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In the years since YouTube held its first Brandcast pitch to advertisers in New York, the Google-owned streamer’s message has gotten increasingly easier to sell: What brands wouldn’t want to pay for access to YouTube’s influential set of homegrown stars and its more than 1 billion users?
But at the Javits Center on Thursday night, it was time for the streaming giant to issue a mea culpa. PepsiCo, Wal-Mart, Dish and several other big brands had all previously announced plans to suspend their advertising from YouTube following reports that their ads and others were appearing alongside violent, inappropriate or racist content.
“The last couple weeks have been challenging for some of you,” CEO Susan Wojcicki acknowledged to the room full of advertisers early during YouTube’s hourlong presentation. “I want you to know that we have taken your feedback to heart. We work hard every day to earn our advertisers’ and agencies’ trust. We apologize for letting some of you down. We can, and we will, do better.”
YouTube had already apologized for the issue and said that it was going to change its policies to monitor content. It also previously announced plans to give advertisers more control over where their ads go. But the controversy still loomed large over the annual event, part of the two-week pitchfest called as NewFronts, where YouTube is known for throwing one of the most lavish parties. (Past performers have included Sia and Bruno Mars.) Throughout the NewFronts several digital companies took aim at YouTube by discussing their platform’s “brand safety,” including Conde Nast Entertainment, which promised that advertisers would know exactly what they were getting when they advertised on its portfolio of brands like Vogue or GQ.
But YouTube has the scale that many of the NewFronts presenters will never reach, and after her apology Wojcicki made sure to remind the Brandcast audience of that. She rattled off several stats about the streamer, including that there are 75 percent more channels with over one million subscribers than there were last year, and that watch time of TV channels on YouTube has grown by 50 percent. Wojcicki also highlighted Google Preferred, a program that allows advertisers to buy against the top 5 percent of channels on YouTube, which gives brands more control over where their ads go and has recently been expanded into more than 20 countries.
The presentation then proceeded to make the case that YouTube is a better buy than television. “YouTube is not TV and we never will be,” she proclaimed, noting the diversity, authenticity and community of endemic YouTube creators. “Our users don’t come to YouTube for polish. They come for texture.”
Filmmaker and vlogger Casey Neistat, who it’s worth noting recently sold his company to CNN and is building a new digital business with the cable news network, came onstage to share his experience with YouTube. Halfway through the talk he literally dropped his microphone on the ground, saying “my hand is old media … and the floor is YouTube.”
But YouTube does still seem to be chasing television when it comes to original programming. The streamer announced a slate of seven new, ad-supported originals from a mix of traditional stars with big YouTube channels like Ellen DeGeneres and Kevin Hart and digital talent like Rhett & Link — all which will help YouTube target the advertising dollars that have traditionally flown into television. The projects are already winning over brands. The company announced that Johnson & Johnson — which previously told The Times that it was suspending its YouTube advertising — would sponsor Ryan Seacrest-produced competition series Best.Cover.Ever.
YouTube not only used Brandcast to smooth things over with advertisers, but also with creators. The company’s annual Creator Summit, held the same week as Brandcast, turned into an opportunity for it to address YouTuber’s questions about declining revenue following tweaks YouTube made to its ad products in response to advertiser concerns. Sources tell THR that the issue was top of mind when creators spoke to Wojcicki on Wednesday ahead of Brandcast, but that the conversation was ultimately open and productive.
And YouTube — whose parent company Alphabet just reported revenue increases of 22 percent to $24.75 billion during the first quarter of the year — didn’t seem to have any problem packing hundreds of buyers and media executives into its Javits Center event Thursday night, which featured appearances by James Corden and Kevin Hart and a surprise performance by Katy Perry.
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