Q&A with Branded boss Jasper Donat: There are too many events and it’s spoiling the market

Jasper DonatJasper Donat is the co-founder and CEO of Branded, one of the region’s most successful media, marketing and entertainment event firms notable for YouTube Fan Fest, a fans-meet-YouTube stars platform born in Singapore that has gone global.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks, the former Star TV, ESPN Star Sports and Eurosport sales executive and the “world’s worst TV buyer” during his time at MEC (according to his LinkedIn profile) talks about the story behind YouTube Fan Fest, what’s hot and what’s not in marketing event topics, the best speakers he’s ever heard, why a glut of digital events is spoiling the market, and where he wants to be in five years’ time.

Jasper, what are the hottest topics right now in media and marketing events in Asia?

Five years ago it was all about media convergence. Well, now that’s happened. Consumers are in control. People are trying to get their heads around fan-controlled media and an entertainment ecosystem where companies are not putting stuff in front of people anymore, people are pulling it down and consuming it for themselves. They don’t care about the platform or the source. They want it, and they want it now.

Five years ago content was king and distribution was queen. Now it’s about the customer experience. End users want a seamless, easy experience with whatever platform they’re using. Those who are delivering that are winning. Look at Apple or Netflix. I couldn’t tell you how much I spend on Apple every month, but I don’t complain. Both are exceptional experiences that produce content that I want to watch.

We’re also seeing the emergence of brands as media companies. Red Bull is a leading protagonist, but now we’re seeing in brands such as SK-II in the beauty business engaging with content creators rather than making commercials and placing ads in magazines. There’s a gold rush to work with creators, influencers and social stars. It’s not about getting a Hollywood A-lister to endorse your product anymore, it’s about engaging influencers.

All the Hollywood agencies now have hugely successful digital divisions who deal with lifestyle bloggers, who are turning down millions in potential revenue as influencers will only work with brands they trust.

The media world has turned through 180 degrees. When Branded started 13 years ago there was no YouTube or Facebook. When we did MediaWorks, the only digital platform that attended was MSN. People were still talking about the power of print.

Are there some topics you think are being overdone at the moment in media and marketing events in Asia?

We have been doing Social Matters with Ogilvy. That’s probably run its course. That need for education in social has probably gone away. But I think there are too many events full stop. It’s spoiling the market. It means that there is too much choice, and that can’t be a good thing. There are a lot of digital media events out there, and a few that are great but a lot are not cutting through.

The last ever Ad:Tech Asean

The last ever Ad:Tech Asean in July

What do you make of the closure of Ad:tech Asean?

I never went to one. I think one of the challenges for B2B events is producing something of scale that matters, and producing something that is exclusive and working out how to monetise it. That’s a challenge. Sometimes 20 people around the table is more valuable than a 1000 people in a room.

One thing I’ve noticed Branded get right for me as a journalist is to deliver news on stage, such as the launch of Ivy Wong’s multi-channel network a year or so ago. Can you tell us about your approach to editorial?

It’s very important that we only work in editorial spaces that we understand, where we also understand the people in the market. There have been a number of different areas where we’re asked to do events and we say no because we don’t understand the context.

YouTube Fan FestTell us about your most successful creation, YouTube Fan Fest. Where did the idea come from and where are you taking it?

Our relationship with YouTube started at Music Matters when they introduced the concept of producing Asia’s first live streamed music festival. We worked with Singapore Polytechnic to produce the event with us, and ended up with a Music Matters scholarship at the poly. We won awards for that.

Ryan Higa

Ryan Higa

As YouTube evolved, so did the creator community. Sitting down with YouTube again, we discussed the idea of taking young teen creators off the laptop screen and putting them in front of fans. I’d love to say that we had predicted its success, but we had no idea what would happen. At the first event, we had security issues because so many people turned up. It was crazy. When Ryan Higa tweeted he wanted to go shoe shopping, 200 kids turned up at the hotel. You wouldn’t get that with the old way the media worked five years ago. The entertainment experience had been turned on its head.

Bethany Mota was in Hong Kong for Social Matters in 2013. She was amazing. We learned so much from her, just from that session. We had a room full of brands and invited 250 fans to join from over 2,000 who entered. She met all of the 250 fans, and then asked when she could the rest. That would never happen in the old school media and entertainment world.

We’ve done 19 YouTube Fan Fests now. It’s gone global. We have been to Toronto and we’re taking it to Sao Paolo in early November. All that time we’re learning. We’ve been working with creators who can make videos and communicate with fans. They’ve stopped calling them fans, they’re calling them friends. It’s humbling to watch it happen. It’s great to see brand owners see it happen and come to understand what it’s all about.

The Digital Matters event we’re doing in December is based on the experiences we’ve had over the last two years. You can’t have influencers on stage without fans. The industry won’t get it. You can throw out stats or show case study videos, but unless you actually see that relationship live, you can’t really communicate its value. We’re bringing in two YouTubers who’ve never been to Asia – Alfie Deyes and Marcus Butler.

At the end of the event, we’re going to bring in the fans so that the industry can see the relationship between the star and the fan, whether that’s on Vine, YouTube or Facebook. One session is on how well the fans know the stars. You can almost guarantee that the fans will know more about the YouTubers than the YouTubers themselves.

One of the things we’ve learned over the last two years is that there are a lot of young creators who don’t even know that they’re young creators, and so there are a lot of people trying to pick up the existing talent out there.

We’re going to launch a series of workshops to help young people work out how to make a video, how to tell a story, what props to use, how to get the lighting right, and so on. The sort of stuff you can’t find on Google. We want to teach them the basics.

What do you think agencies make of the YouTubers you’re promoting and the potential threat to their business that they pose?

There will always be a role for an ad agency – as the brand custodian and leading strategy. That’s where they prove their most value. But unless they turn into talent management companies, they will struggle in a few years’ time. They’re up against brands who are going direct to talent. The traditional media agency doesn’t provide value in that relationship. Those who understand that, and not just on the brand side but on the talent side too, will be ok. Agencies won’t die. They will reinvent themselves.

Who’s the best speaker you’ve ever seen at an event why?

I saw Nicholas Negroponte [the founder of MIT’s Media Lab] at an International Advertising Association event in London in 1997. What he said then, about the connected device, is coming true now. What an amazing future gazer he is. He blew my mind.

Of the speakers we’ve had, it’s the people on the creative side who really inspire me.

Nile Rodgers when he came to Music Matters in 2007 is one [Rodgers is a musician and producer who has worked with the likes of Diana Ross, David Bowie, Madonna, INXS, Britney Spears, Daft Punk, Lady Gaga and Kylie Minogue]. Rodgers wrote the song Coming out. I enjoy the creative process and like it when an artist talks about how they wrote a song. Coming out wasn’t actually a gay anthem.

Jason Mraz was good, as he’s a straight-up amazing musician.

We had Troy Carter at Music Matters in Singapore in 2012 when he was Lady Gaga’s manager. Through his partnership, he created the world’s biggest pop star of all time. He was talking about how artists connect with fans, and how brands need to connect with their communities.

People need to learn from the new creative influencers. Business needs creativity. Unless you’ve got someone crazy at one end of the chain, nothing will happen.

You mentioned there being too many events now in Asia. In fact, Vaasu Gavarasana, the former head of digital marketing at AXA Singapore (who was at Yahoo at the time), emailed the industry’s major event organisers asking them to come together to address the issue last year. What happened there?

He set up a committee. We were part of it. We said, here’s our calendar of events for the year. But no one else would play ball.

The reality is, people can’t afford to spend two days out of the office every week of their lives. So in the events world, it’s survival of the fittest. It’s hard to say who’s going to win, or what success looks like, as a lot of people seem to think hey, let’s just do an event, it’s easy. Well, it’s not.

Jasper Donat's LinkedIn profile picBranded has been successful in its first 13 years. Where next for the industry, and where next for Branded? What’s the five-year plan? Are you going to sell?

I don’t know where we’ll be in five months’ time, let alone five years. Things are changing so quickly. The events business will be driven by fans. More and more entertainment companies will have to listen to what the consumer wants, not assume they can put content in front of them.

We will see sport and music come together more. Live entertainment has an exciting future. Look at how many music festivals their aren’t in Asia. Right in the middle of that is the online play that connects everyone together.

But where will we be in the future? Mobiles embedded in our ears and retinas? Who knows if that will happen. But more and more ‘real people’ will become creators, that’s for sure. And brands as media will be really exciting.

As for Branded, in five years’ time I’d like to be on a beach with a gin and tonic watching the sun go down! That would be nice. We’re going to consolidate what we’re doing with B2B and B2C events and see where there are more intersections between the two. I want to get on planes less, and see the family more.


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