Digital Video NewFronts

YouTube brings in Will Smith to show how safe it is for brands

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YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki speaks onstage during the YouTube Brandcast 2018 presentation at Radio City Music Hall on May 3, 2018 in New York City.
YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki speaks onstage during the YouTube Brandcast 2018 presentation at Radio City Music Hall on May 3, 2018 in New York City. Credit: Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

YouTube showed off new programs from stars like Will Smith at its annual Brandcast pitch to advertisers, an effort to assure advertisers that it's creating a brand-safe environment.

At its NewFront event on Thursday, YouTube executives took the stage at New York's Radio City Music Hall to promote the company's premium video ad product Google Preferred. That program has been under fire for the past year because of questions of quality, and YouTube wants to show advertisers that it's taking steps to clean up the platform.

For anyone who wasn't convinced, the company had another powerful case to make: There are now 1.8 billion logged-in viewers watching videos every month. The message that accompanied that number, announced by YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, was clear: It may be tough to police a platform that big, but it's easy for advertiers to reach a lot of people.

That audience size is why, despite the threat and reality of brand boycotts every time a wayward ad appears on an objectionable video, advertisers aren't about to drop YouTube.

"We've also seen that with openness also comes challenges, as some have tried to take advantage of our services," Wojcicki said. "This year, we devoted tremendous resources to address these challenges. ... There isn't a playbook for how open platforms operate at our scale."

Deanie Elsner, president of Kellogg's snacks division, was there to represent wholesome brands that aren't scared to advertise on YouTube. It wasn't always a big YouTube spender; Kellogg spent no money with YouTube in 2015, because it simply was not oriented toward digital marketing, Elsner said.

"We had to recognize that they're turning to social media and digital platforms like YouTube," Elsner said, talking about the consumers for brands like Rice Krispies, Pringles and Pop-Tarts.

Kellogg now spends up to 70 percent of its marketing budget on digital advertising, and tripled its spending on YouTube last year. She did not say how much in total dollars Kellogg spends with YouTube.

"It's a challenging time to be a marketer," Elsner said. "But the tools we get from Google help us get smarter, engage with our consumers better and, in many ways, improve our strategies for our campaigns overall."

Elsner said Kellogg has used YouTube creators to guide its strategy. For instance, Kellogg's ad team, with help from YouTube, discovered videos where people were creating new flavors of Pringles by combining two varieties. This year, they based a Super Bowl ad on that premise.

YouTube showed off a smattering of new ad-supported shows it has in the pipeline, including one with Will Smith called "The Jump Off," where the Hollywood star performs daring bungee jumps and other stunts.

There are programs with Kevin Hart, Demi Lovato, LeBron James and other big-name celebrities that are seemingly more reliable than some of YouTube's homegrown talent. In recent years, YouTube stars like Felix Kjellberg—PewDiePie—and Logan Paul have become part of the brand-safety problem.

This year, Paul, one of YouTube's most popular stars, was penalized by the site for a video that made light of suicide and another that featured animal cruelty.

Last year, Google Preferred, the ad program that is supposed to only offer the highest quality videos, was found to include videos that surprised advertisers, such as Russia Today, a media outlet that's a propaganda arm of the Kremlin.

At Thursday's Brandcast, YouTube promoted recent changes it made to the program. "We instituted human reviews on Google Preferred, so that you can all trust that every video your ad runs on has been verified to meet advertiser-friendly guidelines," Wojcicki said.

YouTube also announced a deal with Vevo to include music videos in Google Preferred. Music videos are some of the most-watched videos on the platform.

"This gives you the unprecedented opportunity to advertise against virtually all music in the world," said Robert Kyncl, YouTube's chief business officer.

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