Brand deals: are they a good thing or a bad thing for content creators, their videos, and the YouTube community at large? TenEighty caught up with Tom Ridgewell, Lex Croucher and Evan Edinger to discuss their experiences with brands and how the relationship could be improved – as well as Lucy Chaloner from NVC UK, Elliot Willis and Riyad Barmania from ChannelFlip, and Ben White from NMCN – to get some industry perspective.
There is a general, and misinformed, consensus across mainstream media that every YouTuber is making millions of pounds from their bedrooms. Instead of focusing on the quality of videos or work that goes into it, traditional media has fallen into the cycle of only focusing on how much money everyone is making and how they are doing it.
The idea that numbers (views and subscribers) equals piles and piles of money is simply not true. While Google AdSense revenue from views does contribute to a content creator’s income, the reality is that unless you upload regularly (two or three times a week) and are hitting millions of views on each video, you won’t be earning a sustainable income. This is where brand deals come in.
It’s no secret that as YouTube and its creators become more high profile, brands are eager to get their hands on channels to use as advertising space. We see all types of sponsored videos across YouTube – product placement in hauls, interviews with celebrities to promote a movie, and trips to events and cities funded by various companies.
There was a time when some brand deals were secretive. That changed in November 2014, when the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority ruled that creators must adequately disclose if a video was a paid sponsorship. Prior to the ruling, unbeknown to the viewer, a large number of the videos they were consuming (especially beauty and makeup hauls) were actually advertisements.
In a blog post from September 2014, two months before the regulations were introduced, Charly Cox wrote that she felt the reality of brand deals needed to be addressed because the viewer’s were unaware of what was going on: “Most of the products you see are paid placements, some are deals that are signed with brands that can be in excess of £15,000 for a month of agreeing to feature a mascara in each of your posts or videos. That’s serious money. That’s serious money to recommend a product you don’t necessarily love, to an increasingly young and self conscious audience.”
“Lex: A brand has to line up with my personal beliefs…”
Following the ruling, a general distrust of sponsored videos swept the viewing community. They felt betrayed and became sceptical of creators and their opinions. If it was a paid video, did the YouTuber genuinely like the product they were promoting? Or are they simply abusing their position and taking advantage of all brand deals that are offered to them to make a quick buck?
In some cases this may be true. Either way, it doesn’t mean everything is hunky-dory for the creator. While sponsored videos have become a huge part of a YouTuber’s career, the business side of it all has yet to be perfected.
“I’m not sure of an exact number but I probably take less than 5% of deals offered,” Lex Croucher reveals. “A brand has to line up with my personal beliefs, it has to be a brand I’d actually use, and I have to get total creative control over what I make.”
While public opinion may be suspicious of brand deals, it seems that most YouTubers agree that sponsored videos are a good thing – as long as they are done properly. So what makes a successful brand deal? How do brands view channels? Moreover, are their perceptions accurate?
As viewers, we only see the end product of these collaborations, which always come off as seamless. In the past, the conflicts between brands and creators have existed more in the private sphere.
Recently however, Dodie Clark brought to light some of the challenges that creators can face when working with a brand through a video titled Brand Deal Rant that was uploaded on her second channel. Following the video, many creators within the community applauded her and thanked her for saying what was on all of their minds.
“Brand deals can be so wonderful if they are done correctly. There is nothing wrong with a brand deal if it’s done well,” Dodie said in her video. “A creative and entertaining video letting people know about a product that they may be interested in using.”
As the video continued, Dodie listed her grievances about brand deals that had gone wrong, and warned future collaborators against falling into this same trap. She exposed the fact that she had experienced brands who didn’t understand social media (but still claimed to), brands that tried to feed her insincere catchphrases or artificial scripts that would turn her audience off, as well as brands who wanted their product showcased in the first 15 seconds of the video (which are the most important in terms of holding a viewer’s attention).
Elliot Willis, Sales Director at ChannelFlip, helps facilitate deals between brand agencies and ChannelFlip’s talent. “The process involves receiving a brief from the brand or agency, which will outline their campaign and what they hope to achieve within the campaign,” he says. “It will include things like key brand messages and target demographic and it is our job to dissect the brief into what we know we can deliver.
“Sometimes, the brands and agencies come with specific YouTube creators in mind, but more often than not they will seek our advice,” Elliot continues. “Which YouTuber will work for what specific campaigns is a decision that is a hugely important.”
Riyad Barmania, Content Director at ChannelFlip, explains that it’s vital that they keeps each of their talent’s editorial content in mind when coupling these partnerships. As an MCN their goal is to have a creative and original sponsored video that is on brand with their talent’s channel.
“I’d say about a third of the proposed deals go through,” Tom Ridgewell reveals. “One third gets stopped at the door by my management because the client doesn’t know what they want or what they’re doing, and another third ends after we’re five drafts into the script and they’ve tried to cut out every single joke.”
Often brands and advertisers view channels simply as a place to market their product, without actually understanding the YouTube as a platform or taking time to understand the type of content the creator provides. “The biggest mistake brands make is to treat YouTube like it’s television or a more traditional form of advertising, because that doesn’t work,” Lex observes.
Ten years ago, marketing was a much more simplified and big-business-oriented process. In the world of US television, advertisers carefully tracked and strategised their ad campaigns through the Nielsen System. Through this measurement, which tracked demographics, advertising companies could acquire data then buy the appropriate airtime to sell products to their targeted audience.
But today, the mass market and younger generations aren’t consuming TV in the same way. And the advertising world is, for the most part, having a collective breakdown. While they are utilising tools such as cookies and tracking browser history, they simply don’t have as much control as they once had.
In 2014, Nielsen partnered with Google to measure how ads were being received on YouTube. As advertisers started to recognise the switch from TV to YouTube, Nielsen created a new tool called OCR (Online Campaign Ratings) which adapted their ratings system to measure how advertisements performed online. Still, though, the web and video world is too fast-paced to give advertisers all the information that they want, so until these ratings services become more sophisticated they will continue to go directly to the creators themselves.
According to the 2015 Nielsen report, 18- to 25-year-olds are watched eight hours less (a 32% drop) of traditional TV, between 2011 and 2015. While 26- to 40-year-olds are tuning in for up to 45 hours, the under-25s are watching about 25 hours, and data collected from internet providers suggest that ages 12 to 25 clock around 27 to 30 hours a week online.
“Tom: The biggest mistake a brand can make is trying to puppet-master a YouTuber…”
When TV ruled the entertainment kingdom, it was pretty hard to escape paid advertisements. Today however, this isn’t the case. Many people under the age of 25 in the US admit they don’t have a TV or cable subscription because they consume their entertainment on services like Netflix or Hulu. Furthermore, those who do have a TV rarely watch it live, choosing to record their shows or catch up on demand, so they can binge-watch a couple of episodes at once and fast-forward through the commercials.
The ‘new media creator’ however, holds the attention of all those subscribed to them. They have built their audience by creating an honest and personal relationship. Sure, in the past, consumers trusted brands and their reputations, but you can’t trust Ford in the same way you can trust a YouTuber. And this is invaluable to advertisers.
“I think the biggest mistake a brand can make is trying to puppet-master a YouTuber,” Tom says. “Just ordering us to regurgitate a slogan or a sales pitch is going to make everyone look bad. The audience is going to lose respect for the artist and then associate the brand with that upsetting experience.
“Brands need to work with a YouTuber to create something great that the audience is going to both enjoy and associate with positivity.”
If the world of marketing hasn’t adapted its practices to be more accommodating to new media creators, why even take a brand deal in the first place? Well, for one, money.
While money often rules the world in a negative way, it can also be used to enable content creators. Most YouTubers wouldn’t ‘sell out’ to every brand that approaches them in order to buy a new car or million pound house, but rather to secure enough money to pay rent or, in some cases, make more videos. “I’ve had around a dozen videos I simply couldn’t afford to make on a personal budget,” reveals Tom, “so when brand deals come along I get an opportunity to make them a reality.”
“Lucy: We empower our clients and help them to gauge when to say ‘no’ to an opportunity…”
Lucy Chaloner, Director of Talent at NVC UK, agrees with Tom in this respect. Managing various YouTubers, Lucy acts a liaison between the creators and the brands in question. “Brands are a part of everyone’s daily life,” she says, “and if our clients use a particular brand, or have a genuine affinity with one, then in addition to helping fund our clients’ content creation, working with brands gives our clients’ fans relevant information in an entertaining way.
“Our clients never promote anything they do not believe in themselves,” Lucy adds. “We never underestimate that a brief from a brand can generate some of the most exciting, entertaining and original content meaning a successful collaboration that works for all three parties – the talent, the brand and the fans.”
Many creators have expressed that they feel brands underestimate their knowledge and try to instill creative control on all aspects of the video. At NVC this may not be a problem; Lucy tells us that one of their most important values is ensuring ‘creator control’ is championed throughout and thus is implemented within contracts. “We make brands understand that our talent are the experts and that trusting their creative guidance when working together is the best way to get the most out of a partnership,” she says.
“We also empower our clients and help them to gauge when to say ‘no’ to an opportunity. Strategic and long-term management is about understanding the brand of a client and ensuring that with every potential project we are carefully matching our talent with the values, demographic, and objectives of each campaign.”
Riyad agrees with the idea that brands who allow the YouTuber creative space and flexibility will receive a better video. However, he does add that creators should also understand that their role in the deal is to adequately incorporate and address the brand’s key messages, in whichever way they see fit.
“Evan: Even though their brand has absolutely no synergy with mine they just want impressions…”
Still, some creators choose not to participate in brand deals. Evan Edinger reveals that his full-time job pays his bills, and therefore has never felt pressure to take a deal. “I haven’t had any good brand deal offers yet,” he says. “None yet fit with my brand enough to work with them.
“Either they will offer a laughably small payment (if any) or their only goal with me is reach. So even though their brand has absolutely no synergy with mine, they just want impressions.”
Tom agrees on this front, confirming that he has had experience with brands that didn’t know anything about his channel because they didn’t look past his large subscriber count. “When I’m looking to work with a brand I make sure the brand actually knows who I am and what they’re in for,” he says. “Lots of marketing folk just look at figures and not the actual content, then act surprised when I try to make something edgy.”
“I had a deal cancelled because they decided my beliefs no longer aligned with the campaign,” Lex admits, agreeing with Tom’s point about brands not doing adequate research into their creative partner. “Basically they didn’t like that I was a filthy liberal and talked trash about David Cameron. It was frustrating after putting a lot of work in.”
if the Home Office had done TWO SECONDS of research they'd know that I'm a filthy liberal who'll never keep her mouth shut about corruption
— Hex Croucher ✨💀 (@lexcanroar) September 23, 2015
There are some people within the marketing industry however who have wised up, and are attempting to teach the industry how to approach and work with creators better. Ben White, a new media strategist who helped grow digital-first brands such as Copa90 and Bite the Ballot, has launched an online directory with the aim of increasing the discovery of global creators by agencies and brands. It’s called the New Media Creator Network (NMCN).
“Ben: These multi-talented creatives are digital natives, with a deep understanding of social networks…”
“There is no rulebook for this stuff,” explains Ben. “We need to create rules and regulations, infrastructure and tools that aim to bring transparency, knowledge and respect to bridge the gap between creators and brands.”
NMCN believe brands need to look at the creativity of the individual they are approaching, rather than just their numbers. “We don’t believe a creator can be defined by the platform they (currently) produce content on,” read a blog on the NMCN website, written by Ben and his business partner Steven Cole. “If a creator’s main platform of choice is Vine, referring to them as viners is simply not the way we see it.
“We look past the platform,” the post continued. “We see art directors, producers, editors, sound and lighting experts, copywriters, DoPs, actors, animators, creatives and strategists. In fact most roles creative roles can be filled with them, especially those created specifically for the digital arena. These multi-talented creatives are digital natives, with a deep understanding of social networks.”
The blog went on to explain how YouTubers find success through their personal niche and a community of like-minded people – which advertisers should also pay attention to.
Brand deals can be a good thing: they enable YouTubers to create content they otherwise wouldn’t be able to, and provide them with the means to make a career out of their creativity. However, the marketing industry as a whole has yet to catch up, as it struggles to grasp how to approach these partnerships. This can feel undermining to creators, and in some cases it acts as a deterrent.
While there will always be those creators who grab at the opportunity to earn some money, the majority are selective in what deals they chose to participate in. If brands want a truly successful campaign, they should start by recognising that these creators are at the forefront of the marketing revolution. As soon as the traditional industry recognises YouTubers as experts and therefore take them seriously instantaneously, the relationship between brand and creator will become much more cohesive.
Why not read more features from TenEighty?
- Is Originality Dead on YouTube?
- Haters and Trolls: How Do We Control Them?
- Unbound: A YouTube for Authors
- Vimeo on Demand: Oscar’s Hotel and Beyond