Brian Dell, Creative Director at Quartz, discusses how the key to great entertainment today is to understand your audiences through and through so you know how to create phenomenal experiences for them

Blink once and a new VR headset is launched by Samsung. Blink again and a new voice-activated system is showcased at CES. It's easy to get sparkly-eyed at shiny new tech innovations that are rolling out at supersonic speed, but according to Quartz' Creative Director Brian Dell, companies shouldn't jump on the high-tech-for-the-sake-of-high-tech bandwagon. In his view, the key to creating great entertainment today is knowing you customer like the back of your hand and giving them value, with less friction, in ways that add to their experience. 

Having worked at the intersection of storytelling, media and technology for over a decade, Brian's forte lies in building meaningful experiences for brands and their audiences.

PSFK: What are some of the biggest shifts you've been seeing in the media and entertainment industry?

Brian: Media and entertainment are very intertwined now. Back in the day, news came in newspapers and entertainment came in television and comic books. They now have a shared canvas. On that note, I think the three things that are defining that space are firstly, the ability for people to decide what their experience will be. There's this real user-centered on demand way of both information and entertainment entering people's lives. Secondly, in terms of people producing it, there's so many new capabilities through digital in terms of what kinds of experiences you can actually make for people. Thirdly is user-generated content, and bringing the community into the production process. I think AI is going to be a very powerful force in this as well in terms of actually changing the artisan model of entertainment.

What are some important consumer attitudes and behaviors around entertainment that you see shaping the marketplace?

If you aren't user-centric in a really, really powerful way and your lens isn't really, really focused on the habits, behaviors and values of the people you're trying to make things for, they will simply avoid you. Actually, if you're lucky, they'll ignore you. If you're unlucky, they'll block you.

We're also reeling back into this true over-community phase of media storytelling and entertainment.  For example, “X-Men” is one of the largest entertainment properties across multiple mediums, but for a long time, it was a geek subculture that showed up only if you knew about it. Now, because of the amplification abilities for communities, we have things like Comic Con, where people are marble fans once a year. They show up because it allows them to dip into the community and be part of it, and then step back out into their normal lives. We're seeing an opportunity for fan communities which were once subgroups and hidden groups and submerged populations turn into overt communities that actually let a lot more people participate in them as dippers and divers versus always live in them.

These days media and entertainment brands have to think about: “What are we making that provides lots of people access points to be part of the community we're making them for, versus excluding people because of either what used to be cultural, technological or distribution forces?”

This gives us an opportunity to be much more inclusive about what fandom, community means and audience means.

How is Quartz specifically pushing the boundaries of their content, and finding new ways to serve their readers and audiences?

Essentially we take away the baggage from the old media formats to provide something built for the way people in the world now live. People just need good experiences done well—whether its information, entertainment or any important topic that they care about. The key is to start very central with our user and figure out ways to bring them the value they're looking for, with less friction than they currently get it with. It's all about user-focused thinking—what does the user need from this thing and how do we give it to them in an entertaining, efficient and powerful way that lets them do what they want to do with it?

The key is to look at the places where you can show up in users' lives and add value, and then reinvent them in ways that add to the experience.

Quartz's strategy has been built on continually monitoring and adapting to the changing use by consumers of technology. How is it taking on some of these technology challenges in publishing today?

Technology is actually becoming easier and easier to use. What's difficult is having the focus and the drive to understand users so thoroughly that you can build value for them. Instead of building shiny new things that attract the marketer's or forward thinker's mind, sometimes it's better to innovate traditional forms of media. For example, when we knew that our audience has very little time to absorb the news that's significant to them and their businesses in the morning, our “Daily Brief” rethought the traditional newspaper medium by tapping into the first device they reach for —their phone—and the first thing they do in the morning—open up their email. It taught us that we can actually create something with new value and with vigor in that form by rethinking it completely. Even our Quartz app is essentially mimicking the oldest text form of mobile phone communication—SMS.

The key is to tap into something that users are familiar enough with to get value out of it, but still new enough to be entertained by and to have a good experience. To tackle that, you need to make sure you understand the technology enough to know how it's going to impact your users and how it's going to enable you to do new things, but also really understand your users so that you know how you can do great things for them.

Quartz recently established the Bot Studio. What are your predictions on where machine learning and AI is heading and how it will affect the media industry?

The big shift is that, for a very long time, our technology growth was about people learning how to use new tools. It took this skill development. Windows 3 included Minesweeper and Solitaire to teach people how to use a mouse to click on things. We always had to have the little apps that let us show people how to use the new thing we just made, because it really didn't make much sense. Then all of a sudden, a few years ago, UX and UI became such powerful industries which is the reason bots are such a big deal. Instead of asking people to step up to it, our technology is stepping back towards people.

The interface between this huge powerful backend of all of this digital infrastructure and all the data we can put through things like machine learning, algorithmic decision making and natural language processing is now able to be interacted with and interfaced with in the same way that we learn to speak when we're one or two years old by talking to our parents.

There's been this really powerful transformation in this relationship. It's much broader than media. What this means for the world is that the things that used to only be handled by experts can now be interfaced with by almost anyone.

The new expertise becomes, “What is this backend doing, and how do we make sure that it does things that are valuable for people in the right ways?”

Quartz invested in AI because it's something that's going to transform the global economy and the way we do our work. It's not going to be VR. It's going to be AI.

The news consumer is no longer scanning the market pages over their eggs at breakfast. Who is the news consumer today?

Everybody is a news consumer of some type. Audiences are very busy and they value being respected in terms of their time, the value of the information and good experiences. We don't rent the Quartz experience to any third party and custom build everything that people experience on the site. We're able to integrate brand voices within—they're in the Quartz editorial and advertising experiences, but we're largely able to do that and still have a robust audience that wants to come back to us, because we respect them. We know they value time, efficiency, entertainment and good information. Then we boldly try to reinvent the things that contribute to their lives in the right way.

Clearly there is a new era of brand transparency with the tech and social media revolutions and consumers, more than ever, are expecting brands to be socially conscious and drivers of social change. In your opinion, which companies are doing a good job of being social change drivers?

There are a lot of things companies can do to create social good in the world and there are a lot of things companies can do to create social good by being better companies. For example, Etsy has done a phenomenal parental leave study over six months which aims to figure out whether implementing parental leave actually encourages people to take more time off to spend with their families. They then did a follow-up study once these employees returned to work to see if these people were still being promoted at the appropriate rates and still had the same opportunities to climb the career ladder.

It shows that businesses themselves can do a lot to do really good things in the world that can have wide-reaching positive collateral effects.

The real question, however, is what systems are these companies building where social good isn't just for marketing or attention, but to actually produce measurable outcomes for people where they can be served better, given more resources or given more infrastructure, or any of the things that actually allows communities to prosper.



What makes a brand campaign successful in your eyes and what pitfalls should be avoided?

It really depends on your specific KPIs and how you measure success. I think what's interesting about ad campaigns is the role brands play in people's lives. A successful brand to me tells you something you didn't know about the world and are aligned with a global business audience who's looking for the future. It's all about expanding the space that a brand can inhabit in people's thoughts and interests, but also enhancing the kind of emotional and excitement experience they can have with things, whether a digital device, an event, a great memory. And what that comes down to is great editorial.

Good brand campaigns create the emotional connection, largely by bringing people novelty, new things or reminding people of things they actually believe in and want to care about. They can expand the footprint of meaning that a brand can actually have in the spaces and interests of their customer.

Millennials and generation Z have shown a sharp shift away from previous generations' brand of consumerism and they exhibit a focus on a purpose driven life and experiential lifestyle over possessions. Which brands are doing a good job of marketing to this purpose-driven generation?

I don't think generational differences are so black and white. For example, you might talk to your friend and they think a certain way and then you talk to your friend's dad who's 30 years older and he thinks just like your other friend. There are a lot of shared realities that people, consumers, customers, audiences and communities are living in right now.

I think it's a lot more than just millennials looking for purpose and to invest in things and get more out of the things they consume and the things they spend their money on. They want the things they spend their time on to actually bring more meaning to them versus bring momentary satisfaction or momentary excitement.

People have values and the thing we're actually making things for are the values of those people. This includes purpose—people wanting to be part of something bigger than themselves, people trying to find community and find more people to raise their head and say, “I'm one of you, and we're doing this together.”

The larger lesson is: get down to the value level and figure out what tribe you should be a part of and do your best to support those tribes. Also, I think the lived experience is more powerful than any generational divide. I think generational breakdowns as a sorting mechanism has kind of been debunked in a lot of ways. One of the interesting things the web did was build a shared base of experience, for people. If you think about it, the web's old enough now to be familiar to kind of pretty much everyone in the developed world.

Whenever something new happens, unlike back in the day when it took time for things to spread from a center point to actually reach mass scale, today it's just like, click and everything's distributed. We're in a distributed world.

Generations that used to be defined by what technology they grew up comfortable with have now developed a baseline web comfort, and there's now this ability to update this infrastructure and web capability instantaneously across the distributing network.

The takeaway from recent political events is that the real role of media organizations has never been more important in terms of getting to the real truth. Any words of wisdom for those in the media industry today?

To be a guide to the global economy, you must recognize that brands have a global footprint and consider how you want to communicate to those communities. You must serve your audience regardless of what countries do or what people do, and ask yourself, “how do we best understand the global economy, the changing courses of technology, the trends and brands and markets so they're actually able to bring value to our audience, then deliver that value in great, powerful ways?”

Countries can close borders, open up borders and make political decisions, however, all of that still makes them part of the global economy. The global economy doesn't go away because people decide to rescind or advance more into it.

Our role at Quartz is to be the best guide for the global economy in a shifting world. Then, my role is to help brands bring real value and powerful experiences to this sophisticated audience in that world. I think the biggest takeaway should be not to overreact and ultimately respect who you are and be who you are.

It's usually a big no-no for brands of get involved in the political fray. Do you personally think that brands should be getting involved? 

One thing that's clear is that meaning is created through having points of view. I can't tell any individual brand what they should do without knowing their circumstances.  People support things that have points of view. It's very hard for people to attach themselves to things that don't have a direction or a reason for being. I think brands should look to the communities they value and think about how to help those people be bigger and better versions of themselves. It's up to a brand to figure out who that is and how that works.

Our job is to make sure that for our community, which is the Quartz audience, we are great partners with brands and understand how they can really get powerful things to them. Sometimes that means offering a point of view and sitting at the intersection of the interesting and the important.

We saw a lot of these examples at the Super Bowl, which is obviously a big cultural moment tied into the context of a much bigger cultural moment.

I don't want to tell brands what their risk tolerance should be. I think again knowing who your people are, knowing what your community values, and then deciding how you can support those values, or why you should let them be supportive of those values, is the right line to walk.

Thanks Brian!

PSFK’s Entertainment Debrief examines the vast ecosystem of omnipresent media, where content can be found anywhere in any form. Download the full report here, request a presentation at your office and join the conversation on Twitter with #entertainmentdebrief. For full access to all of PSFK’s reports, debriefs, articles and archives, become a PSFK member today.


Blink once and a new VR headset is launched by Samsung. Blink again and a new voice-activated system is showcased at CES. It's easy to get sparkly-eyed at shiny new tech innovations that are rolling out at supersonic speed, but according to Quartz' Creative Director Brian Dell, companies shouldn't jump on the high-tech-for-the-sake-of-high-tech bandwagon. In his view, the key to creating great entertainment today is knowing you customer like the back of your hand and giving them value, with less friction, in ways that add to their experience.