Engaging audiences: why we should choose creativity over clickbait

Anna Higgs has a problem with the word ‘content’. “The word content makes me really discontent, because I don’t think that creative work should be contained,” she told the audience at the D&AD Festival yesterday. “Content’s a really distribution-centric view of the world for me. It’s where containers like cinema, a TV station, your Facebook feed, a billboard are simply something that just has to be filled no matter what, it’s got to be constantly fed.

“And for me, great stories aren’t generic objects that fill a stream or a bucket or a platform. For me the term really lacks a sense of nuance, it lacks a bit of intelligence, and any sense of human connection.”

Higgs was talking at D&AD about the way Nowness – the online video channel that commissions short films and documentaries focused on culture and the arts – works with directors and artists to make unique work that will hopefully engage its audiences. The stats Higgs presented shows that the approach of her and her team is working: Nowness has an average of a 65% completion rate on its films, a figure that is gold dust to many content – sorry – producers.

To achieve this, Higgs has focused on quality of work over the chase for views. “When we’re developing, making and sharing our work, we obsess,” she says. “We obsess about quality, not quantity. We obsess about engagement and not views. You can call me naïve, but I really think this should be the case for anyone working in the digital sphere. In many places we’re seeing a race to the bottom. You have clickbait and list mania constantly being served up to audiences who do little more than chase those numbers and feed algorithms.”

Rather than giving its audiences more of what the algorithm has told her they already like, Higgs encourages the directors she works with and her wider team to always look for something unique. “We question the way things are done,” she says. “So our strategy is one of curiosity and of challenge … we really try and harness our own expertise and instinct. Our outlook is a result of that team philosophy, a result of that strategy put into practice, and then we trust our creative abilities.

“But we also know what we don’t know,” she continues. “We seek support when we need it, we bring in amazing experts from outside to help us and input to our work. And we try not to copycat – we positively avoid any temptation to copy what’s working on other channels. So our attitude is one of confidence in our approach.”

There are also some pragmatic measures that Higgs has put into place to ensure that Nowness’ films will be different. In order to make sure that the work they show represents their audience, Nowness strives to have a 50-50 gender split in those directing and commissioning the films.

“To paraphrase Spiderman … with great reach comes great responsibility,” she says. “We get to engage at Nowness with tens of millions of people all around the world every single day. This is a huge privilege … but accepting the responsibility that comes with it can be a difficult thing to grasp, because it carries several challenges that run right through everything we do. It runs though the development of our work in-house, in the making of our work with filmmakers and with partners, and in the sharing of our work with audiences. And to be responsible in all of these areas, my point of view is that you’ve really got to think about representing that world around you.

“You have to work with great talent, another blindingly obvious statement I know,” she continues. “But first and foremost that’s what we do, we try and work with exceptional talent. The difference for me is that talent isn’t just purely about finding the right ‘man’ for the job. If you want to connect and communicate in the fragmented age, I really believe that your talent has to be representative. You need to go beyond diversity initiatives, right into actual structural change.

“I don’t recruit what I already know. We need, as Nowness, as a team, to look at the world differently. So my team are from a really broad range of places, backgrounds and specialisms. There’s so much stuff that they know that I don’t.”

Higgs admits that it took bold policy making for the diversity to happen. “I can say unequivocally that we did not get to this place slowly over years with a scheme or two. We just made it our policy on our commissioned films. So on all of our commissions we aim to have 50-50 pitches, 50-50 commissioning and therefore 50-50 talent…. We don’t manage it all the time, I’m happy to be really honest, but we do this because we want to and we have to make unique work. From both a point of creative principle but also as a commercial strategy, because unique work will differentiate us in the marketplace. We’ll stand out.”

Ultimately, Higgs’ approach is to use creativity to put the audiences’ interests first, in the assumption that the commercial needs of the channel will then also be met. “For us, creative integrity has to come before the commercial point of something,” she says. “We understand that they’re on the same journey, but for us the order is critical, because we think if we do something that has a creative integrity to it, commercial success will follow. Because the audience will follow, they’re seeing something that has a purpose, that has an emotion, that will pull you along.

“In this hugely exciting digital day and age, it is all about audience,” she concludes. “We believe that it’s taking that quite strong creative position that makes it possible to push against the race to the bottom. We know it’s inherently risky – we don’t always get it right, we have films that don’t grow an audience and that miss their mark. But we have other films that hit bullseyes we didn’t even know we were aiming for, that audiences find and grow and push and love. It’s really finding those ways to properly hook audiences.”

Anna Higgs was speaking yesterday at the D&AD Festival in London, which continues today. More info at dandad.org

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