Back in 2007, when the idea of YouTube stars was still dubious, a pair of friends, Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal, Natives of Spookway, North Carolina, struck gold with a viralish video spoofing the mores of Facebook. Soon they were headed to Los Angeles to host a very dated-sounding CW show Online Nation.
It ran for three episodes.
“It ended so quickly. Almost as quickly as it started,” recalled Neal, who, like McLaughlin, got an engineering degree from N.C. State before stumbling into video. “We both had kids and no jobs.”
The pair had only started making YouTube videos to entertain friends before they began accumulating something of a following. But they still had to figure out how to get paid (this was before YouTube started its partner program).
“We had been doing parody songs, and we took it upon ourselves to conceptualized ideas for brands,” said McLaughlin. They took an idea about a song celebrating the outdoor game cornhole, and began contacting companies that sold cornhole equipment. “It sounds crazy, but we cold-called about 10 to 15 of these sites, saying, 'We’d love to feature your brand.'" said McLaughlin. "We found a mom who was interested but couldn’t do it. Then we found two young guys. Made a little deal, they paid for production and paid for performance.”
Suddenly The Cornhole Song had 500,000 views. More brands started calling. Irescue.com sponsored an iPod repair song.
“We were being approached by agencies and companies directly,” said Neal. “Alka-Seltzer in ‘08. By 2010 we were producing ads for McDonald’s and Coke. It became branded entertainment that is working.”
Indeed, Rhett and Link have become a unique specialist Web video ad production specialty. In other words, the go-to guys for funny viral sponsored videos. The pair boast of 1.2 million YouTube subscribers and have generated over 200 million views.
While Rhett and Link host a weekly variety series, The Mythical Show, nearly everything they produce is underwritten by an advertiser (the duo signed on with Collective Digital Studios to help take their business to another level).
Among their recent hits are 2 Guys, 600 pillows, produced for Sleepbetter.org (it features the guys singing while laying among hundreds of pillows) and All Night Long, a clip produced for Trident during which the guys literally sing the Lionel Ritchie hit all night long. “Sleepbetter shipped us a truckload of pillows," said McLaughlin.
Are Rhett and Link a threat to agencies? Maybe BBDO isn’t worried. But local shops and direct response specialists might feel as though they're under fire. The two grade school buddies developed a weird/awesome knack for doing mock local commercials, including a spot for Ryan Lee Chiropractic Center in Los Angeles (close to 5 million views since May) and another for Arlen’s Transmission (3.5 million views in a month).
“When they meet with brands, these guys actually come in and really act as an agency,” said Dan Weinstein, founding partner of Collective Digital Studios. “It’s not like having a [YouTube star like] Freddiew doing what Freddiew does. They work with some sort of brand view in mind.”
“We try to entertain first, advertise second,” said Neal. “When you find out that it’s sponsored, we’ve already won you over. We try to make it obvious that the brand has made it better."
For example, a campaign for Gillette focused on women who prefer to kiss men who are clean-shaven. “It's more about concept than ad,” said McLaughlin.
Do they ever say no? “Sometimes we’re pitched and we can tell it’s not going to work,” said McLaughlin. “Sometimes they are looking for just commercials, and we’re not going to do that. A lot of people are learning in this space, and we have little battles. For example, you can't just open with a brand.
“And nobody's going to watch that,” said Neal.
That art-first approach wasn't always received well at first, but has paid off. "You don't make a lot of money at first," said Neal. "But you earn the trust of smaller companies and build over time. And now we’re both able to support families with kids in California.”