Content Marketing

Microsoft’s Newfront and the Next Front for Content

Admonster's Gavin Dunaway Do you smell it? The aroma of pleasantly buzzed media planners wafting all about Manhattan this week? That’s right, it’s some kind of –front time – and since a digital reporter like moi is getting invites, it must be the Newfronts.

Agency buyers and brand representatives are being shuffled up- and downtown to one glitzy presentation after another, where they ply themselves with various forms of alcohol (to loosen up the budgets?), sit back and check out what the digital guys come up with to compete with their TV brethren.

And it seems the digital underdogs are turning this into a match – a new IAB survey (PDF) reports that 90% of advertisers cited last year’s Newfronts as a reason to increase spend on original digital material. Buyers also reported that 38% of budgets would get doled out at the Newfronts, compared to 32% last year. Turns out advertisers have increased their entire video spend by 17% over the last two years, putting TV and video budgets at near a dead heat (51% of the pie vs. 49%, respectively).

Panel-based metrics appear to have evened up the playing field for TV and digital video (and mobile panel-based metrics will bolster that further), so it would seem an opportune time to start thinking about platform/channel differentiation. How does the consumer experience on different devices affect content (and by extension, creative) development?

From what I saw at their Newfront, that’s where Microsoft is currently. Stephen Kim, Microsoft Advertising VP for Global Agencies and Accounts, went so far as to claim that the newly introduced Xbox Entertainment Studios would “change the very art of storytelling.”

Why Xbox? Well, you could argue many contemporary console games have already done this by injecting consumer participation into complex narratives (e.g., Halo’s storyline is pretty nuts) with character development that sometimes dwarves the material coming out of Hollywood.

Indeed, a video early on in the presentation basically theorized that because Microsoft enables great gaming, it can produce great video content. Much of the original material previewed seemed targeted to a gamer base: a Halo live action series as well as a film; a remake of a Swedish series called “Humans” where androids get feelings and then start rebelling; a tech-focused documentary series kicking off with the story behind Atari’s legendary “ET” video game fail; and for the FIFA fans, a reality show about a street soccer championship.

It’s hard to imagine consumers ponying up for an Xbox just for exclusive content (asking how many people signed up to Netflix to watch “House of Cards” seems a poor comparison point), though it’s certainly an attractive bonus and could potentially enable sponsoring brands to get that much more intimate with their target audience – relatively young, into video games and endowed with disposable income.

But a Microsoft friend interjects that gaming is less and less what people use the Xbox for – since last year’s Newfront, I’ve been impressed how Xbox is being positioned as a family entertainment hub. I even brought in Xbox’s Senior Business Development Manager to talk OTT at last year’s OPS TV conference. While Xbox is the company’s momentary crown jewel, the Microsoft experience is extended. Kim rattled off some crazy figures: 85 million Xboxes sold; 48 million Xbox live users; including Office, Bing and other offerings, a reach of 1.3 billion people across screens worldwide.

Yup, Kim played up the cross-screen angle, especially when Microsoft devices and programs easily integrate with each other: “Consumers interact with us in every moment of their lives.”

If they’re interacting with the devices and software, why not the content? The most interesting part of the presentation (besides Nile Rodgers knocking out the first verse of “Rapper’s Delight” in front of Microsoft execs gettin’ funky) was a demonstration of the interactive film, “Possibilia.” Viewers become users, switching between a variety of narrative options that tell the story of a couple possibly breaking up. The production values were outstanding (including actor Alex Karpovsky of “Girls”) and even the demo proved to be engaging despite the subject matter (“hipsters split” is not everyone’s cup of tea).

The Newfront was fascinating not just because opener Lake Street Dive’s jazz take on George Michaels’ “Faith” made me temporarily forget Limp Bizkit’s rap-metal atrocity, but also because it’s clear Microsoft has a bold long-term strategy in terms of where content (and ultimately creative) marries technology. The Xbox Originals tagline – “This is where TV wants to be” – felt more like a mission statement.

A big takeaway from the event echoed a theme heavy on my mind lately: monetizing new platforms requires reinventing content. I’d argue that is a big driver behind the native revolution. It’s also a topic AdMonsters will be examining across all three tracks – Screens, Native and Tech – of OPS on June 10 in NYC. We hope you join us in the discussion.

Taking place June 10 at the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York, OPS is where ad operations and media technology leaders meet, develop best practices and work together to solve today’s most important challenges in online advertising. 
As a digital strategist, OPS is the one event where you’ll be certain to get the information you need to stay competitive and maximize the profitability of your business.
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