From the Big Chair: Reza Izad

The CEO of CDS on why "authentic" is a problematic word and how to create branded content where everybody wins.
October 7, 2015

Welcome to our new series, From the Big Chair, where top digital decision makers from around the world share their thoughts on the most pressing industry issues of the day.

Today, we meet with Reza Izad, CEO of Collective Digital Studio (the MCN behind heavyweight YouTubers Epic Meal Time, Rhett and Link and Lilly Singh) following the company’s merger with German MCN Studio 71.While both companies are still being run autonomously, Izad tells us what the partnership means for the North American arm, what’s keeping him awake at night, where he sees the biggest opportunity in digital streaming and why branded content execution needs to improve.

Where do you see the biggest opportunity in digital streaming, right now?

There’s two big opportunities for us: one, there are all these OTT platforms that are emerging, and we’re a premium content supplier, and because of that we think there’s a lot of opportunity to monetize longer-form content than there traditionally (has) been. So our IP base is growing, and there’s a tremendous opportunity for creative people to execute longer-form projects.

The other is international. We’ve got tremendous opportunities globally to expand our existing creator (network) and grow the business. The uniqueness of YouTube, Facebook and these other large platforms is they’re very very global. And, when 50% of your traffic emanates from outside the U.S., [you’ve got to] think globally.

We’re opening up offices around the world. We already have a very strong foot in Germany – which is a top-five market for us. We’re just at the beginning, but we see a lot of opportunity for that partnership.

Are there markets you’re eying as the next phase?

All the top English-language markets are key on our lists, and there are some others that are very tied to the influence of Germany, like in the Middle East, that are interesting.

What keeps you awake at night? 

Frankly, execution. We’re getting to a place where the dollars are really moving, and making sure everyone is delivering on the promise keeps me awake at night.

We have an industry-wide problem around certain executions – particularly around branded content. And to me that’s a huge (issue) for all of us – making promises that, for whatever reason, we can’t deliver on.

Branded content has always been a challenge in the linear world, so what needs to happen in the digital world to better execute on it?

In a really simple way, it’s really hard to sell things when that you haven’t pre-vetted with your content creators. And that’s something we avoid at all costs. There are also a lot of packaging issues around how you go to market and how do you manage that process and scale. Last year, we did more than 400 executions (and I’m talking about campaigns, not videos. We’re talking 1,000s of video) and at that degree of scale (we need to) make sure all the i’s (are dotted) and t’s are crossed, and that’s a huge challenge.

Why has it been a challenge? I think you have new entrants to the market place. Traditional advertisers are in the marketplace (have a) certain language, and (certain words) mean different things (to us).

So “authentic” may mean something very different to us than it does to a brand. We can use “authentic” in a million different ways. But the core creative voice is where a lot of the misunderstanding occurs. (We need to make sure) we see eye to eye on what we say – that’s the first step to make sure things are done right.

Can you give me an example of one partnership you’ve done recently you’re particularly proud of?

Our partnership with Smashbox is very interesting. Essentially, we’ve created a studio with them, where we’re empowering female lifestyle creators to come in and make videos they might not have been able to make on their own. We’re leveraging beauty experts and stylists to give a slightly elevated look. It’s been a very fun program, and I think our creators have gotten a lot out of it. And I think Smashbox has seen a lot of value come out of that.

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 2.44.58 PMWhat made that so successful?

I think everyone’s agendas are aligned. We have creators who are looking to elevate themselves and (and their) production capabilities. Smashbox, obviously, has a big production facilities, and it’s a high-quality one. So everyone is working together to make something unique, that maybe the original creator couldn’t make on their own. (For example) The Cassey Ho video (pictured, above right, which went viral with more than seven million hits,) was the first we did in the program. I don’t know if she would have been able to make that on her own. She could have partnered with other people, but she couldn’t have done it on her own. And that video drove a lot of engagement for her.

And yes, there are some KPIs and things Smashbox is looking to get out of the relationship, but it’s done in a much more organic, creator-friendly way.

What’s the view like from the big chair?

One of my partners used to say, “I’ll work for you if it’s good for me.” The reality is, it takes a lot of people to make this company work. And I don’t know if it’s a “view” – we’re working harder than I ever have but (there are) a lot of people making it happen. At this point I’m a sales guy, a pitchman and a face for the business, but it requires a lot of people to make it work.

Missed a Q&A? Check out more From the Big Chair sessions here. 

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