Forefront: Jake O'Leary on culture as branding
Jul 22, 2018
Having trained in the marketing heartland of Procter & Gamble - the company that invented the discipline - O’Leary now is the Global Head of Artist Marketing initiatives at one of the fastest evolving brands on the planet. YouTube has almost 2 billion users a month, heavily skewing towards young audiences that are now all but impossible to reach through traditional advertising. In anticipation of the future conference Forefront, supported by QICGRE, we speak to him about culture as branding, the opportunities of global connection and the lasting power of physical experience in the digital age.

Jonathan Openshaw: How can music help brands connect with an audience?


Jake O'Leary: All culture plays a crucial role in forging connections today. The way the world used to work was a brand needed a certain amount of money to buy a TV spot or radio spot or print spot. Consumers were captive - you’d be sitting in your living room watching TV in the evening and brands knew they could get at you there. Now there are so many choices so it's all about the battle for attention. Brands need to give people a reason to care. Music and art will always have a place here it's because they strike a deep chord with people; they connect at a very deep and personal level. The big question for any brand wanting to engage with culture making is how to do that in an authentic way. That's the super interesting thing for me working at YouTube, because we have a community of 1.8 billion people each month and they’re all there because they're connecting with something, or learning something, or expressing something. It’s a very authentic way for people and things to be connected


JA: You mention authenticity a bit there, but when a brand with a commercial agenda gets involved, isn’t there a risk that you lose that?


JO: People ask that question a lot: what are the risks of branding through culture making. My response is always the same: what is the risk of not doing it? And that risk is irrelevance, which for me is far scarier than any of the quote-un-quote risks of working with talent and communities. There are so many brands that work with artists very successfully and this success always comes off the back of it being a true partnership. I think the biggest risk for brands wanting to work with people who already have strong voices is when they try and stifle what they're trying to say. The reason that you're working with them is because you buy into what they do, and millions of fans do too. It’s just crazy to then start going ‘do it like this, say it like this’. It’s a big leap for brands to have the confidence to endorse messages that might not be precisely in the brand look or the copy guidelines, but that’s the reality of marketing today. It's a much more collaborative process and there's never been a more exciting time for brands to really matter.

JA: How can you harness the physical power of music online?


JO: First and foremost, the way we do that at YouTube is through video. Songs mean so much to people but then when you lay video over the top it brings a whole other piece of context. If you think a recent example, like Childish Gambino’s This Is America, I mean, that's an amazing song. But launched and coupled with the video, which was mind blowing, it totally changes the dynamic of how you interpret that piece of art. That’s what it’s all about for us, facilitating creative expression. We recently launched the Community Tab, which enables artists to post still images, ask polls, sell tickets and have all this extra layer of interaction with their fans. There’s so many extra layers of engagement that you can build around a core experience like music.


JA: What are the big trends that have caught your eye?


JO: It’s linked to my point earlier on attention: the biggest thing I've noticed is culture is now 24/7, 365°. It’s on all the time. Artist and fan bases are uploading not just the song and not just the official video, but clips from tour, mobile live from the backstage, the making of video, the list goes on. The artists going the extra mile to engage with their fans are the ones who are really getting the traction. J Balvin is the biggest artist in the world on YouTube right now, getting something like 280 million views per week. This is someone who came from Colombia and who is totally redefining how you think about mainstream music. He sings in Spanish, he works in multiple different genres, he's very brave in the way he expresses himself. He’s not your conventional superstar and yet he can still have a crossover like Mi Gente that goes on to get 1.9 billion views. It’s such an exciting moment for cultural creation right now, the rules are being rewritten every day, every minute. Any artist or individual has the ability to have a global freedom of expression.

JO: What about the power of physical experience in all this - there’s still an undeniable sense of connection that comes from face-to-face that online can struggle to emulate.


JO'L: It's very hard to replace a physical experience so we as a marketing team still work on physical projects a lot. There's something amazing about connecting artists and fans at scale, but then there's that crazy special moment of when a die hard fan meets an act that they've done nothing but sing along to for last six months. That moment has a huge impact. What I'm really interested in how you can take that experience, which was so special for those people in the room, and amplify it to people at home. Look at Coachella, for example. We're in a fifth year of the Coachella livestream now and #Beychella this year was just an insane moment in global culture. Only a tiny proportion of people could actually be there in Palm Springs with the sand in their hair. The only other way to experience Beyonce’s set in a real, live, high-quality way was on YouTube. You can't recreate a physical moment like that and those physical moments really matter, but you can create a window through which anyone in the world can look in on at the moment and feel part of it.


JO: And what about the future plans for YouTube, what can you let us in on?


JO'L: It changes on any given day or moment in terms of specific projects, but on a broad level, I think two things are super exciting. The first is our simple commitment to bring diversity to the music business, and that’s a diversity of distribution as well as of talent. Then the second big one is we want to be an amazing partner to artists and the creative community. We want to work with artists to help grow their careers and create better connections with fans. Diversifying and connecting, that’s what it’s all about.