YouTube’s UK boss says its role as the launchpad for the careers of successful British musicians, actors, comedians and producers is finally being recognised. Now, in the face of rising competition from the likes of TikTok, its 2020 mission is to attract and develop more creators.
“We sometimes talk down our potential,” says Ben McOwen Wilson, who is returning to focus on YouTube’s UK business as managing director after a nine-year stint overseeing it in Europe. 2019, he says, was pivotal in proving the business' value to marketers, agencies and the British creators.
Advertisers, for example, were able to finally see how it stacked up against other mediums. The Ofcom Media Nations report gave a single view of YouTube’s performance relative to TV and on-demand video. It ranked YouTube as the second-largest commercial channel, third overall behind the BBC and ITV.
“That was pretty mind-blowing to us. Because we knew were quite big but I don't think we had a real sense that we were that big. And then the second thing Ofcom did was cut it by demographic," he adds.
"In the 18 to 34-year-old audience, YouTube captured an hour and four minutes per day viewership. Even if you added up BBC One, Two, Three and Four, they still didn't reach our level. That was a real eye-opener for us.”
Other media groups, by extension, started investing more in YouTube. ITV began creating special edits of flagship programmes like Good Morning Britain, This Morning and Love Island in an effort to get in front of these younger-skewing audiences.
“My big area of focus for 2020 is, having seen some of the success that we had in 2019, is making sure that consumers, brands and our creators really understand what the opportunity for YouTube is right now," McOwen Wilson continues.
Wooing British talent
To hold its position, McOwen Wilson wants to ramp up the number of British creators on the site.
Artists like Stormzy, Conor Maynard, Dave (the rapper), actors and filmmakers like Asim Chaudry – the star of 'People Just Do Nothing' (pictured) – began their careers on YouTube, finding small audiences before being snapped up by the traditional players in the industry.
YouTube said it had directly worked with over 70% of the artists listed for The Brit Awards in 2019, serving as “a real reminder" of what this platform can do for British talent.
"YouTube is this clear founding ground for British talent to cut their teeth," says McOwen Wilson.
“It was amazing to be recognised by more of the traditional media players - whether that's the music labels, the broadcasters or studios - for the potential that we've got for onboarding talent from every walk of life.”
But this is getting harder. Since McOwen Wilson last managed the company in the UK in 2011, there has been a spike in the number of YouTube-alternatives for these young artists to take their work.
Facebook Watch is not a massive concern, “I’ve not really seen it take off”, he shrugs, but the topic of TikTok prompts a pause.
The four year-old video-sharing platform, owned by Chinese company Bytedance, has surpassed a billion downloads and has 500 million active users, according to GlobalWebIndex. Its arrival in the UK in 2018 came with a big marketing spend and it has since continued to grow its own operations, and users, in EMEA. Last October, in a concerted effort to target musicians, it forged a partnership with Youth Music to launch its first Awards to give exposure to emerging musical talent.
“What we've learned, and what has always been true for YouTube, is provided you remain true to the core proposition which is that if somebody who has got an incredible creative idea, we can find you the audience – and for all the other noise that's around us, that is out point of difference. That's it," says McOwen Wilson on the competition.
"Everything else is just noise. As long as we are the best place for somebody with a creative idea that can be expressed in video that is what will sustain us. There are already plenty of competitors around us who have built specialisms in different areas, with different funding models, different lengths of content and specific genres of content. You can learn from all of them and they always help you raise your game, but fundamentally, is YouTube still the best place for somebody who's got brilliant creative idea? Because if we are, that means the best creatives will come to us. Then consumers will spend their time with us. And then for sure it's where brands should want to be."
But for his grand plan of ensuring it’s prime consideration for this emerging talent and keeping its promise of “growing and sustaining them”, it needs to work out a commercial arrangement that benefits everyone. Artists have, in the past, complained that YouTube’s revenue share model is unfair. In 2017, over 1,000 musicians including Coldplay, Kasabian and Sting complained to the European Commission on why YouTube's approach, and that of other online platforms, denies them income.
“We need brands and advertisers to get behind the viewership that is on it to make sure that that talent can grow," says McOwens Wilson. "And if the next Stormzy is going to be unsigned for eight years, where their only source of income is that ad revenue, then YouTube has to be a platform that can sustain them.”
You can read part one of The Drum's interview with YouTube managing director Ben McOwen Wilson on the challenges the platform is facing with Climate Denial Content and how it's planning to tackle the issue in 2020 as advertiser concern mounts.