- Quibi is the next act for seasoned Hollywood exec Jeffrey Katzenberg, who founded the mobile-video startup with the dream of finding the next big thing in entertainment and remains the visionary behind it.
- Business Insider spoke with 15 people in and around Quibi about the founder’s leadership style.
- While CEO Meg Whitman runs the company’s day-to-day operations, the people said Katzenberg is hyper-involved with many aspects of the business, including its content, which is all-important for a streaming-video service.
- Quibi production partners said Katzenberg weighs in on elements from casting to set design, and his eye for detail has rubbed off on his content team, who tend to give many more notes than Netflix and other digital-first platforms.
- Katzenberg’s role as the driving force behind Quibi is in some ways akin to a classic Silicon Valley founder, but that also means his reputation is on the line if Quibi becomes a spectacular flameout after raising $1.8 billion.
- If you have a tip about Quibi, contact the author at [email protected], or message her on Signal at 347-770-5933.
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On a morning in January, Jeffrey Katzenberg took the stage at the unveiling of his next big act looking like a true Silicon Valley founder.
The 69-year-old entrepreneur swapped his red-carpet attire for his usual V-neck sweater and T-shirt as he preached his vision for Quibi at the CES tech conference. Katzenberg is the architect behind the subscription-video service, which features minutes-long episodes made for mobile phones and launched to the public in April.
People around Katzenberg describe him as an impassioned man with an eye for detail who is all-consumed with media.
Those who have worked with him and Quibi said that when Katzenberg isn’t juggling Zoom meetings, he’s firing off ideas to staffers early morning, or emailing production partners on the weekends. He could be fielding calls from investors one minute, and the next, rattling off instructions to content execs on the casting for an upcoming show.
Production partners said Katzenberg is deeply involved in the company’s content strategy, not only helping to shape the overall vision and show selection, but weighing in on ground-level decisions from casting to wardrobe.
Quibi is a third act for the seasoned Hollywood exec, who put Disney’s animation studio back on the map in the 1980s and 1990s, and cofounded and led DreamWorks to classics like “Shrek” and “Kung Fu Panda.”
Katzenberg began incubating the idea for Quibi in 2017 at his investment vehicle, WndrCo. Even then, former colleagues said he was “obsessed” with the concept of creating a new form of TV for smartphones, with programming that was higher in quality than what you’d find on social media.
Katzenberg’s interest in elevating short-form digital video goes back even further. In 2000, he was involved with Pop.com, a joint-venture that raised $50 million to become an online home for short films and animations, but sputtered out before it could take off.
For Quibi, Katzenberg wanted big celebrities and big budgets to set the service apart. He brought in A-listers like Steven Spielberg, a fellow DreamWorks cofounder, to create content for the platform. But some sources who have worked with Quibi said Katzenberg’s legacy Hollywood aesthetic made the programming seem more like network TV than Netflix.
Katzenberg likens Quibi to HBO’s arrival during the height of broadcast TV in the 1970s and 1980s.
“They offered a creative challenge and opportunity for storytellers that was unique and differentiated from broadcast TV,” Katzenberg said in 2019, speaking at the South by Southwest. “Everything they did to differentiate themselves from TV is what Quibi is doing to differentiate between YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram.”
To make his vision a reality, Katzenberg hired Meg Whitman to run the company as CEO, and lend her tech expertise to the operation. Together, they raised $1.8 billion from investors like Disney, Sony, and Alibaba Group, and secured $150 million in ad buys from major brands like Walmart and PepsiCo before the service debuted.
However, The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Mullin reported that Katzenberg’s tendency to micromanage also caused tensions between him and Whitman when she joined the company, and that she threatened to quit at one point in 2018. A Quibi spokesperson told the Journal that “any new founder-CEO partnership has to find its footing, and they did that over two years ago.”
Quibi launched in April to tepid reviews and growth, which Katzenberg told The New York Times was due to releasing the mobile-subscription service during a pandemic. (The company says the app has now been downloaded 4.6 million times, up from 1.7 million after its first week.)
Three months into Quibi’s launch, the streaming service’s future is not written. But, pandemic or not, Katzenberg’s reputation is on the line with Quibi.
While Whitman runs the company’s day-to-day operations, at the end of the day, Quibi is a content company. Hits, be it viral videos or must-watch shows, are make or break for streaming-video services from YouTube to Netflix.
“People subscribe to Netflix, but not because they love Netflix, because they love ‘Stranger Things,’ etc.” Stephen Beck, the founder and managing partner of consulting firm cg42, told Business Insider. “Katzenberg gets that, and right now he’s starving for a hit.”
Business Insider spoke with 15 people in or close to the company about Katzenberg’s leadership style. Many asked to remain anonymous because they did not have permission to speak about the matter.
A Quibi spokesperson said the company’s leadership is a team effort.
“Meg and Jeffrey have a long history of building strong brands and tech platforms from the ground up,” the Quibi spokesperson said. “Their shared expertise is what helped to create a strong foundation for an entirely new consumer platform. They worked together to hire the best young professionals who are listening and using consumer insights to build a new platform from the ground-up, delivering Hollywood-quality, short-form content to a growing set of consumers daily.”
But six insiders said there was no doubt Katzenberg was the driving force behind the most crucial aspect of the business: its content.
Katzenberg’s eye for detail has influenced his content execs, who tend to give more notes to production partners than Netflix and other digital-first platforms
Though his official title is chairman, Katzenberg is hyper-involved in Quibi’s content and marketing operations, the two teams that will play the biggest role in whether Quibi succeeds, people close to the company told Business Insider.
He works most closely with the content team, which commissions programming that is customized for Quibi’s mobile platform. Multiple people close to the company said Katzenberg personally greenlit many of the shows you see on Quibi today.
His eye for detail means lots of meetings, now held via Zoom, and time spent by the content team presenting to him. He would have relevant emails printed out for him to pore over.
Katzenberg is also intimately involved in the minute details of the content that Quibi commissions from production partners. Multiple insiders said Katzenberg weighed in on details including casting, wardrobe, and set decoration.
“He had to sign off on all of it,” one of the people said.
Quibi said in a statement that its content execs collaborate with production partners to decide on the details.
Still, the leadership approach described by the people Business Insider spoke with sounds more like an old-school Hollywood studio than a streaming service like Netflix.
People who worked on Quibi productions said the company gives more extensive notes to partners than other digital-first platforms, like Snapchat Discover and Facebook Watch, and Netflix typically give. Some notes are more extensive than what TV networks provide.
“There are notes and then there are Quibi notes,” one development exec working with a Quibi partner said. “Quibi from the start of an idea, to the title of the show, to the set design, color scheme, pixels in the graphics — I don’t know that there was a detail that Quibi isn’t involved in.”
The intense feedback is partly because Quibi is endeavoring to create content people haven’t seen before and has very specific ideas about how it should look.
The platform, which was designed for smartphones, also requires creators to provide cuts for both portrait and landscape viewing, so people can move between orientations when rotating their phones.
It can be time consuming for creators; one producer working on one of Quibi’s Daily Essentials estimated it took four times as long to make two versions of the same video, compared with one.
“It’s because of their requirements,” the person said. “They are a very stringent group.”
For people developing and working on shows for Quibi, Katzenberg’s watchful eye can create confusion. Two people said they would receive very specific notes from Quibi’s content execs, only to be given another set of notes days later that contradicted the earlier feedback, after Katzenberg weighed in.
But the people also said Katzenberg and his team listen to their partners.
“He’s not dictatorial,” one exec at a Quibi partner said. “He’s very, very supportive, but involved to a level that is very much appreciated, but is nuts to be honest.”
Katzenberg’s reputation also looms large within the company. Two people close to the company said the content team, many of whom are in their 30s and 40s, often defer to Katzenberg’s judgment, even when they disagree.
A few junior staffers, for example, wanted to bring in more young-adult programming, one of the people said. Netflix has had success with shows like “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before,” “Never Have I Ever,” and “13 Reasons Why” that are billed teen programming, but also do well with crowds in their 20s and 30s, which is Quibi’s target audience. But they couldn’t convince Katzenberg.
“He’s a major personality and he’s forceful,” the person said. “It’s hard to stand up to him. You have to have a lot of confidence to push back.”
Quibi does have at least one young-adult show, “When the Street Lights Go On,” a teen thriller that was previously adapted to series by Hulu before landing at Quibi, with Queen Latifah in a lead role.
The company has said it will release 175 shows in its first year, not all of which have been announced yet.
Katzenberg’s close control over Quibi’s content injected a traditional view of TV into the millennial platform
Katzenberg’s leadership style has injected a rather traditional view of TV into what is meant to be a modern platform for the millennial generation.
Multiple people said the content team’s main mandate was to distance itself from the programming on social media. “If it can be on YouTube, it can’t be on Quibi,” Katzenberg is known to say.
A quick glance at Quibi’s early programming slate reveals its similarities to network TV, even though episodes of its daily news and lifestyle series, scripted and alternative shows, and “movies told in chapters,” are all under 10 minutes long.
Quibi is rebooting CBS’s news program, “60 Minutes,” along with cable shows from the 2000s like “Punk’d” and “Reno 911.” “The Rachel Hollis Show” is a truncated motivational talk show. “Chrissy’s Court” is a celebrity-infused take on a syndicated reality court show. “Murder House Flip” is a bizarre cross between a true-crime and home-makeover series.
The programming slate also includes more traditional TV stars, like Chrissy Teigen, Reese Witherspoon, Kevin Hart, and Liam Hemsworth, than influencers who have been innovating on mobile platforms like YouTube and TikTok.
To some partners, it felt like a missed opportunity to rethink what content could look like on an exclusively mobile screen.
“By taking something traditional and shrinking down the time, it doesn’t make it more innovative,” one producer who worked on a Quibi show said.
But industry experts said that’s not Quibi’s biggest problem.
“It is more that nothing has broken out,” said Alan Wolk, cofounder and lead analyst at TVREV. “What’s going to make any of these service is having shows that people start talking about.”
Quibi has commissioned projects with some online stars. Instagrammer Tony Greenhand, known for smokeable art, has a series where he crafts joints for celebrities. “Kirby Jenner,” is reality show about an influencer who pretends to be the fraternal twin of Kendall Jenner. And the gaming organization FaZe Clan is headlining an upcoming competition series.
The company has also drawn from podcasts and other corners of entertainment to find stars, like “The Nod” hosts Brittany Luse and Eric Eddings.
Quibi recently shook up its marketing leadership, and is focusing more on promoting its shows post-launch
Katzenberg is also taking a greater interest in Quibi’s marketing. The company has shifted its focus to promoting its shows over its brand, post-launch.
Quibi’s marketing leadership reports to Whitman. But a trusted collaborator of Katzenberg’s, Ann Daly, who was president of DreamWorks Animation and worked with Katzenberg for more than 20 years, has also stepped in as the company’s interim head of brand and content marketing. She works alongside Juan Bongiovanni, head of growth marketing, and Gina Stikes, who runs PR and corporate communications.
Daly was appointed after Megan Imbres, who joined Quibi from Netflix, exited shortly after the service launched. Katzenberg told the New York Times Imbres left because of a difference of opinion on the strategy.
Two people close to the company said Katzenberg has pointed internally to flaws in the marketing strategy at launch.
The company said it is proud of its launch.
In some ways, Katzenberg’s leadership mirrors other famous entrepreneurs
In some ways, Katzenberg’s heavy influence on Quibi is no different from Silicon Valley founders like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, or Elon Musk. Employees, content creators, advertisers, investors, and other partners bought into Quibi because they bought into Katzenberg’s vision.
But Katzenberg’s constant feedback and meetings can seem brusque and overbearing to some.
“He’s super intense and super hard-charging,” one person said. “He really only knows one speed.”
But other people who have worked with Katzenberg said his energy is infectious. He takes time between meetings with high-powered execs to get to know everyone on his team, inviting junior staffers to lunches and team dinners, when such activities were still possible before the pandemic. He sends emails thanking everyone involved in Quibi’s productions, including line producers and production assistants, to some of whom he is a living legend.
It shows how Katzenberg brought around to his view of mobile video not only Quibi’s 250 employees, but top Hollywood creators and executives, advertisers, and investors.
“He always had confidence and vision and made everyone feel aligned,” said Tyler Dean, a former summer associate at WndrCo, who worked with Katzenberg in 2017, as the idea for Quibi was being incubated. “He’s really, really good at getting you brought into his level of dedication.”
When Quibi was wooing advertisers, Katzenberg personally kicked off some of the presentations, which were led by Whitman and the ad-sales team. The close attention to detail he helped instill in the company culture showed.
Top execs of major brands were hosted at Quibi’s offices. They were escorted past the giant wall of free candy that adorns Quibi’s reception area, into a carefully staged conference room. A selection of coffees and drinks were laid out. Spiral-bound pitch decks were placed at each seat.
Quibi’s future will be determined as much by Katzenberg’s leadership moving forward as his initial vision for the platform
The next phase of Katzenberg’s content strategy will be revealed in Quibi’s upcoming slate, due out in summer and fall.
CEO Whitman, for her part, has already shown her ability to listen to user feedback and pivot her team by fast-tracking a feature to cast video from the Quibi app to smart TVs, now that people are home more due to the pandemic.
But, as the industry experts said, Quibi will thrive or die on its content, not the ability to cast to smart TVs. Katzenberg still needs a hit.
“The first wave of content didn’t connect,” Beck of cg42 said. “The stakes get higher every day for them to get something that breaks through and captures the attention of just a subset to be able to drive traction.”
If Quibi shakes off its sluggish growth, gets more people talking about its shows, and emerges as the reinvention of TV it was intended it to be, Katzenberg will once again earn the esteem and glory that comes with that success. But if the company is unable to get the right course, Katzenberg’s most recent act could look more like the spectacular failure that was Adam Neumann’s run at WeWork than like one of Silicon Valley’s iconic founders.
It’s unclear how much runway Quibi has. The company started cutting costs to buy itself more time. Quibi recently asked senior staffers to take 10% salary cuts, and has considered layoffs, though it currently has no plans to cut staff, The Wall Street Journal reported.
July will be telling. Quibi’s initial wave of April sign ups who received 90-day free trials will come off those offers, and have to start paying for the service.
Quibi, which aimed for 7 million paying subscribers in its first year, so far says it signed up 1.6 million users to a free trial, the Journal also reported on June 3.
But Katzenberg still has a few cards up his sleeve. Some of Quibi’s highest profile productions have yet to get release dates. Steven Spielberg’s “After Dark” anthology series and Guillermo del Toro’s untitled project are still to come.
“He’s got the right amount of crazy in an entrepreneur to figure out a way that makes it work,” a source working on one of Quibi’s shows said.
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