Mixing Board Studio Session: Jeremy Briggs on Video Strategy for Companies Big and Small
Mixing Board community member Jeremy Briggs has had a knack for being where video has been evolving as a communications and marketing tool for the last decade-plus. Perhaps it’s a coincidence but perhaps not. He has led video production efforts at places like Twitter, Buzzfeed and Players’ Tribune and, in between, was super early on Vine and what that foretold for the TikTok era.
Most recently, Jeremy has been helping organizations big and small create their own video strategies. And, breaking news, he will be joining the mental health-focused start-up Modern Heath this summer.
Here are excerpts from this week’s Studio Session between Jeremy and Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett. Jeremy and Sean talk about what they learned working together in the early days at Twitter, how to crack virality, going direct and why you should give creatives full control.
SG: When we worked together at Twitter 10 years ago, we were pretty future forward and thinking about how we could do things differently in comms. I think mostly just because of the fact that we were Twitter. But, even still, we barely scratched the surface of how to use video. Now we live in this era of “going direct,” building your own content teams, building your own content studios, telling your own story. It must have been fun to watch from your shoes as this has all played out in the last decade. What’s your take?
JB: I feel like I somehow fluked my way into this driver’s seat view of the entire industry shifting. Especially having an expertise that was also having this explosion. Video was not really a thing on Twitter. I had to basically pull out every lever I knew and pitch myself on a regular basis to get a full time job there, because at that point, it was just YouTube and that was it. So being at Twitter — and I still always point to Vine (RIP) — as this light bulb moment for me where it really was like, “Wow, video can be anything.” It used to be a thing on a big film screen, you had to pay money to go sit in a theater with. Now, there’s no rules to this. So I think at Twitter, there was just so much creativity, and a democratic way people could use it. It started with just the 140 characters, but soon you had videos to play with, you had photos, you had all these different tools at your disposal to make your opinion known. It was just a cool thing to watch.
SG: Obviously you did things around early product launches. That was a lot of fun and it was a cool way to tell the story of a new product. But what I remember most from that time was a very simple thing, which was you created these videos that were awesome and funny that were all about hiring engineers. It was just employer brand stuff. Like, “This is the vibe of the company.” It gave so much of a richer view of what it was like to work at Twitter, than obviously any tweet or anything you could do in comms. It was an aha moment for me, that this medium could be so evocative. It told an emotional story.
JB: It just seemed like there came a point where you had to have a personality to exist on a place like Twitter. A lot of companies that were just expressing themselves via million dollar commercials, or their websites, or their brand advertising. All of a sudden, you just had this whole other area. And, at least in the early days, it was being run by the interns of the world. It was being run by the 21 to 25 year olds, which was basically how old I was.
It still blows people away, because I tell people my job in the first three months was literally walking down to the founders’ offices and being like, “What do you guys want?” And then they’d just say, “this”. I’d be like, “Cool,” and come back four days later with a finished video. I would ask, “What do you guys think?” And they’d say, “Post it.”
It was such a weird thing to have that kind of access for that kind of company.
SG: We were trying to be creative and proactive on my team, but failing most of the time. Mostly we were just so busy and dealing with so much stuff and so many things happening in the world. You were this pocket of creativity that could think about, “Oh, here’s a funny way to look at this,” or “Here’s an interesting way or an interesting twist.” And you’d come back with something uncomplicated, a 30 second or two minute video that we’re all like, “Oh, that’s cool.” I think it was very much of the right place, right time, right moment, right medium. I think you’re exactly right. When Vine came about, you could do so much more with it. But almost in a way, to me, that first phase was so cool because it was unclear. It was not obvious. Then suddenly when you saw it, it became, “Oh wow, this could get big.”
JB: What I think about too, when I wasn’t making videos, I was just studying Twitter. I was just reading as much as I could. So I was better and earlier than most people to try to understand an audience. And then participate in it in a way that I don’t think people knew how to do before. Because it was the first time where there was just this new place for an audience to live. There were so many rules around advertising and commercials and all that stuff. So it just created a new ecosystem.
Now there’s so many ecosystems. That’s what you have to do now for TikTok and YouTube. You need to understand the audience. You need to understand the rules, the constraints, the product, all this stuff. But I think back then, it was just so Wild West and I was just fortunate enough to have a job in which I was already addicted to Twitter, and then I got to express, I was like, “This is what I would want to see if I was on Twitter.” Or try to synthesize the people that were on there, the hard core users.
SG: That’s awesome. Tell us what comes next after Twitter.
JB: So we built out a little bit of a team at Twitter, including Ian Padgham. He was just this artistic fountain who could draw and paint and do all these things that are amazing. When Vine launched, it was this amazing moment for both of us because we were just like, there’s just so much we could do here. So we actually left and started this little twosome and we made Vines for brands like the Chelsea Football team, Porsche, Gatorade and all these really big brands. We had no idea what we were doing, and nobody else did either. So that was, again, an early stage of, oh, it’s so fun to come in new to these things and really try to participate and pay attention.
And rather than be like, “Uh Vine, it’s just all these 16 year olds,” I learned to be endlessly fascinated trying to understand why something like this would work. What about this and these platforms would take shape in such new and weird and cool ways… and yeah, you just had to ride each wave. So we did that for a little bit. Then I got an offer to go to Buzzfeed to run their Vine accounts. I’d been interested in them because they were, especially at that point, just trying to crack virality. Trying to understand this ever changing code. So I moved to New York and I did that for years.
And it taught me a lot. Summer Ann Burton, who’s a legend, she invented Buzzfeed quizzes and a lot of really groundbreaking stuff, she got to hire basically a team of 10 creatives. They called it BFF. I don’t even remember what it stood for, Buzzfeed something. But there was a writer, cartoonist, and I was the video person on this team of 10. It was basically this experiment, where for a year we basically just got to make whatever we wanted. The goal was focused on these specific platforms and trying to participate and study them. And use our creativity as data points to try to build an audience, understand it better.
SG: So you guys were responsible for those premeditated viral videos, like exploding watermelons.
JB: Yeah. I got hooked into that. Again, just trying to understand it. It’s funny, because I do think Buzzfeed gets a bad rap, whether it deserves a bad rap in a few instances… when the whole point seems to be just reaching the lowest common denominator, reach as many people as possible. But they really had an interesting method to how they would approach it. I’d already been thinking along those lines, but they really help define what is virality. It’s a lot of people sharing something.
So trying to get to the core of why people would share something with another person, and just making that the true creative thing you satellite around, was a shift in thinking. Before we’d say, “Oh, this would be fun,” or “This would be cool.” Now it’s like, “What are we trying to accomplish with this?”
SG: If you wanted to make the ultimate viral video, what are the key ingredients? Scientifically.
JB: Well, what’s hard is that every platform is so, so different now. It’s hard to just drop one thing on there. So I would say, the real recipe would probably involve animals imitating some sort of human interaction. It should be something the largest amount of people can relate to in some sort of way. I think those are the key for just ultimate virality, huge explosions.
But there’s a lot of what we call share mechanics. What triggers a share? A lot of people share because they resonate with something. They share because it taught them something, there was an emotional response. Emotional share, laugh, cry. So if you can hit four of those all at once, that’s the ultimate. Usually they involve babies or animals that don’t involve English language, or a specific language, so it’s relatable to anybody across the world.
SG: Set the context on Players’ Tribune and what you were doing there.
JB: So it was started by Derek Jeter and it was basically a blog from the athletes, who are writing it themselves. It was supposed to cut out the media so that they weren’t getting misunderstood or misquoted. There was a lot of trust, and there still is. Actually the idea itself, I think, is very ahead of its time. There’s a lot of different athletes that have launched different things like this. I got brought on to basically build the video component of that.
They were just a written website at this point but they had a lot of social channels and a lot of traction. And this was at the real peak of the pivot to video, everything must be video, put all your money into video. This was 2017–2018. And I loved sports but I just thought sports content was bad, really bad. Outside of the sports, the games itself, I just thought the shoulder programming was just awful.
SG: Why is it bad?
JB: On the video front at least, it’s rights and just agents, just the people around athletes. It’s very hard to get athletes to do something without money. Especially when agents and managers are around them. Then rights to the games itself. So you’d have to jump through a lot of hoops. Basically what Players’ Tribune hired me to do was Buzzfeed their content, which ended up being impossible, essentially, because at Buzzfeed, we starred in the videos ourselves. We made the videos, we pitched the videos ourselves. We shot them all in the Buzzfeed studio that we built that was next to our desks. It was all very self sufficient. So I could control the output and I could control things. At Players’ Tribune, I just couldn’t control anything. We’d have an idea that fit our budget, fit our timeline, but two days after that, the manager or the agent says, “We don’t want to do that.” You just couldn’t ever get a steady ball rolling.
SG: Allegedly, everyone now needs to go direct. Everyone needs to do their own content. Everyone needs their own media studios. Who’s that for and who is it not for?
JB: Yeah, truly the ultimate thing is, what do you think it’s for? I think that’s the main question to ask, because a lot of people feel all this pressure just to have a presence with video and steadily be having something they can post. But there’s so many of them now… Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, IG stories and Twitter stories and get on Clubhouse. There’s always a new thing you’ve got to do really quick.
So I just think a lot of companies underestimate how hard it is to do that, and how expensive it is to be good at that, and to make it worth your while. So you have to ask, is this going to make your company money? What is truly the point of doing it? And if it’s just a box to check, if you’re not really sure, if you just feel this pressure, I wouldn’t do it. Or I would explore other ways, cheaper ways, to try to get to the same thing you’re trying to get to.
If it’s just about showing up on these platforms, there’s certainly cheaper ways than video. I’ve definitely lost money, probably telling people that, but I’d rather that and work with people who really know that it does take people, it takes time and it takes money. It’s not this thing that by the end of the month, you’re already going to see progress. Especially the more mature platforms like YouTube, it just takes a long and consistent amount of posting, and a consistent style and some directions that just you have to commit to. And that comes with money.
SG: Are there companies that you think are gold standards in how they approach video, or is it just all over the board?
JB: There’s definitely gold standards. We’re seeing a shift right now in just individuals over companies. I think people want to follow people. That’s always been the case.
SG: There are the speak-into-the-camera, raw, conversational talks that obviously become more normal during the pandemic. What stylistically is the right thing in 2021?
JB: I think it’s the personality. I just think people want to follow a personality. I was going to say too, the companies that I think are doing the best, honestly, are the ones that hired creatives. I think Buzzfeed actually was a leader in this space early. It still was under Buzzfeed, but they had these personalities that people kept returning to Buzzfeed for, and it became a cool place to work and that was a place you could get internet famous. It looked fun. You get to intermix with all these other cool creatives.
SG: I’ve never thought of that before. But should companies be looking at YouTube and Twitch and say, “Let’s hire personalities.” What would that look like?
JB: I just think it would save you a lot of advertising. There’s a lot that they can bring by just belonging to this company, especially if they have a following already. I think there’s just a glaze when it comes to things that look corporate and look commercial and look faceless. People really want a face. They want a personality to intermix with. And you have to ask, do you need to be big on Twitch?
Are you a company that really it’s important that you’re big on this, and what do you think this is going to leverage you? Because then it’s like, yeah, take money out of your advertising budget and put it into that rather than, “Hey, let’s try Twitch and just see …” And people on those spaces, YouTube, Twitch, TikTok certainly, I don’t see any brands that are succeeding like crazy. You’ll hear every now and again that the Washington Post is doing cool TikToks. And it makes sense because it’s about returning. It’s less about the one time viewing, and it’s more about getting people to return to watch that content all the time.
You’re not reshaping and shifting all the time to try to match trends. You’re just aligning yourself with people who already do.
SG: You said you started off as a documentary producer. How do you find the documentary style actually something that a lot of companies could use or better leverage or dig into?
JB: I personally always like those better, just because they felt authentic. Not that you can’t bend the truth in a documentary at all. But it felt real. You could make a point more. You got more that really felt authentic to whatever it is you’re trying to do.
But this is one thing I get into arguments a lot about with people who have my same job, but at maybe more traditional advertising places and the look and the color and the graphics are that much more important. I just think that stuff is not necessary. I think again, you have to get to what are you trying to accomplish? And this happened in Vine. I would see it all the time where it’d be like, “What’s working on Vine, is a 15 year old filming himself doing a weird voice.” Then some advertising agency’s like, “All right. We’re going to show you what real video looks like.” Then they drop this insane looking half a million dollar commercial on TikTok and it wouldn’t work.
So I just think there’s this divide of what quality is, and the companies should make that determination as early as they can, because quality to me, it’s just about the content itself. Typically, that’s very dependent in the ecosystem that you’re making that content in. Quality on TikTok is very different than quality on television or commercials. But I think documentaries at least, most of these things are based in reality. It’s people talking to the camera, they’re being themselves. I think that’s better. If you’re trying to impress people with just graphics and major fill in … I don’t think it works anymore, at least on the internet.
SG: Well, it’s interesting because it’s a thing that every leader wants to do, to tell their bigger story or explain, if they’re successful, how the world changes for the better and all those things. I just feel like video is underused for that. There’s bigger purpose things. Obviously, you’re not trying to create some sort of award winning documentary. But I do think the video medium provides so much more flexibility to create some nuance and to create emotional resonance to your leadership strategy. I don’t really see that that much, and it’s something that I’m really curious and interested in that I would love to figure out how to do a better job at.
JB: I think the other thing that is important nowadays is connection. If you can tell the CEO of some company is actually holding the phone and talking to it directly, as opposed to clearly having someone film them and follow them, and there’s this professionalism surrounding it. Especially nowadays, that resonates further. And I agree, I don’t think enough people recognize the power, they think it’s beneath them or it’s not going to resonate for whatever reason. But the ones that do do that, it works so well. It’s just people connecting to that personality.
SG: I think about in 2021, CEOs and their teams are still spending 100 hours on developing a PowerPoint deck when they could be making a video where you can add in animation or context or interviews or other things that could be interestingly nuanced into it, which just people don’t do. They spend time creating text boxes in a PowerPoint instead.
JB: This is actually another thing I’ve been trying to work on in the last 8 to 10 months especially. For Zoom presentations, can we do something that’s a little bit more interesting than just a person in front of a big screen with a little clicker doing that? You approach it from a different way. You could approach it like a video and you could approach it like television. It’s so limited right now. I know that’s about to change. I know Zoom’s launching all these apps and these new things. But at least six months ago, that wasn’t as on the horizon. It was really interesting to try to think through as a way of connecting with people, because Zoom could be this whole other creative medium or platform.
SG: Tell us about your new job at Modern Health.
JB: It should be really interesting. For anybody that doesn’t know, they’re a B2B benefits package, basically, for mental health. They’re only a few years old, but essentially they’re part of these benefits packages at big companies, like Intel. And they help people find a therapist or a coach that can help them with problems they’re going through.
They’ve launched this thing called Circles, which is essentially these Zoom group therapy sessions. That was a lot of what we talked about when I was interviewing, was just how can we make these bigger, better, maybe even more public?
After Players’ Tribune and Buzzfeed I was burnt out on just making video content for platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, because it’s just hard to break through when it’s this relentless, every day, give me another one, give me another one, type of feel. And I wasn’t totally sure, at least full time, if I really wanted to jump back into that. But what’s really cool about this is one, is that their success metric is so simple. It is help people.
And it does seem like my career has been building towards this somehow. It leverages every part of the job that I like and that I think I can be helpful in.
Previous Studio Sessions
- Katie Dreke (former Nike brand and innovation leader) on the Modern Brand & Human Connection
- David Swain (former Instagram head of comms) on Starting and Staying Strategic in a Big Comms Job
- Obama Comms Aide Eric Schultz on ‘Going Direct’, Liars, WH Briefings & More
- Todd Hansen (former head of programming and strategy at SXSW) on the Future of Events and the Next SXSW
- Bailey Richardson (early Instagram employee) on Building Communities With Intention
- Amanda Atkins (head of internal comms and culture at Slack) on a New Era for Internal Communications
- Cody Keenan (President Obama’s chief speechwriter) on taking risks and embracing controversy
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
Here’s how the Mixing Board community of brand and comms experts support organizations with their advice and perspective.