9 Members of Video’s Vanguard Discuss Creating Content for the Scrolling Economy

And how to get consumers' attention

As the fifth annual Digital Content NewFronts kick off today, Adweek and the IAB convened a panel of nine industry executives approaching the business of video from a range of perspectives and goals for the coming two weeks, during which 39 presentations will be made to potential advertisers.

With the exception of Lauren Clifford, vp of Digitas studios, and IAB svp, general manager of mobile and video Anna Bager (who oversees the administration of the Digital Content NewFronts), the rest of Adweek's annual video roundtable is made up of first-time presenters: 

  • Brian Robbins, founder and CEO, AwesomenessTV
  • Samantha Skey, president and CRO, SheKows Media
  • Christian Tom, vp, sales NowThis
  • Troy Young, president of Hearst Magazines Digital Media
  • Katrina Cukaj, evp of portfolio sales and client partnerships, Turner Ad Sales
  • Mike Sepso, svp, Activision Blizzard Media Networks
  • Rich Sutton, CRO, Trusted Media Brands

Some might be surprised that media giants like Turner and Hearst, two companies that have built successful digital extensions from the core of their traditional media businesses, would be NewFront newbies. But forays into the digital videosphere, with its shifting distribution platforms and advertising models, is a shoal not to be navigated lightly.

Presenters have to not only feel their content will cut through the clutter—let's not forget the television upfront continues to attract billions of ad dollars—but also that the business proposition behind any effort is sound enough to warrant the investment and risk.

Turner and Hearst felt their moment was now, as did Trusted Media Brands, AwesomenessTV, SheKnows Media, Activision Blizzard and NowThis. All the participants met in Adweek's New York offices on April 13 for a wide-ranging discussion.

Here's what they had to say:

Executives with first-time MCNs gathered in Adweek's offices to talk NewFronts.Photos: Kevin Scanlon; Grooming: Stephanie Flor

Adweek: Troy, Katrina and Rich, you all have these great heritage brands, but you've also built viable digital business around them. I think people would be surprised to know that this is your inaugural NewFront. Why this year?
Katrina Cukaj: CNN in particular has made some pretty big investments that have been very public in terms of the investment that Time Warner is making in all of our digital businesses on the CNN side. Particularly Great Big Story, which is a new video network that we've launched. I think there's not a more perfect place to represent that and put that brand out in front of a group of investors and buyers and clients that have digital investment spend and can really get some brand awareness for that brand in particular.


Rich Sutton: So [for] 93 years [we've been] in print but only one year in video. What a great stage to bring our new video shows and our video capabilities front and center. And despite our best efforts, not everybody knows about the name change or why we changed the name, so it's also a great stage to continue to talk about that. And I think lastly for us it's a great platform to introduce and reintroduce brands that are really well-known to consumers that are almost unknown to the business—at least that's what I've learned in the year and a half I've been here.

Troy Young: Having an event where you can take a minute and step back and figure out what your philosophy is underneath the ball of the content that you create and how you are putting all those pieces together is incredibly useful for the organization to drive against an opportunity to tell a much bigger story. So we're doing it this year because we have the scale and we have the production and we have the stories to tell—and we didn't have that previously.

Brian, telling the brand story of AwesomenessTV during the NewFronts and your approach to Gen Z, what's your mission for your presentation?
Brian Robbins: Well, it's a couple things. First of all Gen Z is still very much ignored by brands and buyers, even though we believe it is the most influential generation. And we really want to tell that story about this audience that are probably the first earliest adopters of the technology and the platforms that are really driving video today. I think we're at the forefront of making premium short-form content that I'm not too sure there are many other companies that have the investment in it that we do. We want to show that content, show it off and make it shine.

Samantha and Anna, what are some of the key business-side discussions that are going to be had during the two NewFront weeks?
Samantha Skey: I think it will be interesting to see how platforms, especially the digital-first platforms, are integrating brands into the narrative of the stories they're telling. So, many of us who are unencumbered by traditional models are able to do this with great agility. And brands have come to expect that our aptitude for telling stories that really represent their brand essence—while also being true to the authentic voice that our own core users have come to expect—is critical to success.

Anna Bager: Yeah, those are two really important factors to bear in mind when it comes to digital video and the NewFronts as something a little bit different from the upfront and the traditional TV marketplace. I think that brands, now more than ever, are starting to realize how they can leverage the platform. I think they're very interested in distributed media and also the opportunities to create content with publishers.

Young: Well, if the upfronts are essentially about a marketplace built on scarcity and auctioning off that inventory, the NewFronts are a starting point for a conversation. Because in many cases, whether distributed or not—and most video is and always has been distributed—the NewFronts represent an opportunity to start a conversation as to how you can partner and put ideas together. Increasingly, the advertising equation is built around creative collaboration between a brand and an editorial brand and that takes a while to unfold as opposed to trading on ratings and a particular piece of content that's being broadcast

Sutton: The other thing we're seeing that's interesting that I didn't expect is in discussions that I'm having with both brands and ad agencies about video deals. The question comes up in conversation: "OK, so when is your NewFront? Can you send me an invitation and can we resume the conversation after we see your presentation?" I think that's pretty interesting.

Do you all really see dollars moving away from traditional media in a significant way?
Robbins: We've reached the tipping point and I think we're about to go over to the other side, at least for our business. And maybe that's because what we do is the closest thing to TV. Our content is scripted; it's premium. From my sales guy's point of view, their problem right now is people want more reach from us … With all of these other platforms that we're distributing our content to, we're able to do that.

Cukaj: I have the benefit and the luxury of participating in the upfront and the NewFront and I totally agree they want more digital video options. The beauty for us in both of those events is there's a complement there. And because our clients want more, we have the opportunity to present it holistically across all of our screens and platforms.

Lauren, how are you at Digitas approaching the plethora of screens, formats and platforms for your clients, and what are some of the lessons you've learned in the past year?
Lauren Clifford: I think the question is between whether we do long form or short form and then thinking about the platform on which that content lives. So it's always that balance between brand and story. It depends on what you're trying to say and who you're trying to connect with. So we absolutely are thinking about long form and giving it a little bit of breathing room, to allow that brand to help tell a story, to develop characters and to find the right moments to really punch up. I think the trap we fall into is that if it's shorter, brands want to get as much brand message in there immediately. So we're also working to make sure that we figure out the best way to use short form.


Mike, we just published our Millennial Issue, and it usually produces some of the best read content for the entire year for us. Just how big is esports for this cohort? And what story are you going to tell at the NewFronts?
Mike Sepso: I've been in this space for 13 years and have seen it kind of slowly, slowly grow, then in the past two years absolutely explode, to the point where it's big enough to disrupt traditional sports. At the same time the distribution model, because it's largely a millennial audience, is all digital and over the top. So we're taking a television-like live sports experience, meaning people are watching for two or three hours at a time—and they're watching it all live. We just came off an event a couple of weeks ago where we did 45 million hours of live video consumption in just over a weekend and more than 30 maybe 40 million people around the world tuning in—71 million video views. And so a lot of business infrastructure doesn't exist. So as Activision Blizzard we're kind of introducing safety and scale to the equation and trying to present a fully vertical one-stop shop.

Samantha, Christian and Brian, how do you really know what millennials and Gen Z want from video products?
Robbins: The biggest tool that I have in my disposal is that I have a network of 90,000 Gen Z content creators that are also Gen Z consumers—they're not just content creators. I have a tremendous amount of data—but more importantly, conversations—with this audience all the time. I have these USC film school grads in my office and all they do is work on Snapchat. That's it. And you know what, that's their passion. They don't care about the long-form movies we're making, they just want to be the Snapchat guys. And they love it.

Skey: We approach Gen Z through the lens of the moms, so we produce a platform our channel called Hatch. Hatch is social issues as told from the point of view of Gen Z. It's unscripted and it's brilliant kids saying brilliantly unfiltered things about a range of topics. And what I found is that Gen Z wants to see Gen Z. They want to see themselves. They'll share things that are endemic to who they are.

Christian Tom: We think very, very deeply about understanding, on an editorial side, what type of mindset you go to when you go to Instagram and why that's different from when you're on Snapchat Discover looking at NowThis. And the story selection, the form factor, the length of the video are all determined, to some extent, by the creative constraints of each platform. And the same best practices on our editorial team that are doing these 1.4 billion video views a month, we take that and apply against our branded content that we make for brands as well.

Troy, Facebook's F8 threw a lot out there that could have a direct impact on the video businesses of everybody around this table. What long-term impact does Facebook have?
Young: Facebook is obviously putting real energy around the essential disappearance of the watercooler. They want to be the place where if something happens in the world, that's where you tune in. So Facebook Live represents strategically a really important product to Facebook, and it will be really interesting to see how media companies take that opportunity and program against it. I think Messenger is really important and that was the other big announcement in addition to VR. And all those just show an incredibly dynamic distribution environment that we have to navigate. It's not just where is our content going but how do our media rights travel with it and how do we bring advertisers in on that? Because if you are a distributed media company, like we all are, and you have brands that are catering to a young audience like we all do (or most of us), you're going to end up having a really uneven advertising offer because the rules in one place are different than the rules in another.

Tom: Facebook is an enormously important platform. For us as a distributed media company, it's the largest platform that we currently distribute to. When I came to NowThis about a year ago, the company was doing around 100 million video views a month. Over the past year, largely in part to figuring out and optimizing for what works on Facebook in particular, and being a part of Snapchat Discover for the past month or so, the company is now doing 1.4 billion video views.

Mike and Lauren, what are you thinking about VR?
Sepso: We generally think a little bit differently than traditional media companies since the bulk of our revenue is driven direct from our consumers. We really think user-centrically about how we design games, how we create content to broadcast­—everything that we're doing in that way is very user-centric. So we want to wait and see how users attach to VR, especially core gamers, and whether that experience is a big enough platform for us to invest what we typically would do behind game development. I think as a step to a more rich AR environment that's where brands and media platforms can attach more directly.

Clifford: VR is huge. I think all of our clients across the board are excited about it, are asking about it—wondering how they can leverage it. I definitely know we as an agency and our clients will be excited to see what all the publishers bring to the table this year for the NewFronts in terms of VR, in terms of original programming leveraging VR—how they're distributing it, how they're sharing it.

Anna, do you have a sense of how much VR is going to be part of presentations?
Bager: I wouldn't want to bet on it, but if last year we had 30 percent of the presentations featuring some sort of VR component, I think it's going to be much, much bigger this year.

Cukaj: On the CNN side we jumped onto it pretty early—probably earlier than brands were ready to jump into it. We did one of our first debates in VR. So I would say we were probably a little bit on the early side, but I agree with Lauren it's become a big demand proponent with advertisers and brands. And as we learned in that first iteration, we're getting smarter and better at it. As the distribution grows, to Mike's point, it's going to be a bigger opportunity.

So Katrina, as you're approaching the NewFronts as a first-time presenter, what are the conversations like with your brand partners?
Cukaj: There's just a ton of conversation around building content and producing great storytelling with our agencies and with our clients. We launched a new brand studio last June, and the amount of business that we're doing with that brand studio and with our properties has grown tremendously. So I think that there is a real desire and a real opportunity for our client brands and the Turner brands, including Great Big Story, to really put some great storytelling and original content out there.

Rich, I'm going to hit you with the data question: Trusted must have a ton of data to work with.
Sutton: We're doing a really interesting second-party data test right now with an agency that's going to facilitate their managing the CRM of five or six huge clients and then pre-matching that to what sits [with] the first-party data and to what's in our database. As they're going into a campaign, they have a pretty good idea of how many of their consumers they're going to be able to reach—not just their target audience but the audience that sits [within] their CRM, which is really valuable to them.


Robbins: As much as brands and buyers are hung up on data to follow and find their audience, I believe that when you find them you still have to have the ability to tell a good story. And without that all the data in the world is not really worth a lot.

Skey: I think that's really important because it's easy to get excited about how much data we have on our audiences and to throw it all out there and show how we can micro segment. But then we're really just talking about humans that we reach who are very important and drive our value—but not how we engage them. Perhaps even more importantly for this forum, how is that going to drive value for a brand? Because again, views of our video are not necessarily conferring brand value to an advertiser unless you leave that experience feeling more strongly about that brand that was sponsoring it. Or you leave that experience feeling like, "I'm going to buy it, I'm going to try it, I'm going to share it." And I think we conflate views and reach sometimes with ad efficacy.

Sutton: The last two years, the reason in my opinion that the data conversation has exploded­—it's not just that the capabilities have gotten better. Take a look at what's happened in programmatic and programmatic display. Clients are going, "Oh my god, look at my ROI year over year." Well, of course it's better this year than last year because last year you were paying $12 and this year you're paying $2. But what are you going to do for an encore next year? Next year the creative better be good and the story better be good.

Robbins: Our most successful show on AwesomenessTV is a show called Royal Crush. It's basically a series that takes place on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. I was like, Royal Caribbean for AwesomenessTV for teens? Teens don't buy cruises. And if you want to go on a cruise with your family, and your teen doesn't want to go, your family is not going. So we developed basically a Romeo and Juliet love story on a cruise ship. Our audience loves it. They know it's an ad. They don't care. They're completely engaged with the show. And to me that's sort of where the world is going. That's kind of the story we want to tell at the NewFront.

How are you approaching brand storytelling and what sort of non-advertising advertising tricks do you have up your sleeve?
Skey: I think, to Brian's point, that if the content is not incredibly engaging on its own, then never mind trying to throw a pre-roll out in front of it or a product placement inside of it. The other challenge is, how does a compelling piece of content actually tell a brand's story? I think the Royal Caribbean example is genius. We've recently acquired a company called HelloFlo, which … does an amazing job of addressing really tricky issues within the women's health category where there are lots of sticky issues that can be made humorous when they're told with the right tone … and talent. For each of our HelloFlo videos, we've generated tens of millions of views. Every one is deeply sponsored and you leave understanding the role that Kotex plays … That's the magic.

Lauren and Christian, how has your definition of premium content changed in the past year?
Clifford: If you asked me a couple of years ago, I would've said that the definition of premium content probably was equated to the total production dollars that went into it. They were trying to mirror broadcast quality content online. Fast-forward to today: We're creating something that people are going to talk about and share with friends. It becomes a piece of social currency, if you will. I also think it's really important that it's personalized, that we're delivering up a really relevant and specific piece of content that somebody—within an environment that they care about—will be engaged by.

Tom: I think the notion of premium content has evolved, and I think about how we program content. I think about us living in what I call the scrolling economy. You are trying to optimize for someone to stop scrolling on their Facebook feed or their Instagram feed or whatever that might be … How do you get someone to stop their finger in their scroll and pay attention to what you're putting out—whether that's a brand prospective or of our editorial team? So the notion of a premium piece of content, at least in my mind, is truly native and authentic to where it's based to that scrolling economy.

Troy, what's the most important hire you have to make in the coming year to help you do all this?
Young: It's not a single hire. I think it's the culture we create around our video production teams and how we're in the process of building a 30,000-square-foot space that's just entirely focused on digital production, video in particular. The shift to video creates a lot of new challenges for our business in terms of space and people and culture and the philosophy of what we're trying to do. So to me, the most important thing is that we create a culture of creativity around video in the group—and a place where people want to hang out.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you face in terms of digital video?
Sutton: Managing inventory in the digital video space is extremely complicated. I'd put that at the top of the list—both creating it and then managing what you have. I think creating is difficult. You asked before about new hires. We won't hire anyone now that can't both write and shoot video.

Young: For me, the challenge is what's the right level of investment to make really ambitious content that we want to create with a backdrop of distribution that's very unpredictable? I think that's the challenge for content creators this year—how to make those investments smartly against a really dynamic distribution background.

Skey: I'd echo some of what the others just said, especially in the space of branded content. How do we bring advertisers into a really collaborative conversation about what will make sense for an end-user—and we'll also deliver against their core KPIs? Bringing advertisers into this new place where they can tell a story that's really meaningful, extremely engaging and really changes perceptions is hard. Because you have to ask them to market with you. You have to ask them to collaborate—not just buy media.

Clifford: The challenge of it is that there's just so much content noise out there. It's coming from all of us in this room. It's coming from individuals. It's coming from creators. It's coming from brands. So because of all of that, it's becoming harder to break through and actually make a connection. But the opportunity—and why I am genuinely so excited about this year's NewFront—is that there's so much talent out there that sees us as an opportunity. You've got these amazing A-list storytellers who are ready to come to the table with brands and figure out how you create those compelling stories to actually be the content that somebody wants to come find.

Tom: One potential challenge for 2016 is how to create content built for individual platforms. It's been noted a few times around the table how that requires a different mindset for each one of them. It means, though, that when you do it right … it opens up enormous opportunity to work with brands. For example, on our launch day on Snapchat Discover which was March 14, we partnered with GE. Every year, GE runs a great campaign around what they call Pi Day, which is celebrated on 3/14. Because of the way that Snapchat works, we were able to create a really great unity between our editorial stories covering Pi Day (because we knew it was something that our audience would be celebrating) and bookend [it around] the GE creative (which was all about Pi Day). So when we do it right and think about how to make that platform-specific content, the world of integrating brands is wide open.

This story first appeared in the May 2, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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