Brut. CEO on the "Super-Polarized" U.S. Media Landscape, Wanting to Be the Netflix of News

Guillaume Lacroix attends the photocall for "Enrages" during the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival on May 18, 2015 - Getty-H 2019
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

"There is not a single media [organization] in the world that generates more conversation than we do per video," says Guillaume Lacroix. "Legacy media are going to go after the news cycle in a very negative way."

French digital-media company Brut., which is targeting millennials and Gen Z with "socially conscious" news and entertainment videos, on Wednesday unveiled a $40 million funding round and its official push into the U.S.

Founded in 2017 and headquartered in Paris, the company has focused on engaging an audience that does not spend much time with traditional media, sparking dialogue with advocacy journalism. "Conversation has been the biggest revolution in media consumption," founder and CEO Guillaume Lacroix, 44, said in announcing the funding round.

He talks to THR about how Brut.'s approach to news differs from legacy media, how it wants to replicate the success of Netflix in entertainment and Spotify in music streaming and what millennials and Gen Zers are looking for.

Brut. started making its videos available in the U.S. earlier this year and has now officially launched in the market. Do you take the same approach globally, or do you have a different approach in the U.S. than in other countries?

When we arrived in the U.S., we assumed that the U.S. millennials and Gen Z were going to behave as they behave in Europe, in India — we are the biggest English-speaking media [provider] on social in India. You know what? They did the exact same thing. So Brut. is really a global media company in the sense that we make a video from somebody in France, in Japan, in India, in Mexico, in the U.S., and this video is working everywhere in the world.

The way we are doing it is about trying to spark conversation that doesn't point fingers and is nonpartisan. The other thing is a huge shift in terms of values. We have around 300 million people watching our content every month across the globe, and 70 percent of them are under 35 years old. And most people have a set of values that works around the globe and that defines their engagement. The values are power and accountability, women empowerment, fighting any kind of discrimination, social good/social impact, the environment. Everything is solution-driven for a generation that thinks their parents failed miserably. The way they see the world is not left or right but do you contribute positively towards values or not?

How important is local-language content as you push into the U.S.?

There is one technical but important detail: 90 percent of videos on Facebook, for instance, are seen without the sound, so it means you have no more language barrier; you just need to use subtitles and translate. In terms of business model, it is very efficient for us. Whereas legacy media needs to do one video per territory, we do one video, which works everywhere in the world. In terms of production cost, it is much more efficient.

In the U.S., half of our content is global but very much aligned with the values of millennials and Gen Z, and half of the content is purely U.S. that shines a light on individual and collective action, people who are actually doing stuff.

Why do you see the U.S. as an interesting market beyond the sheer size of the market?

There are plenty of opportunities for us in the U.S. First of all, the U.S. media landscape is super polarized. I think one of the reasons why we were so successful on Facebook so quickly — Instagram and Snap are coming now too — is that we try to bring context to the world and spark conversation, but we don't point fingers.

The second opportunity is that legacy media are going to go after the news cycle in a very negative way that is not solution-driven, so there is a huge space for people coming in with a more positive outlook on things. Yes, we are facing a lot of issues and problems, but people are doing stuff on their own to try and fix things.

When we launched in Europe, we decided to show people who are not celebrities or public figures, and we did millions of views. Now we are doing 1.5 billion views a month across the globe. And in the U.S. we have some videos like that, which have done 20, 30, 40 million videos. I think there is a human interest, and the kind of story we are telling is universal.

So how do you hire editorial people in the U.S.? Is there room for folks with a more traditional media background?

We look for two kinds of people: very experienced TV producers — because when you are in the video business it is better when you come from TV than print or radio — and young digital talent. When we started in the U.S., we partnered with people with a lot of experience in TV and a bit of experience in social [media], with millennial and Gen Z journalists. Our newsroom is probably 25 to 27 years old on average, except for the top management, which is around 35 to 40.

Obviously, in journalism, especially right now with all the fake news going on, you need to be so rigorous with the news and information that you need experienced journalists to make sure younger ones don't do anything wrong. It's been very efficient. We had incredible word of mouth, so we didn't have a lot of difficulty recruiting people.

I know legacy media. I used to work for a TV network in France for 10 years. They have a very top-down approach. Brut. works in exactly the opposite way. You have a young, diverse newsroom, and it brings to us what they want to talk about. Sometimes we tell them forget that 25 to 30 million people watch our content every day across the globe — just think about your two or three best friends and whether you would be proud, happy and excited to share the video you are working on with your friends. Is it strong enough, interesting enough? If not, don't do it.

How big is your U.S. and worldwide team?

We have around 40 people in the U.S. and 150 globally. We are hiring a sales force in the U.S., so the number will go up pretty quickly. Most people working for us are content creators. Paris and New York are our two global headquarters. New York also covers Latin America. We don't need to open offices in many countries like legacy media.

How do you think about competitors? Do you compete with Refinery29, Vice and other digital media firms targeting young audiences?

The way I see it, to be very honest, we have no competition. Yes, we are a media organization, but nobody is mission-driven like us. All the companies you named, all legacy media, are not into conversation and not mission- and value-driven. We are all competing for the same advertising money, but for me it is not a competition.

How quickly can you turn a profit in the U.S., and what will be the drivers of that?

Advertising is the way we are making money. And there are three main issues with the advertising market. First, if you are a brand and you want to reach millennials and Gen Z, it is super tough to reach and engage them. And if you try to do a classic top-down ad message, that doesn't work on social. On social you need a third party, like Brut., which is trusted by the community and endorses a brand because it is worth it and we have checked that what they say is legitimate. These generations love brands and hate advertising. So you have to come up with a new way. We tell stories with brands, but that has to be smart and authentic, then people love it. We call this the engaging ads. We create a Brut. campaign for partners where we engage our community.

Second, there is not enough premium video inventory for all publishers. A lot of publishers don't have access to quality video content. We already have 20,000 videos in our back catalogue. Most of it is evergreen and relevant to those generations and contextual to the world. It's about stuff, such as the environment, climate change, women, LGBTQ, social good, that's always in the news. So we are striking large deals with Tribune and AccuWeather, where we syndicate, license our content. Sometimes it's licensing, sometimes it's revenue share. It's a good way to make money.

And lastly, there is a lack of expertise. So for some big clients who want to talk to millennials and Gen Z, we do special operations to help them with creating and producing an efficient social video strategy.

We are already highly profitable in France, and we think we will be profitable in the U.S. within two years. Once again, our operating costs are much lower than for legacy media because we are global, because our video works everywhere in the world, so we don't need hundreds of millions of dollars to be profitable in the U.S. For us the financial risk of launching in the U.S. is not very big. But you cannot go halfway — when you launch, you do what you need and commit and invest.

What will you spend the $40 million on that you just raised from investors?

For the U.S., we need to hire a very experienced sales team that is committed and aligned with our values. It's funny, when you ask people at Brut., "Why did you join us?" a lot of them say, "I have kids, and I am so happy that I joined Brut. because every time I go back home, when my kids ask me what I am doing, I know that I am useful."

We have an app too. That's one of the reasons we raised money. We need money for tech for two things: We have the app and website, which will be very central in the years to come when we want to activate our community; the other thing is we are investing a lot in what we call "natural language analysis." We generate so much commentary, which we already moderate, but we need to be able to analyze comments to reengage with our community. I would say that maybe 20 percent or 30 percent of what we do comes from the analysis of the comment thread. We spark conversation through a video, we see the comments and see a sub subject or a new way of thinking about the issue, so we will redo a video.

One thing I should say: We are not data-driven. We use data to perform better, but we don't use data to choose what kind of subjects we cover for a simple reason: If you are data-driven, you are serving to people who think they already know what they like. That's not the point. When you are media, because of the trust you have in your media brand from the community, you need to serve to people things they have no idea they are going to be interested in. If you like dogs, for instance, what I will see from data is you like dogs, so we should do more dog stories.

How do you explain what the French name Brut. means?

The first thing I say is Brut. like the champagne. People get that. The second thing is Brut. means "unfiltered," "raw." It's really the idea of bringing context to the world but not filtering the news. … People are fed up with journalists telling them what to think. And they want to get involved and their voice to matter. They want to get into the conversation. If you bring opinion, you don't spark a conversation; you spark a debate. If you want to spark a meaningful conversation, you need to bring context to the world, and then people have enough information and can engage. Then at least they are talking. There is not a single media [organization] in the world that generates more conversation than we do per video.

When I started in TV 20 years ago, my boss used to tell me, "Guillaume, the show is a success if people are going to talk about it at the coffee machine the next day." Now a Brut. video is a success if it is in the messaging thread of Gen Zers or millennials.

You have been focused on various social media platforms. Do you ever look at a possible presence on traditional TV?

Brut. [recently] produced a huge TV primetime event in France for the environment where we turned the Eiffel Tower green for the event. Yes, we are platform-agnostic. We were born on Facebook because Facebook is by far the strongest platform for conversation. Then we also launched with Snap globally. We are now huge on Snap in Europe, in India, and the U.S. is growing very quickly for us. And Instagram is another platform that we are going to enter.

Anything else you feel makes Brut. stand out? Anything else you want to achieve?

Brut. made me very optimistic. With a positive take on things, you can have global media success based on values. When I see the 300 million watching our content every month around the globe, most people are incredible. So it made me very optimistic.

The other thing is: When you are traveling and you want to listen to music, you've got Spotify. You want to watch a series, you've got Netflix. But when it comes to news, there is nothing. So that's the ambition of Brut. [Unlike Netflix, Brut. doesn't charge subscription fees.] You go anywhere in the world, you can rely on Brut., you know the brand and you are going to have that global media brand that resonates based on values, and legacy media are kind of blind to it.