Fast Company

YOUTUBE SHOOTS FOR THE STARS

TO OUTMANEUVER TRADITIONAL TV—AND SECURE GOOGLE’S FUTURE—YOUTUBE CEO SUSAN WOJCICKI MUST SEAMLESSLY SATISFY HOMEGROWN CREATORS, RISK-AVERSE ADVERTISERS, HOLLYWOOD CELEBRITIES, AND THE VIEWERS WHO WATCH 1 BILLION HOURS A DAY.

Outside of the Jacob Javits Convention Center on New York’s far West Side—where YouTube is hosting the Brandcast, its annual presentation to advertisers—fans crush together behind barriers. Young and mostly female, they hover giddily on this chilly May evening, angling for a glimpse of the YouTube stars who are making their way down a red carpet toward the entrance. One fan clutches a sign that READS I’M COLD, BUT IT’S WORTH IT.

Inside, the cavernous hall is filling with 2,800 ad-industry insiders, video creators, and members of the press who will soon sip wine and nibble popcorn as the streaming-video giant debuts a slate of original series. They will be entertained by indefatigable Late Late Show host James Corden, who will perform a splashy number (“YouTube: The Musical”) alongside dancing T. rexes and a Pikachu. Katy Perry—her hair in a new blond buzz cut—will tout her upcoming live-streamed special and return to end the event with a concert.

But even the surprise appearance of the world’s most successful comedian, Kevin Hart—the star of an upcoming funny fitness show on YouTube—isn’t the evening’s most memorable moment. That comes when YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki stands alone onstage in a purple dress, issuing something you normally wouldn’t expect to hear at a bash like this: an apology.

For the previous two months, YouTube had been beset by controversy in the wake of newspaper investigations that discovered brand advertising being paired with videos featuring terrorist and white-supremacist rhetoric (and thereby funding their creators). AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal, and reportedly as many as 250 other advertisers suspended campaigns. YouTube was able to quiet the unrest by installing new machine-learning technology to better identify questionable content—it said it was able to realize a 500% improvement within weeks—and offering marketers more finely grained controls for specifying where their messages will appear. It also allowed third-party firms to audit where clients’ ads show up.

Even so, it’s clear that marketers expect humility from YouTube about the whole affair, and that’s what Wojcicki gives them. “We apologize for letting some of you down,” she tells the crowd calmly, in an even tone that sounds natural, genuine, and not overly rehearsed.

The ad-placement kerfuffle was intensely embarrassing for YouTube, but it nonetheless reinforces how different the service remains from traditional television—which is the other part of Wojcicki’s message to the audience tonight. “YouTube is not TV, and we never will be,” she says. From Wojcicki’s perspective, the differences are, in fact, advantages.

TV in its conventional form is among the most micromanaged, focus-grouped businesses on the planet. YouTube, by contrast, is varied and authentic, even slightly anarchic. “We really value the role that YouTube plays in the ecosystem for freedom of expression,” Wojcicki tells me during a conversation a week before Brandcast. “We take that incredibly seriously. We want to make sure we’re enabling all these voices to be heard.” Old-school TV viewing still boasts an awesome 1.25

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Fast Company

Fast Company2 min read
35 For Clearing The Air
Michelle Pfeiffer’s new direct-to-consumer perfume company, Henry Rose—which launched in April—is bringing groundbreaking transparency to a stubbornly opaque industry. Henry Rose offers customers the full ingredient list for each of its inaugural fiv
Fast Company1 min read
50 For Helping Merchants Meet Customers Wherever They Are
Being able to order dinner, buy a shirt, and book a haircut in the span of a train ride home is nirvana for consumers. But for the merchants fielding those digital requests while also trying to run a brick-and-mortar business, it’s a nightmare. Alyss
Fast Company1 min readTech
68 For Easing Reentry After Prison
Elena Sigman DIRECTOR OF COLLABORATIVE LEARNING, JOHN JAY COLLEGE OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE’S PRISONER REENTRY INSTITUTE