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Ad Age Digital Day Two: Media, Branded Content, Talent

Ad Age Digital’s second day held a heavy focus on the evolution of media. Executives from Bloomberg Media, Daily Mail, HBO, and Nickelodeon were all part of several discussions that delved deep into their business and how brands intersect in this new era of branded content in a “post-digital” world.

Jon Steinberg, CEO of Daily Mail North America and formerly of BuzzFeed fame, told AdAge’s Michael Sebastian challenged creative agencies to step up to the plate. “I don’t want to be a creative agency, but the media agencies and brands come to us and want us to come up with the idea,” said Steinberg. “I’m still waiting for the creative agencies to jump in, and there is always going to be that opportunity for them.”

Sabrina Caluori, VP of Social and Digital at HBO, continued the Fail Forward series, this time talking about how HBO attempted to bring the second screen experience to its consumers in 2013 with HBO Smart Glass, but instead frustrated consumers by distracting from their top tier television shows, which is the main draw for the premium subscription service. Such humbling admission from a media company which is seemingly at the top of its game shows how grounded and self-aware one must be to stay ahead.

Later in the afternoon Andrew Benett, Global CEO of Havas Worldwide took the stage for a fireside chat with Ad Age’s Nat Ives. Continuing the theme of marketing in today’s “post-digital world,” Benett said this shift can be seen right down to the different workspaces seen today vs. in the 1980s, with 90% of the industry now shifting to an open floor plan model, which he says contributes to “always-on collaboration.” To that end, people and talent was a big focus of the talk, and Benett says the questions he gets most in big RFPs aren’t about award-winning work or strategy – it’s about culture and honing talent. “What do we do for internal people initiatives? How do you grow and manage talent?”

Ten Seconds Or Less

SnapChat is like The Little Engine That Could. Its rivals pulled out all of the stops to buy it, duplicate it, replace it and eradicate it – yet the network is still popular.

What’s interesting about SnapChat is its perception, which, for lack of a better term, snaps back and forth in terms of good and bad press.  The early days of SnapChat led many to believe it’s purely an app for all kids to “sext.” And every few weeks, there’s some sort of SnapChat privacy story – various articles on how safe those snaps are (or aren’t,) an actual data breach, or how legal the content of snaps may be.  In a post-Snowden world, these types of privacy breaches would be a kiss of death. Yet the network continues to persevere for its users.

Last week, SnapChat’s founders were on the cover of Forbes’ 30 under 30 – among other things, sharing how Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg essentially bullied the founders to sell to him or face extinction through Facebook’s version of the app Poke. As we now know, Poke fizzled and SnapChat thrives.

Now the startup, like many other networks in the space, is looking to monetize through advertising.  Yet the network needs to find a genuine way to make these ads happen, with content that people actually want to see.  HBO, always one of the boundary pushers in new avenues for social advertising, launched a SnapChat account tied to its popular show “Girls.” The extension is perfect for the show, as one can easily imagine the characters attempting to decipher what their potential suitors are implying by snapping emojis of pandas and guns.

While many critics, professional and amateur, are quick to remind everyone that SnapChat’s founders each passed on more than $750 million in Zuckerberg’s buyout offer, the network’s popularity among users is as great as it’s even been.  It goes to show that a brand can overcome bad press and a potentially bad reputation by sticking to the company’s brand and messaging. Yet so far, SnapChat may need to work on its sincerity when accepting its flaws, and there have been more than a few instances recently.  One could chalk up this up to the brashness of Silicon Valley hotheads – call it growing pains. Finding your voice and credibility is not easily done in today’s hyper reactive world – particularly when there can be so much on the line – and minor stories can explode into “national scandals.” That’s not to say every brand can survive bad press; it requires buzz, a dedicated following and a little bit of luck – but it is indeed possible.

We’re looking forward to following SnapChat’s business evolution in the coming weeks and months.

HBO and Controlling Content

We humans are constantly craving for entertainment. In today’s world with screens and Internet access readily available everywhere, people clamor for the best all the time. It terms of television content, it’s hard to compete with HBO.

As is common now on the Internet, a grassroots movement has started to free HBO’s access to everyone. Currently, HBO is an additional $15-30 on top of your astronomical cable subscription. HBO fans are begging for HBO to allow users to subscribe just to HBO Go, their groundbreaking platform that allows access to HBO content to any internet connected device – free with your subscription.

The website “Take My Money HBO!” saw over 60,000 pledges in just 12 hours with people pledging their dollar amount for HBO content – without having to pay the cable companies. The conversation continues on Twitter with the hashtag #takemymoneyhbo. The site saw over 163,000 pledges in all.

Their argument makes sense – if they can’t afford or don’t pay for HBO, then they will either pirate the shows they want to watch (HBO’s Game of Thrones will be the most pirated show of 2012) or use their friends to watch their favorite shows. Makes sense practically – but it is much more complicated. Amongst my generation, it’s not strange to see a tweet or Facebook post asking if they can come watch HBO for the latest True Blood or Newsroom on Sunday.

HBO isn’t budging from their subscription model, and I don’t think they should. Controlling access to your content makes people want it more – the simple principle of supply and demand. Allowing everyone to access HBO will dumb down the quality of the shows because the novelty wears off. Yes, there will always be the Internet pirates, and the people who access their friend’s HBO Go subscriptions (Thanks Mom and Dad!) The loyal fans won’t go away as long as the shows remain superb. That onus is on the network. It’s called premium cable for a reason.

On the Internet, outlets are giving things away. You can pay for a subscription to a magazine like Fast Company, but the reality is that it posts its magazine stories for free on its site throughout the month. We’re in a shift from physical to digital, and companies are still figuring out how to charge for digital content. Nobody knows where we’re going technologically, so nobody has figured out how to embrace or monetize it.  Instead of giving it away, it’s great to see HBO control their medium.

It’s hard to see others following HBO’s model. Publications like New York Times and Wall Street Journal see success behind their pay wall because of their clout. It’s hard to see other outlets having the ability to pull it off. For example, if there was a pay wall on Mashable, you would just go to another site for the same news.

At the end of the day, creating premium content will yield a premium following – the concern is how to control & monetize it on the world wide web.

HBO Runs out of ‘Luck’

Last week, HBO came under heavy criticism by animal activist groups after three horses were euthanized during production of the drama Luck. The criticism lead to Luck being cancelled almost 24 hours after the third horse was put down. While this situation raises questions about the use of animals for entertainment’s sake, it also presents an example of how organizations like HBO can handle a PR crisis — diffusing the situation before it snowballs into a larger issue.

Let’s face it — there’s always a chance of backlash from animal activists groups when producing a show that involves animals. Groups like PETA are influential and their claims can rarely be ignored as they fight for the rights of animals across situations and industries. In this case, HBO read the writing on the wall. It realized that the show could potentially lose more horses during production, leading to louder and louder opposition by these groups. Cutting their losses now avoids potentially larger problems – and headaches – later.

In this instance, HBO did what was necessary – and right. They avoided a reputation-damaging situation, while managing to keep their brand reputation at the highest level possible. While your company may not face this exact same situation, here are a few questions to consider when facing a crisis:

Can we permanently correct the situation in a timely manner? If not, what can we tell the press we are doing to rectify the circumstances?

When (not if) we come under criticism from the public and press, how do we measure the severity (and possible outcomes) from their claims?

What is more important to our brand? Short-term revenue loss or long-term brand reputation?

Always have a plan in place…And, in crisis communications, always expect the unexpected.

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