R.J. Williams founded Young Hollywood back in 2007, when the idea of building a media business on YouTube seemed like a pipe dream. Instead, Mr. Williams built his media company, known for interviews with the likes of Allison Williams and Alessandra Ambrosio, through a variety of distributors including Hulu and Yahoo.
But a year ago, Mr. Williams started making programming exclusively for YouTube as part of the first group selected as part of its $100 million content investment. For the last two weeks, episodes from the series have been the channel's trending video on Ad Age's YouTube Channel Tracker, as tallied by video analytics firm OpenSlate.
While traditional display advertising is YouTube's model, Mr. Williams has built his company without a traditional ad salesforce. Young Hollywood doesn't sell media, instead it works with brands as a sort of production arm, creating custom campaigns for brands like Subway, Samsung, Coca-Cola, Intuit and EA.
"If you go on younghollywood.com there's no display inventory. We pulled it completely," said Mr. Williams. "We don't feel it's as effective or efficient as being embedded in the content, the product integration, the experiential, the social. There are so many other elements that are more effective than doing a traditional media buy."
Young Hollywood's newest YouTube series, for example, is sponsored by Subway.
Young Hollywood's L.A. studio is in the Four Seasons Hotel, which allows them to take advantage of the celebrities stopping by, and often just hanging out in the lounge-like environment. We caught up with Mr. Williams to talk more about Young Hollywood's approach to working with brands.
Ad Age: How did this Subway partnership come about and what else does it entail?
R.J. WIlliams: We started working with Subway a year ago. We met last year at SXSW. We were introduced to them and we put together a program for the second half of 2012, a bunch of content packages and a big social media push. And then it went really well so we expanded into an arrangement for all of 2013 that encompasses doing pop-up studios at tent-pole events. We were just at NATPE (in Miami), I'm heading to the Super Bowl and we'll have a big studio there. We'll do something similar at SXSW again this year.
We have the YouTube partnership with them where we're doing a weekly show that premiered two weeks ago called Young Hollywood Re:FRESH. It's every Friday, so a new episode will premiere [today]. So that's something where they're really embedded in the DNA of the actual content. They're involved every step of the way, from graphics to the colors and the messaging and the taglines. It's a way to really incorporate the brand. It's not just "presented by Subway," but they are an instrumental part of what it is we're talking about, in an organic way.
And then we are doing a bunch of other content that will be on Young Hollywood and other properties, where the brand will be integrated in the interviews. And there will be a big social media push using their hashtag. And they're using their distribution network to help push out the content. [Subway's] Facebook page has over 20 million fans, so our content will be distributed on that and all their various properties. And our Facebook is 5 million strong, so we'll do a good push through that.
Ad Age: It's not the first time you've worked with a brand. What do you look for in a brand partner?
Mr. Williams: We really look for someone who realizes that the old model is broken and it needs to be changed, and they are willing to reinvent what the relationship between media and creative and content partners truly is. Another big aspect [is that the brand] trusts us that we have our finger on pop culture and what the next big thing is going to be. When we worked with EA, we talked with them about doing something with J. Cole way before he was up for best new artist at the Grammys, and then he got the nomination and it all made a lot of sense. So really it's about trusting us.
Ad Age: Do you approach brands that you want to partner with?
Mr. Williams: We don't have any kind of sales force, so it is all by word of mouth.
It all started a couple of years ago. Coca Cola was the first brand we got in business with. They took a gamble on something really small at Sundance that worked, and then we did something bigger at Super Bowl, and then we did something really big: a year long deal and they were the title sponsor of our broadcast studio that we launched at the Four Seasons [in Los Angeles]. At the time, they were the official beverage of Young Hollywood and everything that we were doing. And it snowballed from there, everybody from Samsung to EA to Unilever and Ray-Ban…We don't answer RFPs, we're not having people knocking on doors or cold calling trying to get business.
It's sort of how we created our studio – going back to the Four Seasons studio – we have a whole wing of the hotel, but you only know if you know. It's not publicized; the general public doesn't know. If you go in the hallway you don't know it's there, but if you come inside it's like world in its own. It doesn't look anything like a hotel. The wing is turned into a lounge and it's an experiential marketplace, if you will, for brands.
Ad Age: In your experience, what makes an engaging YouTube video?
Mr. Williams: It's all about building a community. I'll use Emblem3 as an example. We have a continuity program with them. We have our Young Hollywood correspondent – Tracy Behr, who's doing all of our Emblem3 content – and it's been every week following them on their road to success. Right when X Factor started we caught up with them on their first day of shooting [and were with them] through that entire journey to the night they got voted off before the finals, and now, even afterward. They just signed a record deal and we are throwing a record release party for them next week at the studio.
So again, Tracy will interview them about what's happened in their lives in the last month. And it's really engaging because their fan base has become so rabid and they're invested in them. And the fans actually call Tracy an "Emblem," so it's interesting that she's no longer host or an interviewer, she's one of them, she's a friend. The fans look at her as almost the fourth member of Emblem3.
So Young Hollywood is now the gateway to information on Emblem3 because we're the only ones who had that content early on. And this is what we tell brands, sure we do A-list and household names all the time, but every media outlet is doing that. What we offer is that your brand is going to be a part of this celebrity before everybody else; you can get in on the ground floor and show that you are a tastemaker, you are an influencer, and you are really cool because you think that Emblem3 is going to be big. So when they do become big it's "oh yeah, Subway was the one that first told me that was going to be big."