Brandcast 2015: the shift from not-so-humble YouTube stars to multinational media brands

Arriving at the Qantas Arena in Sydney, event attendees had to walk along an elaborate red carpet flanked by hordes of teenagers leaning over makeshift fencing. For those who weren’t musicians, celebrities or YouTube stars, it was an awkwardly silent walk and a tangible reminder of what anonymity feels like.

No doubt that the agency and media types that walked along this carpet also felt a clear disconnect from an audience that they are grappling to reach in a fragmented new media environment. And reaching these screaming teens isn’t getting easier. The fragments that make up online media are proliferating and serving up new media brands that were mere blips a year ago. 

In the space of 12 months, the number of YouTube content creators with over a million subscribers across Australia and New Zealand more than doubled from ten to 22—meaning that brands now have a range of new influencers to work with. 

And as was the case at last year’s Brandcast event, Google again spared no expense as it put on an extravagant affair aimed at selling YouTube and the content creators to those who hold the purse strings in the industry. 

“[This is] the one day of the year that we bring together our advertisers, agencies, publishers and our YouTubers all in one room,” said Google Australia managing director Australia Maile Carnegie.

To remind the audience of the scale of YouTube, Carnegie pointed to a recent study that showed the growth of the platform against traditional television.  

“YouTube now reaches more 18- to 54-year-olds in Australia than any single individual TV channel. And it has more than twice the reach of subscription TV. In fact, mobile growth has been so strong that YouTube on mobile devices reaches more Australians than subscription TV.”

The appeal of the content creators on the platform has reverberated across popular culture, introducing a new type of celebrity.      

“Even though our reach and scale is impressive. One thing you can’t see from those numbers is the influence that YouTube is having on popular culture. A recent survey by Wired magazine showed that YouTube stars are now more popular than mainstream celebs, among US teens. There are now eight YouTubers in the top ten beating A-listers like Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars.”

Carnegie pointed out that the modern generation of consumers won’t think twice about skipping content.   

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a format like TrueView or not. Even if there’s no option to fast-forward or skip, we know that viewers are picking up smartphones, going for a quick cup of coffee or finding many other ways to hit that metaphorical skip button. So brands now have to find new ways to capture people’s attention. And they’re using YouTube increasingly to tell their stories.”

And Carnegie says brands that choose to be creative and look for ways to engage with the audience on the platform are enjoying success.   

“In fact, four of the top ten trending videos from last year were ads. So, we want to continually make it easy for you to access viewers all across YouTube, especially through our prime time content like Google Preferred, which is our reservation-only offering providing access to the top five percent of content on YouTube.”

Google Preferred has still not been launched in New Zealand, but Bart Jenniches, the industry director for Google Australia, told StopPress that the company is looking to make the option available in as many countries as possible. 

In addition to pre-roll advertising, another way in which brands are increasingly reaching audiences is by collaborating with YouTube Stars to deliver their messages. 

Locally, the best example of this would be Jamie Currie, who has already worked with the likes of Netflix, Kiwibank and Coca-Cola.

And this trend is also popular abroad. On the night, Canadian YouTube sensation Lily Singh, who vlogs under the moniker SuperWoman, took to the stage and presented a short speech on her collaboration with brands. 

What was most interesting about her presentation was that she said that brand collaborations only contribute a small slice of the overall revenue she earns from her online brand. 

“Up until this point, a lot of what I’ve done, I’ve done largely without the support of advertising,” she said. “I post a new video every Monday and Thursday, and I’ve been doing this for the last six years. Today, I have a team of six people who help me build, maximise and monetise my brands. And even though today my subscriber base has exploded to amass over 6.4 million people and my viewcount now exceeds over 840 million views, less than 15 percent of my company’s revenue comes from brand activations and sponsorships. And that percentage is shrinking every year.”

Singh and her ilk now generate the vast majority of their profits from projects beyond YouTube. They have books (another YouTube star Connor Franta, still in his 20s, even has a memoir), live shows and products that all deliver dollars directly to their bank accounts.  

“What started out as a pure form of expression has now become a full-time job, business and global media brand,” said Singh. “It may surprise you that my audience is willing to pay to see my show even though my content is free online at YouTube. But what you need to understand is that our relationship is deeper than casual consumption. It’s an active, engaged relationship between two best friends.” 

To illustrate the strength of this engagement, Singh indulged in a bit of self-promotion: 

“Just the other day I received a tweet that said: ‘My favourite drink is Coca-Cola, my favourite laptop is Dell and my favourite shampoo is Pantene. All thanks to SuperWoman.’ These are all partnerships from the last six months, which in the most humble way basically means I’ve got that power.’”

And this power, argues Singh, can’t be found in chasing impressions around the internet. 

“If you want to stay in the impressions game, good on you. I’m sure it has served you well, but you risk losing relevance with a generation that views YouTube as their go-to daily destination, and perhaps, more importantly, their number one choice. Don’t just invest in impressions. Invest in communities. If you do, you will win over the next generation just as you have in the past.”

A major criticism that has been levelled at brand collaborations with YouTube stars is that they detract from the authenticity that makes the channels successful. The general argument is that authenticity can’t be bought, especially not when it involves a brand’s label being plastered over a channel. 

Speaking to StopPress before the event, Regan Savage, the head of marketing comms and content at Kiwibank, conceded that this is a concern, but he said that content producers—or at least Jamie Curry—are very selective in terms of what they choose to publish on their channels.

This when viewed alongside the fact that YouTube stars don’t rely exclusively on ad funding gives them the freedom to control what they publish and how it’s presented. In some ways, the usual industry model is twisted because both the client and the content creator have a set of mandatories that must be met.   

Savage says that brands should be very selective in terms of working with YouTube stars, but then give them the freedom to serve as a conduit to the fans. This, he says, is really the point in collaborating with these stars. 

“It’s about facilitating a conversation that you aren’t necessarily a part of,” Savage says.

So while, the media and creative agencies and brand representatives in attendance at Brandcast might never win the applause of the teenagers crammed against a makeshift fence, the content creators that they choose to associate their brands with almost certainly will—and as any All Blacks sponsor will tell you, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of vicarious adoration.     

Note: Google provided StopPress with flights and accommodation to attend this event.

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