you can tell stories around the game and storytelling about the game, whether it’s original content or breaking news and highlights. And so we think that this time of year is right for us given where sports sits and the conversation around engaging audiences and the role that we see in setting that strategy.

Bager: How about from founding partners YouTube and Google as well as veterans Twitter and Studio71?

Tara Walpert Levy (Google): When we first put it together that it was just an incredibly important moment for people to understand the trends in terms of how consumers are behaving and engaging with video and TV in a broader sense. And it’s awesome for us to see how it’s gone from like six partners back in the day to dozens. That reflects the vision that people are consuming content in fundamentally new ways. And I think the fact that you also have some traditional players at the table speaks to the fact that Nielsen says it’s very difficult to reach half the country via traditional TV.

Photo: Raquel Beauchamp

Matt Derella (Twitter): For Twitter it came from us hearing from our customers who asked us to participate to show what we were doing with news, sports and entertainment. So we did and were able, I think, to present something that’s different than taking television and putting it on a mobile device, for example. We’re really trying to work with our partners to reimagine sports, news and entertainment for our mobile-first audience.

Reza Izad (Studio71): So yes, the NewFronts have always been a great stage to do announcements around big content partnerships. But with all the brand safety and adjacency conversations, we’re seeing a lot of demand from the holding companies to do real commitments. We think going forward it’s going to be more important because there’s going to be a lot more scarcity around adjacency.

Bager: In a world of so many shows, networks and platforms, what are your best practices for marketing new content?

Derella: The secret ingredient Twitter has is the conversations happening on Twitter. It is happening there first and that becomes the most powerful way for us to actually program. In addition, it really helps if you have incredible engineers working on products that are driving discoverability. So one of the things that we’ll be talking about at the NewFronts is some of the enhancements that we’re bringing to the service that’s really going to allow content to be surfaced to our audiences in a way that’s really timely and relevant and will help connect people with what they’re most passionate about.

Izad: One thing you have to figure out if you’re a content producer is the algorithms that everyone’s putting into place. It has become really important in understanding how you optimize your content in those feeds. Whether it’s on Netflix, which has a whole set of tools that recommend content, and YouTube and Instagram, Twitter and so on. It’s really changing how you’re producing and what you’re producing so that you’re really meeting the demands of those platforms.

Day: I would agree with that. For us it’s about having a really platform specific programming strategy first. Long gone are the days where you could create a piece of content or create a show and just distribute it everywhere. With Twitter it’s completely different, it’s about tapping into pop culture moments. Viacom has all these amazing cultural events like the VMAs the BET Experience, the Kids Choice Awards were a couple of weeks ago and Twitter is a perfect platform for leaning into those moments and capturing those moments. I think it really does start with thinking about what is the audience doing in that environment and creating shows and experiences in working with talent that resonate there.We’re really looking platform by platform and saying what’s going to work for that audience and then taking it a step further and saying “ok who are the talent or celebrities that dominate those platforms and how do we develop shows in conjunction with them?” With YouTube, obviously, it’s really working with YouTubers, it’s partnering with YouTubers and really looking at them as creative partners and thinking about how we develop projects in conjunction with them.

Walpert Levy:So when we green lit Cobra Kai, it was because we’d seen over a billion views of Karate Kid clips on YouTube, and that makes it easier when you then go to market to have that built-in audience.

Izad: All the marketing in the world is not going to overcome programming that misses the mark. So content is key.

Howe: For us, we have to get really good at predictive modeling around where we think the best games are going to be, how do we highlight those games and where we make those games available. But I also think the second part of our content strategy is telling the story around the game. So much of what we also do is about the breaking news; it’s also about the original series, it’s about creating fandom around their favorite team, their favorite player, their favorite league. And so for us a lot of it has to do with watching user behavior and actually doing listening per platform.

Photo: Raquel Beauchamp

Bager: How do you balance the super fan niche content with more broad-based content distributed at the traditional notion of scale?

Howe: We have learned something very interesting in looking at our partnerships with some of our social partners. We have realized that 85 percent of our audience skew under the age of 35 or under the age of 25. So that’s a very different programming approach to SportsCenter, for example, than we would have historically taken. They don’t necessarily want to watch the SportsCenter that we have on our network, so it’s required for the vernacular or the tone and even the structure of that programming to live in an individual outlet like Snapchat, for example.

Pavlovsky: We’re pretty passionate about this topic and we debate it a lot. I think a lot of the innovation actually happens in niche programming—something for a particular audience that’s interested in, for example, pets, like our Paws & Claws series on PeopleTV. When you bring in those audiences that are extremely passionate, I think you have a real opportunity to then expose them to much broader programming and to differentiate what your brand stands for.

Walpert Levy: One thing that has been interesting is that the living room is actually the fastest-growing platform for YouTube. And one of the things that surprised us as we looked at the viewing patterns between television and mobile and desktop, the distinction is not as big as you would think. So we do see much longer session times in many cases on the television, but often they’re going in and out from short form to long form and back. And similarly we see a significant number of consumers will watch long form on mobile. I think it really helps us see that convergence not just between traditional TV and online video, but across device types in a way that I don’t know that people expect. And it just goes back to this theme that the consumer is driving the bus.

Derella: For example, we see that the conversation on Twitter around Game of Thrones just explodes after episodes. And that’s something that marketers really want to be attached to. They want to be around things that are big and popular and happening in culture. I think that’s a big opportunity that’s on CMOs’ minds. How do I better understand this trend toward non-ad-supported, high-quality video and how do I also connect with those users and those people that are watching it?

James Cooper: What are brand marketers underestimating about the video space and its evolution in the next 18 months?

Walpert Levy: Clients are still wrestling with how to define quality. Historically there’s been a very traditional, very ecosystem-driven definition of what quality looks like and it’s very high production and it’s typically long form. And we don’t see consumers making those same choices. What’s going to continue to be an important translation point over the next 18 months is really recognizing how you balance the environment that you feel safe in as a brand with what consumers are saying they’re passionate about and are paying attention to.

Photo: Raquel Beauchamp

This story first appeared in the April 30, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@jcoopernyc james.cooper@adweek.com James Cooper is editorial director of Adweek.