NewFronts West Underscores That Brands Need To Stand For Something
Jen Sey, SVP/CMO of Levi's (l), and Amanda de Cadenet, founder of Girlgaze, on stage at NeueHouse Hollywood for NewFronts West.
Event shares insights from Cannes, Girlgaze, SoulPancake, Participant, BBC News
  • HOLLYWOOD, Calif.
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Last year the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) held its inaugural Digital Content NewFronts West event in L.A., during which varied media companies and platforms presented their content slates and development opportunities to a gathering of decision-makers from the brand and ad agency communities. Up until then, such industry upfront previews took place exclusively in NYC. While year one broke through the geography, the IAB in some respects brought a new groundbreaking dimension to year two as NewFronts West 2019, held the past two days (9/11-12) at NeueHouse Hollywood, went well beyond pitching new fare and prospective partnerships, additionally offering insights into the nature of content opportunities emerging for brands, encapsulated in the theme. “Relationships Matter. Take a Stand.”

Consumers, particularly in the coveted Gen Z demographic, expect brands to not just stand--but to stand up--for something to help better society. That dynamic has become increasingly key to brands being able to successfully connect with the marketplace at large. In that vein, NewFronts took attendees on a journey through some stellar examples of taking a stand, entailing a mesh of art, commerce, commitment and even activism. NewFronts presentations and conversations included delving into Levi’s relationship with Girlgaze, SoulPancake’s forthcoming mental health documentary produced in conjunction with Funny Or Die, and looking back on this year’s Cannes Film Festival as well as the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

On the latter score NewFronts held a session centered on the feature documentary 5B, which was shown at the Cannes Film Fest in May as part of its Special Screenings lineup. The next month the film from Johnson & Johnson won the Entertainment Lions Grand Prix at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity. Named after San Francisco General Hospital’s ward 5B which opened in 1983 as the first full-fledged hospital unit dedicated to treating people with AIDS, the documentary was directed by Dan Krauss of Saville Productions. The moving film--which tells the stories of caretakers, patients and others impacted--shows the positive power of nursing, continuing a theme which Johnson & Johnson has championed over the years. 

Scott Donaton, global chief creative & content officer for Digitas, served as this year’s Cannes Entertainment Lions president and moderated the NewFronts discussion on 5B. Session panelists were Sarah Colamarino, VP, corporate equity, Johnson & Johnson; Brendan Gaul, EVP, global chief content officer and head of UM/J3 Studios; and Zeda Stone, CEO, RYOT, a Verizon Media company.

Gaul produced 5B which was acquired by Verizon Media for distribution, which included a recent theatrical run.

Donaton noted that the Cannes Entertainment Lions jury saw numerous examples of brands taking a stand, telling important stories, with 5B leading the pack, introducing us to the likes of Mary Magee, a nurse who came out from New York with the hope of landing a job at 5B so that she could care for, comfort and protect AIDS patients who at that time were given a death sentence. Then there was Dr. Paul Volberding, an oncologist who committed to patient care at 5B even though he acknowledged fear for his health and that of his family since the extent of AIDS’ contagious nature wasn’t known at the time. He related that he and his wife had a hard time talking about the potential perils.

Gaul noted that he was drawn to the project in part because TV shows and entertainment content in general didn’t depict nurses as heroic. Often they were portrayed as no more than an assistant to doctors. 5B afforded him and his colleagues an opportunity to change that perception of nurses, realizing a goal that was part of Johnson & Johnson’s longstanding credo which, said Colamarino, has perennially to honor and support the doctors, nurses and those on the front lines of care for people in need.

Stone explained that Verizon paid to acquire 5B because it was “content deserving of a wider audience” and was sans any heavy-handed brand mention. He admitted that he was “pleasantly surprised” to find Johnson & Johnson committed to such a brave, bold project--the kind that conventional wisdom would instead place in the province of a cutting-edge marketer/advertiser like Nike. 

Colamarino observed that 5B was perfectly aligned with the Johnson & Johnson brand and history. Committing to the story wasn’t as bold and brave, she said, as taking the risk that the final documentary would be good enough to get picked up on the festival circuit, a key factor in generating revenue and recouping the upfront cost of production. As it turned out, 5B made the grade, ultimately taking in distribution money which was put toward promoting the film as well as to donations for related charities. She affirmed that return on investment has been positive across varied fronts--generating not just exposure via Verizon but also finding a place at policymaker conferences and doctor/healthcare-related meetings, all helping to build the Johnson & Johnson brand and what it stands for.

NewFronts also explored the relationship between Levi Strauss & Co. and Girlgaze, a global online community that aims to close the gender gap by providing paid jobs for a network of female-identifying and non-binary creatives. Girlgaze founder Amanda de Cadenet and Levi’s SVP/CMO Jen Sey talked on stage about their collaborations, screening an installment of the brand’s “I Shape My World” program--this one featuring Delaney Tarr, a student who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018 and became a founder of the March For Our Lives movement advocating gun control and safety. Sharing stories of women who have overcome adversity, the “I Shape My World” campaign started in India and now spans 110 countries with some 80 films done this past year. The Girlgaze team led by de Cadenet produced the films for North America.

Sey said it’s important that Levi’s tell stories which are true to the brand. In the case of Tarr, Levi’s had been active in the gun safety space for many years, dating back to when a consumer walked into one of its stores with a gun that accidentally discharged. Levi’s donated $1.2 million to gun safety organizations and received pushback when it asked the public not to bring firearms into its stores, even in states with open carry laws. “Gen Z cares what you stand for,” related Sey, noting that consumers know when a connection to a cause isn’t legit. Thus it’s paramount that Levi’s content addresses issues and causes it has demonstrated care and concern for over the years.

That approach his yielded ROI as Levi’s business has grown each of the past six consecutive years, a feat that the company hadn’t accomplished in decades. However, noted Sey, taking a stance can spark opposition. She recalled when Levi’s ended its sponsorship of the Boy Scouts in the early 1990s when that organization came out against having gay Scout leaders. Levi’s faced a boycott as a result. Still, she thinks that over the long haul a company that stands for something, that has a social conscience, is good, if not imperative, for business. Levi’s history includes being the first Fortune 500 company to support employee benefits for same-sex couples, and among the first to integrate its factories in the South.

de Cadenet sees substantive progress being made, noting that some two-and-a-half years ago when Girlgaze was launched, it was difficult finding brands “aligned with our mission” of giving creative and production opportunities to women and underrepresented others so that their voices could be heard and their talent tapped into. Now she is seeing more like-minded brands emerging, citing Levi’s as an example of a place that wants to tell women’s stories with truth and authenticity--while affording women the chance to be the storytellers. At the same time, Girlgaze--which is both a mission-based and for-profit enterprise--has to be careful and selective about the brands with which it aligns; de Cadenet noted that she has had to turn down overtures from companies that have sweatshops overseas or chief execs facing sexual harassment accusations. 

Levi’s is also behind a get-out-the-vote initiative which includes a PSA--screened at NewFronts--designed to drum up participation in local, state and national elections. Sey sees the effort as simpatico with Levi’s self-expression mantra, observing that voting is a vital way of one expressing him or herself. Again, Levi’s demonstrated a commitment to this cause before ever implementing any related content. Voter registration has been set up in Levi’s stores, company employees are given paid time off to vote, and Levi’s has made donations to charities combating voter suppression.

Digital entertainment company SoulPancake presented a rundown of its new fare, including Laughing Matters, a mental health documentary that delves into suicide as comedians tell their true-life stories, including dealing with depression, anxiety and insecurities. While humor is a coping mechanism, it is not a cure for depression and self-destructive behavior as evidenced by the suicide of such performers as Robin Williams. SoulPancake teamed with Funny Or Die on Laughing Matters which is slated to premiere on October 10, World Mental Health Day.

SoulPancake’s mantra is “We make stuff that matters” as it seeks to stir the soul, being a positive place offering inspiring stories, dispelling myths and stigmas to help better the human condition. Rainn Wilson, co-founder of SoulPancake and known for his work on The Office, talked during the course of NewFronts--along with several colleagues, including comedian Baron Vaughn, SoulPancake CEO/co-founder Shabnam Mogharabi, and SVP of content and creative Golriz Lucina--about the need for “impact entertainment” that addresses pressing social issues to help bring about meaningful change. SoulPancake presenters cited research about the growing prevalence of “the compassionate consumer” as some 58 percent of prospective customers said that their purchase decisions are influenced positively if the brand is truly involved in social causes. For the brand community, indifference is not an option. In today’s marketplace, it’s riskier for brands to be neutral or to stay silent.

Movie marketing can also take a page from that book as Nicole Starr, VP social impact at Participant (SoulPancake’s parent company), explained at NewFronts. She discussed Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, winner of three Oscars this year (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Achievement in Directing and Cinematography). Participant was a production company on the film, which sparked the creation of a domestic workers’ rights campaign, developed in concert with such groups as the National Domestic Workers Alliance. The campaign showcased the value and humanity of caregivers and domestic workers, helping them to make legislative gains, with retirement benefits coming to fruition in Mexico, for example. Starr described the campaign--which included public appearances and testimony by Cuaron--as an inspiring blend of art and activism.

BBC News' 50:50 Project 
At NewFronts West, BBC News presented the 50:50 project, an ongoing effort to achieve gender balance throughout news output. It’s made great progress to date, tripling the amount of programs with on-air gender parity.

Sophie Long, U.S. correspondent for BBC News, walked NewFronts attendees through the program, revealing publicly for the first time that BBC News teams across digital and features are now taking part in the initiative, originally designed around the target of 50% female contributors on television news.

At inception, 50:50 challenged teams across the organization to achieve gender balance in contributors (reporters, commentators, spokespersons, analysts, et al) in English-language news, current affairs and topical programs. When it began in 2018, 74 English language outlets and 10 World Service Language teams were already signed up for the initiative. At the time, 27 percent of them recorded having at least 50 percent female contributors--but that had increased three-fold to 74 percent by April 2019.

Over the course of the year, hundreds more programs from across the BBC--from news to entertainment to music--have joined the project, including teams from beyond broadcast like digital properties BBC Travel, BBC Future, and BBC Worklife.

The project has been so successful that the BBC has shared the methodology with other media organizations and is working with more than 20 external partners who are now signed up to replicate the project.  These include ABC News, Fortune and The Financial Times.

Coming attractions
NewFronts also featured its staple attraction, serving as a what’s new marquee relative to content. Along those lines, Ellen DeGeneres’ Ellen Digital Network (EDN) unveiled two series at NewFronts:

--Lady Parts: Coming up in development is a new partnership in an untapped genre with award-winning OBGYN, entrepreneur, author, and advocate for women’s health, Dr. Sheryl A. Ross, better known as “Dr. Sherry.” For over 25 years, Dr. Sherry has been the best kept secret in Hollywood, and now with her own digital series, Lady Parts, she’s sharing her expertise with EDN’s audience. 

--Not Great with Lauren: EDN is developing a digital series titled Not Great with Lauren, starring Lauren Pomerantz, one of DeGeneres’ favorite writers, Pomerantz has been a beloved part of The Ellen DeGeneres Show for over 13 seasons and is now stepping into the spotlight with a new comedy series where she is constantly forced to step out of her comfort zone.

Meanwhile Fuse Media, a cross-platform entertainment media brand for the multicultural millennial and Gen Z audience, introduced 10 new digital series at NewFronts, including:

--Chew It Up: Hosted by comedian Andrew Santiago, Chew It Up introduces your favorite artist’s cultural identity to fans through food. Whether the artist is Nigerian, Indian or Dominican, we are doing a deep dive to learn about who they are and the nostalgic food they grew up eating…or not? The dishes escalate in obscurity, so from the first dish to the last, the food will continue to get more exotic. And as the host and talent share a meal, the artists answer questions about their career, life and heritage. 

--A Michelin Star and A Hot Plate: Cultures collide when one of America’s top culinary minds connects with the biggest personalities in music, fashion, movies, and more, and together they cook a 5-star dish in a 1-star location. Every episode, our host--a Michelin star chef --teaches a guest how to make a simple, but delicious, one pan dish with not much more than a hot plate. From cacio e epe to coq au vin, and from driveways to an empty field, our chef and the guest will make a complex piece of cooking easy enough for anyone to master…anywhere.

--Culture Filter: Hosted by Natalia Perez (Big Boy’s Neighborhood) in the Fuse Content studio and joined by artists, influencers and music culture insiders, the team digs deep into the biggest stories in pop culture and music, including groundbreaking achievements, the latest releases, spicy clapbacks, and more--to uncover their value to the culture. Perez moderates the conversation and dishes out points for well-made arguments while retracting points for anything that fails the filter. Ultimately, Perez will crown a “winner’ of the week” who will get an uninterrupted 30 seconds to flex for favorite brands, albums, and/or clapback of the week.

Additionally, Jon Scarlett has been named head of the Fuse Content Studio.  He will be based in the company’s Los Angeles office and will report directly to J-T Ladt, Fuse Media’s chief content officer. 

Scarlett, who had been with All Def Media since 2014, most recently served as general manager overseeing the company’s productions, sales, operations and creative teams.  Specifically, he has overseen the production of some 400-plus hours of original content including the series Dad Jokes, Arts & Raps, Traffic Jams and Roast Me.


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