NOWNESS is a retreat of beauty in the maelstrom of the Internet. In our era of information overload, the video channel launched in 2010 by the LVMH group is now renowned worldwide as a benchmark of excellence (for its cutting-edge and exclusive approach). Following the decline of traditional advertising, together with Managing Director Daniel Coutinho we delve into the value of creating great, outstanding and sophisticated strategic narratives around brands.
You always set quality over quantity, the less-is-more philosophy permeates the channel. In 2010, NOWNESS was a precursor in the sense. Was this their idea since the beginning? What was the original mission envisioned by LVMH group when they first generated the project?
The thing for NOWNESS was to create a platform to showcase the best creative work, with one story a day. Most of those stories were long articles with slideshows and pictures. The focus has always been on high quality storytelling.
With the democratization of filmmaking, we started doing more and more videos. In 2010, films represented 20% of the content. In 2013 they represented 70%. We slowly started moving towards that direction, and that was also the direction the audience was wanting us to go in. In 2014, we made a decision to commit to film, so we said, “Okay, from this day on, instead of having one story a day, we’re going to have one film a day.” That was a huge step for us because it’s very hard to get the quality so high when you need to have one exclusive film a day. We have done that for a couple of years, and then this year we made a decision to slow down a little bit. We are now doing three a week: we wanted to make sure that those three films are really great and outstanding. We are continuing to increase the bar: less films, more resources, more focus. Hopefully the audience will see that we’re bringing the quality up.
Having a look at the big picture today, everybody involved or just interested in communication is (or should be) concerned about the huge information overload we are experiencing: the internet, which started as a land of infinite possibilities, turned into a wild place full of shifting sands, triviality and sincerely useless voices. A place where gems are hidden and difficult to find.
There’s this very interesting sentence from Eric Schmidt, the Executive Chairman of Alphabet. He said, “Every two days now we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003.” The amount of information that we create every day is just unbelievable, right? We cannot compete in quantity with other people.We’re not a news website, we are not a TV channel, we are not in the war of quantity. We are in a different war and are trying to make things better and at a higher quality. We want people to know that NOWNESS is a place where they will be able to find something very special. Today there are so many things out there, it’s so hard to know where to go to get good content. We want to continue building that perception ongoing that NOWNESS is the home for the best short films. And it’s not a matter of quantity. It’s really a matter of quality.
What would you say that is essential for a video to be showcased on NOWNESS? What makes a video a NOWNESS video?
For us it’s very straightforward. A NOWNESS film is a film that you cannot see elsewhere. We really believe that we need films that you can just watch on NOWNESS and that is why these films are made in a way that hasn’t been seen before. That moves the audience from an emotional point of view. At NOWNESS our position ought to be as avangardist as possible , and really tap into the next trends. Sometimes, after we watch a film that we commissioned we often have this discussion whether it’s a NOWNESS film or not. We try to refine our strategy to make sure that everything that we are curating and commissioning feels special.
More on a business level, what was the original mission envisioned by LVMH group when they first generated the project?
That’s a very hard question to answer. There were many different points of view on NOWNESS. I think the main goal at the time was really to create something that would be of outstanding quality. A very typical LVMH way to approach things is to have a long-term vision: keep building a brand that is committed to outstanding quality looking continuously at the future . Even if we’re talking about bags or fashion or champagne, that is something you see across the group. All of the brands carry this commitment to excellence, to quality, and thinking long-term. NOWNESS is a reflection of those values. From the beginning, it was not launched to be a business that is making a lot of money in the short-term. We want NOWNESS in five, ten, twenty years, thirty years to be the channel where you find the best films on the web on fashion, art, design, food, travel.
This mindset is still there as we evolve and we get older. If we look back now, I see it as an amazing achievement. NOWNESS didn’t exist in 2010 and today we have a respected brand in the industry associated to a high quality platform. A lot of people use us as a reference, as a benchmark. Brands or agencies tell us every now and then that they use NOWNESS as an example of what brands or filmmakers should be doing.
How has the business model of NOWNESS evolved since you arrived?
In 2010 we didn’t know if it was going to work or not. NOWNESS could have been launched, could have been a flop, and it could have disappeared. In the first couple of years, it didn’t make any revenue whatsoever, it was just trying to establish its position in the industry. We did that successfully, and after that, organically, there was a demand from the market. Slowly, what happened was that brands would come to us and say, “We love what you do, how can we work with you?” It was very natural for us to start commissioning films for brands because we were already doing that for NOWNESS and we started bringing brands on board.
What makes us very different than an agency or a production company when working with brands is that we don’t create films that only fits them. Films have also to fit NOWNESS because at the end we are putting our label, our brand on it. It goes on our channel. Every time we work with brands, we’re really picky in the sense that the film has to deliver a brand message but it also has to fit our values, our DNA, the way we make stuff. Otherwise, you as an audience, you come to NOWNESS and you see a film that feels different, you’re not going to engage with that. It really has to feel like a NOWNESS film.
What kind of brands do you work with?
In the beginning, there were more fashion brands because NOWNESS was perceived to be a fashion blog. But we have really moved away from that. Today we are not a fashion blog at all. We call ourselves a global video channel streaming the best in culture, so we cover culture in the large sense of the term, so we talk about art, about design, about fashion, about travel.
We still work with fashion brands but we now work a lot with automotive brands for instance, such as Audi or Mini. We just had a film on NOWNESS from Lufthansa, the airline. We are working with a cosmetics brand, with coach institutions, with the Design Museum in London, with the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. We work with so many different kinds of brands. What they have in common is that they are all premium brands and they all try to reach out to a high-end client.
I have the feeling that even branded content is over and that we must look a step further, for inspiring content that relates less and less with products and services. In most well-done pieces, like the Lufthansa one which you just mentioned, brand feels almost a pretext to create a narrative. How do you explain this vision to brands that are looking for a more corporate approach? What is your vision of this?
It’s very difficult. I have an analogy for that. There is this guy that is going to Japan and his friend tells him, “When you go to Japan, you really need to have sushi.” The guy had never had sushi in his life. He goes to the best restaurant in Japan. He sits there and goes “I want to have sushi.” The chef serves him the first sushi. He looks at it and says, “Oh, but it’s raw fish.” And he says, “Yes, of course, that’s sushi, it’s rice with raw fish.” And he says, “Oh, I want to have sushi, but I don’t like raw fish. Would you mind just grilling the fish a little bit?” And the sushi man says, “No, man, sushi is raw fish. And that is why it tastes so good!”
Some brands are really great to work with and they are really forward-thinking. They understand what we do, and they understand that’s how audiences engage with our films. They know they need to create narratives around their brands, and that it should not be necessarily focused on the product in the first place. But some other brands, they have to go a long way until they get there, there are cases where we have conflict too. Being true to what we are is so important to us that we end up refusing a lot of projects. If you are an agency, you are in the business of retainers and you say yes to everything. We cannot. Because if we start saying yes to everything we’re going to kill our brand. We say a lot of “nos,” which I think is a good thing. We can only do that because we have this long-term strategy. We’re not only working to make NOWNESS to be the best platform today: we are working to make it the best platform for the next 50 years. And that takes time.
Advertising, as we used to know it, is a primitive concept and branded content is giving way to a more authentic and aspirational approach. How do you deal with this in terms of your approach to narrative?
If you look at our series they have a very different narrative style. We actually have so many narrative approaches depending on the projects and the filmmakers we work with. of films you cannot see anywhere else, made in a way you have not seen before and that moves the audience then I it’s a NOWNESS film. All our films are very authored: The filmmaker is bringing his point of view to the table and each individual has a different way of telling a story. That’s the same way we work with brands. We’re not going to treat every brand or company the same way. We’re not going to have the same narrative approach to every brand. For each collaboration with brands that we do, we choose a different filmmaker based on that brand, based on the story they are trying to tell. The brand gives creative freedom to NOWNESS and to the filmmaker, so we can tell the story the way we think is the best for our audience. Of course, you can question how we tell a story. That’s fine. We’re not the only ones that can tell stories, but we know what our audience wants and we know how to tell stories that our audience will engage with.
We all know how dramatically media evolved in the last four or five years. More than words and images, video is now everywhere, gaining more and more presence. How do you see the online video landscape changing?
My vision is that we’re going to have a huge convergence of content creators. For a long long time you just had TV and cinema, then we started having the web and they were two very different universes. But everything will converge to one channel of consumption because today you might still turn on the TV if you want to watch a film or a football game. But more and more you will be accessing those different sources of content the same way. You’ll be watching TV on your phone, you’ll be watching Netflix and films on your phone, and you’ll be watching NOWNESS on your phone. This is really a great opportunity for people like NOWNESS and all other web channels because we have lighter structures.
We’re not a TV channel, heavy and big, with lots of employees, huge budgets, and huge costs structures. We have a very light cost structure. But we’re going to be fighting for the same space because, in the end, I’m fighting for the audience’s attention. At the end, YOU will be choosing if you’re going to watch Netflix or NOWNESS, it’s your time. We’re fighting for your time, for your attention. Traditional channels are going to have a hard time, a really hard time with that reality. They will continue to see their advertising revenues to go down, the same way print publications have been seeing over the last years. And they will struggle. The amount of money that goes into TV is not going to go down, down, and down. Those channels will have to try to compensate for this revenue online, but we know that the revenue online is not the same as the ones you have on traditional TV. We are going to be having the same chances of those people could have access to you.There’s a very exciting future for channels like NOWNESS.
I was reading recently that in the Advertising week in NYC they were talking a lot about new formats of advertising. And basically one of the crucial data that was brought to the debate is that the average watching time of a video on Facebook timeline is three seconds. So basically what they were doing was instructing the advertisers to try to bring up the message within three seconds of movie. Without sound. What do you think of this trend?
I think it’s ridiculous. That’s true in platforms like Facebook, where they push unwanted films into your feed. On NOWNESS for instance, even though we have a very engaged audience on Facebook, still a lot of people watch less than 3 seconds. I’m not interested in that audience, I do not event count these views. I’m interested in an audience that engage with our films. On the NOWNESS website, the average completion rate of films is 60%. Our films have an average 4:30 minutes, which means that we are keeping, on average, our audience engaged for 2:30 minutes. On NOWNESS I’m able to tell a story because in 2:30 you can you can tell a good story. Not in 3 seconds. I think going short is a terrible recommendation for advertisers.
People are no longer engaging with banners at all. Engagement rate just goes down. It’s really something that invades our life and we hate it. People are using ad blockers. There are today 450 million ad blockers users. There is a huge buzz around Snapchat, which has 200 million active users.Brands are more excited about Snapchat than they are worried about ad blockers , and they should be more worried because there are more people using them. And it’s the same with pre-roll. We don’t believe in pre-roll. We don’t believe in pushing a message to the audience, in forcing the audience to watch something. This doesn’t work anymore. We have educated ourselves to skip that. We have the ability to skip. Either we can click on a button to skip, either we can scroll to skip, either we can just ignore it. That’s what we do when we’re forced to watch a video: we just ignore it. We open another tab until the video is done, and then we watch what we want. You need to create content which will bring the audience to you. And the only way to do it is telling stories that are interesting, relevant and engaging. That’s our vision. Every time I hear those comments, I get really upset, and I try to educate brands the other way around, but it takes time.
I knew that statement would provoke you. I guess it worked. Short films are your format. Is there any project of hosting diverse length movies? Will there ever be a feature film by NOWNESS, or a Snapchat series by NOWNESS?
Great question. A feature film produced by NOWNESS is a dream. I think it’s still far away because we don’t have the resources to do it. But that’s something that we would love to do one day. Regarding Snapchat, again, it’s a very difficult one because the way people create content for Snapchat is different than the way NOWNESS creates content. We continue thinking a lot about how should NOWNESS exist on Snapchat. We don’t want to do as everybody else is doing. That doesn’t make sense. Today we still haven’t found an answer to Snapchat and given that we attract another audience, not necessarily the kind of audience that is on Snapchat today, we believe we still have time to continue thinking about it. My concern with Snapchat is my concern with Google, with Facebook as well: I am so amazed by how films and videos on those platform are becoming more and more of the same. If you look at people like PlayGround from Barcelona, they do the same thing as BuzzFeed do, and then I’m looking at The Guardian or the New York Times they do the same kind of social news videos. Everybody’s going to be the same. I think that’s very dangerous because what is the differentiation between those brands? They’re all telling the same stories in the same way. We prefer to be more conservative in that sense: if we don’t have an answer, we’re not going to copy everyone else. That’s not our approach to it. We prefer to really get it right and take our time until we get it right.
In general, who is your audience and where is it located?
It’s global. Our audience is spread across North America, Europe, and China. It’s a highly educated audience: 83% has an university degree. Men and women are about the same, and 56% of our audience is between 35 and 49. Also 26% our audience is above 50 years old. It’s very mature and engaged. On Facebook and Instagram our engagement rate is extremely high, higher than the benchmark within the industry. Many and many opinion-makers and influencers follow NOWNESS . The former creative director of the Paris Opera, Benjamin Millepied follows NOWNESS. Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, the creative director of Louis Vuitton Nicolas Ghesquiere, the chef at the Noma restaurant Renee Redzepi, film director Larry Clark, to name a few, they all follow NOWNESS. The list is so long. A lot of people that are respected in their industries follow us because they know NOWNESS is this amazing source of films and interesting stories. I’m very proud of that, that we were able to reunite these amazing people around the NOWNESS brand.
What was your best personal achievement in NOWNESS and what will be?
I think our best achievement was to develop a loyal audience that keeps coming back and saying that they love what we do. It is so hard to do that and I’m so proud of what we did. On NOWNESS 50% of our audience comes either everyday or at least three times a week , which is a lot, and 94% of the audience agrees that we have amazing content. People really respect and love what we do: I think there’s no other media brand in the industry that has the same kind of respect that NOWNESS has. If you ask around young filmmakers where they want their films to be, probably nine or eight out of ten will say NOWNESS. I think that’s a huge achievement in such a short period of time. We have six years. We’re not that old, but we’re so respected. I’m proud of the audience that we have built, that loves us, that respects us, and that continues to come back.
Is there any other media that is inspiring you as NOWNESS do to these people?
In terms of what we do, I don’t think there is anybody doing the same thing, but that’s fine because people should be talking about different subjects. I really like what Vimeo does, even though I find it a bit of a confusing platform and they do not create original content as we do. I love Netflix. I’m a big fan of them. Netflix’s model is the future: producing, having global rights and distributing, all yourself. They were the first to do that at that kind of scale and they’re going to win the war. It’s so clear. Now all these studios are really scared about that because they see that it’s going to be very hard to control Netflix.
There are a lot of good people doing good stuff out there. But I can tell you what I don’t like. I don’t like anyone who is doing the same thing as BuzzFeed. I think they are brilliant in terms of analysing data. If you are in the media industry today, you need to have a very good data strategy and you need to be using data to make better films etc. At NOWNESS we look at data all the time, we analyze data. But BuzzFeed and others took that approach and made very low quality content to get more clicks and more people to come through. Unfortunately, that has spread out plague on the web. I am sad to see what happened to the industry. A lot of people brought the quality level down and so many others have followed them in this race to the bottom for clicks and impressions. I hate when I see publications that have been there for hundreds of years and have an amazing roster of journalists and quality writers like The Guardian or The New York Times and then “copy” BuzzFeed on social media. It is such a pity that those top publications are using those low-end strategies to get more impressions.
We’ve been already talking about this unprecedented availability of content, and of services, and of news, and of ideas. In this sense, how Internet changed the idea of luxury. And what is luxurious for you today?
I think great stories are a luxury, telling great stories is a luxury. When you come across an amazing article about something that you like or an amazing film that really inspires you and teaches you something, that’s a luxury. Because I think the real luxury today is time . We are doing so many things, we are connected 24/7, there’s a lot of information coming through. We all want to make the best use of our time and when we use it to watch something that is of amazing quality that’s a luxury. Luxury is becoming an experience thing . In 20 years time, we will see luxury less and less as goods or something that gives you status. Our generation and the generation that is coming after us they are much more interested in things such as traveling or eating well than ever before.
I am who I am based on the things I do. I believe that it’s already my case —and I would say your case— that instead of buying a Rolex I would prefer to use that money to travel around Asia with my family. This is a much better experience to me as a human being. I don’t need a watch to say who I am. I believe thatluxury goods will become less appealing, and luxury experiences will become way more appealing.
And great stories are a way to create those experiences.
And great stories are a way to bring those luxury experiences to life and to tell those experiences to people and let them know that those experiences exist and we should pursue those.
It is 2040. What is NOWNESS?
In 2040 NOWNESS will be a channel where you’re still coming to find those films you cannot see everywhere else. The quality of films will be higher; we will have more resources to finance the storytelling behind those films. NOWNESS will be a more diverse place: We still are very dependent on talent coming from the US, the UK, Paris, Europe. In 2040, we would like to have more space for talent coming from Latin America, Asia, Middle East, Africa. We really want to have this global voice. I think we’ll probably be doing other things. Maybe we’ll be doing feature films as well and most likely we will be featuring them online. We’ll probably be working with more established filmmakers, but at the same time, we’ll continue developing younger and emerging talent because that’s what we love doing. By then, there will be increasingly more space for those high quality short films. Our audience will be way bigger than what it is today.
One of the traits that I see in NOWNESS movies is that there are many aspects that concur to craft such a powerful storytelling in such a short time. A sophisticated aesthetic, a clever and expressive use of sound, a harmonic rhythm and respect of the specifics of the short film format. Do you think that this can evolve to be something told in a more sensorial and experimental way? Taking it even more to the edge, what would NOWNESS be if it was an installation?
NOWNESS is a brand that can evolve to explore new territories. You can apply this same criteria of things that can’t be seen anywhere else to art installations that will blow your mind.
You could also imagine NOWNESS as a place where you can buy highly creative crafts that you’ve never seen before. Why not? I think there’s definitely room for that. NOWNESS is a very exciting brand because of its commitment to quality, excellence, creativity and innovation. Those are values you also find in other industries such as design, art, fashion and luxury. Definitely there’s room for us to go into different directions as long as we are true to who we are and to our values.