On Sept. 28, Comedy Central will introduce a massive change to the television landscape, when Trevor Noah takes over for Jon Stewart as the new host of “The Daily Show,” the cable channel’s flagship program.
No one can predict how the show’s legion of fans will react, but one of the important leaders tasked to market Noah and make it a smooth transition is Comedy Central CMO Walter Levitt. He and his team have already begun showcasing the South African comedian’s many talents and hope to make him a household name by the time the show airs with Noah at the influential desk this fall.
Levitt has led numerous successful new initiatives at the network, including a strategic repositioning of the brand and the introduction of many multiplatform hits, including “Key & Peele” and “Inside Amy Schumer.” In addition, he was influential in the launch of the Comedy Central App, and he oversaw the marketing of Comedy Central’s highest-rated specials of all time, “The Roast of Charlie Sheen” and “The Roast of Justin Bieber.”
A Montreal native, Levitt previously was CMO at Canwest Broadcasting in Canada and has also worked in key marketing roles at the CTV Television Network and at CJEZ-FM in Toronto.
CMO.com recently caught up with Levitt to talk about the launch campaign for “The Daily Show,” mobile and social strategies, making a mark at Comic-Con, and whether he thinks he’s funny.
CMO.com: Trevor Noah is about a month or so away from taking over as host of “The Daily Show.” Can you talk about what sort of marketing campaign you have planned for him and the show?
Levitt: First of all, we’re excited about Trevor. Trevor is everything you would want the next host of “The Daily Show” to be. He’s smart, he’s interested in what’s going on in the world, he’s super funny, he’s quick, he’s intelligent, and he’s a real person with a very, very, interesting story. I think he’s going to bring a youthful energy to “The Daily Show”–really, a Millennial perspective.
Right now, we’re in the midst of pulling together all the pieces of the launch campaign. Needless to say, digital and social media are going to be a huge part of the campaign. We know that’s where a lot of the conversation happens, we know that’s a great place for people to experience Trevor and his comedy, and we know that’s where Millennials spend a lot of their time, so that will be a centerpiece of it all.
CMO.com: What are your objectives with the campaign?
Levitt: One, obviously, we just need to introduce Trevor to this country. He is really a comedy superstar globally, but he hasn’t really spent much time touring in the U.S., so we know we have a job just in terms of introducing America to him. Then, obviously, we need to make “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah an appointment the way “The Daily Show” is today.
And that’s an appointment wherever people want to make an appointment. We certainly see millions of people watching it every night on television, but we see millions more watching it the next day, whether it’s on their DVR, or it’s through the Comedy Central app, or comedycentral.com, or Hulu. Then we see a ton of sharing of highlight clips, or moments, on people’s social platforms. And so our job in launching Trevor is to introduce him and then make “The Daily Show” with him at the helm the must-watch every single day of the week, as it is today.
CMO.com: How do you do that? What are the strategies in place?
Levitt: You will see us do both broad-based and more targeted advertising. You’ll see us targeting the current “The Daily Show” fan base, who we think is going to love Trevor. But you’ll also see us go a little more broad. I think having a 31-year-old in a late-night show is a real opportunity in terms of a whole generation of Millennials who maybe don’t yet have a late-night appointment. We think that Trevor is the perfect person to bring them to late night—again, be it on their TV, or on their DVRs, or on their devices the next day.
CMO.com: Were you always interested in a career in marketing, and was television the ultimate goal?
Levitt: From the time I was little I always felt like the entertainment industry was where I would want to end up. To be frank, I’m not sure I even realized early on that it was the marketing stream that was going to end up being my career path. I did a degree in communication [at Concordia University in Montreal] with a minor in marketing, as it turns out, and then the universe sort of unfolded as it did. I started in the industry through the radio business in more of a promotion marketing stream, and I think I realized it was my calling. It was fun, exciting, and an opportunity to be in the industry I love, in a role that was both strategic and creative–that was very well-suited to my interests.
CMO.com: What was the appeal of joining Comedy Central in 2011?
Levitt: It’s funny. When I do information interviews with college students, and I try to help them figure out their career paths, my advice to them is always the same: “Have a passion. Know what you like doing. Know what you’re good at doing. Have a direction for your career. And then be prepared to take sharp left turns along the road occasionally because sometimes those sharp lefts take you to the most interesting places.” I would say Comedy Central was a bit of a sharp left turn for me.
CMO.com: How so?
Levitt: I had spent 20 years in the media industry in Canada, at a number of media companies in very interesting marketing roles. My last one I was the CMO for a company called Canwest, which was one of the big media companies in Canada. We had a broadcast network, about 20 cable networks, and a whole host of digital businesses. I got a phone call from a headhunter for this opportunity at Comedy Central.
Comedy Central is a brand I have always admired, a brand I’ve always loved. I have been, like many people, a “Daily Show” viewer for many, many, years. I’ve been a “South Park” fan for many years, among other Comedy Central content. And so the call came in, and I hadn’t really intended to come to New York City–that was not part of the plan. But the phone call turned into a number of meetings, and a number of visits to New York, and ultimately I found myself filling out paperwork for my U.S. Visa.
CMO.com: Going into the interview, did you feel that you had to be funny? Were you worried that your sense of humor wasn’t going to be received well?
Levitt: One of the things the headhunter asked was whether I was a comedy fan, and I absolutely am. I always have been a comedy fan, dating back to my teenage years when a good buddy of mine performed on the comedy circuit in Montreal, and we used to go see him all the time. I grew up loving Monty Python. “Spinal Tap” is my favorite movie of all time.
I’ve never considered myself to be particularly funny, and that thought did cross my mind when I got the call. I think what I realized very quickly is that to be responsible for the marketing of a brand like Comedy Central, you need to have a great appreciation for comedy, you need to have a good sense of humor, but I don’t think you need to be funny personally. And I will tell you, in fact, every time I speak publicly, I always begin by just saying outright, “I know you came to hear somebody from Comedy Central speak, and you thought that person would be funny, and I’m sorry: I am not funny. I work with some of the funniest people on the planet, but I am not particularly funny.” I do think it’s very tough to work here if you don’t have a great sense of humor, but I don’t think in the role that being funny personally is a key criteria.
CMO.com: Let’s talk about some of the other marketing initiatives you’ve had since coming there, maybe around another personality–like Amy Schumer or Key & Peele. What’s a marketing effort that you’re proud of?
Levitt: One that comes to mind is Key & Peele. I remember when we signed Key & Peele we were all very, very excited about the potential of these two guys. First and foremost, they are funny as hell. They represent a new perspective in this country based on their backgrounds. Their comedy is so smart, and so biting, and so topical, and we just knew that we had, in Keegan and Jordan, the next great comedy duo, the next great comedy stars. We also knew that we needed to introduce them in small bites—get people to know them and the characters they play. A big part of it was getting some of those characters in front of people on their social feeds.
So when we initially launched the very first season of Key & Peele, we honed in on the Obama and Luther characters. Peele, in my opinion, does the best Obama impersonation out there, and Luther, his anger translator, is always by his side helping say the things that Obama himself won’t say. We knew that sketch, and those characters, would just resonate incredibly well, so we had a very deliberate strategy around those characters, in particular. We partnered with YouTube from the very outset. We released early clips well before the TV show launched. We spent some advertising money to get clips into people’s feeds. But we really tried to focus on driving sharing, and I think that was probably Comedy Central’s first true viral hit. It ended up getting shared and seen by over a million people within a day-and-a-half, which we hadn’t really seen to that point, and then it went on from there, and that sort of became the formula.
CMO.com: You helped the Comedy Central app came to fruition. How important has that app been to the Comedy Central brand?
Levitt: The app is hugely important. When we talk about Comedy Central, we think of ourselves as a comedy brand. We have obviously been a TV network for almost 25 years, but we know that the Comedy Central brand is much more than just a TV network. The words we use is that we are a comedy brand. We need to be anywhere comedy fans are looking for a laugh, and the app was our major step into that direction in the mobile space.
When we launched it a year-and-a-half ago, we weren’t the first to market with a branded app, but we definitely feel like when we launched, it was the best entertainment app out there. We had a very deliberate strategy around making it extremely user-friendly, extremely reflective of the Comedy Central brand, and ultimately just a great way to watch our content if you did not have that linear TV screen in front of you.
CMO.com: How successful has it been?
Levitt: We’re getting close to 4 million downloads of the app across different platforms. It continues to launch on new platforms. It just launched on Roku, and we’ve really bet on the app in a big way in terms of the future of the business. You know, on a very practical level, if you look at even the way we market our content now, we’re very clear that you can watch it on linear TV on this day, or you can watch it on the app anytime. That messaging is consistent. Anywhere we talk about our content, we talk about both the linear TV opportunity and the fact that you can watch it on the app. I think that speaks volumes, strategically, about how we are thinking about our business.
CMO.com: How important is social media to the brand? Can you talk about what your social media plan is and how it works?
Levitt: I think the beauty of social media is whatever you planned six months ago is probably not relevant today. I think you need to continue to evolve your social media strategies, and that’s certainly how we think about it. We know Comedy Central fans are incredibly loyal to the brand. We know it’s the first place they go when they’re looking for comedy content, and we know in the social media space we need to deliver the experience of the Comedy Central brand consistently. We have 150 million social media fans, so that’s a big opportunity, and in some sense, it’s a big responsibility.
There are the Comedy Central branded feeds, which really play two purposes. They are really a chance for the Comedy Central voice to come through loud and clear, and, as well, an opportunity to help our fans find content that is funny and relevant to them–content they might want to share. And then we have social media feeds for all of our different franchises. Some, like “The Daily Show,” have upward, of 8 million fans on Facebook, for example. It’s clearly just a great both content and promotional tool.
Other feeds for our newer franchises are really just building loyal fan bases, and we program them differently. If we’re talking to a “Workaholics” fan on Facebook, the kind of things that they’re going to be interested in will be different than the way we talk about “Workaholics” on the Comedy Central feed. If you’ve only seen a little bit of “Workaholics,” and you’re following Comedy Central’s feeds, our job is to make sure you continue to get introduced to the brilliance that is “Workaholics,” and maybe turn you into a fan of that particular franchise as well.
CMO.com: This year at Comic-Con, Comedy Central was situated across the street from the convention center. What was going on there from a marketing perspective?
Levitt: We did a number of things at Comic-Con. We had probably our biggest presence ever—we had a panels for some of our new and returning franchises, and then we had a number of on-the-ground activations. We just launched a new series called “Another Period,” which is kind of a Kardashians at the turn of the century, and we did a couple of activations there. We had old-time cars driving people around Comic-Con, giving them free lifts, courtesy of “Another Period.” We had groups of butlers walking the Comic-Con grounds with these beautiful chaise lounges and giving people free rides as if they were royalty, or celebrities. We jokingly referred to it as “the original Lyft,” as if Lyft existed in 1902.
The real centerpiece of our activation was a Comedy Central mini golf event. We took over a building right across from the convention center, and we created a custom nine-hole Comedy Central golf course that anybody could come and play. Each hole represented a different Comedy Central franchise. So there was an “Another Period” hole. There was a “Drunk History” hole. There was a “Workaholic” hole. Nine different holes for each different franchise. People could come play mini golf, take selfies on the course, and really celebrate Comedy Central and all of our talented franchises in one place.
CMO.com: Clearly, consumption of content is now happening on more platforms than it was even five years ago. What sort of challenge does that create?
Levitt: We at Comedy Central are on all of those platforms. We are with our fans and making them laugh wherever they want to laugh. But at times it’s hard to anticipate where they’re going to go next, or what the next big emerging platform is going to be–and like every media company, how can we monetize those platforms?
An example would be Snapchat, which is clearly a massive platform for Millennials–in particular, for 18- to 24-year-olds. We are one of 12 brands on the Snapchat Discover page. In fact, we’re the only TV entertainment brand on that page, and we are programming to our fans there. Monetization is there, but it’s going to take a little bit of time to really fully realize that monetization. And so I think we have to keep up with the fans and figure out not just how we serve them, but how we then monetize all those other content platforms.
I guess the other thing that’s both exciting and fun–and at times can be challenging–is how closely we work with our talent in developing our marketing.
CMO.com: Can you give me an example?
Levitt: If we’re launching a new season of one of our new series, of “Nathan For You,” for example, we have a job as a marketing team to do the best creative work we can to introduce and reintroduce people to the franchise. But then we want to make sure everything we do creatively is in the voice of the Nathan Fielder and in the voice of the show. And clearly Nathan Fielder, himself, knows the voice of Nathan Fielder better than anybody else. So that requires a lot of collaboration.
We are constantly collaborating creatively with our talent, which is great and exciting because they are the most talented comedians in the world. But, at times, it just takes a little longer to get there because you’re collaborating with an internal team and an external team, and trying to get to the end result that everybody feels is being most effective. So it’s exciting because we get to work with the greatest comedic talent out there–but it’s certainly different than other brands where there isn’t that direct collaboration with the talent.
Walter Levitt is one of the keynote speakers at Adobe Summit 2016, March 20-24. Click here to learn more.
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