As the NewFronts Begin, 6 Top Execs Discuss Video’s Perils and Promises

Can the marketplace become digital-first?

As the media and marketing ecosystem continues its inexorable shift to a pervasive visual orientation from a text and linear tradition, video in all its myriad forms will only become more important—and not just as a storytelling vehicle but as a huge commercial center as well.

The sixth annual NewFronts kicks off today and for the next two weeks, 34 presenters will queue up their digital video offerings and philosophies for media buyers and planners with the hope that ever more brand dollars will shift their way from traditional destinations.

While the buzz around digital video publishers and platforms is practically audible, the big hurdle questions around measurement, viewability and distribution loom just as large. Some of those are so daunting that a return to television’s tried-and-true models, on showcase during the May 15 upfront week, has been noted.

Adweek, as part of a long-standing NewFronts media partnership with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, convened its annual panel of digital video industry executives to discuss these challenges, as well as the opportunities of data-informed storytelling, social, next-gen platforms like VR and AI, as well as talent.

Anna Bager, IAB’s svp, gm of mobile and video, who oversees the administration of the NewFronts, moderated the conversation, which took place at Adweek’s headquarters in New York on April 17. The panel included: Jen Wong, president of digital and COO, Time Inc.; Nick Shore, chief creative strategist at Astronauts Wanted; Stacy Minero, head of planning/creative agency development at Twitter; David Grant, president of PopSugar Studios; and Rory Brown, president of digital sports outfit Bleacher Report.

Anna Bager, IAB’s svp, gm of mobile and video (who oversees the administration of the Digital Content NewFronts) moderated the conversation.

Anna Bager, svp, gm of mobile and video, IAB: In the last five years, the role of video has changed radically. So what’s mission-critical to make sure your companies keep pace with the ongoing change?

Rory Brown, president, Bleacher Report: Video is where you are going to build brand equity, you’re going to reach people and you’re going to make money. So I think for us at Bleacher Report and a lot of other media companies you’re seeing not just a doubling or tripling down on video, but it’s going to be the key component in a lot of content company businesses for the foreseeable future.

Nick Shore, chief creative strategist, Astronauts Wanted: Mission-critical for us is, who is that new content consumer? What are they looking for? What turns them on? What storylines resonate with them? So yes, there’s the how question—how are they consuming media and where are they consuming it. So what stories are we going to tell them that they haven’t seen before that are going to make them feel excited and willing to come back and be loyal and engaged?

David Grant, president, PopSugar Studios: We’ve always had a very good understanding of our audience and it’s always been focused in young women. But as that audience has moved across platforms, it’s critical for us to understand how our audience wants video on those platforms. We have to continue to have as good of an understanding of our audience on those platforms as we do for our own sites.

Stacy Minero, head of planning/creative agency development, Twitter: Twitter has a similar story. We started as 140 characters, evolved to imagery, premium content and now video, which is over 50 percent of our revenue in terms of what our advertisers invest in. But now we’re at a point where we’re creating premium content experiences through livestreaming partnerships. We livestreamed all three debates and that just exploded on Twitter, because you’ve got the content and the connecting conversation. So we like to say people come for the content, they stay for the conversation.

Bager: Jen, at Time Inc., video flows over a number of different platforms. What have been key teaching moments for you in the past year in terms of distribution and formats?

Jen Wong, president of digital and COO, Time Inc. Wong is a veteran of both AOL and PopSugar.

Jen Wong, president of digital and COO, Time Inc.: When you start to get into the world of video, a lot of the value comes in retaining IP. And actually it’s restrictions on that IP that are controlling how it’s being distributed, which is very difficult in a world where there are lots of platforms that are free and open. So that’s one thing that we watch and I think is something that will change over time as the distribution landscape changes.

Bager: I’m sure your agency and brand partners will be looking for specific answers on measurement and quality during the next few weeks. How are you planning on answering them?

Minero: We know there’s been an accountability gap in digital media, so at Twitter we are obsessed with being the most accountable platform in terms of viewability. Ninety-nine percent of our videos are viewed by humans. I mean, that should be table stakes, but it’s not. So it’s something you actually want to go out and promote. But we are aggressively expanding all our partnerships with third parties so that brands can take advantage of to make sure they verify audience segments. They’re guaranteed to have viewable ads and viewable content. And they really feel that they are investing in Twitter with confidence and they can measure the ROI impact in a really clean way.

Brown: I think a challenge right now that publishers have is working with different platforms and running into different rules. At Bleacher Report, we’re focused on sports. We’ve got a real-time, news-driven side of the business, but also the IP and franchises and content that people really love—and specifically young men really love. And Twitter’s been great because you’ve got proof that people will stick around and actually watch a five-minute or seven-minute or nine-minute video that we put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into.

Wong: The only thing I’ll add about measurement is I think it’s still underdeveloped and very imprecise. There’s a lot of waste in the system and it makes it really, really difficult today for publishers to deliver on what they want to deliver for their advertisers. I think publishers are put in a tough position because of it, and I wish advertisers would understand that it’s about the lack of technology, not about the lack of willingness. It’s extremely difficult and actually just favors what’s happening, which is a flight back to TV.

Nick Shore, chief creative strategist at Astronauts Wanted, a Gen Z-targeted content company

Shore: I come from TV, where there was one single common metric that everybody understood. There was a currency. And it’s just gone. The idea that we’re headed toward a new single currency in the digital space is a myth. I don’t think that will ever happen again. So I think now it’s a completely different kind of conversation. It’s really a symbiotic conversation between provider and client. What are we trying to do here and how do we dashboard that.

Grant: It seems like a lot of smart people are trying to get to the same place. And it’s always fascinated me to hear a brand say, “Oh, we have an X percent lift on your campaign, it’s amazing.” Or, “We didn’t have X percent lift on your campaign. That’s not amazing.” I think these dots will be connected just because there’s such a huge demand to have them connected. And we like the accountability. I think Jen made that same point. We like accountability because we want the content we’re making to perform. We like the applause when it works. I think it’s something that everyone wants.

Bager: Has the industry’s fetish with technology and data receded enough to allow humanity back into our biological imperative to tell stories? It’s for everyone. I’m going to start with you, Nick, because I know you thought about it.

Shore: I sort of reject the premise of the question a little bit. I think it’s the other way around. I think we’re at a point where we’re in danger about the fetish—where technology and data is in danger of actually starting to overrun storytelling. You know people are still telling stories and in long form, medium form and short form. And there’s new kinds of stories obviously as you get into social storytelling and everything. But it’s still story structure. I think there is a danger, though, because there is so much data and it’s so powerful when you see it to say we can create an algorithm to tell stories. We can create an algorithm for hits. That’s just wrong, I think.

Grant: There’s another biological imperative—well, I don’t know if it’s an imperative—and that’s the desire for people to be popular. So in some ways, you know, data can be addicting because we have a culture of producers—and producers at the beginning just want to make stuff. And then when they become like comedians—you know, working a room—they get applause and they see how immediately they get applause from the data. And then they start, you know, sort of heading for the line that gets them the applause. But like most tools, once you get over liking the tool and you just absorb it, you do realize you have to tell stories. And a lot of times the data will help us go into new places that we didn’t think that our audience was interested in, or we didn’t know that we had permission.

Bager: Stacy, how do you see video and social evolving together, and how do you work both your audience and your partners in that?

Stacy Minero, head of planning/creative agency development at Twitter and a veteran of the media agency world

Minero: We’re at a point where you’ve got the first screen and second screen converging where we’ve got premium content partnerships that enable people to tune into a broadcast and then have a conversation about that show or that live event in real time. So we like to say people come for the content, they stay for the conversation, but it’s all native to the platform’s behavior. We’re not creating some new behavior and trying to condition people to do something that doesn’t feel natural. It’s been this evolution over time that’s brought us to this place where we’re now curating this premium content that people can actually tune into. So that’s really exciting for us because in Q4 we had 600 hours of live content. In Q1 we had 800 hours, and you’re going to see at the NewFronts this year we’re really doubling down on content across categories, from news to sports to politics and entertainment.

Bager: What’s the most important video-related hire that you’ll make in 2017 to stack up nicely for 2020?

Shore: We use this phrase unicorns a lot in looking for people, and if you think of TV as moving this way and this digital landscape is moving this way, there’s this new space emerging in between the two. That’s a hybrid skill set from a producer standpoint. They understand social, they understand digital and it’s not linear, but they also understand storytelling and structure and format and genre. And that’s hard. There are very few people that live in that middle space. We try to hire people and have a core strength in one and then train with the other. It’s very hard to find somebody [like that] coming in the door. Maybe five years from now those people will exist, but we basically say, “You have great storytelling development and creative skills and I can teach you how to appreciate data and understand the platforms.”

Wong: One of our best people who comes up with the best ideas for development that work is somebody who also basically runs the analytics for our video department. Like he just knows what works, and it’s amazing. He’ll say, “You know, I feel like we should do something here,” and it just kind of blossoms. And so it’s a very different development person because they’re rooted in data and what they’ve seen is this pattern recognition that they then can take and filter it into a bigger idea.

Grant: Sort of editorial savvy-ness.

Shore: Editorial savvy and also ecosystemic thinking in that we’ve got scripted content that’s got as much activity in social as it has in the linear storytelling. So there’s a narrative in social media as well as behind a show. That’s a whole new skill set. Transmedia storytelling.

David Grant, a longtime video content development executive. He’s the president of PopSugar Studios.

Bager: What’s the most important to the best young video-focused talent joining Astronauts Wanted in 2017?

Shore: My answer, I think, to my understanding of the question, is zeitgeist. I think people coming in, whether they’re creators that are going to be on camera or behind the camera or work for us, we’re thinking about Gen Z and late-stage millennials and the like. What’s happening in culture and the zeitgeist that we can tell stories about that’s going to resonate with this audience. Just to give you an example of that—and it’s not a show we would ever have thought about before—we just started looking at a show that’s set in the Supreme Court, among the young clerks of the Supreme Court. I mean youth content set in the Supreme Court we would never have done three years ago even. But that’s the zeitgeist. And it moves every day.

Bager: How will the rise of next-gen media platforms like VR and AI realign your capabilities and inform your culture in the next two years?

Wong: So VR has been an area where we’ve made some investments. It’s really allowed us to take our storytelling to the next level. And we’ve also done a lot in 360 video that goes along with it, which I think is a broader platform on social and more accessible on the web. I think the reality is, people aren’t carrying glasses with them every day—every moment of the day. So a 360-degree version of the experience is pretty great and very portable and works on the phone really easily. I think that over time there will probably be a more common version of it that you’ll see on our sites. And we’ll start doing that more regularly. We are committed to that kind of storytelling.

Brown: In sports, only so many people can actually go to the Super Bowl, and then only 0.1 percent of those people can afford to sit in the first couple of rows. So that VR experience is something that’s in demand. But I think we’ve leaned toward the fast follow because I think that right now everyone is trying to tell stories through VR, and the reality is like, whoever wins in VR is going to be someone who like creates worlds, not stories. I think that’s what people want—to immerse themselves in kind of this whole different world versus just a very linear story the way we tell stories now.

Minero: I think it’s also important to go back to what are the strengths of your platform and what are the need states of consumers. So if you think about, you know, 80 percent of people who are on Twitter have tweeted at a brand with a question or comment. And so it’s become this place for customer servicing, you know, in addition to brand marketing. And right now we have a lot of brands leveraging bots to test customer service experiences. But you could imagine AI taking that to the next level, you know, as basically the bots begin to learn, understand natural language and deliver nuanced responses that really help resolve things in real time.

Rory Brown, president (but also a longtime veteran) of Bleacher Report, one of the most popular digital sports destinations

Shore: To say one more thing about VR is what’s been said about access is really right. We did a VR piece. We made a movie with Lilly Singh, who’s a big social media star. And we did a VR piece and it was where you have the impression—if you’re a fan you have the impression of being in the changing room with her before her show and then following her out and being on stage with her, dancing with her. It was like a front row seat. You were there. You were physically there. I think that’s the killer application right now.

Bager: David, so what’s being institutionally underestimated in the video space?

Grant: I think consistency. In the television world, consistency has been the driving force of building television, which is people make series on a weekly basis, so you get more of what you want. Institutionally, there’s still this huge demand in the advertising space of some new one-off thing. We made an investment early on in making consistent series, kind of taking a cue from the way that YouTube was working at the time when we started. And influencers were posting a video every week. And so we make a lifestyle series that we post every week. They’ve grown … and only more recently has the value of that and the talent in that and the association and the trust and the credibility that’s come with that been appreciated in the way that it is in television.

Bager: OK, last question: If you could purge one thing that’s getting in the way of meaningful progress in the video space, what would that be?

Minero: One thing I would purge is this legacy way of creating content and starting with the TV script and the storyboard. So people talk about mobile first. Brands need to think about feed first. Designing content for the feed where people are more likely to scroll or swipe than they are to stop. That requires you to think about engineering the front end of your content—maybe thinking about audio-optional captioning. Thinking about having a bias to short form, you know. Keeping your long form for more deliberate moments in your content strategy. But this legacy way of starting with the TV script I think is impeding some progress in the industry overall.

Grant: I would say it’s the one-off RFP. I find because we’ve had some—and we have more experiences now with the brand coming at us to say, “We love your brand, we love your audience. How can we work together? Let’s work together over a period of time.” And if you think about it compared to investing in a television show, it’s pretty economical. But if you work with us over time, then we get smarter together and we can create a lot of content together and it’s more efficient and we can share data. The one-off RFP is like—you know, sometimes you feel it’s like North Korea firing a rocket, and it’s either going to go into space or will blow up. And it’s probably not a great way to win a war.

Shore: ROI is getting in the way. I mean it’s just so bloody expensive to make video, especially when you’re trying to upstream from the text-only sites. So, we’re dealing with a lot of buyers where it’s just like, “OK, here’s the budget.” What you’re trying to do you can’t do for that amount of money. It’s either change the model or have a completely different kind of concept. I don’t know how to say it exactly, but there’s something wrong with the expectation versus reality of the economics that’s getting in the way of making good content.

Brown: ComScore. It’s encouraging strange behavior in publishers in many ways where you’ve got publishers that are trying really hard to choose their comScore number versus think about what their audiences actually want and how much better some experiences are on these other platforms. It’s holding the industry back a little bit. Measurement is really tough. I do sympathize with how quickly things have changed for comScore and other measuring groups, but it’s definitely a tough one right now for a lot of people.

Wong: Obsession with preroll.

This story first appeared in the May 1, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.