For global incumbents, Big Tech platforms and blockchain disruptors alike, the future’s up for grabs in the media and entertainment space. Radical change is well underway, and in this thought piece our practitioners and partners share their perspectives on this.
By Liam Hamill Back in 2011, when Netflix CEO and founder Reed Hastings split the company to form a separate DVD delivery brand, Qwikster, it lost 2 million subscribers and 75% of its stock market value.
Unperturbed, it reversed the decision, dusted itself off and doubled-down on its streaming strategy. As part of this, Hastings made a huge bet, reverse-integrating the company into creation and production.
House of Cards, then Orange is the New Black were born, and the rest, as they say, is history. Today Netflix Original not only represents a hallmark of exceptional quality and choice, it’s become synonymous with a plurality of creative voices bringing new ideas to our screens.
Netflix recognised that, rather than licensing other people’s stories, the future lay in OTT distribution and the global potential for original IP. The impact has been nothing short of radical. It has rapidly built an entertainment brand of enviable relevance, and instigated a huge shift in how we consume, create and monetize content.
In their own words, “this is better entertainment at lower cost and greater scale than the world has ever seen.” For the hungry customer and for creative storytellers whose access to funding and audiences has opened up, this is democratisation and participation at a systemic level.
New vs. old guard
Big Tech is joining in and accelerating the change. Amazon through its Prime video service and studio, Apple, YouTube Premium and even Facebook are all building huge war chests. Along with Netflix they will invest anywhere between $15-$20bn in programming this year, much of it original. Content plays a big role in humanizing their brands and drives stickiness to the broader ecosystem of services they offer. For Amazon, sports rights are becoming an increasing area of focus, as it seeks to bolster the value and appeal of its Prime service.
These companies behave like entertainment oligarchs, mechanising show after show and format after format, rights deal after rights deal, and while new generations of consumers and creators revel in it, the establishment hurls mud. Netflix has been banned from the Cannes Film Festival. The Hollywood glitterati moan about the denigration of the craft. Cable and Internet providers in the US harbor for net neutrality. Ad-funded broadcasters and pay TV players like Sky battle to compete.
Amongst the older guard, only Disney has thrived. It has re-focused on film and built valuable ecosystems around treasured characters, accelerated by the shrewd acquisitions of LucasFilm and Marvel. This strategy, amplified by its ethos of magical storytelling, has provided a robust moat against the onslaught of newer players. It’s created a stable of IP, a powerful growth engine and enhanced consumer connection, but still has challenges. Cord-cutting in its core ESPN TV business, for example, and a bloody bidding war with Comcast for 21st Century Fox’s assets.
Put simply, the Big Tech firms are rewriting the rules of the game.
One of the biggest shifts has been the removal of the advertising model. In Netflix and Prime Video, there are no ads. Nothing to get in the way. As Scott Galloway commented in 2016 “the advertising industrial complex is coming to an end.” Given a choice between ads and the uninterrupted flow of content, the people are voting. Advertising is a tax those who can afford OTT subscriptions no longer need suffer.
The second big shift is the level of customer focus. Rather than narrow audience segments, Netflix and Amazon Prime take a nuanced view. They look at passions, preferences, real-time behaviour and cultural context, as oppose to amorphous demographics. Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer, describes ‘personalisation’ as being the Netflix brand, which is a profoundly different mindset from the likes of HBO.
Measurement is another shift. Traditional media waited for overnights, but Big Tech use real-time analytics to quantify performance, down to the second viewers switch off. A data-driven strategy can make for a formidable approach.
Applied well, all of this liberates rather than constrains creative risk, and that’s what generates real value and differentiation. In an age where broadcasters rely on tried and tested formats, the platforms are experimenting with new voices and storytelling methods. Take Stranger Things as an example. In traditional commissioning it would struggle to find a backer, but through Netflix, it became a cult hit and commercial smash.
There’s danger ahead, of course. Netflix’s content costs are ballooning, as the pressure from Amazon and others grows, and the traditional players consolidate and scale to fight back. The arms race is very possibly unsustainable. Big Tech is under intense scrutiny for many reasons, and there’s the real possibility of oversupply. Audiences, after all, can only watch so much.
But whatever the future holds, the dynamics have permanently changed and the importance of creativity and storytelling is clear. For viewers and creators, this is a golden age. Long may it continue.
Let us know what you think
Liam is our newest Global Principal in the London office, and brings a wealth of experience in the media and entertainment sector. He spoke to us about his motivation, his specialism, and life at Wolff Olins.
Tell us about a typical day The great thing about what we do is that there isn’t one. I might be running a workshop, presenting work to clients or getting together with colleagues to share food (something we’re passionate about!) I might be working with teams to push thinking as far as it can go, either on a project I’m leading, or on one I’m not formally involved in. The culture here is super open, collaborative and ambitious.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
The opportunity to shape organizations that have a tangible impact on popular culture. We’re responsible for helping them grow, but also for giving them the confidence and conviction to invent new things, and reinvent themselves. We partner with them to define big, creative and strategic leaps that create societal change for the better. That’s hugely compelling.
What’s the most challenging thing about your role?
What we do isn’t a science. Although you can apply critical thinking, there’s no formula to follow. You operate in a constant state of ambiguity, but that’s where creativity thrives.
What are you working on right now? I’m helping the executive team of a major media and entertainment company understand the brand’s unique value in the face of technological change and cultural disruption. I’ve recently worked with a major tech entertainment business to define where its next 100 million users are going to come from, and I’m helping a large business in the hospitality sector make its growth efforts truly brand-led.
What influences do you bring from outside of work? I studied English so literature and philosophy remain important to me. I read widely for inspiration, and surround myself outside of the office with a diverse group of family and friends. I try to make sure I have people around me who don’t share my views, and who’ll challenge my ideas, to avoid living in one big echo chamber.
You’ve had lots of experience in the media sector to date. What do you find most exciting about it? It’s incredibly dynamic because of the scale and pace of change. As a result, the people working in these businesses are open to risk, up for bold ideas, and they’re very creative themselves.
Beyond this, media and entertainment gets to the heart of human behavior. It’s where identities are shaped, made, created, reflected and disrupted. These organizations and brands occupy a central role in our lives and need substance. They’re agenda setting, so this isn’t just about selling product. It’s about making people’s live better.
Get in touch with Liam
Girl Effect, founded by the NIKE Foundation, pioneered the case that investing in girls has dramatically positive effects on societies and economies in the developing world. A decade later, we helped build a launch positioning and identity to match their renewed ambition.
In 2015, Girl Effect became an independent organization, and its new CEO, Farah Ramzan Golant, wanted to focus the organization’s diverse portfolio of activities.
Building on successful projects in Ethiopia and Rwanda, it would create big local brands that use video, radio, drama and music to change social norms so that, for the first time, girls could get the education, healthcare and opportunities they deserve.
To do so, Girl Effect needed three things: a vision to drive change, a culture to enable change, and a visual identity to signal change to the world.
“Wolff Olins helped us find our voice in the world. Our collaboration is filled with the strategic provocation and creative ambition that enables our brand to stand apart in the sector and set the tone for our innovative approach”. — Farah Ramzan Golant, CEO
A new norm for girls Working closely with Girl Effect’s top team, we answered fundamental questions about the organization. We helped develop a new, focused vision for launch based around the idea of creating a new normal with and for girls.
Following this, we helped shape a set of principles, and a clear portfolio of projects to attract investment as a creative non-profit. With a cross-section of Girl Effect’s people, and groups of teenage girls, we co-created the Girl Effect Way – a set of working habits, brought to life through tangible actions across the organization.
To signal this transformation to the world, we created a visual identity called ‘the burst’. It represents the power of girls and the dynamism of the work Girl Effect creates with them. Designed to be active and vibrant, it has a sense of momentum and reflects the organization’s pioneering spirit.
More impact in more countries Within a year, Girl Effect’s transformation was well under way. The new vision united its teams behind a single focus and inspired new innovation. They received multiple awards including Fast Company’s Innovation by Design Award, Campaign Magazine’s Creative Tech Award and a Market Research Society Award.
Girl Effect has since launched Zathu, a new youth brand in Malawi, and re-launched its global mobile platform as Springster. It is expanding its girl-operated research tool TEGA, and is piloting Girls Connect – an on-demand content and one-on-one support mobile platform in Nigeria.
Girl Effect has ambitious goals to reach many more girls in many more countries, and its new vision is helping attract the large-scale investment it needs to empower girls to change their lives and make the world a better place.
See more of our work here