Pharrell Williams

Pharrell Williams performs on stage at Google presents YouTube Brandcast event at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on April 30, 2014 in New York City.

Stephen Lovekin/FilmMagic

Just two years ago, YouTube touted a lineup of premium content from traditional-media players and Hollywood talent (an investment valued at over $100 million) to pitch advertisers on buying TV-quality content online. But at YouTube (and Google’s) 2014 “Brandcast” upfront presentation to advertisers in New York Wednesday (April 30) night, the focus was more on homegrown talent, and the big, highly measurable audiences who watch them. 

The 90-minute presentation kicked off with “YouTube Community in 4 Movements,” a live mash-up of the best musical moments on YouTube of the past six months, with YouTube creators like DJ Mike Relm, Postmodern Jukebox, beatbox flutist Greg Plutino and Puddles The Clown among those performing to YouTube covers of songs like “Get Lucky,” “Drunk In Love,” “Royals” and “Pompeii.” Other popular YouTubers like DanceOn choreographer Travis Wall, fashion blogger Bethany Mota, and Red Bull Signature Series host Sal Masekala also appeared.

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Of course, you can’t have an upfront event at The Theater at Madison Square Garden without at least one A-list musical guest. Janelle Monae appeared later in the presentation to perform her 2013 single “Dance Apocalyptic,” cueing up a presentation from PepsiCo’s chief marketing officer of global consumer engagement, Frank Cooper, about why the company has increased its investment in YouTube by more than 50% in the past year alone. 

Pharrell, who has a YouTube channel named after his I Am Other creative movement, was also on hand to close out the show with a flash mob-esque performance of “Happy,” one of the most-covered songs all over the world on YouTube right now. “I have to thank Google and YouTube for giving us the gift of ubiquity and connectivity,” Pharrell said of his massive hit, which spends its 10th week on the Billboard Hot 100 this week thanks in part to its massive streaming activity.

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Despite the splashes of celebrity, YouTube’s main pitch to advertisers was focused on how lifestyle-based buys (music, food, travel, sports, news) targeting specific age groups and demographics can drive actual results in sales and brand favorability. The company announced a new ad offering, Google Preferred, which combines data from ComScore, Nielsen and Google’s own real-time analytics tools and search results to show how interest in a brand increased as a result of an ad on YouTube. Pepsi’s Cooper said of the results he’s already seen, “We’re seeing massive impact in ad recall and brand lift. I don’t know about you, but for me that’s kinda sexy.” 

Further adding credence to Google Preferred was media-buying agency DigitasLBi (which founded the first Newfront presentations in 2007), whose CEO Tony Weisman announced it would become the first agency to commit to the new offering. YouTube’s head of content Robert Kyncl also cited figures from the Internet Advertising Bureau that showed brands invested more in online advertising than they did on television for the first time ever in 2013, and the top 500 brands saw their average monthly views increase by over 70%.

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Vevo, YouTube's top channel in terms of monthly viewers (28 million uniques in March 2014 alone, according to ComScore), was absent from mention during the presentation, likely because the company is hosting a separate NewFront for advertisers next Monday. But its absence is notable if only for the five minutes of stage time devoted to Vice Media and its founder Shane Smith, which will also host a dedicated NewFront presentation to advertisers and agencies on Friday. 

YouTube's Kyncl later pointed to Vice's recent investment from News Corp (and subsequent $1.4 billion valuation) alongside Disney's recent acquisition of YouTube network Maker Studios as examples of how new-media was being embraced in a big way by the old guard. "You've made YouTube an attractive place for investors who recognize the rapidly rising value of digital content companies," he said. "Just a year ago, top digital content companies were being valued in low hundreds of millions of dollars."

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