How YouTube Sensation Casey Neistat Succeeded in Making Ads for People Who Hate Ads
Years before he would become famous, Casey Neistat was a 16-year-old high-school dropout with a pregnant girlfriend and no real career aspirations. Today, at 34, he’s a YouTube sensation who’s helping to reinvent the way advertising is done on the Internet.
Neistat isn’t your typical ad man. “I f**king hate ads,” he said during a panel discussion at the Northside Innovation Festival in Brooklyn, N.Y., earlier this summer. “The idea that somebody would go to my YouTube channel and want to watch movies and then be subjected to some terrible car commercial --- I don’t like that.”
The commercials Neistat produces don’t feel like commercials at all -- and that’s the key to their success. Neistat knows what brands want, but he knows what ad-averse millennials want, too: great storytelling, adventure and authenticity. And his formula appears to be working.
When Nike wanted to sell more athletic activity trackers, for example, Neistat turned the project into a video about how he spent their money to travel the world. “Nike asked me to make a movie about what it means to #makeitcount,” begins the video. “Instead of making their movie, I spent the entire budget traveling around the world with my friend Max.” The video, called “Make It Count,” is currently the second-most popular video on his YouTube channel, with over 14 million views.
Getting Nike to pay for a trip around the world wasn’t Neistat’s opening move. He had to build a reputation. “I get like 50 emails a day from kids being like, ‘I want to go on this trip around the world, how do I get a sponsor?’ And the response I want to write is like, ‘F**k you. It doesn’t work like that. Don’t waste my time,’” said Neistat, joking. To get a company to back your projects, first you have to prove your ability to attract eyeballs. “Make no misconceptions about it. There is not magic or bullshit behind it. ROI is ROI is ROI is ROI.”
Neistat’s first big break came in 2003 when he created a viral video about Apple’s battery problems. Five years later, he sold an autobiographical TV series called The Neistat Brothers to HBO for $2 million. Since then, he’s been making videos on YouTube charting his adventures and experiences that have been viewed more than 200 million times. He’s also moved into app development, launching a product called Beme that aims to make video sharing more real by preventing people from seeing or editing the videos they take before sharing them.
Neistat’s issue now is not convincing brands that he should tell their story -- it’s convincing himself and his audience that a brand’s story is worth telling. That’s because every time he picks up a check for making a video project funded by a brand, he risks the trust he has with his audience. If he loses that trust, he knows it’s game over. That’s the real risk associated with influencer marketing.
“For traditional marketers, and traditional advertising, it is a really scary place to be. And then for the influencers, the individuals who are the mouthpiece for it, it’s a really frightening position to be in because you have this big fat check in front of you and oftentimes you can be asked to compromise your value or your integrity to pay the rent,” he says.
Neistat is winning that game right now by being obsessively transparent. Whenever he accepts a budget from a corporate sponsor, he tells his audience. Also, he only works with brands that give him enough space to create his own video project without interference.
When Mercedes-Benz wanted Neistat to create a video advertising its latest car, Neistat turned the assignment into a popular four-part series making fun of the process of creating a car ad. He says the project “probably sold some cars,” which meant that both he and Mercedes-Benz won. “The fact that my audience didn’t totally rebel and defect and hate me because of it means that there was enough of a level of integrity and authenticity that is pervasive throughout my personal work that was joined forces with the brand to accomplish their goals and still maintain my voice.”
Catherine Clifford is senior entrepreneurship writer at CNBC. She was formerly a senior writer at Entrepreneur.com, the small business reporter at CNNMoney and an assistant in the New York bureau for CNN. Clifford attended Columbia University where she earned a bachelor's degree. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow her on Twitter at @CatClifford.