Pepsi Vet Frank Cooper Says He'll Bring Marketing Discipline to BuzzFeed

A Conversation with BuzzFeed's New CMO

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BuzzFeed wrapped up a months-long search for its first chief marketing officer last week, when it hired Pepsi marketing veteran Frank Cooper to serve as both CMO and chief creative officer.

The hiring of Mr. Cooper is the latest waystation on BuzzFeed's journey from list-producing website to a media company that employs about a thousand people worldwide, generates north of $100 million in revenue (almost all of it from producing and content distribution for brands), boasts a growing newsroom and occupies a four-acre video-production facility in Los Angeles. Along the way, BuzzFeed has taken on nearly $100 million in venture capital.

A couple weeks ago BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti suggested the site could one day seek an initial public offering, although he didn't provide a timeline. (BuzzFeed President Greg Coleman told Ad Age the company is not currently planning for an IPO.)

Ad Age spoke with Mr. Cooper -- who is currently in Europe -- by phone about his new job, which he starts later this month. The conversation that follows has been condensed and lightly edited.

Advertising Age: You're BuzzFeed's first-ever chief marketing officer. What does that mean? What are you going to be doing at BuzzFeed?

Frank Cooper: Technically, I'm overseeing marketing, research and creative, but if you strip it all away, what I hope to do is to bring some of the marketing discipline to BuzzFeed to help tell its story, to help clarify the return on investment it can deliver to brands and clients. When I look at this from an outsider's point of view, I think a lot of people have a partial view of what BuzzFeed is. That limits what's possible between BuzzFeed and other brands and readers and viewers. The first thing I hope to do is help craft a narrative around what BuzzFeed is that's digestible for people.

Ad Age: To whom is that narrative going to be directed: Is it squarely at the advertising community or will there be a consumer piece as well?

Mr. Cooper: There's got to be a consumer marketing piece as well. The division between the advertising community and consumers and viewers is very blurry now. You have to have one narrative that speaks to both.

Ad Age: Could you see a consumer marketing campaign for BuzzFeed?

Mr. Cooper: That's unlikely, especially in the short term. BuzzFeed is effective right now in using its own platform to distribute content. Is there another layer of communicating what the brand is outside of that platform? Maybe. But I don't see that as a necessary short-term step.

Ad Age: You're a veteran of Pepsi, which you're leaving for essentially a startup, a media startup -- a content company. Ultimately, you're stepping into a rather volatile and uncertain space. Why?

Mr. Cooper: In today's world of uncertainty, I don't know what is secure and stable. Every day, everybody, every company, whether you're a startup or an established company, has to fight for its position.

Ad Age: What does a modern day media company look like? What shape does it take?

Mr. Cooper: A modern media company maps what's really happening in people's lives today. It's not trapped by a legacy financial model or an operating system that's rooted in mass media. It's free of that. When you free yourself of that, the modern media company produces a lot more content, probably in shorter form, it's likely to be on mobile, it's iterative -- you adapt as you get more information back. And most importantly, it has a data loop, which makes everyone much more intelligent about what types of content to create, who you should have creating the content, where you should be distributing it, and how you actually spin that content experience beyond the initial launch.

Ad Age: We're moving beyond the days of aggregating an audience and then renting some of your space to brands so they can put their messages in front of those people. Does that mean a media company needs to become its own creative agency to thrive in today's environment?

Mr. Cooper: I won't say too much about that, but I think you hit it squarely on the head. At least during this next period of time -- who knows how long it will last -- there's a market failure, a gap in the market. If you look at what many of the agencies are doing or not doing, and what brands need, media companies will have to start to fill that gap by having an internal function that at least helps brands understand how to integrate more effectively into the content.

We know interruptive content doesn't work that well. The answer has to be: You have to be the content; you have to be integrated in a way that adds value to the content itself or you produce the actual content that people want to consume. Media companies will have to do it for themselves and have the ability to do that for clients.

Ad Age: What will it look like for BuzzFeed if you're successful over the next couple of years?

Mr. Cooper: Whether you are a viewer, consumer, an advertiser or an investor, you will have a very simple, good understanding of the full breadth of BuzzFeed. It will be shorthand for something really meaningful in culture. People will understand that and attach it in a really positive way.

Ad Age: What do you mean by investors? I know BuzzFeed President Greg Coleman has explicitly said there's no immediate plans for an initial public offering. Can you articulate that a little bit?

Mr. Cooper: I have no knowledge about additional rounds of fundraising. For me it's the existing investors in BuzzFeed and the broader VC community that they play in.