Branded Video Pioneer Christy Ferer Can Find Your Eyeballs Anywhere

Christy Ferer, CEO of CityBuzz, former journalist, now brand storyteller. (Photo: Francesco Sapienza)

Christy Ferer, CEO of Citybuzz, former journalist, now brand storyteller. (Photo: Francesco Sapienza)

Christy Ferer stumbled into what is now known as branded content decades before it became a buzzword, heralded with some trepidation as a lucrative source of newsroom revenue.

As a young WPIX reporter in 1979, Ms. Ferer would drive around the city with an all-male broadcast team. They spent the days listening to the police scanner and waiting for assignments from the studio, ready to go live at the scene when news broke. Tired of competing with the guys for breaking news, she convinced her boss to let her cover a Ralph Lauren fashion show.

“I told my editor, ‘You want some real T&A footage? I’m going to get it for you if you let me cover this fashion show,’ ” Ms. Ferrer recalled. Her editor gave her the go-ahead. It was local evening news, and attractive women make for good segments between stabbings.

“Even then she had this entrepreneurial streak,” said AP senior managing editor Michael Oreskes, who has known Ms. Ferer since they were cub reporters. “She was always trying to build stories or hustle for a sharper angle or a deeper point.”

In those days, fashion shows were not videotaped on a regular basis. It was before the days of Vines, Instagram and cameras in every pocket. Not every experience was recorded and brand identities were still forged on Madison Avenue rather than via selfie. Equipment was expensive and clunky. Ms. Ferrer, an enterprising young reporter, saw an opportunity. She began a side business taping shows and tried to sell a subscription to footage as a pool feed to news stations.

A year later, Ms. Ferer rented a booth at an annual trade show in Las Vegas where news producers and editors convened to find content to beef up their broadcasts. 

“It was all men and electronics, and then there was a booth with clothing and models and videotapes of fashion shows. People looked at me like I had three heads,” Ms. Ferer said on a recent morning, sitting on the blue exercise ball she uses as her office chair.

News producers wanted the footage but weren’t willing to pay, so Ms. Ferer decided to charge the designers to film the shows and distribute the footage to news channels for free.

The gambit worked. Her business, Vidicom, took off. Fashion shows expanded into lifestyle segments, or what was known as “soft features” in local news parlance.

*** *** ***

A St. Louis native who had lived various places before New York, Ms. Ferer had a regular stream of houseguests. Since she kept the unpredictable hours of a hungry young New Yorker, she made a video guide for visitors to New York. Ms. Ferer told Bob Tisch, who happened to be the father of a friend, about the tape and suggested they put it in Tisch family-owned hotels. Other hotels followed suit.

By 1982, Citybuzz had a dedicated channel in hotels. Clients like museums, restaurants and Broadway shows “loved the ability to get to a targeted population,” according to Ms. Ferer. Who wouldn’t? Eventually, the reach grew to include taxis, was promoted by the city’s tourism arm and made inroads in other cities like Chicago.

“Millions of captive travelers a month catch Citybuzz, the nation’s premiere destination television network in hotels and taxi cabs across the country,” touts the website.

This past October, Citybuzz became the exclusive content provider for MTA’s Wi-Fi network, meaning that captive subway riders have the option of watching a 60-second video when they sign on to the underground Wi-Fi network.

“They got it right away, they knew what we were looking for and knew what we wanted,” said Gary Simpson, the founder and director of Transit Wireless, the wireless provider for the MTA, The two met Ms. Ferer through a mutual friend and partnered in October. “When we met with Christy and saw what she was already doing, it seemed like the perfect fit.”

According to Citybuzz, 1 percent of subway riders who get the prompt click, and of those, 33 percent watch until the end. Although that isn’t a huge figure, its still a sizable number of potential consumers choosing to watch sponsored content rather than go right to Facebook.

In December, NBC 4 New York became the first advertiser to sign up for Citybuzz’s underground Wi-Fi program, meaning that the local television station got seven seconds of native video content during the daily segments. The minute-long feature news blitz breathlessly mentions different happenings around the city and conveniently gives the subway stop, just in case the content is so persuasive that viewers jump off at Lincoln Center to catch a ballet.

Touting its usefulness, Mr. Simpson cited a recent segment that informed him about The New York Ceramics & Glass Fair (“Stop @ 68 St or 77 St”). “I’m very interested in glass and ceramics, but I just hadn’t heard about it until I was on the subway,” he explained.

“Branded content is native advertising because it flows naturally,” Ms. Ferer said. “We’re experts in being able to manipulate that. You’re enticed by free streams, and you press that button.”

*** *** ***

When I visited  the Penn Station-area headquarters of Citybuzz, a blonde woman was being filmed holding up a selection of products, constructing narratives that incorporated the advertisers into a “New Year, New You” story and answering questions posed live on social media. The satellite footage will then be cut to a variety of lengths for use on different platforms.

Much of the office resembles the newsrooms that most of the employees came from. The daily Citybuzz segments are assembled in a bullpen by a team of what Ms. Ferer calls “predators,” a portmanteau of producer/shooter/writer/editors.

“Remember, I described the three guys who were with me: One did sound, one shot and one did lights. And I was a reporter. That doesn’t happen anywhere anymore. Maybe 60 Minutes has crews like that, but that’s about it,” Ms. Ferer explained, before urging me to learn Final Cut. It was a refrain I heard a lot in Journalism School, where there was an emphasis on being a one-man band in a new economy where entry level workers with multiple skills are a cheap alternative to seasoned veterans.

“Little Eva, come here, cute person,” Ms. Ferer called to Eva Zaccaria, a predator in her 20s with a background in broadcast. Ms. Ferer raved about Ms. Zaccaria’s skill at choosing what image from the daily Citybuzz segment would entice viewers as a freeze frame.

“I mean, who would not click on Jimmy Carter in a djellaba? Who would not do that?” Ms. Ferer rhetorically asked, of a segment about the former president’s visit to the Natural History Museum earlier that week.

Ms. Ferer, who has two grown daughters, is like a kooky mother from a sitcom. She wore gray furry boots and a Lululemon pullover. Above her desk hangs a portrait of her and her daughters, made out of candy. She likes to invoke the legions of interns she has mentored over the years and frequently calls out to her assistant or employees with ideas.

I was getting over a cold when I visited the office. “If I was your mother, I wouldn’t let you out of the house like this,” she said, as I struggled to stifle my cough before Ms. Ferer noticed and began digging through her handbag, determined to find a lozenge. A short while later, I had a selection of cough drops. Later, she pulled out a plastic baggie with homemade granola cookies from behind her desk and handed me one.

In the same manner, Ms. Ferer told me the ground rules she has for content. “Never use a word on branded content that you wouldn’t use on the phone. It has to be conversational. Unless you’re on a talk show about economics or politics, you don’t use a word that you don’t use on the telephone. You don’t use adjectives or superlatives.”

As for what stories to cover, Ms. Ferer, who remained a contributor to morning programs including the Today show until 2000, recited tropes straight out of newsrooms and J-school classes.

“If you can’t tell someone something they don’t know in a believable, credible fashion you don’t even have a story. You’re either a good storyteller or you’re not,” she explained.

Which isn’t to say that Ms. Ferer claims she is actually doing journalism. “I used to tell all of my journalist friends that I was doing prostitution,” she said.

“I’m still embarrassed,” she replied, when asked if she had any initial misgivings about crossing the church and state divide. But the stigma is largely gone, I pointed out. “I know, I still can’t believe it,” Ms. Ferer exclaimed.

*** *** ***

“She’s an entrepreneur at heart,” former Mayor Michael Bloomberg said of Ms. Ferer. “I’ve watched her build this business from the beginning and if you look at the trends in recent years, she is really a pioneer who was way ahead of the curve in the industry. She has the news sense that allows her to shape the messaging in a way that’s very compelling for the audience.”

Other media are catching on. The New York Times has been cautiously exploring native advertising, a form of branded content designed to resemble a story in the publication in which it appears. Just last week, Condé Nast announced a new branded content studio that will give marketers access to the publishing company’s “unparalleled editorial assets,” which essentially means that brands will be able to work with editors to create native advertising. Although it’s hard to imagine a world where New Yorker editor David Remnick writes ad copy, that’s the added value that Condé’s content studio brings.

“It seems to me that Christy has shown a shrewd adaptability,” said Roger Altman, the founder and executive chairman of the investment bank Evercore. The two met over 30 years ago through Ms. Ferer’s first husband, Bob Millard, when the men were both partners at Lehman Brothers. “She’s really on top of the zeitgeist. Christy really just has a good feel for content, for what people want, for where trends are going.”

The idea behind native advertising is that it looks similar enough to traditional editorial paid for by advertising dollars to almost trick the reader into believing that’s what it is without actually tricking the reader.

In this, too, Ms. Ferer was something of a pioneer.

After her second husband, Port Authority executive director Neil David Levin, was killed in the September 11 attacks, Ms. Ferer dealt with her grief by working on videos to promote New York’s economic recovery (she later worked in other capacities to represent the families of 9/11 victims, including as a liaison between the families and the mayor). She called Susan Grant, a friend at CNN, to see if the promotional videos could be added to the end of network’s news feed. 

Since it was promotional material rather than news, they demarcated it as promotional content with a slate declaring it as such. “Susan and I invented video news releases on the back of the news feed,” Ms. Ferer recalled. “It became a big new business for CNN.”

Even in that situation, Ms. Ferer who is, by her own account, “terrible at grieving,” was able to draw on her journalistic background to figure out a way to make promotional content palatable.

“We try to stay ahead of the curve, pushing branded content in any new direction where people are really watching,” she said. “People on the move are gonna be our target from now on.”

To be successful, a business needs to be able to both anticipate trends and continue to adapt to industry changes. Being an early pioneer in branded content is a good place to be, but Ms. Ferer is still subject to larger shifts. The pool videos that started her business have disappeared. Fashion designers cut out the middleman, sending news agencies footage themselves.

“The next step is to ensure that the engagement brings some sort of fulfillment in terms of revenue towards the brand,” Ms. Ferer explained.

In other words, getting people to click on sponsored content is one thing. Getting them to make the jump from watching content on a mobile device to actually buying what they see, all while sitting on the subway or walking down the street, well, that’s the future. Or at least an iteration of the present that would be, no doubt, enthusiastically embraced by marketers.