CNN ends partnership with YouTube Star Casey Neistat

CNN has parted ways with YouTube star Casey Neistat, signifying the end of a US$25 million partnership that was first announced in November 2016. Back then, the cable news network said it intended to form a new media brand together with Neistat after acquiring his social start-up Beme, in a bid to target Millennials.

Funded by CNN, the new media brand was intended to focus on timely and topical video content, with plans to launch in summer 2017. However, that did not happen and both Neistat and Beme co-founder Matt Hackett are now departing CNN. CNN Money  reported that Beme will "no longer be a standalone business" and it will attempt to redeploy Beme's 22 employees to other positions within the company, although some individuals would be let go.

CNN also added that Beme's products and brand will live on at the cable news network. Neistat and Hackett launched Beme in 2015, enabling users to produce and upload quick, unedited videos.

In a YouTube video posted on his channel, Neistat confirmed the news that Beme will no longer operate as a standalone company and both he and Hackett are no longer employed by CNN. He added that the media side of Beme has been absorbed into CNN Digital Studios, and the tech side will be folded under CNN as well.

"It's easy to get sad and nostalgic about this because Beme has been my life for the last three plus years, and this is the end of the road for me. I am happy that Beme's going to live on with CNN. Working with cnn has been incredible," Neistat said in the video. He added that he will remain as executive producer of the Beme YouTube channel.

Meanwhile, in a 10-minute YouTube video that has since been deleted, Neistat revealed that he had struggled to work with the team at CNN and vice versa. When he was working with CNN to get the Beme media team up and running last year, Neistat said he was required to take on several roles at once, such as creative lead and manager of the team.

"It's not an environment that I was happy in. When I make stuff, I don't discuss it with people, I don't ask for permission, I don't ask for input, I just create. And via that process, I am able to make something and find something, and it works for me," Neistat said. However, he added that this process did not work at CNN as he had a team and he could not get used to working in that particular environment. As a result, Neistat eventually stepped out of his managerial role.

"The Beme media team functioned better in my absence [compared to] when I was there. By Fall 2017, I started to question my role there and the value that I am bringing to this company," Neistat said. He also said that while the entire Beme tech team will be offered a position with CNN, there will be layoffs within the media team, although majority of them will be moved to CNN Digital Studios.

In a statement to Marketing, Hedvig Lyche, founder and managing director at Core Agency Asia, said many of these acquisitions are an attempt to address an external trend and shift in audience consumption behaviour. However, without an internal strategy to match, these acquisitions are set to fail before they even begin.

While the idea of building out a broader and more dynamic platform to engage and capture a younger audience on the surface is a strategic move, the culture and the historical structure of the traditional publisher does not automatically give itself to effective integration of a new way of creating and delivering news. The mentality of the organisation and the role it plays in audiences' lives also need to shift, to give way for a new way of creating and distributing stories, she added.

"I don’t think CNN has done the necessary set-up and planning in-house to cater for this, nor fully understood the reason for his success to begin with. As a result, it became a sidekick tactic and not a strategy, making the experience less than seamless and less than optimal," Lyche said.

According to her, while the objective of capturing a younger audience is critical, it is more critical to understand how that audience is currently consuming news, what the traditional platforms role is and could be and where the sweet spot for integrating sits. She said

If the implementation strategy and purpose is not clearly defined and the role to play is not embedded properly, it loses credibility.

In the worst case scenario, an unclear implementation strategy can potentially dilute the role and clout of both brands. According to Lyche, CNN could have taken steps to build in Beme as a natural part of the brand and set a new agenda for the company through ways such as breaking down internal silos and creating a new integrated structure. However, Beme was tagged on to the existing setup and not built into a new structure or purpose.

"As with everything, big and small, you need a strategy that does not only address an external shift or trend, but that sets up the organisation and the structure in a way that makes it implementable, credible and relevant," she added.

Also weighing in on the conversation is CEO and editor-in-chief of Click2View Simon Kearney, who said the partnership probably failed because basing a digital media business on advertiser funding is increasingly becoming a non-viable business model. Kearney also said that the crossover between successful youth media brands and adult media consumption has not necessarily proved to be a guarantee of success in the past. Also, there is no reason why it necessarily should in a digital media world, regardless of the number of views the latest teen sensation gets.

Kearney also said that there was probably no cultural fit between Neistat and the CNN crew, since he went back to producing videos for his personal YouTube channel, which was what made him famous in the first place. "That's pretty telling if you become a stranger in your own company," Kearney said.

He said that CNN's objective could probably have been to attract the younger audience through digital channels and grow a future for themselves beyond cable. One way to achieve this is to look at how CNN fits into the online streaming space, and it has had success taking on Anthony Bourdain's show Parts Unknown, Kearney said.

"It certainly sounds like the experiment failed, although there is still some tech to be released I believe. Otherwise, certainly not a good fit for Neistat and his new employer," he added.