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HBO Max Marketing Exec Brad Wilson Talks 'High Reach, High Frequency' … and Having the Necessary ‘Fire Power’

WarnerMedia EVP of growth, Brad Wilson
(Image credit: WarnerMedia)

In September 2019, Disney hired Brad Wilson, CMO of fintech giant Lending Tree at the time, as executive VP of performance marketing, charged with helping with what was then the upcoming launch Disney Plus. 

Racing out the gate to 10 million subscribers in its first 24 hours on the market, Disney Plus seemed like it did OK in the performance marketing dept. 

Struggling last year to hoist its own streaming startup, HBO Max, WarnerMedia took its turn poaching Wilson in June, anointing him exec VP of growth and revenue under Andy Forssell. 

Wilson is now responsible for achieving subscriber goals and revenue targets for HBO Max and future direct-to-consumer services, working both domestically as well as with regional business teams internationally. 

The veteran marketer spoke to Next TV about cord cutters, expansion plans and promoting HBO Max’s diverse slate. Marketing is a complicated, nuanced business, with a language all its own. But we nodded our heads at the right moments to make it look like we understand. 

Next TV: How do you get those HBO subscribers to upgrade to HBO Max?
Brad Wilson: We do have our targeting mechanisms and our strategies, but we are one of these brands that I would say—I need to look this up—but we are probably in the top 15 or so in the United States in terms of firepower spend. I think the streaming companies, at least three or four of us, are enjoying that benefit at the moment. So you're touching everybody. It's just a matter of frequency and the message. So for us, this is a several-pronged strategy and number one is the broad messaging strategy we try to get out. Number two is we try to meet fans where they are for the type of program that they want. And number three, we do have great distribution partners. Each of them are a little bit different, but we try to put strategies in place to let [HBO linear subscribers] know that’s it's not even an upgrade (to get HBO Max) it's just—enjoy the same type of service and more by going to and authenticating through the provider. 

Next TV: How do you convert older linear HBO subscribers?
BW: We recognize that it's complex. And [initially] we weren't on all the devices where the consumers were. But now, having those distribution agreements with Amazon and Roku in place, I think we've cleaned up a lot of that [confusion]. 

Next TV: Is there a specific region that HBO Max is focused on in terms of subscriber growth? 
BW: We grew more in the last year than we did in 10 years combined on HBO going from 33 million to 41.5 million [activated subscribers] in the U.S. But international is a big focus for us, particularly in Latin America and all the 39 territories we are launching there. That's going to be a big focus in the next several months. Then we will work our way West into other territories. Also AVOD. We know there is a great appetite for that in the U.S. and beyond. We know that consumers are willing to trade off time to get a lower price point. So we feel there's going to be a number of points of growth there. The other thing is obviously Warner Bros. premieres. That strengthens our differentiation as well as adds new content to the mix, which is new and unique. So we feel great about the upcoming slate this year (with Warner Bros. content) and with HBO and HBO Max originals like Mare of Easttown and the Friends reunion, etc.

Next TV: Can you give any specifics in terms of dates HBO Max will expand beyond Latin America?
BW: The other dates have not been committed to yet. But I can assure you that we have ambitious targets that we hold ourselves to a high accountability on that front. 

Next TV: Can you share what subscriber growth goals are for next 12 months?
BW: I don't think we are prepared to share that today. I can tell you, that I feel quite good about where we sit based on the momentum. I can assure you that this organization holds itself to a pretty high accountability. We are quite ambitious. 

Next TV: Who’s the target audience for HBO Max?
BW: We have a crown jewel of a brand and a world-class marketing team on more of the arts side of the business. We are marrying that with retail sciences and we are doing two things. One is we are looking at customer segmentation, not just by demographics and psychographics, but we are trying to understand need states and attitudes. And not just behaviors, which is what most of these direct commerce businesses do. That gives us an understanding of penetration. It also helps us understand where we are we falling short or doing better in certain content types. It gives us a propensity for demand by the title and the type of content (the customer) watches. So that is a bit of a near real-time scoring mechanism that we are doing, because it gives us an understanding—as we are deploying dollars out and looking at the heat of demand on any given day —how aggressive or not we should go back to attract those audiences. So in short, we are high and wide as it is just based on the offerings we have. But I’m looking at more from not just today, but also long-term. How are we going to meet these customer's needs? 

Next TV: In the current climate, how do you make sure that audiences know what content is launching HBO Max – especially day-and-date Warner Bros. titles?
BW: I had a boss many, many years ago and he’d like to say, “You want to know how you do it? High reach, high frequency.” It’s a bit flippant, I know, but we have a formula that works, and we have great firepower. But in short, number one is we need to let people know about it. So we're hitting all the things you would typically assume we would do from a high impact, high reach brand awareness standpoint. But with Wonder Woman 1984, The Little Things and Judas and the Black Messiah—we go very hard out of the gate on those particular titles. We want people to know not only about the title itself, but also we are ending a lot of those communications with, “In theaters and on HBO Max.” We feel that it’s a very important dual message. And then we are also touching that up with obviously the growth marketing pieces. Those are a little bit more agile. So we will go in and out based on what we think is performing. But I want to come back to the brand piece upfront; because I see this all the time with growth marketing teams only thinking about the signal today or yesterday. One of the things that I've learned throughout my career is that you have to understand the brand element of this thing that allows that signal to intensify over time, because a lot of people will just stop with, "I spent a hundred dollars yesterday and it worked. Or it didn't work.” Well that may or may not be true, but we are looking at the penetration of audiences for each of these titles and the amplification of—are they aware? Is there intent? And also that performance over time. So we are a little bit more broad in the thinking. We don't just want to lean in and lean out based on an immediate signal. We want to give it time to make sure that this formula of art and science can come together.  

Next TV: Are you going after cord cutters, existing HBO linear subscribers or both? 
BW: Everything is customer, customer, customer. For us, that means we want to meet consumers where they are, and we already enjoy a great ecosystem of partners where people have cords so to speak. So we want to build the best content and stories that we can on the best platforms and on the best devices at a time and place where people want to consume where they want to. And so we don't specifically go out and target cord cutters. We are interested in finding those audiences and fans for those particular programs when they come out.

Next TV: When marketing how do you differentiate HBO and HBO Max to consumers?
We are working on it. Max is the platform where people can enjoy all this great array and suite of content that WarnerMedia provides. So HBO should be one of those great content brands, as with Cartoon Network, as with TrueTV, as with Turner Classic Movies, DC Comics, etc. So we are working hard to make that distinction, but HBO and all the originals and supplies should have a home on HBO Max, as well as all those other brands.

Next TV: DTC has been described as one of the key drivers of an emerging trend towards personally curated experiences. Is a personally curated experience part of your marketing strategy?
One hundred percent. Virtually every industry and every tech and direct-to-consumer company wants to deliver a completely unique experience for consumers. This is part of the goal. If you think about the future and where we are going, TV today—4% to 5% of ads today are delivered basically unique based on a data management platform. That’s going to be 50% in four or five years and so we've built an environment of marketing technology to purvey that. But I think it's very easy to lean on personalization. If I’ve learned anything, you have to give each of these elements, and some of the messaging, time. Time across a broad array of audiences to learn into those engines. An example of that, where you could do it wrong is, you might put a title out that doesn't seemingly catch right away and you might turn off everything you do when, in fact, it may be a great hit or a sleeper hit like (HBO Max) has with Class Action Park. So there is a little bit of nuance to these engines. You also have to make sure that you’re giving all of these great stories time.