The Dodo Founder Izzie Lerer on Filling the White Space Between ‘Pure Fluff’ and ‘Hardcore Activism’

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“We never want to make anyone feel guilty or preached to,” Lerer says

the dodo / Izzie Lerer
Animal Planet

The Dodo, the social media brand that has entertained millions with endearing animal videos, continues its push beyond Facebook and YouTube to linear and SVOD platforms. The company recently announced a new kids show that will be the first unscripted series on Netflix Kids, “Izzy Bee’s Koala World.” Last year, Group Nine’s The Dodo launched its first TV show “The Dodo Heroes” on Animal Planet and just wrapped production of its second season. The Dodo’s founder and chief creative officer Izzie Lerer spoke with TheWrap about the key to creating a successful animal brand that transcends digital — finding the sweet spot between “pure fluff” and “hardcore activism.” The Dodo has locked in show deals with Facebook Watch, YouTube, Animal Planet, and now Netflix. What makes the brand so attractive to these platforms?  I think The Dodo is attractive to platforms like these for two main reasons. First, our singular focus on animals has allowed us to become expert storytellers in the space in a short period of time. This hyper-focus has allowed us to gain real expertise quickly about how to tell animal stories that perform extremely well and really resonate with audiences. We made a decision to go deep in what was considered a niche content category, and it has actually allowed us to build a huge global mainstream audience. The second thing that makes us an attractive brand is that The Dodo is a brand with heart. We tell positive stories that transport and inspire people. Our content helps people escape from some of the negativity and craziness in the world, while also making them feel connected. Staying true to the heart of the brand in combination with using all the insights we have gained has made it possible for us to make the leap from short-form, to mid-form, to long-form storytelling with success. “Dodo Heroes,” is Animal Planet’s most-watched freshman series among Total Viewers P2+ since it premiered in June 2018. How does the process of pitching/creating content for Netflix or Animal Planet differ from doing the same for Facebook or Snapchat? We’re really a social publisher first, so pitching and creating content for Facebook or Snapchat is very much in our wheelhouse. We’re comfortable on those platforms, have great relationships there, and are confident in our ability to engage social audiences. Pitching and creating content for Animal Planet and Netflix has been a really fun and exciting challenge for us so far. We’ve had to get smart quickly about longer-form storytelling, and what makes a show successful for these buyers specifically, while at the same time having the confidence to know that we have a really strong sense of what kinds of animal stories move people – and that that’s going to hold true across different, lengths, formats, and platforms. The more we have stuck to our guns about the projects that excite us editorially, the more successful we have been. I think the more we are able to stick to our brand DNA and pitch shows that feel authentic to us, the more successful we will continue to be in extending The Dodo’s reach to places like Netflix. Animal content is everywhere on the internet. How does The Dodo’s strategy stand out? And how are you making sure the content is unique?  When we started The Dodo, I was finishing up my Ph.D. in Philosophy with a focus on human/animal relationships and animal ethics. I had obviously noticed that animal videos were constantly going viral, but that the content fell into two categories: pure fluff or hardcore activism. What we set out to do was fill that white space. We wanted to build a media brand centered on animals that not only entertains, but really means something to people – and feels inclusive for a mainstream audience. We never want to make anyone feel guilty or preached to. What really sets The Dodo’s approach apart is our point of view: We put animals front and center and treat them as worthy protagonists. We see them as individuals with hearts and minds, unique personalities, and meaningful relationships. Our sensibility as a brand is emotional, empathetic, and fiercely positive. So we’ve focused on building our videos and episodic franchises around themes that matter to people – friendship, family, and resilience, for example – and have been able to build varied narratives that really retain loyal audiences as a result. Some content businesses create their own OTT apps in an effort to expand their brands. Do you see this as a potential option given The Dodo’s traction across the internet? The Dodo’s overarching distribution strategy is to be where our fans are, and to tailor content for these platforms. Given the size of the audience we’ve been able to build across our existing channels, there isn’t an immediate need from an audience development standpoint to have our own OTT app today. But we are looking closely at the business opportunity and weighing if and when it makes sense for us to enter this space. The Dodo recently produced its first series with a human protagonist — “Ruff Life With Lee Asher.” How did that go? Our audience loves animals. They’re a little pickier when it comes to people. But it’s really important for us, especially as we look to lean further into both YouTube and longer-form programming, to cultivate human talent that our audience feels connected to. So our strategy has been to develop series around people, like Lee, who are genuinely obsessed with animals and/or doing great things for animals – people who have been featured in one-off videos and really resonated with our audience in the past. Dodo fans do not tolerate anything that feels inauthentic or staged, and so homegrown talent is the name of the game for us – we let our audience tell us who they connect with. In terms of performance, the series has performed to expectations. We always thought that it would take a few seasons to really hit given that it’s based around a human protagonist and therefore a bit unfamiliar for our audience. But it’s deeply relatable and aspirational at the same time, which we think is a rare combination that will resonate with audiences.