Katalyst Media was founded by Ashton Kutcher and Jason Goldberg in 2000. It began as a simple film/TV development home; Kutcher’s Guess Who and the company’s most recognizable property, Punk’d, were produced under Katalyst. In 2005, they added a social media division, and what they specialize in is a form of branded content, the kind for which we’ve praised Red Bull and GoPro recently. Their work with brands like Nikon and Mountain Dew, and being considered a leader in the field of social media, led to Google offering them one of the 100 YouTube original channels, Thrash Lab, which is targeting a Spring launch.
I had some questions prepared for Katalyst Media president, Anthony Batt, but once he started giving me background on the company and what they do, I almost didn’t need to ask them. It’s clear that Katalyst is serious about making content for brands that eschew traditional advertising methods, that a story comes first before the brand name. Batt has even moved on from the term, “branded content,” because it’s “too on the nose.” He thinks of “branded content” as something from the nineties, that what we’re focusing on now is “amazing content,” something that a brand creates for a target audience that is compelling first and foremost. The brand, meanwhile, gets rewarded for being associated with that content, depending on if they’re reaching the right audience.
The ReelSEO Exclusive Interview With Anthony Batt
Anthony Batt: Most brands make advertising. Most brands make products. They want you to buy the product. How do they tell you about the product? They want to shove an ad onto the side of the page. You know that doesn’t work right? They’ve tried for years writing copy that has high SEO keywords and maybe you’ll see it in some sort of blog. You need to create something that actually has merit, that you would say, “Wow, I want to share that.” And if Cadillac made it for you, you’re sharing something essentially that Cadillac made and you can get your brand message across in a very natural, non-advertising way.
Our company, Katalyst, in the digital area, this is something we focus a lot of our time on. As a result of becoming really good storytellers, and really understanding the audience, we’ve been awarded a channel, that will actually create really highly entertaining content, created by people that we think are amazing, who will tell phenomenal stories that will be shared all around the internet. We think by doing that we will actually help produce producers who will be able to make better media content, for us and for our brand partners.
Here’s something Katalyst Media did with Nikon last year at South by Southwest in Austin, TX:
We were talking about this on ReelSEO before, how brands are going to become studios. Do you think traditional ads are on their way out?
Traditional ads aren’t on their way out because the entire system of advertising has been around for so long. That industry won’t go away. Like if you went into a company in the middle of the country you’ll probably find, you know, people using Windows ’98. People say, “Oh, radio’s dead, TV’s here.” Radio’s not dead, it’s not going to die. The effectiveness of an ad on television, the effectiveness of an ad on the side of a page, will increasingly become ineffective as other media outlets grow, as people get more and more desperate.
As people use more and more Netflix, there’s less advertising in Netflix. As I use a feed to find the content that I like, along with my friends and the things I follow, there’s less advertising in my feed. Your colleague isn’t going to jump on this phone call and interrupt us and say, “Listen, I just wanted to interrupt your conference call, I wanted to tell you about Snickers candy bars.”
As we count conversations, as media becomes very conversational between friends and trusted resources, advertising has a harder time to stick, get in there. So the places where they’ll still advertise is in broadcast, because frankly, it’s broadcast. It’ll become more effective as blogs become apps, and apps become something we buy or subscribe to. There are no ads in HBO content, there are no ads in Netflix.
We’ve also talked about BMW’s “The Hire,” which happened 10-11 years ago as a model for branded content.
I did branded content in 1995 with a studio called TROON. I took Absolut Vodka and gave a huge branded content play, which was the precursor to the BMW stuff. We made 27 films for Absolut Vodka, we went to every film festival around the world, we won national awards, etc. etc. The problem is “branded content” is too on the nose. So when I hear “branded content” I hear, “1994.”
When brands do stuff they still may actually be able to say, “I want to create a branded content piece where interesting characters drive around in my BMW car.” But who are the best storytellers? They’re moviemakers or TV people. They think about the story first. They never think about the brand first. What happens in TV land is they have integrated marketing people saying, “Hey can we get a Pepsi in there?” and then they’ll figure it out. So brands are so narcissistic about their brands, it’s really hard to them to actually think about engaging stories because they’re thinking about their brands.
What we think is that we have to hire content creators, that’s who they are. This company’s DNA is creating TV programming for millions and millions of people that people like. It’s so successful that the word “Punk’d” is in the Webster’s Dictionary. We made film. That’s what this company did. We now know how to tell stories in a digital medium, but we don’t think brand first, we think, “What will engage the audience?” mostly. Then, “How does the brand get behind that?”
There’s a switch, right? “Branded content” sounds like, “Well, brands need to make content.” But they can’t make content because they want to talk about themselves all the time. They need to get behind people who actually create content, and they need to sponsor it, not lightly, not like, “Hey we bought you this,” because people won’t know about it. They need to get into it, but they need to understand who their audience is, understand what their audience would love, realize that no one else in the world is doing that for them, and then a brand (I’ll use Cadillac as an example). Cadillac needs to say, “We have made this content for your audience.”
Think about that for a moment. How many times do brands tell their loved customers that they’re doing something for them? They don’t. Brands don’t think that way. Brands think like, “We need to move to a market and jam these things down their throat.” They need to become altruistic. We’re giving back, we’re going to give this to you. In filmed content. And the person that gets that content, since we know that’s exactly what that customer wants, they’ll be like, “That’s so cool. Did you hear about this, did you hear about this? These guys made this thing, it’s so cool.” And you know does this perfectly, flawlessly, is Red Bull.
Yeah, I love the Red Bull stuff. We’ve talked about them and GoPro as examples. GoPro, sure, it’s easy for them, they make a camera, but the stuff they put out is great.
You took the words right out of my mouth.
You know who else did really well, is Hot Wheels, when they came back out. These are advertisements, but they understood, like look…some brands say, “We still need to make ads.” But they made their ads so sort of like, cool, that you wanted to watch them.
They took a play out of the Red Bull book, you remember that Hot Wheel track, it was orange when you were a kid…they did one in a NASCAR stadium where a car dropped down a 20-story building and flew off a jump and went literally like two football fields across the field, across the stadium, and landed on a ramp. I’ve shown that to everyone I know and everybody has said, “Amazing.” They have content. We never focus on advertising. If you want an advertisement then you need to go to an ad agency.
Do you have any rules you follow for making branded content?
We always try to say don’t make it about your brand. Rule 1, don’t make it about your brand, because that’s an advertisement. Make it about a story, make it a spectacle, make it phenomenal. Our rule to a brand is “Don’t hire an ad agency.”
Rule 2: Don’t hire a PR firm.
Rule 3: Do something that will make your audience love you, and appreciate you. We don’t always win those rules. Brands by their very nature want to launch their products: “Talk about our features.” No one tunes into an advertisement. They tune to a spectacle. They tune to excitement. They tune into a story.
You ever see The Deadliest Catch? I could take that exact show, I literally have shows like that right now. I can go to a brand right now and tell them, “I can make you that show. It’ll cost you maybe two commercial budgets.” And they’ll worry about having a commercial. Why doesn’t Red Lobster own The Deadliest Catch? Ad agencies don’t do that. It’s interesting storytelling, and it’s the same story every time: We gotta throw those pots in the water, we gotta pull those pots out of the water.
But the fact of the matter is that brands would rather let storytellers create content and for them to buy interruptive advertisement. They’re not ready, and they’re not equipped, and not designed to become studios. Brands need to hire studios, not ad agencies. There’s a nuance. You’re right , you’re directionally correct…but they need to hire production companies that tell stories for a living.
Jason Bateman…He did a couple of five minute shorts that were sponsored by Orbit gum. The story is really racy content, you kinda blush hearing it. But when they actually want to introduce Orbit gum into it, it fits the story, you don’t feel interrupted, but you got the message that Orbit is doing this and it’s funny. It’s amazing. That’s great content. That’s where brands need to go.
If Gatorade has $22 million dollars for an ad budget, they need to take $5 million of that and hire studios like Katalyst to create killer content for audiences they target and just measure the effectiveness. And I think in 2012, in 2013, you’re gonna see brands, their owned and operated media becoming more effective than their paid media, if they create amazing content. Not branded content, not advertising. Just amazing content. And they’re going to have to hire story writers, studios, they’re going to have to hire Katalyst (or someone like us). Jason Bateman has a company called DumbDumb. They’re like our cousin. They make stories. You go on there and ask them to make an ad, they’ll say, “Well…we’ll make a story.”
Take a look at DumbDumb’s Intro Reel. You’ll hear Jason Bateman and Will Arnett saying the same thing about branded content.
I’ve been in the SEO space since 1995. They all tell you the same thing. You want your pages to rank? Make good content. You can throw a million keywords in there, and metadata, and you can make the HTML super clean, and you can make it link-farmed to death, but if it’s crap content, it’s not going to get ranked. But you write something really interesting…you know, like, “Here are the top 10 things you should do if you’re a college student graduating,” and it’s good, it will get linked, and it will get shared, and it’ll be linked by credible resources, that have value to search engines and it will rank. I’m essentially saying the exact same thing an SEO person would say. Just make some really good content and put it out there.
But that’s not what an ad agency is going to say, they’re going to say, “You need to make a great ad,” and the brand doesn’t have anywhere else to go. They’re busy making widgets.
What is your YouTube channel, Thrash Lab, going to be?
It’s still a work in progress and we haven’t ironed out all the details yet, but…In order to create great digital content, you need people who understand the nuances of digital media. There’s not enough of those people. Part of Thrash Lab’s goal will be to source digital media producers that are on their way up the ladder. We’re going to help them produce better content by mentoring them and producing the new producers of digital media content. Think about what Robert Redford did for independent film…Ashton and Katalyst are creating a channel called Thrash Lab which will be a business and we will do the same things for digital media that Sundance did for independent film.
“Thrash,” according to their Facebook page, is an idea that the best work should cause a strong reaction in an audience.
Independent film 25-30 years ago was very nascent, there wasn’t really an industry around it, there was a very smart man, Robert Redford, who bear-hugged it, helped grow independent film. Independent film became major film. Ashton’s smart enough to recognize that, he and I put this together. We’re saying, “Digital media is in a nascent state, it doesn’t necessarily know how exactly it’s going to grow, or who’s going to be the best of the best in it. We’re going to put our arms around it and grow the whole pond for everybody.
How will you market this channel?
With unbelievably amazingly interesting content that will spread the Earth quickly because it’s so engaging and interesting.
What do you think attracted Katalyst to YouTube and vice-versa?
We worked with Google on a project in the past and they know that we can produce great content. From an execution standpoint, they see us as a top-shelf business, so they went to the people who can actually do it. Second, Ashton has a real opinion on digital media and he’s a leader in it and they wanted people with that.
How will you, Ashton Kutcher, and Jason Goldberg be involved with Thrash Lab?
Everything Katalyst does, Ashton, Jason, and I will be in daily conversations about it. I can’t tell you how much screen time we’ll have in front of the camera, but we’ll certainly be the principals behind it.
Has YouTube given you any advice on how to make your channel a success? Or do they just say, “Hey, you’re Katalyst, you already know how to do it?”
The good thing about YouTube and Google is they see this as a table on how to make us the best. They’re not saying, “This is the blueprint on how to make it the best,” They treat us like they’re developing a community, they say, “What are you developing, how can we help, what’s going on, here’s best practices.”
But they’re very helpful and there’s a group that they acquired called Next Lab, there’s a guy named Lance Podell who’s the CEO of that company and they have a best practices script that goes around to all the channels. And they point them in the right direction. But they really want us to be the success drivers, they’re really there to build the platform. They have insights, and they’ll share those insights with us. But they’re super collaborative, which is the best part of the whole relationship.
They did tell us, “Make videos.” (laughing).
How will you measure success, through views or by finding the right audience?
We’re specifically looking for an audience, and the stickiness of that audience. Our view numbers aren’t as important as unique repeat visits. We’re not making pop culture content where it’s like, “Hey, everyone in the world will love this.” This content will be very specific, the audience will not be mass, it will be targeted. So we really want to see our numbers grow, but proportional to unique visits. It’s like HBO. HBO is not mass. Not everyone loves HBO. A certain group of people love HBO, and those people continue to tune in to shows. That’s what we want.
Well, we’ve talked about that before…we’ve gone over some YouTube myths, like with small businesses. “You gotta have a viral video” is one of them.
Everyone says, “We want a viral video” but let’s figure out if you’re worthy of a viral video. Are you trying to make things that could be viral? And what does viral mean? Is it mass viral or niche viral? If we’re doing sci-fi and we had a viral video among the sci-fi community that doesn’t mean your mom who hates sci-fi sees it. All those things are interesting to analyze and figure out. Viral videos appeal to a broad segment. We’re not. If something pops viral, great. Like if someone saw one of our videos and re-tuned it and made it funny, that’s cool. But that’s not our intent. Our intent is that we have an audience in mind and we’re going to super service that audience with great content. Period.
We’d like to think Anthony Batt and Katalyst, along with Amanda Orr for making the interview possible. Katalyst hopes to launch Thrash Lab in the Spring, and it sounds like if you’re a digital content creator or brand who likes the type of branded content that a Red Bull, GoPro, Hot Wheels, and many others have put out, you might want to try to get their attention. For more Katalyst, visit their Facebook page.