This spring, it announced a $50 million round of funding ($80 million to date) right around the time the company announced it would be aggressively expanding its digital video. In April, Refinery’s new executive vice president of programming Amy Emmerich announced 29 new video series at the Digital Content NewFronts media event in New York. One of the series, A Woman’s Place, launched this week with an episode about women in the Philippines fighting for transgender rights. A Woman’s Place is hosted by the founders of the media company We Are the XX, and features empowering stories about female activists.
But Emmerich, whose résumé includes programming and development stints at MTV, Travel Channel, and Vice, had only started the job at the new year while on maternity leave for her second child. With a deadline of a little more than three months, she had to hire a video staff, build a strategy, and create a slate of nearly all-new content.
Here’s how she pulled it off:
Emmerich came to Refinery29 at the right time. Along with global expansion and mobile-social publishing, the media company had made digital video a priority and was about to close on a $50 million round of funding (in part, from Emmerich’s alma mater Scripps), to support it. That meant she wouldn’t have to spend valuable time trying to evangelize other arms of the business on the idea of video. And the painstaking hiring process the company undertook to find someone to lead the video charge served as a stamp of approval. “If you work here, you know the brand. We have an amazing onboarding process,” she says. “There was never a question about whether I was the right person for the role.”
But she still had to build a video business from scratch: a library of video content, housing for those videos on the website—not to mention a staff.
When Emmerich started, Refinery’s video team was four people strong (and only about a year old). Since January, she’s grown the video staff to 10 times that size and has added a rotating cast of freelancers depending on editorial needs. And to fill those spots, she tapped into a network of people she trusts.
“The world of video is all referral. It’s all who you know, and who do they know, and who is a friend of a friend. Because the minute you hear that someone is a good worker, you trust that voice and then bring them on board. And you don’t have to micromanage. It’s an easy fit,” says Emmerich, who is a big believer in hands-off collaboration. The reins to Refinery’s social accounts like Snapchat are handed off to internal junior talent, who run with them. “They are the audience,” she says.
Through her 25 years of experience, Emmerich not only has a strong network of professionals on hand at any time, she knows what resources she can employ to save time. “We knew we were going to make a lot of content internally, but I’ve always either licensed or utilized third-party productions. I think it keeps me fresh. So we knew that would help us move along quickly,” she says.
A small portion of Refinery’s new slate of video series will be licensed, like Sh*tty Boyfriends, created by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s New Form Digital and executive produced by Lisa Kudrow and Dan Bucatinsky (Web Therapy). Other series will be updated versions of existing videos like tutorials in Refinery’s existing coffers. Still others are created with partners, like Her Shorts–a collaboration with Planned Parenthood about men’s and women’s reproductive rights starring, among others, Lena Dunham. About 75% of the new slate is original programming, and her team has been putting videos out at a rate of about 100 a month on the Refinery website, Facebook page and YouTube channel. Monthly uniques for Refinery29 stand at 25 million a month, and 75 million across other platforms including social, mobile, newsletter, and video.
“Trust your gut. I don’t know if that comes with age. I think I meet a lot of women younger than me now who are much more secure than I was at that age. I think it’s just a security and confidence level,” Emmerich says. “I just didn’t have time to think–with a newborn at home, with a two-year-old at home, and a fast-moving business–to fear the unknown. Instead, I just chose to embrace it.”
At Refinery, Emmerich says optimism infiltrates everything the organization does. “It permeates into your skin and mind and thoughts.” She didn’t invent the all-positive climate at Refinery, but she does her part to keep it going.
“You have to go into every meeting with a positive point of view and opportunity in mind and just try to see what good business and partnership we can make out of this,” she says.
A speech coach once told her that when speaking in front of a crowd, act as if it already went swimmingly. “So throughout the month of January, we just kept saying, ‘NewFronts was the most amazing event ever.’ And then it was,” Emmerich says of the April media event where Refinery announced the new video push. “We’ve been mantra-ing out positive thoughts every day. In the morning, people will internally say, ‘It was a great Monday,’ just to put it out there. We’re going to have a great day. Let’s just act as if it already happened. And I think just keeping that mentality around the office as we move forward has been very helpful.”
If 29 series sounds like a lot to launch at once, that’s because it is.
But Emmerich and her fledgling team had a secret weapon when deciding where to go with Refinery’s video voice: a super-strong brand. An audit of Refinery’s top-performing articles from the past 10 years turned up a common thread of female empowerment.
“The company was already about empowering women. We just needed to find exactly what our angle was going to be for video. And I think getting to the point of creating content for, why, and about women and putting women’s point of view first, and opening up to that global audience got people really excited,” Emmerich says.
From that foundation, Emmerich says she knew she wanted a balanced slate of scripted, documentary, and tutorial video. Her team got to work identifying emerging female voices in the form of writers, directors, and talent. And from there, Emmerich did what she does best–let talented people do their jobs and the brand speak for itself.
“The brand, to me, feels like another girl. I always think of Refinery as just another female. And that’s what we do–diversity in thought and voices,” she says.
“The minute you say, ‘I’m talking to a millennial,’ you’re not actually talking to a millennial. I think it’s really all about life moments. Yes, our sweet spot is that 18 to 35, but an 18-year-old can have more in common with a 40-year-old than we think. It’s about experiences. There’s something that connects everyone, whether it’s food, or baby, or engagement, or dating, or career. It’s really more about the experience you are having through that situation than it is about how old you are or where you live.”