'Cracking the Code' Forum Tackles Online Video Business Models

Top row, from left:: Christopher Bakes of Locke Lord Llc., Jim Gosnell of APA, Alex Ben Block of The Hollywood Reporter and Richard Levi Brooks of Use All Five. Second row, from left: Sarah Amico of APA, Diane Charles of  Intelligent Life Productions, Julia Huang of InterTRENDS, Erin McPherson of Yahoo and Flash Rosenberg, artist in residence at New York Public Library.
Top row, from left:: Christopher Bakes of Locke Lord Llc., Jim Gosnell of APA, Alex Ben Block of The Hollywood Reporter and Richard Levi Brooks of Use All Five. Second row, from left: Sarah Amico of APA, Diane Charles of Intelligent Life Productions, Julia Huang of InterTRENDS, Erin McPherson of Yahoo and Flash Rosenberg, artist in residence at New York Public Library.
 Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

How to engage the consumer in an increasingly crowded marketplace was a key question on the minds of half a dozen industry experts who came together for a forum appropriately titled Cracking the Code, presented by the APA talent agency and the entertainment law firm Locke Lord Llc. on Friday night in Beverly Hills.

That was clearly on Erin McPherson’s mind as Yahoo’s vp and head of originals and video programming described how her company is reinventing the web giant.

“For me, cracking the code is embracing who you are,” said the straight-shooting McPherson, “and Yahoo has not done that successfully for the last few years."

 “We struggle with whether we are a technology company or a media company,” the self-described “recovering entertainment lawyer” added. “Why can’t we be both? “

She said while Yahoo already has huge web traffic and is doing more than 30 original series a week, that is only the start. The company has plans in 2012 to launch new longform and shortform series with “A-list talent” in programming that will be live-action and animated. That ranges from a stand-up comedy show, with Bill Maher set for the first episode, to an upcoming science-fiction series she described as “violent. Bloody. People are going to be writing the hate letters on the website. It’s out there for us.”

All of this will be done, she added, working closely with brands and advertising. That was the real message in all the presentations, which were designed to discuss the changing ways to tie together content and brands. The speakers talked about how the entertainment, media, consumer products and ad industries have reacted to the rise of video sharing, online gaming, social networking and location-based social networking, often tied to user-centered platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare -- all of which are now available on your computer screen and in your pocket.

Creating unique experiences while working with companies trying to crack the code on the new media consumer was at the heart of remarks by Diane Charles, who is partnered with Ron Qurashi in Intelligent Life Productions. That company produced the shortform series Web Therapy, starring Lisa Kudrow, which has crossed over from online to pay TV. She says the goal of the 5-year-old company is to help LStudio.com become “the HBO of the Internet.”

She recalled when the company developed its first products for the Lexus auto brand, the client and agency were totally on board with the lack of product integration, but others in the industry weren’t sure it would work. “Everyone asked us, ‘What? No banners, no advertising? No B-roll showing the car?’

“The idea,” added Charles, “was to create entertainment that would start people having a relationship, an affiliation with the brand. We believed you don’t have to shout to be heard. Just make it right in the right way and the right people will find it.”

"When Web Therapy began, our agreement with Lisa was that her involvement was not to make an endorsement, it was to make entertainment.  But by the second season when we were renewing the option and it looked as if television could be in the future, we asked if a Lexus could make a minimal appearance in the series.  She thought that could work as long as her team could come up with an organic fun way to work it into the story."   

So in the second through fourth seasons, the car makes appearances. When it went to Showtime, Charles said Lexus executives were thrilled that their brand is now being shown on pay TV without any additional payment. The fourth season of Web Therapy launches in December on LStudio.com.

Charles said that the company works on projects they are passionate about, which helps attract top brands and top creative talent. “It has to be more than anyone thinks it will be,” added Charles. “You have to come up with innovative solutions and surprise (creative) people with how hard you will fight for them, for their integrity, to keep it classy and above all you must be true to yourself. “

Julia Huang, CEO of InterTRENDS, an ad agency that specializes in helping brands reach Asian-Americans, said she had an experience with Toyota, where executives saw that different kinds of creativity were needed to penetrate the new media environment.

She said for one campaign, they tapped into a kind of mythical Japanese character that was already popular in some communities and re-created it to promote Toyotas in the cyber world. One of their first videos, which was a total soft sell, scored more than 1.4 million views on YouTube in its first four days.

“Cracking the code is not for the faint-hearted,” said Huang. “We cracked it for Toyota but it was really surprising (some of the reactions) because for every 10 people who would comment on You Tube or Facebook and say, ‘That’s cool,’ there was one who said ‘whoever did this should die.

"Toyota years ago would have freaked out if they saw something like that,” she added. “But done in the right place at the right time, we were able to crack the code.”

Richard Levi Brooks, CEO of Use All Five Inc., which assists brands, studios and production companies to reach targeted audiences, talked about how his staff worked for Google when it was launching the Chrome web browser.

“They came to us and said ‘I want to really polish Google chrome,’” said Brooks. “'It’ s an amazing product, really fast, flexible, easy to use, so we want to show this off. We don’t want to spend money on banner advertising or the usual commercials. We want to showcase it.’ So we looked as said, what can we do with Google creatively that really pushes this into new areas.”

They developed a series of products and add-ons that played to people’s love of surfing the web to gather information. They identified places for that information to land and be kept and grown, and made it easy to translate a word, sentence or whole article into another language -- showing another Google feature.

He said his team found ways to make it even more fun to use. “We said, 'It’s got to shine a light on Google’s Chrome,'” he added. “'It’s got to shine a light on the creative ways you use it and really open doors.'”

The question Brooks said he always asks is, “How do I provide value to my audience on top of what I am already doing? What can I take from what I’ve already created and create new value.”

The Hollywood Reporter senior editor Alex Ben Block was the closing speaker. “A brand today is not just some consumer product but also refers to companies, services, movies, TV shows, web programs as well as every celebrity and every person seeking attention,” said Block. “In a cluttered market place, they all have to get their message out. There are a lot of ways to do that now, a lot more choices.”

The goal is ultimately is to build buzz, the elusive word-of-mouth that means so much, he added. “You can’t guarantee it,” said Block, “but you can give your content and message exposure, use the new tools and platforms to make it available as widely as possible. Then when the right content, at the right moment, with all of that synergy comes together, the job of building that brand is accomplished.”

Christopher Bakes of Locke Lord acted as moderator for the program. The Hollywood Reporter was media sponsor of the event.

Flash Rosenberg, animator and artist in residence for LIVE at the New York Public Library, created graphics in advance and on site that were tailored to the gathering.  

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