My mother used to ask (rhetorically), "What do you think this is—fun and games?" The implication was that most things were not. Fun, that is. But one thing that's nearly always fun is kids' video content.
Shows such as "Peanuts," "Inspector Gadget," "Strawberry Shortcake," and "Teletubbies" have to be fun, or families won't watch them. But advertisers definitely don't want to play games with brand-safe children's content.
To protect children, the government has created a fairly complex set of regulations, including the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). If advertisers want to reach the record numbers of families watching children's content together, it pays to study up on the legal landscape.
The technology, too. Connected TV offers incredible promise for advertisers because of the rich data sets available to help them reach people with relevant content at the right time.
To help us navigate all that, I invited Charles Gabriel to Marketing Smarts. Charles is head of advertising US at WildBrain Spark, the premium kids and family advertising-based video on demand (AVOD) network and studio, reaching 1 in 3 kids globally across more than 800 channels.
We get into how Charles first got started in marketing, what drew him to kids' content, how WildBrain Spark is building on connected TV with AVOD platforms like YouTube, how brand advertisers can reach children and parents on these platforms without causing themselves legal headaches, and more.
Listen to the entire show now from the link above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode.
"Marketing Smarts" theme music composed by Juanito Pascual of Signature Tones.
Kerry O'Shea Gorgone: Welcome to the Marketing Smarts Podcast. I'm excited to be here today because we're going to talk about advertising, we're going to talk about data science, and we're going to talk about all of this in relation to advertising to kids, which can be a little tricky. To cover all of that we have Charles Gabriel, head of advertising US at WildBrain Spark. He has more than 15 years of experience in digital advertising and has built and led sales organizations inside major companies like AOL and Disney, and lots of growth phase startups.
Hi, Charles. Let's talk.
Charles Gabriel: How are you doing? Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here.
Kerry: You know how advertising used to be considered sort of distasteful, lawyers never liked to advertise their services, there were even rules that you couldn't. I think advertising and marketing to kids is still sometimes considered a little bit icky, like you shouldn't do it. Yet of course people do it. Why did you gravitate to that kind of marketing specifically? And how do you respond to critics who say advertising to kids is wrong?
Charles: I think in different categories there's probably different sentiment around advertising when it comes to kids. I think that there are certain categories that make a ton of sense. Kids have product choices themselves and also I think parents need to be educated on what products and services are available for kids.
How I got into it and taking a look at the kids' space, number one, where we're at in point in time, the kids' industry is extremely hot. Partly because of YouTube and some of the brands and talent and characters that have been built off of YouTube that have then transitioned and become either cross-screen in film or TV or become brands themselves and have consumer merch and product available.
Also because of the rise in streaming and the rise in connected TV overall, so you're seeing this war play out, every major broadcaster has launched a service. There is an interesting reality behind a lot of these major services that when you look at daily viewing and daily consumption, kids' content plays a huge role in the adoption of these platforms. Most people don't necessarily watch an hour or two per day, but depending on the age of a kid, whether it's educational content or just good storytelling overall or a family show to be watched with their parents, they're often consuming on a daily basis and helping drive subscriptions and adoption to these services. That was something that was super interesting to me.
What was also very interesting to me is if you look at all of the major toy companies, becoming a media company is a necessary strategy at this point for all of them. I think Lego has done a really good job proving that roadmap out with their films. Hasbro took a next big leap in the acquisition of E1 and some of the brands that they created. Mattel is on the same path.
Those are some of the trends that I took a look at that I thought would be very interesting to start participating in the kids' space when it comes to advertising and the content trends that exist.
Kerry: MarketingProfs just launched a masterclass on branding, and one of the first examples Nick Westergaard gives of the impact of a brand on children, even when you're not targeting them, is that they were in Costco and walked by an end cap that had a Starbucks K-cup display on it, and the little boy said, "Coffee!" he knew right away. I feel like whether or not you're designing and appropriately marketing to children, they are being marketed to, as are we all, because you just can't avoid it.
Charles: Yes. Kids are really attentive. They certainly pay attention to a lot. There's another factor there, which is kids have a very different influence in the household today than they may have had over the last 20, 30, 40, 50 years. Partly potentially due to the change in parenting styles that exist in the world. I have two daughters that are 8 and 10, and part of the change in parenting is you're really listening to your kids, it's not a 'seen and not heard' scenario that quite frankly I grew up with a little bit in the '80s and '90s.
Kids are paying attention to what's going on in the world. They have more access to devices and they have more access to content. You see kids being activists in the world at a very young age. That influence is really being felt in the household by parents. They have something to say around just about any product purchase that parents are making for the home, whether that's technology, grocery, food service, where they're eating, or what they're watching, and certainly their own play and toy products.
Kerry: I have to think, given your career trajectory, that you look back on some of the ads you saw in your own childhood with a critical eye. Is there one that stands out for you? I remember all the ads for She-Ra and He-Man toys that could fly in things, and they didn't actually fly. Things like that.
Charles: It's a really good point. If I think back to my own childhood, kids are obviously highly imaginative and you do want to fuel that imagination, but there is a fine line between fueling that imagination and then getting them to believe or understand that this toy product, this game product, this shoe, this piece of apparel, whatever, isn't going to make them fly, fly across the screen, whatever the action might be that they've seen in the commercial. I think because of that you've seen a lot more rigor placed around what can be put in an ad.
I think there have been more restrictions around what you can and cannot show a kid so that they understand what is real and what is not real, back to your statement around commercials for toys around He-Man and She-Ra and all of those products back in the day showing things that they don't do. Organizations like CARU have done a really good job here in making sure that advertisers are informed on what you can and cannot do in a particular advertisement for a kid.
Kerry: You get to work on some pretty fun brands. When we're talking about kids' brands, can you talk about a few of your favorites?
Charles: One of the reasons why I joined WildBrain is some of the brands in our portfolio. We happen to house some of the most iconic brands, certainly from my childhood. We are the primary owners of The Peanuts and we manage that business. We are the owners of Inspector Gadget, which was one of my favorites growing up, Strawberry Shortcake, Caillou, Teletubbies, Johnny Test, Yo Gabba Gabba, all these beautiful, wonderful brands that have great positive storytelling.
I also personally was a huge fan of Scooby Doo, those types of brands where they're fun, they're adventurous. I think that's what kids seek out. They seek out adventure. They seek out fun. When they watch with their parents, everyone wants something that's going to make them laugh and feel happiness. Anywhere that we can weave in positive storytelling, whether it's to encourage kids to be imaginative or whether it's weaving in some of the topics of today, quite frankly, that we've found parents want to see a bit more of.
I can touch on a research project that we recently released with Ipsos that talked a little bit about some of these topics. Parents want to see themes like nature and animal conservation, anti-bullying, and global culture, just to make sure that their kids are learning and seeing what the world is like today versus what it was 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago.
Kerry: Interwoven into the content itself. We mentioned He-Man and She-Ra. At the end of those it would be like, "Hey kids, remember, wherever you go, there you are." They would really hammer away at some point, and this is the first you'd heard of it through the whole episode, they're just mentioning it now. It has to be a little more organic and not quite so ham-fisted as that, because kids today are really savvy.
Charles: I totally agree. Look at what has happened over the last 18 months in the world. There's a major push for diversity and inclusion. I think that if the world really wants to see a change it's really important that we start to show our kids what we want that world to be and what it should be. That can come down to the characters, their backgrounds, the way that they look, the way that they talk, where they're from, what their skillsets are.
I can tell you from our perspective, as we look to refresh some brands and bring them forward to modern times, one of the ones that we are refreshing is Strawberry Shortcake, and she is getting a whole new show and a new look and feel come this Fall. With that, you see her friends and her cast of characters are more diverse and we're really touching on subjects like female empowerment, you can try and fail, but you just have to get back up and keep trying, and demonstrating that girls can have all sorts of skillsets.
I think these are the types of themes that you are responsible for weaving into kids' content and into advertising and into products that you want kids to play with and enjoy.
Kerry: I don't know if you remember this, but Strawberry Shortcake specifically had a line of scented action figures. Do you remember those? I actually held the Angel Shortcake action figure before I had ever tasted actual angel food cake.
Charles: Wow. That's interesting. For sure, the smell is a really important feature to Strawberry and her products.
Kerry: Olfactory memory triggers and all, right?
Charles: Yes. That will be a part of any new merchandise that comes out. We're definitely looking at maintaining those types of beloved pieces of her from the past.
Kerry: One tricky thing that occurs to me about advertising or marketing to kids is that the kids aren't the ones actually, in most cases, making the purchases. Maybe sometimes they are if they have in-game app purchases and stuff that they're allowed to make. How do you gather the necessary data to show the most relevant ads to kids in a household?
Charles: That's a very good question. I'll touch on two things here.
One, for sure, parents mostly are making the purchases. Quite frankly, back to my statement around influence, this day and age, anecdotally it holds true in my household, kids have so many choices when it comes to toys and products and what to watch that it's hard to keep up. Honestly, you rely on your kids to let you know what they want and what they love. From that aspect, I think that kids do a really good job informing the parents.
Kerry: Boy, do they.
Charles: Well, I think it's beyond the nag factor. I think parents are really reliant when it comes to what are your favorite characters, what do you watch on YouTube, what other shows do you watch. If parents aren't really active in the curation of their kids' programming, it's sometimes hard to understand.
With the data, yes, you have a number of restrictions, for all the right reasons, to protect kids' privacy when it comes to advertising in digital environments, especially when it comes to platforms that weren't designed for kids. YouTube is the single largest destination for kids' viewing still, and it wasn't designed for kids. There have been a number of changes there and they're pushing the specific kids app platform.
Either way you look at it, when you're an advertiser it makes it challenging to not have the data that you would normally be used to when it comes to digital advertising. One of the things that we've invested heavily in at WildBrain and with our WildBrain Spark AVOD division is in data science and how to understand behaviors at a show/channel/network/platform level in order to create and establish insights that are actionable.
What I always like to describe this as, we have a proprietary platform called Darwin, it's an audience insights platform built around a machine learning algorithm, and ultimately, it's very much like Netflix recommendations meets IBM Watson. You're getting really smart decisioning and insights based on a collective platform behavior and what kids might be watching without infringing on privacy or using any personally identifiable information.
That is going to be something that is going to need to continue, quite frankly, not just with kids. You're seeing this extend to adult audiences just with the push to be a more privacy-centric industry.
Kerry: I think connected TV and those kinds of technologies aren't being adopted by as many companies as could benefit from them. I still think there's more potential there than most marketing organizations are tapping into.
Charles: I think that most brand advertisers, as a new trend will emerge, you're going to have the forward-leaning ones that are going to step in right away and want to be part of the innovation. Historically, it's often the bigger spenders in the space. A brand like Proctor and Gamble will always lean in a little bit more and a little bit earlier than some other brands. I don't blame marketers for taking their time, but there also is a point in time in which you're a bit late to the game, and I think that marketers do need to be careful about that.
When it comes to connected TV in general, there's just no denying that technology has improved. You have better integrations through the TVs to get to apps. You have better integrations even through cable set-top boxes and gaming consoles. That experience is getting easier and better for consumers, which is eliminating some of that friction to get people from old broadcasting cable and into connected TV. The advertising systems are there. When it comes to kids, there's still some COPPA compliance on some of these platforms that needs to be maintained and developed.
But I do think you're going to see a continued flow of ad dollars move towards connected TV and OTT. The ratings are continuing to shift and decline in a few different audience segments on cable and broadcast. In kids, it's pretty significant. Most kids don't start their viewing experience on cable and broadcast. The reality is most are starting with YouTube, YouTube Kids, Netflix, and Disney+.
Kerry: That's absolutely true. One thing I've seen come up as an issue are child's properties, like popular characters that they love, turned into inappropriate content or redubbed to say bad things, and then they put them on and say that they're content for kids. What can you do about that as an organization that holds that IP?
Charles: That's a really good topic. I think that this is largely what was addressed in some of the changes that YouTube had made, at least regarding their platform being the biggest one out there for kids viewing. That kicked in January 2020 and that was the Made for Kids initiative. What this ultimately did was put some of the onus back on the content owners to ensure that if content actually is made for kids it needs to be indicated as such at the video and channel level. This then essentially triggers new ad policies, and in the world of Google policy is really king.
That has done a really good job in starting to identify any bad actors because if you are a creator that is playing around with animated kids IP and potentially doing something as harmful as taking an existing episode and then altering that in some way, chances are your channel is not indicated as Made for Kids because you want that open for all advertising because you're trying to monetize heavily. Views equals money to these creators. It's allowing YouTube both through technology but also through humans to police that better.
Kerry: I'll tell you a secret. There were actually certain kids' shows that I didn't mind watching with my kids, and I watched them quite a lot. So, when something says Made for Kids, that doesn't necessarily mean other people aren't watching it. It just means that the primary audience for that content is children.
Charles: Correct. I think there are lots of reasons why parents will sit and watch with their kids. It's also one of the nice trends that we've seen maintained out of the pandemic year, because certainly that was a significant rise with co-viewing, but the levels are still very high. Part of that rationale is parents like the nostalgia factor of some of the stuff they watched and introducing that to their kids. Also, the fact that it's an activity, it's another way to sit with your kid, get to know your kid, talk to your kid about what they like and what they want to see and do.
We found in our research that parents really do enjoy co-viewing kids' content with their kids at different times of day. I think that when we look at co-viewing overall, kids' content and premium animation is one of the largest drivers of co-viewing, whether that's TV show or film.
Kerry: It has gotten so much better. I remembered watching a couple of things and I thought I'll show it to the kids, it'll be great. It was horrible. There would be a character from Ireland named something like Whitey McIrish or something. It was so '80s and awful and it was embarrassing to show them and be like I used to spend hours on this. So, I'm very happy with the increased quality of children's programming generally.
Can you talk about brand safe content for kids?
Charles: Yes. I think from a brand safety perspective, and if I speak from a parent's perspective, number one, I think the onus on some level is on parents to pay attention to what their kids are watching.
Kerry: And not to actively introduce them to terrible '80s programming. I don't appreciate that judgment.
Charles: I mean, what was good for us in the '80s just might not be good for kids today. It depends on how you look at that, but that's sort of a to each their own scenario. I loved binge-watching some '80s movies with my kids during the pandemic. Yes, there were some things that were deemed PG in the '80s that would not be deemed PG today, for sure. But that again comes down to some personal choice overall.
I think that brand content that is safe enough for kids, the most important thing in order to try to tie together the family is that it appeals a little bit to everybody. I think that's where humor plays a really big role. You can have a show or a movie – and obviously Pixar does this extremely well from a film perspective – that everyone is going to get something out of. The kids are going to enjoy the characters and the fun and the adventure. The parents might like the storyline. There might be some underlying humor that might not be something the kids would necessarily pick up on, but an adult would.
I think bringing that all together is a really good strategy overall to try to create content that will appeal for everybody and still is safe for kids.
Kerry: I am surprised at what they do get, or even at which point they realize something funny has happened and they are not aware of why it's funny. That threshold seems to be getting lower and lower, they get younger and younger. Tell me some of the things you're working on now. What are you working on now that you're especially excited about at WildBrain?
Charles: WildBrain overall has a number of exciting projects that we're working on. One of which is we announced a few months back our project with Sega around Sonic that will be coming out, which is great. Obviously, the new Strawberry Shortcake Show. As a company, we're looking to refresh Inspector Gadget and bring that back in a big way. We are greenlighting the Green Hornet animated version with Kevin Smith. So, there's a number of pieces of content that I think are going to be great new shows for kids and families, and also tapping into that nostalgia factor, certainly, for parents of a certain age of kids that are right in that demographic where some of these shows can be introduced.
Also, all of the work that we've done with Apple TV+ around Snoopy and launching the new Snoopy show, which again becomes one of those properties that I think helps drive adoption because the parents love it, and they remember it, and then they get to introduce it to their kids.
Outside of some of the shows, I am really excited about what we're doing in tech and data and continuing that work to help marketers. I'm also excited about our partnerships. I think that one of the strengths of WildBrain and WildBrain Spark overall is that we are a very good nimble partner. When it comes to the advertising side and monetizing brands' content and shows and distributing those, we have proven to be a partner across the board with just about everybody, from Mattel to Turner Warner NBC, really anybody that's a major player in the content space.
Kerry: What's coming in relation to the technology of advertising in programming like this? I'm thinking the gadgets on Inspector Gadget are going to be amazing and possibly something people might want. If they saw something and wanted to buy it, would that be possibly technologically, could you make it happen?
Charles: You're really getting back into it depends on the platform, it depends on what the policies will be to maintain COPPA and privacy. Some platforms you can't allow kids' content to have the ability to direct them someplace else, some platforms you can.
Kerry: What if I'm watching and I want it? Being selfish.
Charles: No. I hear you. I think everyone wants that easy access to be able to go from one thing to the next and/or buy a product. I think what you'll see is platforms that are developed for kids. You're going to see more of that ecommerce push. Roblox being a great example of that, and their whole system around Robux and buying virtual goods and leading to offline purchases. I think you'll see a bit more innovation around that.
I think that's also one of the most exciting platforms that's out there, because I think it just has done a very good job of blending gaming entertainment social experience for kids. Yes, it's new, and yes, there is some Wild Wild West to it and there will be some challenges, but I think that the future is very bright for that platform.
Kerry: My younger son has been saving all Summer, doing chores in exchange for Robux gift cards that he can then use to purchase this in-game thing that he really wants. It's like a big juicy thing that costs a lot of Robux, so it has been all Summer long. But it's good, it's teaching him patience.
Charles: I was going to say kudos to you and/or the combination of the platform, because that's a wonderful lesson for a kid to know that they want something that happens to be on a platform that's dedicated for them and they can actually, with parent's permission of course, make a transaction or get what they want, and knowing that there needs to be you have to save, you have to build, you have to get there. I think that's a wonderful way to teach kids.
Kerry: Delaying that gratification. Charles, this has been so much fun. Thanks for indulging my nostalgia. Where can people learn more about this and where can they learn more about what you're doing?
Charles: Please, if any marketers want to learn a bit more about WildBrain Spark specifically, just visit our website. We're very active in the B-to-B community with advertisers on LinkedIn. We also do a ton of research that we tend to share out pretty openly with marketers and their agencies. Anybody can get in touch with me, my information is on LinkedIn, and I'd love to hear from any marketer that listens to the podcast.
Kerry: Thank you for listening here to the very end. This has been the Marketing Smarts Podcast. Talk with you again soon.
Charles Gabriel, head of advertising US at WildBrain Spark, the premium kids and family AVOD network and studio reaching 1 in 3 kids globally across more than 800 channels. WildBrain Spark is part of WildBrain, which owns iconic IP, including Peanuts, Strawberry Shortcake, Caillou, Inspector Gadget, Teletubbies, and more.
Charles Gabriel has 15+ years of experience in digital advertising and has built and led sales organizations inside major media companies, including AOL and Disney, as well as growth-phase startups. Find Charles on LinkedIn: Charles Gabriel.
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