YouTube CEO Concedes "With Openness Also Comes Challenges"

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Susan Wojcicki

Susan Wojcicki also revealed during the annual Brandcast pitch to advertisers that YouTube now has 1.8 billion logged-in users, noting that "there isn't a playbook for how open platforms operate at our scale."

YouTube embraced its DNA as an open platform during its annual pitch to advertisers, even if that openness has gotten the Google-owned company in trouble more than once over the last year. 

Standing before a packed house inside New York's Radio City Music Hall on Thursday evening, CEO Susan Wojcicki boasted that YouTube now has 1.8 billion logged-in users. But, she acknowledged, "with openness also comes challenges, as some have tried to take advantage of our services."

The message was markedly different from last year, when Wojcicki apologized to advertisers for not doing enough to protect their brands against the more unsavory content on the platform. This year, she rattled off the steps that YouTube has taken to clean up the videos on its site. "It's incredibly important to me, and to everyone at YouTube, that we grow responsibly," she told the crowd. "There isn't a playbook for how open platforms operate at our scale. But the way I think about it is, it's critical that we are on the right side of history." 

YouTube has faced one problem after another as it has struggled to clamp down on inappropriate content posted to its platform. In the 12 months since Wojcicki issued a mea culpa to advertisers, promising that "we can, and we will, do better," YouTube has come under fire for promoting fake news, allowing exploitative children's content into its YouTube Kids app and not responding quickly enough to punish Logan Paul, one of its top stars, for posting a video featuring the dead body of a suicide victim. YouTube may hold the key to reaching young, influential consumers, but brands have been forced to ask whether they're willing to risk seeing their ads alongside less-than-savory videos to reach that coveted cohort. 

Because Google doesn't break out YouTube's financials, observers may never know how the brand safety struggles impacted the company over the last year. But it certainly hasn't hurt Google's bottom line. (The search giant grew revenue to over $31 billion and net income to $13.33 per share during the first three months of 2018.) And despite public declarations from some advertisers that they would cut back spending — or stop spending all together — on YouTube, most, including Procter & Gamble, have returned to the platform in response to YouTube's efforts to fix its problems. The company has, for instance, tweaked its search algorithm to favor news videos from trusted sources over propaganda-focused accounts, and it is in the process of staffing up its content moderation teams.

In a recent quarterly report, YouTube said it had removed more than 8 million videos during the final three months of 2017 through a mix of automated and human flagging. (No surprise, technology caught 80 percent of the offending videos.)  

Because YouTube relies on user-generated videos from its massive audience, the streamer will probably always feature a certain percentage of videos that aren't deemed brand safe. But the company is focusing on driving brands to the content they want to advertise around. That includes live television inventory offered through the YouTube TV skinny bundle. YouTube announced on April 30 that it would begin selling some of that inventory through its Google Preferred premium advertising tier. It is also offering marketers tools to reach viewers who are watching YouTube on their television screens. Wojcicki highlighted those efforts onstage on Thursday evening, noting that users watch over 150 million hours of YouTube on TV screens every day. 

The company also focused its pitch on premium original programming, including an expanded slate of ad-supported originals series from such bold names as Will Smith and Priyanka Chopra. 

But YouTube executives spent very little time onstage. Having dispensed with the real talk and announcements, they got out of the way and hosted a party that featured performances by Camila Cabello and Ariana Grande. YouTube stars Tyler Oakley and Anna Akana also shared their experiences on the platform. "I love being an actor," Akana told the marketers in the room, "but, honestly, YouTube is my home. ... It's here where I feel like my voice is heard."

Daily Show host Trevor Noah also stumped for the streamer, calling it "a fantastic opportunity to create something that goes beyond repackaging content." While past presentations have featured more presentations from YouTube's partners, just one advertiser, Deanie Elsner from the Kellogg Co., got up onstage to share an example of how the streamer "transformed the way we think about digital." 

Last year, Wojcicki proclaimed that the streamer's users "don't come to YouTube for polish. They come for texture." Now, the company is focused on showing advertisers that they can address the challenges that come with that "texture." During her time onstage Thursday, Wojcicki declared that YouTube's focus in 2018 would be on "continuing to innovate and enhance the power of open, while delivering on our responsibility to viewers, creators and advertisers."