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YouTube Tunes Up Its Ad Pitch

The world's biggest video site puts on its annual show for advertisers. It's getting pretty good at this.

Taylor Hill/FilmMagic
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

YouTube has spent the last few years trying to figure out how to put on a show. It is getting the hang of it.

Not a Web show, of course — YouTube is already packed with stuff people want to see, and they watch six billion hours a month. But the world’s biggest video site, which used to struggle when it had to make its case in public, has gotten a lot better about selling itself to a room full of advertisers.

Last night’s pitch, performed for a couple thousand ad buyers and media people at Madison Square Garden’s theater, was the company’s third “Brandcast” presentation. It was its best, hands down.

Yes, the show’s requisite high production glitz was good — Pharrell closed the show with his hit song/meme, and new/old R&B belter Janelle Monae turned in a particularly great performance. But what was more impressive was YouTube’s focus and confidence.

YouTube no longer tells advertisers about the company’s ability to reach remote African villages, because advertisers don’t care. And it’s not presenting its homegrown stars as oddballs who couldn’t find a place in traditional media. Now it’s presenting its stars as stars.

That’s why YouTube pointedly held a meet-and-greet for Bethany Mota, a YouTube fashion guru with six million subscribers and her own collection at Aeropostale, in Madison Square Garden’s halls, right before its own event. It wanted to make sure that its audience saw her audience — hundreds of teenage girls and their parents — waiting in long lines to see her.

And three years into this, YouTube no longer spends much time trying to convince advertisers that they should spend money on YouTube. Now the question is how to spend money on YouTube.

That’s why new YouTube boss Susan Wojcicki — her predecessor Salar Kamangar never showed up for these things — and her lieutenants spent a lot of time underscoring a new “Google preferred” program, designed to give advertisers a way to buy the company’s most well-known properties. It’s also designed to counter criticisms that buying YouTube meant your ads would go next to skateboarding dogs, or worse.

Like other Web video pitchers showing off their stuff to advertisers at “NewFronts” this week, YouTube still spends a lot of time talking about Web video instead of showing Web video.

That seems weird, especially compared to TV’s “upfronts,” the model for these events. The TV guys spend most of their time showing beautifully edited clip packages that make every show on next fall’s schedule look like a winner. Then again, the TV guys don’t have to explain what “TV” is, or how to buy “TV ads.”

YouTube is getting closer, though. Tellingly, one of last night’s most memorable segments didn’t feature a YouTube executive or a star, but someone who spends money on YouTube.

Frank Cooper, Pepsi’s chief marketing officer, had the stage to himself for several minutes, while he talked up the virtues of YouTube and explained that he’d increased his Web video spending by 50 percent last year. “I have to say thank God for YouTube.”

But Cooper is surely spending much, much more on TV than he is on the Web, even though the millennials he wants to reach are spending more time online.

When that changes, maybe YouTube can just show off its shows, just like the TV guys.

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