Super Deluxe’s founder, who BTW rediscovered ‘House of Cards,’ on making outsized returns by betting on outsiders and the entrance of Apple and Facebook into mass media
There’s more to millennials than avocado toast.
So says Wolfgang Hammer, the president of Super Deluxe, a creative agency behind videos that millennials like. Since the Austrian native founded the brand as a subsidiary of Turner Broadcasting two and a half years ago, Super Deluxe has made both inane and inspired hits for the 18-to-35 year old set. They include a burning map of America that published on election night last year (24 million Facebook views) and a video of ice cream rolls being made (6.6 million hits on YouTube.)
The Los Angeles-based company claims an audience of 51 million monthly viewers, up from 30 million in October 2016. Almost 90% are millennials. But Super Deluxe videos aren’t 60-second soundbites. Its short-form team produces 15-to-20 minute long takes that involve a storyline. One popular series is “Joanne the Scammer,” which features a mixed-race Puerto Rican man playing a blonde white woman in drag. Super Deluxe bills this not just as comedy, but also a feminist discourse on race and gender issues.
“Being able to speak to a younger audience is not easy, it requires a certain kind of language,” the 40-year-old Hammer tells Moneyish. “I don’t really care what our biggest hit is. I care about moving the cultural needle of creativity, having something great enter the mainstream every week.”
The trick ingredient, Hammer says, is hiring a diverse group of talent with a unique message, and then enabling them. “We look for people who have something specific to say…that they know a lot about,” he says. Among his proudest discoveries is “This Close,” a drama featuring two deaf friends (actors and creators Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman) that will debut on Sundance Now next year.
The Stanford graduate entered the media business at an indie studio, where he rediscovered a 1990s BBC drama called “House of Cards” and developed it for Netflix. He later held senior positions at Lionsgate and CBS, where he oversaw films like the “Hunger Games” franchise. Super Deluxe currently makes money via brand tie-ups and licensing content to distribution partners; it’s also experimenting with direct sales to its most obsessed fans. The company won’t disclose its financials, but its parent Turner reported revenue of $2.77 billion in the three months to September 2017, up 6% from the comparable period last year.
While Hollywood’s creative class are overwhelmingly white men, just over half of Super Deluxe’s employees are female and 41% are people of color. Its average viewer is 24. “Whether it’s deaf filmmakers who want to make a show on dating or being born to immigrant parents in a place where your religion doesn’t fit, we want to have new perspectives,” Hammer says. “We pair emotion with television experience and bring it to life. We’re designed to take risks that the Hollywood system won’t necessarily push for. When you back an outlier and you’re right, the cultural and financial returns are outsized.”
Super Deluxe also brings technology to the storytelling table. Among its tools is interactivity technology that enables users to vote on say, the costume a character on a Facebook Live video should wear in the next scene, and actually have it occur within minutes. “This is ginormous and we’re the only ones who can do it,” he says.
“Super Deluxe has impressively both cracked the code on the content that millennials crave and the way it is presented,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore. “That is no small feat. The challenge will be to be maintain this level of output, but they have the creative momentum necessary.”
As with all content producers however, Super Deluxe is liable to the vagaries of platforms. It’s benefitted from Facebook, arguably its largest platform, prioritizing video and the likes of Apple and Amazon pouring billions into a hunt for compelling content. But just ask multimedia publishers like Mashable, which reportedly lost more than half its audience after Facebook tweaked its algorithm in 2015— that can change.
“Our shows have developed a standing, and that’s different from optimizing for a single platform,” Hammer says. “We build the best intellectual property for a millennial audience and we measure on engagement, not views.”
A bigger challenge might have to do with politics. Super Deluxe is ultimately owned by Time Warner, the media conglomerate subject to an $85 billion takeover bid by AT&T. The merger has stalled after the Trump Administration sued to block it, a move that some observers attribute to the President’s antipathy for CNN, Super Deluxe’s sister company. Like CNN, Super Deluxe’s videos have taken aim at aspects of Trump’s “America First” agenda, including videos of former Mexican President Vicente Fox roasting Trump.
“We’re decidedly non-political,” Hammer says. “But political life is ripe for satire and we will do that. I’d like us to be equal opportunity offenders.”
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