Expanding the Brand
Print giant Condé Nast moves into the digital world.
“Is this the strangest interview you’ve ever had?”
“No, not really.”
The “no, not really” comes from actress Sarah Jessica Parker at the finish to the first episode of 73 Questions, a webseries produced by Condé Nast Entertainment and packaged as part of the Vogue brand.
Parker is right, in many ways: The interview is not strange. But it is unique. The interviewer is never seen on camera and the 73 rapid-fire questions are asked while moving from front door to entry way to the living room of Parker’s Manhattan home, with a few pauses - Parker takes a phone call; she goes to the window to answer a man on the street asking her which dress to buy for his girlfriend.
While the format is indeed different from that standard patter you might see on a late-night show, or even the studious gaze of a magazine profile wherein writers often seem to be trying to dissect a celeb based on what they order to drink and how dressed up or down they are, 73 Questions is oddly real and unreal at the same time.
“Reality encased around fantasy,” said Joe Sabia, who created the series as a freelancer. He now serves as CNÉ’s vice president of development and still produces the series, noting that, despite making an awed audience wonder the magic behind how it’s done, 73 Questions delivers interview answers that are very real.
That rapt audience is a group Condé Nast Entertainment considers at every turn: who’s watching, and where they’re watching, and why.
(Who: Well, Condé Nast reaches 70 percent of millennials, said Dawn Ostroff, president of Condé Nast Entertainment, and its distribution network has a reach of 250 million people. Last year, the company had 4.5 billion views and were ranked 22nd by comScore for uniques, surpassing brands like Hulu, Vice and BuzzFeed. Where: Maybe on smartphones, waiting on a friend who’s joining them for drinks; maybe slyly on a tab that’s open at work during a lull time. Why: Getting to that.)
“I think what we’ve been able to do is take these incredibly iconic brands and the assets inside Condé Nast and really start to extend the brands to attract a younger audience and help them understand what our brands are about,” Ostroff said.
Condé Nast itself, founded in 1909 and home to prestigious periodical titles such as the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ, Glamour and Vogue, is an interesting home for these videos because with its 100-plus year legacy, it certainly has an “old guard” media legacy to it.
But the company’s approach to video is quite modern: Rather than just trying to repackage magazine content in video form, the various video pieces feel very of the brand and its magazines, without ever being derivative of what’s on the pages.
“When I started, the magazines and their brands were very clearly defined but the editors had already started to consider how do we [build websites and create digital content that expands} what the brands are about,” Ostroff said of assuming the CNÉ helm in 2011.
Much of CNÉ’s success in digital and streaming is due to Ostroff’s leadership and ability to make connections, qualities praised in almost any article you can find about her. But she’s also savvy about audiences.
Ostroff, who served as president of the CW Network from its launch after the merger of the WB and UPN, said that when she started there in 2006, she noticed that young people were illegally streaming the network’s shows like Gossip Girl. Rather than panic, she decided to figure out how to make the most of that migration.
When she left the network, the CW ‘s viewership was up 7 percent year-over-year, the biggest gain for any English-language broadcaster at that time.
“When I left the CW to move to New York for my husband, I wanted to be at a place where I could really experiment in the digital space knowing that that was where audiences were going and it was in its infancy,” Ostroff said. “So here we are five years later.”
In addition to 73 Questions, Ostroff’s brand-extending mission includes creating series like Wired’s Google Autocomplete Interviews, a highly watchable setup wherein celebrities have to answer the most Googled questions about them or GQ’s Most Expensivist Sh*t, a humorous and somehow-not-obnoxious series where rapper 2 Chainz tries out extreme luxury goods; example: a $1,000 gold-infused ice cream sundae, or $165,000 kittens.
CNÉ also produces longer-form content like Last Chance U, a Peabody Award-nominated docu-drama series, following a group of NFL potentials who failed to get recruited as they try to qualify for pro ball while attending East Mississippi Community College (now in its second season on Netflix), or highly technical series like Invisible from director Doug Liman (Swingers, The Bourne Identity, Mr. & Mrs. Smith), plus thousands of other pieces like Glamour Cover Shoots, which pose additional, off-kilter questions for the magazine’s cover models.
Like any well-executed feat, the approach seems to matter as much as the landing. At another company, the opportunity to shoot a show in 360 virtual reality might have led to allowing the most technology-adept creators to play with some fancy equipment.
But Ostroff got the ear of Liman, who didn’t want to deliver just bells-and-whistles but a really immersive story, about a rich family where invisibility is passed down through the generations. (Invisible is available on Samsung and Jaunt VR platforms, as well as Condé Nast Entertainment's "The Scene" YouTube channel.)
“What positions Condé Nast as such an excellent partner is Dawn and the team she’s put together because Dawn is very open minded.
She knew very little about 360 and VR when we started but quickly focused and gave us what she is so good at which is the story telling part,” said Julina Tatlock, CEO of 30 Ninjas VR production company, which she co-founded with Liman in 2008, “helping us to shape it so that structurally it had more television techniques. I think her open mindedness [makes a difference], but also leaning into what else you can do – don’t throw out what you know.”
So, no, it isn’t accident or luck or gallons of money that make CNÉ’s online videos and streaming series successful. It’s thought.
“We’re constantly making content for different platforms and constantly looking to see if we can make it for a different platform,” said Ostroff, on how the division approaches it myriad projects. “We wouldn’t do the same exact format as we did in digital but will see if the concept and conceit could lend itself to another platform.”
Instead of expecting an audience to watch its properties on every platform, teams – both embedded with Condé Nast print properties and a core team of creatives coming up with ideas across the brand – work to incubate and develop the pieces that have the best chance of hitting on each one. And they take nothing for granted.
To Sabia, there’s a thrill to searching for and finding a piece’s je ne sais quoi. “A digital medium is one that says no one should ever assume that they should ever expect a real audience to be there,” he said. “You have to hunt for your audience, and you have to create things that are actually worth watching.
"You have to make something so impressive or so amazing that it’s worth a very busy audience’s time - an audience who can find millions of other things at their fingertips that are directly competing with you. You may have a really good story but it has to have some sort of compelling hook or something that people have never seen before. “
One example of this is the recent pickup Back-to-Back Chef. In the first episode, Gordon Ramsay and an amateur chef are back to back with Ramsay providing cooking instruction - no visuals; the professional chef isn't allowed to turn around to observe or help – to his fellow cook, who must make crab cakes just by Ramsay’s vocal cues.
“Digital requires you engineer a jaggedness, an unexpectedness. [We’re making video for] a place that you need to make noise in because there’s already a lot of noise,” Sabia said.
“And the exciting thing is you can break rules in. In television, the audience craves more normalcy and more conventions - 13 episodes, a linear arc. But digital has a non-traditional nature about it and it’s almost like dressing yourself like a peacock when any other network has the birds all dressed the same.”
Before taking this position, Sabia created video pop culture projects like The Office Time Machine, a site compiling year-by-year video clips of every cultural reference made on the television show. The project took him more than a year and a half to complete, and definitely has the kind of grabby hook and unexpectedness he talks about seeking at CNÉ.
But while there’s not a formula that goes into the creative process, there are reasons for the grabbiness, and for why the CNÉ pieces feel endemic with the Condé Nast brand without being repetitive of the magazines’ content: Thought, care and, fine, a lot of sweat.
“We only want to tell those stories worth being told. We make thousands of things per year but there are thousands of things we don’t make because we feel it’s not enough for the audience that we have and that we want to gain,” Sabia said.
“I think that if something is not either joining a conversation that’s already there or starting a new one or has some sort of compelling sense about it, why would we make something that people might not want to watch?”
Especially on the YouTube front, many of the CNÉ webseries “pull back the curtain” as Ostroff said. (And perhaps the curtain can be imagined as the polished photo shoots and curated lifestyle layouts that the pages of the magazines showcase.) But with video, CNÉ thinks about the audience as a part of the product.
“When you’re watching TV it’s a lean-back. When you’re talking digital it’s a younger viewer and 73 Questions is a great example. A celebrity [on a publicity tour] goes on Fallon or Kimmel and we’re a voyeur watching the conversation,” Ostroff said. “When someone comes to us, we’re doing something where they’re talking directly to us because don’t forget the younger viewers and consumers are used to having a direct relationship with that celebrity.
"They tweet to them, they follow them on Instagram, they know what’s going on in their lives. So, in something like 73 Questions, we actually go inside their house, hear some things in their lives we haven’t seen before, it’s a much more intimate experience.”
Sabia also noted an interesting byproduct of the series is that, if you search 73 Questions on YouTube, you won’t find only the videos his team has made, but you’ll also see homemade versions.
“This has turned in to a format that a high school girl in Kansas can have her best friend knock on the front door and do the same questions that they saw Blake Lively answer,” he said. “This is a real format that people have kind of taken that they really, truly associate with the Vogue brand and it’s probably the most flattering and rewarding thing to see from this.”
That kind of sharing is a thrill to Sabia. And, people on the Internet are growing more savvy about where to find quality content, while gaining an appetite for deep-dive video experiences.
One thing Condé Nast and other old-guard media companies like it have online is credibility that helps the algorithms employed on digital and social platforms to surface their content as the good stuff. The CNE team wants to make the most of that.
“We really do have the rare and exceptional ability – chance, but also ability – to really craft opportunities and elevate them to such a degree that millions of people who may not be familiar with Vogue or Bon Appetit or think that Vanity Fair was only a traditional magazine to realize we are here, we are loud, and we more relevant than many other outlets this audience is exposed to on a more regular basis.
"The sky is the limit here. There’s no limit to a great concept”