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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Millennials Power Viacom's 'Creative SWAT Team'

Alex Gold |
March 2, 2014 | 10:39 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Ross Martin, Su-Chin Pak present at USC Annenberg's M{2e} Executive-in-Residence (Neon Tommy/Alex Gold)
Ross Martin, Su-Chin Pak present at USC Annenberg's M{2e} Executive-in-Residence (Neon Tommy/Alex Gold)

As Viacom executives finished off their week-long Executive-in-Residence at USC through Annenberg's M{2e} program last Thursday, there was no questioning the impetus behind its Scratch division: a creative team, fueled by research and insights, helping its brands and clients connect with their audiences in new ways.

Scratch is Viacom's self-described creative SWAT team with broad and lofty ambitions, leveraging the power of its parent company's creative talent, cultural capital and audience reach.

Scratch Media Execs Ross Martin, Anne Hubert, Marc Zelanko, TJ Kennedy, Andrew Glasgow and Su-Chin Pak (who you may remember as famed MTV News Correspondent) interacted with students, faculty and administrators at various events around campus, expounding upon the structure and functions of a 21st century media company.

Throughout the week, Scratch execs shared their perspectives on the changing workplace, the rapidly evolving media landscape, and personal experiences building careers in media.

As Executive Vice President (and fearless leader) of the Scratch team, Ross Martin, elucidated some of these finer points:

"Change is the only constant. Pledge allegiance to the change," Martin declared, "The lifeblood of the organization is living in the uncertainty. The key is to jump into it with ambition and confidence."

Scratch recently partnered with Pepsi, to figure out a creative way to tie the Superbowl to GRAMMYs. The result? A hilarious GRAMMYs Halftime show, that gives Bruno Mars a run for his money. The spot stars famed NFL announcers performing songs "live" at the GRAMMYs. The segment wasn't live, but was recorded to appear so. The spot aired in the middle of the awards show to simulate a Halftime performance.

The media industry landscape has changed drastically over the past 15 years. With technology permeating every facet of human interaction and entertainment, disruption is now the norm.

"Disruption is everywhere you look. We work in an industry that has been disrupted." Martin professed. "For us, to live through that disruption as a media company has been profound."

Several years ago, MTV hit a rough patch in the network's history, losing a large portion of viewers. Viacom led a renewed effort to rejuvenate, evolve, and reinvent the organization to ensure the loss never happened again.

Viacom transformed MTV into a research powerhouse, using real data to develop a radically intimate understanding of their audience and their interests.

"The way we operate now is by thinking about our network as thousands of real-time experiences occurring simultaneously around the world," explained Scratch's Senior Vice President Anne Hubert. "With all that data, it's on you to decide how to respond and react."

The focus for Viacom has been to maintain their core audience. At MTV, that lifeblood is millennials.

Millennials are a coveted demographic for marketers, famous for their fickle attitudes and unpredictable behavior. For Scratch, unlimited access to Viacom's key audience base means unmatchable differentiation. If millennials are an industry, then Scratch is a first-to-market behemoth.

Reimagining The Cogs & Gears

Part of MTV's immense transformation came from retooling the way Viacom does business.

"Viacom is filled with people who are amazing at what they do. Designers, developers, social media. We have a collection of world-class talent," Martin smiled. "The greatest assets in our company are the people behind the camera."

The truly profound takeaway is how Martin and his team created a means to "open the API of Viacom" in a way that would drive business and culture, and help some of the biggest brands in the world succeed.

Building Tomorrow

From cutting-edge integrated marketing campaigns, multi-platform branding, and never-been-done feats of socially connected experiences, Scratch is changing the way companies think about marketing and media.

In a separate lecture, Vice President Andrew Glasgow described how Scratch partnered with Dr. Pepper to launch a regional citrus soda brand to a national scale, and quadrupled brand recognition in the process. (Remember the Sun Drop Girl?)

Martin described Scratch's watershed moment with the partnership between MTV and HP to launch "Engine Room," the first-ever televised digital artistry competition with college kids participating from around the world. The show selected four talented teams to showcase their skills using HP technology for global bragging rights and $400,000 in cash.

But the real surprises happened behind the screen.

The event turned into a hackathon, as contestants completely rewired and re-engineered HP computers to solve design problems. The outcome? HP rethought the way they designed their computers.

"Engine Room" was in many ways an incubator for the Scratch team. 

Scratch utilizes research to connect brands to millennials in new ways, through multi-platform programming and creative brand strategies.

Comfort In Chaos

Scratch stands out as a trailblazer and culture creator within Viacom. Every project at Scratch is well-executed and larger-than-life unique--making some wonder, in awe, how a team can pull off these momentous feats with such precision and flair.

"It takes a certain degree of comfort within oneself and the chaos," Martin quipped.

At Scratch, the consensus is that to truly rethink an industry, one must function comfortably outside the norm, embody hard work and risk with zeal, and possess an ascetic odium for smugness.

"We constantly have the feeling that we're not done," Martin explained. "The minute we get complacent and comfortable, then it's time to panic."

We Need More Crazies

Part of the necessary ingredients behind Scratch's remarkably successful case studies is finding the right makeup for their small and nimble team.

"You've gotta be a maverick," Martin continued, "we're surrounded by people who no longer play 'positions.' But we are all athletes, not second basemen."

Ideas are currency in a marketing-oriented organization like Scratch, and it takes a certain level of gusto to keep 'em coming.

"The hardest thing is to find people with the same energy, spirit, and passion," Martin described.

The interns at Scratch are credited as coming up with some of the greatest ideas. However a member of Scratch got their start, they all share one thing in common.

"We hire the freaks and the geeks, the bandits and the crazies. We need more crazies," Martin laughed.

The Winning Combination

In a 21st century media world, Scratch's success comes from "strategy, homework, discipline, a love of learning, diving in to making hard decisions, and over-preparing ourselves," Martin explains.

The execs at Scratch know everything about person before they meet with them. For every project, the Scratch team looks at every possible angle. Bringing the secret sauce of Viacom, Martin and his team tap into the power of millennials to help launch brands into the stratosphere.

"We win before we walk in the room," Martin said.

Creating a connection between the audience, the brand, and the content - that's the name of the game.


Reach Staff Reporter Alex Gold here, or follow him on Twitter.



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