Jake Avnet grew up on set and seemed destined to be in entertainment. The co-founder of Indigenous Media – home of the top-performing digital series 60 Second Docs – is one of the people pushing video entertainment and branded content into the digital realm. But his background is in film, thanks to his father, Jon Avnet.
The senior Avnet produced blockbusters such as Black Swan and Risky Business, and son Jake has fond memories of being on set.
“My oldest memories are of driving golf carts around the set of Fried Green Tomatoes in Georgia. It was literally in my blood. I always knew I wanted to be in entertainment in some form,” Jake Avnet told The Drum.
After graduating from film school at USC, with a focus on production, the younger Avnet followed his father into the family profession. Although film was his upbringing and training, his career path led him to digital.
As chief operating officer of Indigenous Media, Avnet now helps brands tell stories in the digital content space, producing viral web content, music videos and series that have generated tens of millions of impressions. He started in that space as the chief operating officer of the YouTube series Wigs, the first major scripted drama series channel on the platform.
What got the company to the branded space was that YouTube told them "not only do you need to make everything, but you also need to figure out how to build a business out of this," and that included working with brands in various ways.
“We were fortunate to have some big brand partners in the early days of Wigs, [such as] American Express and Unilever…and that introduced us to the world of brands, and, particularly, brand storytelling. We found that we had a unique perspective.... Brands started to look to us as storytellers and filmmakers, and started to value that perspective,” said Avnet.
Indigenous grew out of an opportunity the Wigs team saw to do what they did for YouTube for all digital platforms. “We were lucky enough to get some great partners and backers and we launched Indigenous five years ago. The mission was to bring premium [brand] storytelling to every platform.”
60 Second Docs transforms the one-minute brand message
The goals of those stories is to talk to an audience in a meaningful way. “Tell them a story that’s entertaining. Hook them. Get them to want to watch. And then they’ll engage more deeply with your brand…and your message,” said Avnet.
Indigenous created 60 Second Docs several years ago to capture the human experience by highlighting the most interesting and unusual characters on the planet. Its cinematic and mobile-friendly approach has driven enormous growth — it has quickly become a global media brand with roughly 500 documentaries, generating 3.5bn total views. It has has seven million followers and connects with a younger demographic in all of the places that they spend their time, via social and streaming media. The company has backing from WPP and ITV , as well as an exclusive distribution relationship in China with Tencent; brand partners include Viacom, General Motors, Focus Features, Chipotle, Fox, Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Red Bull.
More recently, Indigenous and financial brand BlackRock co-created 60 Second Docs Wealth, a series that connects wealth and wellbeing through personal narratives. It has also done docs and series for the film BlacKkKlansman and OnStar.
“We’ve gotten quite good at knowing how to tell effective stories. We’ve been very thoughtful about looking at the analytics and tweaking here and there and continuing to grow and evolve with our audience…at the same time not falling victim to whatever the Facebook algorithm is liking this quarter, which is a dangerous trap for a lot of brands."
For Indigenous, it’s always been about premium storytelling across a number of different themes for 60 Second Docs. “We don’t change that no matter how the platforms are evolving. That’s how we’ve managed to create this meaningful, impactful, cross-platform brand. The brand is what we’re proud of. People recognize it,” Avnet said.
Original content fuels branded content
At Indigenous, the original content side of the business informs the brand side. “We’re now programming at least three original content episodes per week. The way we work with brands is we say, ‘Let us tell your story through our lens.’ We spend a lot of time talking to the brands, we understand their messaging, their goals, their briefs…we go really deep with them. Then we take it and look to the real world to find the type of stories we would tell anyway, and then weave the relevant brand message into the fabric of the story," said Avnet.
The original content includes non-branded 60 Second Docs, but Indigenous is also producing scripted dramas, including the now second season of Five Points, in partnership with Kerry Washington, that takes a hard look at teen stereotypes and flips them as it plays with perspective.
It also had a feature that ran on Snapchat called Sickhouse, which, according to Avnet was a “totally crazy, outside-the-box film…reinventing the Blair Witch Project.” The team was then able to take the Sickhouse footage and made a 72-minute feature that is now available for sale on streaming sites, further monetizing it.
Next up, Avnet and Indigenous will team with Howie Mandel on a TV series that’s essentially a talk show version of 60 Second Docs meant for more traditional distribution. “That shows where we’re going next, which is beyond 60 seconds. A lot of the brands we’re talking to are interested in that kind of story…can we do a feature, a television series? Our model is to build something in digital, learn a bit, then go as big as you can.”