BBC tells global brands: Come to us for our audience of ‘supercharged’ millennials

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Millennials, the BBC says, are not quite what they are cracked up to be.

Until now they have been largely characterised by the media as a single entity, a distinct generation that inherited a unique set of qualities arising from the coincidence of their formative years with easy access to the internet.

The BBC’s commercial arm has produced evidence to suggest that this is not an accurate picture. Most of the world’s 943 million millennials, around 17 out of every 20 of that cohort born after 1982, are “not so dissimilar in their beliefs to older generations”, it concludes.

In a study published later today and released to The Drum, BBC Advertising argues that 16% of this generation – “the affluent millennials” – has come to define the whole demographic, despite having a different mindset to their peers. An even smaller subset – “the supercharged millennials” – comprises just 4% of the total but is chiefly responsible for this age group’s reputation as “the innovators of all things innovative, cool and current”.

The findings – based on 3,000 interviews in 31 countries – will suit some advertisers because they suggest that affluent millennials are far more brand conscious than the vast bulk of their generation, with 70% saying favourite brands play “an integral role in their life” (compared to 51% of the less affluent). They are also considerably more likely to prefer brands that “give something back to society” (82% versus 67%) and are willing to pay extra for sustainable products (72% versus 57%).

The report, Reaching Affluent Millennials, is especially helpful to the BBC because it reveals that the organisation has a monthly relationship with 69% of this valuable audience, far higher than the 18-24% achieved by “online news youth brands”.

That is not altogether surprising, given the vast array of services and long traditions of the BBC. But the 94-year-old broadcaster presents the finding as “contrary to common belief”, because it feels that its relevance to bright young things around the world is often overlooked, while upstarts such as BuzzFeed and Vice are seen as the natural choice of millennials.

It’s a misapprehension the BBC can no longer afford.

More than ever, the BBC needs to attract and service commercial clients. Recent licence fee settlements mean it has had to make cuts across the organisation and must find alternative sources of revenue to protect the quality of its services. BBC Worldwide, the organisation’s commercial arm, has returned £994m to the BBC over the past five years and, outside of the UK on the BBC’s online, television and radio platforms, advertising is becoming extremely important.

How StoryWorks works

StoryWorks was launched in June 2015 at Cannes Lions to capitalise on the BBC’s reputation for high production values. This focus on content marketing puts the BBC in competition with so many other news providers who have recently set up in this space, from the Guardian’s Guardian Labs to Business Insider’s BI Studios and the Telegraph’s Spark.

The advantages the BBC has here, with its scale and track record in innovation, are obvious. Via the BBC website, BBC World News and its foreign language services, it also has a commercial audience of around one third of a billion.

StoryWorks is based in London, New York, Singapore and Sydney and has quickly doubled in size to around 40 staff. It works alongside a much bigger advertising sales team that is even more widely distributed. And it is already having a considerable impact, with 70% of the BBC’s ad sales business now coming from content-led deals, which are up 20% year-on-year.

Some of its output is breathtaking. One mesmerising film of the 1200-year-old Chand Baori step well in Rajasthan would stand comparison with any BBC One travel feature, were it not for the end credit to luxury watchmaker Vacheron Constantin, “creating eternity since 1755”. Made with ad agency partner Publicis Media, the film is part of a multi-media campaign to introduce young travel-hungry viewers to the idea of owning a high-end timepiece.

The BBC has partnered with Chinese telecoms giant Huawei to produce a branded content series Against All Odds, with one particularly memorable film featuring John Bramblitt, an artist who went blind at the age of 30 but continues to paint by mixing each colour of paint to a different texture. “The eyes are nothing but a tool, it’s the brain that makes the vision,” he says. The two-minute film concludes with the words “Presented by Huawei” and a direction to the campaign website. It’s a commercial but one with an exceptionally compelling narrative.

StoryWorks has won awards this year for campaigns made for HSBC and AIG.

Key sectors for Storyworks are travel, finance, fashion and technology. Many of the BBC’s clients are from luxury brands, and occasionally the language seems unduly covetous to this licence fee payer. “A-list celebrities and elite travellers wanting a beach life infused with glitz and glamour have long flocked to Phuket,” opens the copy on a travel content marketing piece for a luxury resort in Thailand, made for the BBC website. It’s not exactly Simon Reeve.

Richard Pattinson, head of content for BBC StoryWorks, has an impeccable editorial background as a former journalist on Newsnight and a programme editor for This Week. Not many journalists join the BBC to work in advertising but Pattinson has no compunction about his role. The features he commissioned in editorial departments and the pieces he works on now are not “enormously different”, he says, and both have a similar aim, “which is telling stories and engaging audiences”.

Inform, educate, entertain

In fact, he even goes to say that advertising can embody Lord Reith’s classic BBC values. “I still think it's perfectly possible to create commercial content which informs, educates and entertains – those core BBC values – even though you are ultimately creating commercial content.”

Next year marks the tenth anniversary of the commercialisation of the BBC website outside the UK. The BBC’s global television news service is more than a decade older and has always carried ads. “Globally we are well-established as a brand that scores incredibly highly for trust metrics but nevertheless funds itself through commercial activity,” says Pattinson. The United States is his biggest market, followed by Canada and Australia.

A few years ago I wrote in the Independent on how BBC World News got into difficulties commissioning editorial travel features on Malaysia from a company in the pay of the Malaysian government. The BBC held an internal investigation and ended up making a worldwide apology.

Pattinson stresses Storyworks follows “stringent compliance processes” in terms of brand categories it won’t work with and that all commercial content is clearly labelled as such.

In content marketing, the BBC has means way beyond the newspaper brands and small digital newsrooms in its competitor set. “The focus for us is video. We are a video creator going back decades and decades,” says Pattinson.

Specialist BBC websites, such as Good Food and Top Gear, offer additional opportunities with brands in key sectors. Pattinson describes the Top Gear site as a “great asset”, particularly when working with automotive brands on content-led campaigns. “We have been working hard with the Top Gear team,” he says.

The Reaching Affluent Millennials report will help him do “a bit of myth-busting”, he says. Affluent millennials – especially the “supercharged” ones – want a serious news provider, not one that mixes stories of wars and natural disasters with student union humour. “Having a global perspective and being able to do in-depth analysis are the things that are far and away the most important to them when they are coming to a news provider,” he says. “Some of the things you might associate with some publishers in terms of funny and quirky stories are much less important.”

Ad clients and audiences alike are drawn to the BBC by its reputation for reporting news. Content marketing might seem a world away from Panorama or the tough questioning of John Humphrys and Andrew Marr but Pattinson argues that, in the modern BBC, the relationship between StoryWorks and the newsroom is symbiotic and essential.

“I very much believe in the core mission of the BBC globally,” he says. “We have targets of half a billion [audience] by 2022, our centenary. I’m really proud to be part of the team that is delivering the revenue that enables us to invest in the journalism, the innovation and all the great things we are able to do to drive that audience.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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