It goes without saying that brands are making a serious investment in conceiving, producing, distributing and promoting digital storytelling, original programming and branded entertainment. From traditional Hollywood product placement to movies, TV and original web series to immersive VR experiences, brands want to be in the original programming an content production business. Even Walmart.
Branded content and online creative powerhouse New Form is a leader in the field. The digital studio received backing from Discovery Communications and the U.K.’s ITV channel as it raised $18 million in second-round funding. It is behind digital entertainment like the YouTube Red series Single By 30—with over 2 million views for its first episode. It also runs an Incubator showcase where talented storytellers are mentored to develop and produce original stories from concept to pilot.
On the occasion of the IAB’s Digital NewFronts for brands, we spoke with New Form CEO Kathleen Grace about the booming market for branded entertainment, who’s doing it well in her opinion, and how premium ad dollars are shifting from TV to digital.
For the nascent space of online video, Grace has impressive credits as a producer and director. Prior to New Form Digital—described as “a community of creators who make stories out of anything & everything”—she was the head of creative development for the YouTube Space LA, where YouTubers make videos for their channels, collaborate with other creators, share their experiences and learn how to build a YouTube channel and audience.
Prior to YouTube she was Vice President of Production and Programming at Next New Networks (acquired by YouTube in 2011) and created the critically acclaimed web series The Burg, a comedy about Brooklyn’s Williamsburg hipsters, and the mockumentary The All for Nots, which ran on HDNet and was backed by Michael Eisner’s new media studio Vuguru.
At New Form, she guides the company’s mission — “to become the next generation studio by driving all aspects of creating, distributing and marketing high-quality, scripted programming for today’s millennial audiences” — and has an insider’s vantage point on how the space is evolving and transforming the entertainment industry, and the role brands can play.
brandchannel: Kathleen, digital branded entertainment has evolved to the point where it’s winning awards and attracting top-notch talent. When will it start gaining the kind of premiums from advertisers that traditional TV advertising commands?
Kathleen Grace (right): The shift is currently underway. A recent study commissioned by the Interactive Advertising Bureau shows that TV is no longer the ad spend leader. It’s been overtaken by mobile and desktop, following a trend towards digital. Ultimately, brands want to find the most organic and seamless way to connect with an audience. Content studios like New Form, born out of the digital era, are uniquely suited to help brands make that connection.
bc: You’ve been at the forefront of the YouTube creator explosion, and now there is a growing backlash as YouTube gets stingier with compensation. How do you see the tension between amateurs and pros evolving in this space?
Grace: YouTube is an industry leader, so it’s understandable that they are a big target everyone looks to as topics like revenue shares are decided or evolve. There is an increasing emphasis on premium content across all digital platforms, which is being matched by growing sophistication on the part of the creator community. And that’s where the audience is moving as well.
bc: When does “brand-supported” entertainment and “regular” entertainment just blend together and we stop making a distinction?
Grace: When you are able to create narratives that organically fit the platform and audience, the distinction between brand-supported and regular entertainment fall away.
bc: What branded entertainment projects—that you were NOT involved with—do you look at as raising the bar?
Grace: I think the Eggo integration into Netflix’s Stranger Things and what Microsoft was able to achieve in its season-long campaign on Blackish are pushing the industry in the right direction.
bc: What makes a standout effort that works for brands and viewers (and distributors) alike?
Grace: The ideal brand integration drives the story forward and feels organic to the plot or character.