Orangenius has partnered with Knowledge at Wharton to produce the Business of Art radio series, an in-depth look at some of the business-centric issues facing artists and the art market. In this third installment, host Dan Loney talks to Andrew Essex Essex, an advertising executive that founded Droga 5 and now heads the iconic Tribeca Film Festival, about the evolution of advertising and storytelling in the creative industries.
Dan Loney: The Tribeca Film Festival is recognized as one of the most important events of its kind in the world, but the CEO of Tribeca Enterprises, Andrew Essex Essex, believes there is more that can be profiled. In fact, Tribeca is getting ready to host its first ever TV festival, which will include showings of brand new TV shows that air on a variety of platforms and for Andrew Essex, his background in advertising as the CEO of ad agency Droga 5, lead him to look back at his former industry and write the recently released book The End of Advertising: Why It Had to Die and the Creative Resurrection to Come. It’s a great pleasure to have Andrew Essex Essex joining us on the show right now. Andrew Essex, welcome.
Andrew Essex: Thanks for having me.
The Evolution of Content After Netflix and Hulu
Dan Loney: Tribeca Film Festival is getting ready to host its first ever TV festival, which will include showings of brand new TV shows that air on a variety of platforms. I thought that was such an interesting idea and it seems like this was built from a variety of ideas you would like to do with Tribeca.
Andrew Essex: Absolutely. The festival is really about storytelling. Film is core, but film is not the only thing we do. For years we’ve focused on other platforms in which people can tell a story- TV, most obviously, but also virtual reality, gaming, and music. But we’ve never carved anything out specifically except VR. It’s the golden age of television. It seemed high time to do this in an era when there are 495 scripted shows alone.
Dan Loney: And obviously with the variety of platforms you have out there today, you had mentioned in part the content, the amount of content out there, but the numerous platforms and the ability of productions to go to a variety of platforms just makes it that much easier for TV shows these days.
Andrew Essex: That’s absolutely true and there’s even a question of what TV is, especially when you show it in a movie theater. Look at the Emmys, where Hulu and Netflix are big winners. Platforms we wouldn’t have originally called television are now making films. It’s all really a semantic stew. The main thing is that it’s good. We want to focus on the good and bring the audience that kind of storytelling.
Dan Loney: So do you think we’re going to see even greater changes playing off the question you just asked, what TV is in the next 20 years?
Andrew Essex: Absolutely. Obviously, we’re all holding these devices in our hands, so people are finding new ways to tell stories- vertical video on Snapchat for example. I think the main thing is talent is going to win. Originality and just the ability to know what’s inherently interesting.
Dan Loney: I would imagine also that part of what makes the idea of doing a TV festival, gaming festival, or music festival all successful is the brand itself, and as I mentioned previously, Tribeca Film Festival has become very well known in the film community, but that brand alone probably brings an extra layer of credence to it right off the bat.
Andrew Essex: Yeah, that’s exactly right. We have a unique origin story, unlike Sundance, for instance. This wasn’t set up as an incubator for independent filmmakers. It was a response to 9/11. The neighborhood of Tribeca was obviously hit hard and the people here weren’t firemen or first responders, they were storytellers, and the whole premise of our event is that storytelling brings people together.
Dan Loney: So in executing these different ideas, how many events do you think you can do per year now?
Andrew Essex: I think more than one. Let’s put it that way. There is a limit, but the calendar offers other opportunities, so TV is a perfect example. Our big event is at the end of April. Our television event is now at the end of September, and you’ll see us carve out things like VR, gaming, and take it to other cities around the world.
Dan Loney: Oh really? So you would expand it outside of New York?
Andrew Essex: 100 percent. Tribeca Film Festival’s already been to Beijing, Doha, and it’s been to Bentonville, Arkansas.
Dan Loney: Part of the Tribeca Film Festival I think as you mentioned, it was in response to what happened with 9/11, but the growth of the boroughs within New York City has probably helped it as well, because for many years people considered New York to be Manhattan and the four other boroughs. It’s not that way anymore
Andrew Essex: No, absolutely. In fact, you could argue the bulk of the creative energy is in Brooklyn right now, and we’ll do events over the river any day of the week.
Advertising for a Digital Age
Dan Loney: The book, The End of Advertising, in going through it a little bit and reading some of the reviews on it, really, it’s being reviewed as kind of a challenge to the advertising industry, which you spent quite a bit of time being involved in.
Andrew Essex: Yeah, that’s true. I’m not really saying it’s the end of advertising. I’m saying it’s the end of bad, irrelevant advertising, which just happens to be the bulk of most advertising, and it’s a function of a variety of different factors. First and foremost, the rise of over-the-top television, on-demand television that enables people to avoid commercials, so there’s one effect. Then, the simultaneous rise of ad-blocking technology, which enables people to block what they don’t want to see, so you’ve seen a scenario in which a lot of the places where people used to put their messages disappeared, and that forces brands to produce more creative work, work that adds value to people’s lives, rather than arbitrary interruption, which infuriates people.
Dan Loney: So how do you think the ad blocker is going to impact us going forward? Because seemingly most people on their computer now have an ad blocker of some kind.
Andrew Essex: I think it’s one of the most significant changes in the history of the business and has huge repercussions. Back in the day, the advertising industry was terrified of the remote control, then terrified of the VCR, then terrified of TiVo, but this is a revolutionary new technology that allows consumers, civilians to self-select and express their displeasure through free, downloadable plugins, so what happens when the people revolt? I don’t think there’s any way to put the genie back in the bottle, so as I said before, it forces the brands, who are still spending tremendous amounts of money to be more creative, and that’s a good thing.
Dan Loney: What do you think it means for the legacy TV networks, the ABC’s, CBS’s, and NBC’s and FOX’s of the world and how they are probably going to have to shift? I mean to a degree, they already are with the variety of different content platforms that they are trying to build out these days. For example, CBS now trying to go to Australia to purchase a network down there.
Andrew Essex: That’s a great question. You are going to see a lot of experimentation and people challenging incumbent models. You mentioned FOX. They are now pushing six-second commercials during NFL games, which I think is really smart and probably five seconds too many, but you’re going to see a tension between, again, status quo and innovation, which is a good thing. Many people will hold on for dear life because that way of life was quite lucrative, and others will force their companies to innovate and we’ll find out in about five years who wins.
Dan Loney: With my background in sports business, it’s surprising to me to a degree that it has taken this long for a lot of these networks to understand the concept of giving the consumer their sport, while at the same time being able to deliver a message.
Andrew Essex: Sports are really an anomaly. Dramatic television or sitcoms, you can see people downloading it and happily enjoying it without interruption, but sports are designed to be interrupted, so they really do accommodate commercials very well. It’s just that there’s a whole new generation that have never seen commercials, so they find it completely jarring, and the current model is not sustainable.
The Film Industry Responds to Slowing Sales
Dan Loney: What do you think – I mentioned TV, but let’s switch it over to the film industry and the impact that these types of technologies and changes will have on film going forward.
Andrew Essex: Well we’ve heard for years about attention spans changing. I think you’ll see a lot of films doing well because they get people out of the house. The real change has been the rise of these platforms that allow people to consume any content they want anytime they want. If you can watch anything on Netflix or iTunes, what gets you to the theater? We saw Hollywood having a very bad summer. It was a very bad year until IT came out, and one of the theses is that horror is best experienced as a group. It’s fun to go somewhere and hear people scream, so what gets you out of the house? Events, advertising, films, something that seems to have power to convene. I think that’s going to influence the future of what we used to know as Hollywood.
Dan Loney: And you still do have a few kinds of legacy franchises in the film industry that will draw people out. Star Wars is going to have another film coming out this holiday season. Obviously, we’ve seen how well the superhero genre has done over the last decade as well.
Andrew Essex: Yeah, that’s exactly what I mean. Those feel like event films. They have a sense of FoMo. You don’t want to miss the next Star Wars and see lots of people line up and maybe even dress like a geek, but if it’s just a mid-list RomCom, maybe you just want to watch it in your living room.
Dan Loney: We’ve also obviously seen a rise of the streaming service. Obviously with companies like Netflix and even some of the other companies, like CBS, trying to do their own streaming service for their content, it’s a unique dynamic that some people have been able to do very well with. CBS and some of the others are still trying to figure it out. Is it as delicate a formula as it seems to be successful in doing that?
Andrew Essex: Yeah, I think that- it creates all kinds of interesting implications. You have to think about it as an individual. What content do you want? Do you want just the stuff that’s running on HBO? Do you want a mix of sports? Do you want news? You’ll see the rise of these so-called skinny bundles. New packages that are tailored to your specific needs and I think that’s a good thing. We’ve all experienced this phenomenon of having 1,500 cable stations with nothing on. These more narrow curated packages just seem like the future of streaming.
Dan Loney: Part of that obviously probably goes to the influence of millennials on our society the last decade or so, so I guess the question is, that next generation after millennials, how much impact will they have? Seemingly, if we’re talking about change now and change in the future, we’re going to see almost cyclical change in media and film and a variety of different platforms.
Andrew Essex: Yeah, absolutely. I think you can cite the influence of YouTube in this conversation. All these stars that would have been turned down by network executives in the past, there used to be a more- let’s just say less democratic gatekeeping system, and now anything that seems authentic and relevant to young people can achieve an audience fairly quickly, so I think it’s just more and more fragmentation, less and less big events and people can figure out how to monetize a smaller but more engaged audience.
Dan Loney: Will it change the standards to a degree that we have lived with?
Andrew Essex: 100 percent.
Dan Loney: With television in the near future?
Andrew Essex: Yeah absolutely. Again, going back to YouTube you see a different kind of production value. You see just more user-generated work, less heavy production. Anyone can make a music video in their basement now. that used to be half a million dollars literally five years ago.
Dan Loney: That’s also going to seemingly change our culture, as well, in terms of what we think is acceptable.
Andrew Essex: I’m going to push back on that and say that at the end of the day, what’s interesting and interesting ways to tell it is going to be what matters, so you’ve got this peak content. There’s no shortage of what to watch, but what’s good is what’s going to win. It doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive or super high-quality or worthy. It just has to be good and that’s probably an excellent outcome for humanity.
Dan Loney: So then thinking about your prior world, what does all of this mean for the advertising agencies as well?
Andrew Essex: It means that they too have to be more creative. We used to have this bizarre model in which you’d watch a show and then every few minutes there’d be these arbitrary interruptions for messages from brands that you didn’t ask to see, and that model just doesn’t make sense anymore. People look down at their phones, they don’t want to see things they didn’t ask to see. So brands have to be the fan- not the thing that interrupts the thing, so you see brilliant examples like the Lego movie, which is a film that made a lot of money, but also probably the world’s greatest ad. It’s going to require brands to produce work that is essentially content rather than something that’s secondary, which is essentially advertising.
Creating Content That Moves Audiences
Dan Loney: So you think we will see companies with entities crossing over into the media realm. I mean Lego being one perfect example of it, but other companies will look to try and do this.
Andrew Essex: Yes, and paradoxically this is not a new idea. This was the big idea in the 1950s, so when you had GE theater or Mutual of Omaha kingdom, programming brought to you by a brand or from a brand, rather than programming interrupted by a brand.
Dan Loney: That’s interesting you make that point because that would lead you to believe that we are in that kind of cyclical nature, 50, 60 years, whatever that timeframe may be, but the idea comes back around, just maybe in a little bit of a different iteration.
Andrew Essex: That’s exactly right, and a lot of this is because we have new platforms and people are finding new ways to monetize it. But when radio or TV were new, crazy frightening technology that no one knew, there was a lot of experimentation. I think, regrettably, we made the wrong decision. We took the path that had proven to be unpopular with human beings, and now we’re reverting back to a model that is probably better for humanity.
Dan Loney: I guess to a degree that filters back into what you’re currently doing with Tribeca. It probably filters into the art world, into all different kinds of media right now.
Andrew Essex: Yeah, exactly. Better to be useful, better to be appreciated than to be loved.
Dan Loney: That loathing is seemingly that great concern that is out there right now and it’s part of why the ad blocker has become as successful has it has in the last several years.
Andrew Essex: Yeah, advertising is such a strange industry. Think about it – it’s loved one day a year. That’s Super Bowl Sunday and then hated for 364 days a year. How can that be sustainable? It is again forcing executives to think in an age of peak content, how do I get seen? I had probably better try harder and make something that people want.
Dan Loney: It is loved one day a year, but I get the sense, even at times, even that one day it’s loathed to a degree, especially if you’re not delivering the right message.
Andrew Essex: That’s true. That’s true. Again, another great product of Madison Avenue. there’s so much at stake on Super Bowl Sunday, so much attention, God help the entity that delivers something that is underwhelming.
Dan Loney: What do you see, then, as the impact? Because you mentioned you’re going to be doing a gaming festival with Tribeca, the rise of e-sports and gaming has starting to take over, and I’ve seen a couple articles recently that have suggested that 20, 30, 40 years down the road, maybe in a shorter time, we’re going to see e-sports to a degree overtaking some of the traditional sporting entities that we have here in the United States.
Andrew Essex: Yeah, it’s just another phenomenon that is irrefutable. You see it in consumer behavior, so these games have incredible stories. They are fun for people to participate in. They’re very popular with young people. There are huge businesses forming all around the industry, and it’s only going to get bigger.
Dan Loney: Is it surprising to you that we have gotten to the point where we are now filling stadiums with people watching people playing video games?
Andrew Essex: I would not have bet the farm on that, but in retrospect, it makes tons of sense. But I also wouldn’t have thought that people would watch HBO shows on their phones and it seems that they are.
Dan Loney: So this creative resurrection with the ad industry, what do you see as the most important elements that the industry needs to consider as they’re moving forward?
Andrew Essex: Just that there’s a person at the other end of the pike. I’m astonished by how much human beings have to wade through today. There are only 12 hours in the day, but there’s so much more to contend with. As I mentioned before, 490+ scripted television shows alone, tons of games as we said, tons of platforms, tons of social media. You had better not annoy people or you will be immediately discarded, so business has always been in conflict with creativity. Now creativity is a business imperative, and I’m very excited about that.
Dan Loney: Is social media part of that creativity or can it eventually be a crutch which can hurt the creativity?
Andrew Essex: I think it’s part of the creativity, so I just see it as another canvass, another space on which a painter can paint, and like any platform, what you do with it is contingent on your models. People can pollute social media just like they can pollute television airwaves or billboards or subway stations. what we want is people to produce work that other people want to see and share and talk about rather than discard immediately.
Dan Loney: Yet there is a reliance on social media by a lot of the advertising entities out there, maybe even going beyond where they should.
Andrew Essex: Well of course. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should and many people misuse the platform, but again, I’ve seen many brands misuse television in a big way.
Dan Loney: Andrew Essex, it’s a big conversation. One thing I never hear addressed in this opening up of media, is it going to finally end the insulation of American culture? Most of our media is domestic. We have very little from overseas. Do you think this will change that?
Andrew Essex: Oh yeah, I think YouTube is a great example where at least 75 percent of the content is produced from overseas, and that has democratized different points of view in a big way. Different sensibilities, different colors, different flavors, and I don’t think that that is limited in any way. Perhaps to its detriment.