As overused as the term is, a media “maverick” may be the best way to describe Will Keenan, the now-former VP of vertical development and network programming at Maker Studios. The man’s history in digital video dates back to the mid-1990s, when he starred in what he refers to as the “very first fully-digital feature film,” “Love God” from Good Machine Productions. Since then, Keenan says he has wanted to embrace new media in an official capacity, which eventually led to him joining Maker Studios in 2011.
During his time at Maker, Keenan helped sign the likes of BadLipReading, AJ Rafael, and BaracksDubs to the Maker umbrella, and was instrumental in launching PoliPop, Maker’s politics and entertainment network, which has been credited as the first of its kind on YouTube. Keenan was also responsible for bringing some “traditional media” talent into the Maker portfolio, including “Entourage” star Adrian Grenier, director Kevin Smith, comedienne Margaret Cho, and “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn.
Keenan has also been known as the man behind Maker’s “community strategy,” though Keenan graciously credits former Maker CMO Jeremy Welt as the mastermind behind the strategy, which Keenan then implemented to success.
These are just some of the things Keenan did during his time at Maker, helping grow the network from roughly 300 channels and 300 million monthly views to over 70,000 channels and nearly 5 billion monthly views by the time he left Maker last month. With Keenan looking to try some new things post-Maker (which he can’t divulge yet), it felt a good time as any to sit down with him for an interview.
What’s the biggest tip for success on YouTube that you’ve picked up while working with Maker for the last two years?
There’s a few — some that I actually came up with on my own:
1. ‘It’s not what you upload, it’s the strategy with which you upload.’ Kind of an update on the Hollywood adage, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” This one’s a “Will Keenan Original.”
2. ‘People Subscribe To People’. Be authentic; make it personal; the more a channel or talent comes off as a genuine person, the more viewers might feel connected. Take a tip from vloggers. This one’s ascribed to former Maker CEO & “mad genius” Danny Zappin.
3. ‘Engage Or Die!’ When YouTube changed the layout & algorithm a while back, it became more crucial than ever to engage. You need to spend time on the site and do a lot more than just upload content and expect your videos to go “viral” based on their “artistic” merits alone. This might be a little extreme, but I’m almost at the point where I think one should spend more time on the site engaging & “self-marketing” on blogs, etc., then the time it actually takes to create, edit, and upload content.
4. ‘Make It Shareable & Repeatable.’ This one I attribute to Maker CDO Chris Williams. You know when you see people posting YouTube videos on Facebook saying, “OMG you gotta see what he/she does :33 seconds into this video”? Do that. Try to put at least one thing in every video that has inherent “shareability.” If people are sharing your video, it can help get your content seen by more people. As for the other half, making videos ‘repeatable’, I say that mainly because strong formats seem to be winning the day on YouTube. If you hit on a good, repeatable format that viewers like, then they’ll keep coming back for more. Maker’s “Epic Rap Battles of History” might be one of the best examples of this.
There’s been a lot of consolidation in the space, which indicates there’s money in the bank, and yet everyone says money isn’t being made. As someone who’s had a cult success on the indie film/TV circuit, what are your thoughts about monetization in new media?
I may have had a number of “cult successes” on the indie film/TV circuit, but none of them made me any real money of which to speak. I got lots of good reviews and garnered a fan-base, but I only started to make good money when I became a producer in indie film, but then the economy crashed. I now believe indie film is going the way of ballet and opera, very niche — but that’s another interview entirely.
As far as the online video space goes, there actually are quite a few companies making some pretty good money right now, and definitely a number of talent are making very good money. This space is growing so fast. Every year ad dollars continue to move from TV to online video, and I promise you, revenue will follow. Many of the MCNs or video tech companies are technically still “startups,” maybe even going into debt, but a lot of them are creating substantial IP that may live online for many years to come. Even if a video startup is losing money every month, as long as it’s growing (in views, audience, watch-time, engagement metrics, etc.), it can still have a profitable exit.
Do you think the MCN model is here to stay?
It’s definitely the hot topic right now to predict where the MCN world is going, which seems natural considering how much MCNs have scaled in the past year and how much action there is in the space. I think we’ll probably see some more consolidation, but the MCN model itself I think will be around for awhile. I kind of see the advent of the MCNs as a direct result of the void left by the conglomerates (that own the studios and networks) in regards to online video. Many of the “traditionals” are now having to play catch-up on digital, and at the same time their core businesses are now being totally disrupted as well. I liken all this to democracies, which are very slow-moving when it comes to real change, only changing when they absolutely have to. Entrenched media businesses seem to be the same way.
Though, if the history of media is any indication, once the the entrenched powers finally succumb to change and actually get up to speed, it’s usually not too long before they really do figure it out and then start to take over. The major MCNs and even some of the mid-sized ones may be looking very attractive as acquisitions right now to some of the major conglomerates, many of whom attempted to establish their own digital divisions with mixed results. Even an MCN running at a deficit, but is still getting billions of views every month, might be a “drop-in-the-bucket” as far as a purchase price by a conglomerate who really wants a digital division that actually has some global influence online.
The race in our space might really be this: Which MCN will be the first to be valued at one billion dollars, and which talent or channel will be the first to hit 100 million subscribers? My colleague Liam Collins, head of the YouTube Space(s), says the 100 million subs for a channel might even happen within the next two years. And it shouldn’t be too long before one of the MCN’s speculated valuation is at a billion dollars.
I think about the scale of the MCNs over just the last year, and I’m still amazed. There may be a bit of a bubble going on in online video but it’s definitely not like the dot-com bubble of the late 90s. Online video is not only here to stay, it’s poised to dominate. Though, MCNs could probably benefit by starting to “collab” like their YouTubers do.
Some aspects of the MCN space have started to resemble traditional Hollywood — poaching talent and employees, as an example. The undercutting in terms of talent deal percentages in the long term may put MCNs on the defensive in other areas. Maybe it’s time for the MCN world to have its own Lew Wasserman, who — if my understanding of Hollywood history is correct — was not only a studio mogul but also someone who was able to get all the other studio heads to sit at the same table and work together instead of undercutting each other, which made them all individually vulnerable. The end result of Lew Wasserman’s efforts at getting all the studio heads on the same page seems to have been not only good for the overall studio businesses, but also good for the consumer.
If the MCNs today are at a “delicate” juncture, maybe having a new Lew Wasserman to bring them all together (since they do have common goals) might not be such a bad idea.
What are your predictions for the online video space in the next 2–3 years?
A year-ish ago I made a few predictions and many of them turned out correct. Case in point: I said in November of 2011 that the first “must-watch, destination” series (like the way we tweet about “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” and “Games Of Thrones”) would happen within two years, but the only place you’d be able to find it was online, not broadcast. So I think it really did happen: “House Of Cards.” At the time I made that prediction, I was kind of hoping such series would have been generated from an independent content creator, or something produced by one of the MCNs, but it was still a game-changer nonetheless. Another bet: In less than two years, my 65-year old mother will be flipping through channels on her plasma, going from NBC to CNN to BadLipReading and she will not know or even care as to what is broadcast or digital. A final prediction (I have a few more but keeping close to my expertly-tailored vest;): The demarcation between “traditional celebrity” & “digital celeb or YouTube star” will fade away a lot quicker now that Billboard has integrated YouTube streams into its charts and Nielsen is working with Twitter to quantify social TV ratings.
What’s next for you?
I’ma “Goin’ Big Or Goin’ Home.”