Monday, April 20, 2015

The creative economy of today: Is the (3rd) party over?

Who doesn’t want the freedom of working for themselves? Of not having to endure bumper to bumper rush hour commutes, getting sardine canned on the subway, of sitting through marathon meetings, of dealing with dress codes (except for those crazy casual Fridays), and, well, all the rest that goes with office politics?

But what’s really involved in the life of being a freelancer -- or free agent --in today’s creative industries? To get some perspectives on this question while in Austin for SXSW 2015 few weeks back I hotfooted it over to a panel discussion on the realities of today’s creative economy. Moderating the proceedings was Scott Belsky, founder of the online portfolio site Behance (which I must admit has alway made me think of Beyonce), and now VP of  Mobile Products & Community at Adobe, which acquired Behance at the end of 2012.

Belsky got the discussion going with a compare and contrast of then and now for creative workers such as photographers, graphic artists, designers, and writers. In the creative economy of the past, he pointed out, creators were generally represented by agents or middlemen, or were employed by a company. There was not much in the middle. In the case of the former, creators were not infrequently taken advantage of, and often felt like they were unable to make a solid living as total freelancers, because, in part, of the cut taken by agents or middlemen, and because the same entities were not highly incented to send a living’s worth of work to individual creators. 

As most people had to rely on 3rd party representatives and static representations of their work (vs. dynamic, current portfolios), it was difficult, if not impossible, to achieve scale as an individual. And on top of that, the tools that provided the capacity to scale, or manage work at a higher volume, simply weren’t there. Well...that was then, and this is the now.

"Sharing is the new networking. That is what builds reputation."

                                                                                   - Scott Belsky, Adobe

According to the panelists, today more creatives than ever are able to work as independents. Many represent themselves, using a combination of word-of-mouth/referrals, augmented by digital networking capabilities and the high quality options for posting and updating portfolios online. Software-as-a-service business tools -- e.g. FreshbooksMailchimpCashMusic, Harvest -- have made it easy for independent contractors to do everything from track billable hours to sell their wares direct to fans.

As a result, there’s a new middle ground emerging. In addition to the rugged individualism of the 1-person DIY operation, we’re seeing the emergence of the DIWO (do it with others) model, in which people are creating small teams of their own, sometimes ramping up and down for particular projects, sometimes starting boutique agencies of their own.

Opportunities are now coming from a new source: Exposure.

And exposure and discovery trump referrals when it comes to new business for creative talents, said Belsky. He cited things like the ability to follow photographers and designers on Instagram as an example of work finding you, vs. you having to find work.

There are also new types of intermediaries, such as WorkingNotWorking, which provides access to some of the best work out there for some of the best people out there. . It’s described as: “an invite-only, real-time network of the busiest, most talented and most sought after creatives in the business.”  Among the companies to which WorkingNotWorking dispatches its creative work force are Apple, Google, IDEO, Wieden+Kennedy, and The New York Times. In other words, the top tier of the top tier. does this by seeking out, and vetting, the top 10% in the creative community. This way people know they’re going to find someone not just good, but great. And creatives don't pay, companies seeking creatives do, via a flat fee subscription, not a commission. Justin Gignac founded WorkingNotWorking and he possesses several accolades in the design world, but is probably best known for being part of the creative team that created ElfYourself, the application that has given birth to almost a billion selfie elves.

Another way to gain exposure, and with any luck paying gigs, is through mashing and (re)mixing existing work. Since 2001 this has been enabled by Creative Commons. Creative Commons licenses are the global standard for sharing, with over 1 billion licensed works made available online. Its CEO Ryan Merkley was also on the SXSW panel and he pointed out that we used to think about publishing and sharing separately. Publishing was governed by rules and laws, whereas sharing forgave most of those.  Now we can think in terms of enabling things for distribution, as well as in terms of remixing.

And while some argue that technology has become commoditized and has therefore devalued the works of creators, Emily Heyward, a partner in the Brooklyn and San Francisco-based branding firm Red Antler remarked that in all corners of the creative industries -- music, newspapers, book publishing, advertising -- the old systems are crumbling. As a result, it's hard to justify paying tens or hundreds of of thousands for logos when you can get one for $99 online. Or even $5.

Merkley of Creative Commons chimed in at this point: "Nothing replaces a professional", and reminding us that all know how good a 99 cent anything. "This is why crowdsourcing is never going to compete with professional work. Professional work includes professional briefs, professional delivery, and professional revisions."

Hayward added: "It’s the difference between thinking about design as a cost vs. an investment. If you’re doing it twice it’s going to cost you more. And give you more grief." Despite all the cost-cutting and attempted commoditization of skills she insisted “it’s the most exciting time to be in a creative field."  Why? "Because creators are able to build their own brand, largely independently, and to use it, and digital marketing and networking, as differentiators." Her list of common mistakes for creators to avoid: 
  • Have a multi-disciplinary skill set
  • If you don’t have those skills yourself, then team up with someone else who does
  • UX (User experience), graphic design, web design are often desired together, so you can optimize by offering a small bundle
Gignac of WorkingNotWorking pointed out that it’s now also easy to make your portfolio look like a million bucks online, using tools that are readily available. “Having an outdated portfolio is not acceptable.  Also,  so much…looks like shit online”, he said. “Show off your stuff online like Barton Smith did”, who did a “Facebook facelift”, just for fun, and now has a job at Facebook. “You are your brand. And ironically, people good at selling other people’s products often terrible at selling themselves.”

So does this mean the traditional advertising agency model is dead? That independents and ad hoc creative teams will be the ones holding all the power? As is the case with so many reports of death, this one is overstated. Which is not to say that a game of fat margins and opacity between client and service provider is a game you want to bet on; just that being the David in a land of Goliaths no longer means relying on a biblical grade miracle in order to have a fighting chance.

Related Post: Platform Capitalism, or Why Your Parents Don't Understand the Internet

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Why PBS moved from 'owned & operated' media to YouTube

There was a time when the mandate of public broadcasters was clear. Their job was to cover topics deemed to be in the interest of, and for the good of, the public at large. Sometimes that meant the high-minded, sometimes it meant the culturally diverse, and sometimes it meant giving voice to the marginalized. Think of it as the take your vitamins, eat a balanced diet version of media. We all know it’s good for us, but we also know that kale doesn’t exactly taste great.

At the same time, over the past few years the terrain once trod upon almost exclusively by public broadcasters has found itself imprinted with the footprints of others – namely podcasters, YouTubers, and bloggers. Chart topping podcasts like Hardcore History and YouTube science channels like Vsauce  have proven that there’s a huge audience for content once primarily referred to as ‘educational’. Podcasters, bloggers, and YouTubers have amply demonstrated that an unconventional approach to content and production can, and does, work. Hundreds of milions of views and downloads don’t lie.

In this new reality, shows, or content, (whichever term you prefer) can be made by enthusiasts, not just by broadcasters. And the product is available to anyone, at any time, via laptops, tablets, and phones. The question then becomes: how and where do public broadcasters fit into this picture?

While in Austin for SXSW 2015 I attended a session called “NPR & PBS: Public Media, Reaching New Publics” that addressed this question. The main presenter was Lauren Saks, Director of Programming at PBS Digital Studios.

As so many conference sessions do, this one began with the people on the panel throwing out one of those ‘can I have a show of hands’ questions to the audience. This one asked how many people in the room grew up watching Sesame Street.  Almost everyone’s hand shot up.  The next question was ‘how many of you either listen to NPR or watch PBS now’. What looked like about 2/3 of a room filled largely with people between the ages of 25 and 40 had their hands in the air. This was not typical, we were assured. As Saks informed us, most people in the U.S. grow up watching Sesame Street then don’t tune in to PBS again until they’re in their 50s or older. As for NPR, the radio service, we learned that the average listener is 55, upper middle class, and affluent. “Our mission is to speak to the public. And we’re not doing that with these demographics”, admitted Saks.

And so, in the spirit of decentralized media explored in the preceding blog post, PBS figured out that they needed to be where audiences were. This is a definitive move away from the old school thinking that says audiences must come to us. To the media properties we own, and have grown, over years of building reputation and brand. That’s a nice idea, but in an age of abundance (if not overabundance) of content it just isn't happening that way. Those in the content game are figuring out they have to go to where the attention is going. And that means places like YouTube, Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram etc. This is why even august organizations like the New York Times are entering into content-hosting partnerships with Facebook. For many, if not most, the primary destination is now Facebook, not a specific newspaper’s website. A similar change is afoot for broadcasters who are seeing their audiences move en masse to sites like YouTube.

Consider the case of PBS Digital Studios. 

It launched in 2012 and according to the blurb on its YouTube page:

PBS has long brought you original, thought-provoking programming. With PBS Digital Studios, we take that same mission and apply it to the Internet age. Working with creators from across the web, our network of short-form video series will showcase the best of the Internet while also celebrating the best parts of public television.

“For PBS Digital Studios we moved off our 'owned & operated' platform to YouTube”, said Saks recently at SXSW. And this turned out to be a good move. As of the end of March 2015 PBS Digital Studios on YouTube has 4.7 million subscribers and just under 350 million views. It offers 60+ channels, covering arts, culture, and science, and as Saks puts it:

“We’re bringing an audience we’ve never had to our brand. And we match the tone to the platform. We don’t try to shoehorn something into a place it doesn’t fit.”

Among several dozen others, PBS Digital partnered with pioneering YouTubers Hank & John Green aka ‘The Vlog Brothers” for a channel called Crash Course, which has become one of the most popular in the PBS digital network.

Saks said bringing Hank & John Green on board was an easy decision to make. “They were doing PBS type content on YouTube before we were even thinking about it, so people were doing it with or without us, and we’ve learned so much from John & Hank. We’ve learned about loyalty, about the conversation in the comments. People come back every week because they think of John & Hank as their friends. And these people may well turn into PBS viewers and donors in the future.”

The trade-off here is this: sacrificing the owned and operated PBS platform for access to YouTube’s 1 billion+ monthly users. The costs? Well, for starters, YouTube takes 45% of the ad revenue, but they’re the elephant in the room, and as such they can take (close to) the lion’s share of the revenue. And apologies for the mixing of animal metaphors but I couldn’t resist. 

The other beast in the room is Facebook, where YouTube video is commonly shared. It's responsible for about 25% of all traffic referred online.

And finally we have Twitter, where, from a marketing perspective, we find distribution done by the public at large, as seen here during a momentary glance at a column on Tweetdeck. This kind of circulation of comments, links, images, and videos goes on, of course, 24/7, and is driven by fans and enthusiasts, not the content creators themselves.

This is a very different supply chain. 

Distribution is essentially free. Plus you’re not buying media for promotional placement, as was the case in the past. Instead, you’re contributing content to a platform that generally doesn’t create its own. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are not like the BBC or the New York Times in this way; they are the pipe, and others fill the pipe. 

And why do we fill it? Because the pipe has a global reach, and because the content that flows through it can achieve exponential, not just linear growth, thanks to its circulation in networks with many, many outward reaching nodes and hubs. 

Kudos to PBS for recognizing the value of being where audiences already are and partnering, rather than competing with, creators whose work a) complements the PBS brand and b) is already resonating with viewers.

Related Posts:

Platform Capitalism, or Why Your Parents Don't Understand The Internet
What Buzzfeed got before anyone else: Decentralized Media
YouTubers in 2015: A King of Trivia & A Girl Next Door Beauty Blogger
You Tubers in 2015: The appeal of the Annoying Orange
The Stars of YouTube: Buffer Festival 2014