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Digital Content NewFronts: Platforms Enter the Big Leagues to Allure Big Brand Dollars

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There was a lot to digest after a week of events at the Digital Content NewFronts (DCNF), which wrapped on Thursday with Google’s BrandCast event. This year, the magnitude of the event trumped those of years past, with platforms proudly touting the power of native digital content to attract large brand marketers. This post brings you all the highlights from DCNF 2012.

About the Digital Content NewFronts

The DCNF mission statement, according to its site, is to “to shape a new and practical marketplace for connecting the wealth of native digital content with brand marketers and their media and marketing agencies.”

What is compelling about this mission is the emphasis on “native” digital content. It’s a subtle, but important distinction – and one that speaks to the creative voices involved in this exchange. This is not an event focused on drumming up interest in repurposed TV content; rather, its focus is on content designed for digital consumption.

We’ve yet to fully create the DCNF’s mission of a “practical marketplace,” though it was made clear last week that we have witnessed a palpable shift in our industry. While the concept of NewFronts dates back to 2008, there was something profoundly different this time around. The scope, scale and showmanship of these NewFronts seem to have finally caught the attention of big brand marketers. It was more than an event this time – it was an exciting experience of which brands wanted to be a part.

Key themes from DCNF 2012

  1. Creating a scarcity model: Part of what drives the “practical marketplace” of the Upfronts we are trying to replicate is the urgency behind securing TV inventory. Our discussions with Google regarding YouTube’s Mom Channel revealed it was already sold out into the fall. Is this scarcity intentional? It could be. Digital is facing the unique challenge of a need to convey vast, quality content coupled with the need to preserve the economics of a “buy now” Upfront marketplace.
  2. Programmatic content will emulate TV: Organizationally speaking, much of the content unveiled at the NewFronts was organized into “channels.” The formats were largely episodic or series-oriented, hinting that we’re trying to obtain regular viewership. And, much like we see with TV, we’ll likely see a phase of content shake-outs, where viewership will dictate which programming series will continue.
  3. Publishers as distributors: YouTube and Hulu in particular made references to wanting to be “what cable was for broadcast” or “what Sundance was for independent films.” They reiterated their belief in a “four-screen strategy,” where digital content does not replace TV but rather builds onto it.
  4. Involvement of the traditional players was critical: Whereas digital used to borrow the Upfronts stage to showcase repurposed TV content on the web, we experienced a role reversal during the NewFronts. For instance, NBCUniversal, whose roots are predominately TV-oriented (Bravo, E!, and others) held its own event during the NewFronts. The visible attendance of traditional brand marketers and agencies at DCNF affirmed that this is more than a digital land grab; it’s a legitimate evolution of our industry.

4 changes we hope to see at DCNF 2013

If the DCNF format is to be an evergreen fixture in how digital does business, we recommend some subtle changes and enhancements that will create an even more impactful event next year.

  1. Consider a “placeless” NewFront: With a few exceptions, much of the NewFront coverage was rooted in still images and text write-ups just like this one. In doing so, those who were unable to attend in person missed out on some of most transformative moments in programming content history. We could have created a much more immersive and centralized experiences by streaming the event live to the entire industry.
  2. Showcase the content: While an element of sales pitch was to be expected at the NewFronts, the tradeoff seemed to be having less time to engage with the content. Since one of the running themes throughout the event was how digital video is propelled by mobile/iBook technology, attendees would have benefited see the translation of content onto those digital devices.
  3. Consolidate the event: Collapsing the event into a more contained series would not only compel more participation outside of New York, but would also elevate the focus on the events. When the traditional teams head to the network Upfronts in two weeks, it is generally understood that they will be out of commission. Digital stakeholders should have parallel ability to prioritize.
  4. Follow our own best practices: Google announced at the BrandCast event that they will invest $200 million in marketing funds to promote all of the new content being created. Granted, they are paying this marketing budget to themselves (all will reside within the Google Display Network). Still, I applaud them for acknowledging how critical this aspect is for us on the buying side. We are all marketers – we should believe in the power of advertising to establish the “brands” of these new channels.

What the ‘New Front Frontier’ means for marketers

In both the short- and long-term sense, there are some key implications for marketers.

Short term implications:

  • Prioritize audiences. Much like the TV world, audiences will dictate the shelf life of inventory. If you are after the coveted Millennial or Moms sectors, initiate a dialog with your agencies and sales teams now to begin exploring integration ideas.
  • Define the rules of engagement. One item resonated in our discussions with the platforms was that the landscape still presents a substantial amount of unchartered territory for everyone. There is a high degree of openness, yielding a first-mover advantage to those who help establish the video landscape’s architecture.
  • Subscribe to content. In order to fully grasp the quality and breadth of content being pushed into the Digital space, it behooves us all to familiarize with what is available. Some places to start include Yahoo! Screen, YouTube Channels, AOL.On and Hulu Originals.

Long term implications:

  • Expand thinking on creative formats. A logical evolution we’ll likely see as a result of this surge in digital content is a willingness to incorporate more integrated ad formats such as branded entertainment. Over time, we will need to work more closely with the creators in this newly defined space to ensure that we innovate responsibly and with the end user in mind.
  • Define the practice. DCNF 2012 gathered one of the most diverse attendee crowds this industry has ever seen. It’s unclear where whether or not it this practice will be absorbed into an existing scope of service or become a specialized operation. Staying nimble as we assess the core capabilities required to execute will be a key advantage for brands moving forward.

As a closing thought, it’s impossible to discuss the NewFronts without diving into the topic of the star power present at the event. Was this a point of validation or just an act of showmanship? Perhaps it was a bit of both. Many of the comments from the creative talent voiced a similar theme, which is that they didn’t know how their content would have turned out if they had sought to introduce it via the broadcast realm. That’s a very powerful statement. There is no rigid “formula” yet for a successful digital series, and creators can benefit from the lack of boundaries. Moreover, we as marketers will benefit from being given a new ad space into which we can carve our brands.

*****

Appendix: The content that caught our eye

Wigs – YouTube: Created by filmmakers Jon Avnet (Black Swan, Risky Business) and Rodrigo Garcia (Albert Nobbs, In Treatment), Wigs is a new YouTube channel that produces high-end, original scripted series, short films and documentaries — all of which star female leads.

Little Women, Big Cars – AOL On: Little Women Big Cars is a weekly series centering around four devoted New Jersey soccer moms struggling to balance their busy schedules, family lives and sanity.

GPS for the Soul app – AOL (Arianna Huffington): Launching in June, and less rooted in the theme of web video that pervaded this event, this is an app that will measure your stress level and connect you to content (music, poetry, photos, etc) that you need to “restore your balance.”

Dancing with Myself – Yahoo! (debuts 2013): Scripted musical comedy series from the creators of the Broadway musical Rock of Ages. An irreverent series that gives homage to the after school specials of the 80s, and is fueled by music from that era.

Superfans – Yahoo!: Superfans examines the amazing, bizarre and emotional extremes that fans will go to in their daily lives—all in the name of fandom. From family rooms modeled after Lambeau Field to 64 years without missing a game at Fenway, Superfans is an entertaining mix of fanaticism and loyalty.