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.”

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