The fourth annual NewFront conference took place in Manhattan yesterday, hosted by advertising agency Digitas. NewFront is a high-minded, celebrity-filled conference that examines the potentially thorny area of creating “branded entertainment” for an online audience. To those not in the industry, that means movie-makers and advertisers working together on ad-sponsored short-form videos, often where the sponsoring products are woven directly into the story line.
The event brought together representatives from the brand marketing and advertising communities with plenty of Hollywood names. The West Coast celebs weren’t there just as window-dressing, though: they were pitching their own online series and looking for partners. Actor Zachary Quinto and his business partner Neal Dodson talked up a proposed series called “Last Guy on Earth.” Quinto stressed how products could be the focus of different episodes. Actor Ashton Kutcher gave an energetic talk about how marketing can break through and become entertainment before pitching his own new venture.
As Mark Beeching, Digitas’s worldwide chief creative officer, put it in his opening remarks, the question was “how do brands and content creators get into bed together” and do so with influence “as big as mass media used to be.”
When the conversation wasn’t about creating branded content, it was a mix of change-the-world optimism and enthusiasm for our new digital reality. Egyptian filmmaker and blogger Amr Salama gave an engrossing first-person view of the Egyptian revolution and the role of social media. “Give people the Internet and show them how to use it and it will lead to democracy,” he said. In the same discussion, statesman Philip Crowley said of social media, “It creates the potential for change that might not have existed.”
In a music panel, Rio Caraeff, president and CEO of Vevo, said “The experience of music is live and well. The business of selling live music…is rapidly transforming and eventually goes away.”
“I think the medium is ripe for reinvention,” he added, while foreseeing a word of interactive music videos that are aware of their surroundings, altering their behavior based on location.
Questlove, drummer for The Roots, was one of the soberer minds on stage as he talked about the uses and limits of social media. About Twitter, he said, “I have more followers than I have actual record sales.” Still, his popular Twitter account (which he called an ongoing Truman Show diary of his life) has helped him get a book deal.
Demi Moore took the stage to talk up her own online series and the need to change traditional video advertising. “I think we all get annoyed when we have to sit though ads when we want to get to content,” she said. Brands need to think about what they’re offering consumers, not what they want from them, she added.
Not surprisingly, some of the celebrity conversations were less enlightening than others. A “kitchen table discussion” that included actress Tori Spelling, her husband, actor Dean McDermott, and Kevin Jonas, included a little too much on how Tori, Dean, and family can’t make it through a family dinner without a phone ringing or beeping. Talking about Twitter, Jonas said (incorrectly): “We have to look at the world in 144 characters.”
Likewise, a discussion with model Tyra Banks felt a little too self-aggrandizing as Banks explained that she was put on the earth to expand the definition of beauty. She then showed the audience a ghastly online video she’d created about the bikini, one that suggested that Tyra shouldn’t work as her own director and editor.
“This is the only place where content creators, brands, and marketers can get together for a deep and candid discussion,” enthused Digitas’s CEO Laura Lang at the end of the day, before revealing that 60 individual meetings had taken place over the day and 6 deals had been signed.
For a better look at NewFront discussions, watch the video below. It includes highlights from talks by Ashton Kutcher and Isabella Rossellini.