This piece originally appeared in the Brand Storytelling Newsletter. The interview was conducted by Rick Parkhill, Founder & Director at Brand Storytelling.
I first met Scott Donaton back in the late ‘90s when he was Editor and Publisher of Ad Age. It was during his tenure at Ad Age that he coined the phrase “Madison & Vine” and published the book of the same name in 2004. Suffice it to say, Scott is a guy who has long embraced the entwinement of entertainment and advertising. Since leaving publishing for the agency world in 2009, Scott has worked to create award-winning branded content for the likes of Chrysler, Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, BMW, Brown Forman, ExxonMobil and Sony.
I caught up with Scott recently to discuss the Newfronts and what Digitas has planned for this year:
Digitas was the original founder of what has become the Digital Content Newfronts. What is the agency’s role now that the IAB organizes the event?
Digitas created the Newfronts in 2008 as a way to get our clients to pay more attention to what was happening in the digital content space and to challenge the supremacy of TV. A few years in, we saw the potential for it to truly become an industry marketplace and teamed up with the IAB and the other founding partners—including YouTube, Hulu and what is now Oath—to make that happen. Today, we remain the only agency that puts on a Newfront presentation and while the media companies that present are rightly focused on pitching content opportunities to brands, Digitas’ event is about thought leadership. We focus on the bigger picture: how clients should think about the role of content in the marketing mix, what success looks like, and which partners are doing innovative things in the storytelling space.
The original intent of the Newfronts was to get more digital investment from TV, right? Seems like that worked pretty well, so what do you see as the role of the Newfronts today?
That’s a great question. What we were saying to clients a decade ago was, “You’re not paying enough attention to digital.” Today, what we’re saying is, “You’re not paying enough attention to content.” Content marketing is one of the fastest-growing marketing segments and yet it continues to face many of the same challenges it did five years ago. We recently formed an industry coalition made up of media companies, agencies and marketers to tackle some of those challenges, including best practices and ROI.
Digitas has a theme each year for their Newfront presentation; what’s the focus this year?
We try to be provocative, to trigger discussions and debates on the things that matter and that point the way forward. One year our theme was “Skip Ads,” and we took the stand that interruptive forms of advertising are in decline and brands needs to focus on telling stories that are worthy of people’s time. This year, we are calling our event “The #Boycott Newfront,” with a focus on how brands and storytellers of all stripes can (and need to) stand for something in a time of tremendous social, political and cultural upheaval.
Are you talking about issues such as the #MeToo movement, Take a Knee and the debate over gun control?
Exactly. Brands traditionally avoid taking a stand on those kinds of issues but while that might work in traditional advertising forms, it’s much harder to remain neutral in the age of storytelling. Brands need to be relevant and deliver value, and you can’t do those things easily without telling stories that reflect your values and address the things that matter to your audience.
So, can you give us some ideas of what will happen at the Digitas Event?
We have a really cool mix of speakers. Kamau Bell, the provocateur and host of CNN’s Emmy-winning United Shades of America, will open the event. Jodi Kantor, the Pulitzer prize-winning reporter who broke the Harvey Weinstein story that inspired the #MeToo movement, will appear with Mark Thompson, the CEO of The New York Times Co., which has been vocal in its own ads about the importance of objective truth. We’ll have executives from Dick’s Sporting Goods and REI, each of which have taken strong stands on issues that reflect their values. And we’ll have some of the people behind the #TimesUp and #HereWeAre movements, along with Hollywood storytellers like Sarah Harden, who leads Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine.
Any worries that taking such a provocative stance might scare off some people? As you said, brands typically avoid controversy if they can.
Going into this, we thought it might be difficult to get people to open up on stage about taking a stand, but the reaction has been amazing. Most of our speakers and most of those we’ve invited to attend the event have responded back with a message that basically says, this is the right conversation to be having and the right time to have it. Brand activism is very much in the headlines, and smart marketers realize they have not just an opportunity but, you could argue, an obligation to use their clout and credibility to make society stronger.