Sky and Facebook heads talk 'evolving' content and marketing partnership

Pay-TV giant Sky and social network Facebook are working in partnership to understand how marrying Sky's content with Facebook's platforms can deliver results for both companies, senior executives revealed at the Guardian Changing Media Summit.

Facebook and TV: Sky's Stephen van Rooyen, Facebook's Nicola Mendelsohn and moderator Robert Andrews
Facebook and TV: Sky's Stephen van Rooyen, Facebook's Nicola Mendelsohn and moderator Robert Andrews

Facebook’s EMEA vice-president Nicola Mendelsohn and Sky’s chief marketing and digital officer Stephen van Rooyen discussed how the partnership came about, what it consists of and how they are making it work.

The tie-up’s roots lie in Facebook’s appeal as an advertising vehicle to van Rooyen two and a half years ago, when he ran tests to see whether by spending money on Facebook Sky would see uplifts in viewing for its shows (it did).

"Facebook’s rise as an incredible platform that our customers have adopted in swathes meant that it was an obvious partner to go to," said van Rooyen, while Mendelsohn said Sky’s interest coincided with Facebook’s launch of new products for publishers and advertisers.

The relationship has evolved more into content provision as both companies experiment with new entertainment technology, always a concern for Sky but also to Facebook following its 2014 acquisition of virtual reality hardware company Oculus.

Mendelsohn stressed it was "early days" for VR but Facebook is focused on learning about how consumers react to the 360-degree videos it introduced last year in its first collaboration with Oculus.

She said: "We’ve all had so much excitement about VR but we’ve only just started commercially shipping Oculus this quarter.

"It’s going to take time before people are used to it and we have the critical mass to start being able to go and use it.

"I think the important thing is what’s already here, which is why we’re doubling down on 360. All the learnings that we get from 360 will be applicable as a baseline of learning to what will happen in VR as well."

Sky is bringing the content that people want to see, she added, referring to 360-degree content examples such as Sky Sports’ video of drive round a Formula One circuit in a Wiliams car and Sky News’ report from the refugee camp in Calais.

Van Rooyen said: "What we have both as a media owner and an advertiser is very complementary to what Facebook has got and is building. Our ambition always has been to try and work along with Facebook to explore the new opportunities that they are creating."

Asked by the panel’s moderator, journalist Robert Andrews, whether Sky would be brining the world Premier League matches live in virtual reality through Facebook Oculus, van Rooyen said: "Our ambition is to see how the technology evolves and evolve with it, to continue to distribute, on [Facebook] 360 and eventually on a Sky virtual reality app.

"Where it goes beyond that I think we’re still not ready to say. It’s an interesting technology."

Sky has been burnt before when introducing a new technology, with its investment in setting up a 3D television channel meeting with a lack of demand in the real world and the channel being closed down last year.

But the signs are the partnership will continue beyond the short-term, as van Rooyen and Mendelsohn revealed they had quarterly meetings together to "share learnings" in the former’s words and give "tough feedback" in the latter’s words.

"We then have our two teams face off to each other to create," said van Rooyen. "We talk about taking some risks and we’re like-minded as companies about when to try things."

Mendelsohn added:  "Some of the examples we’ve been speaking about require engineers speaking to engineers – that’s precious resource on both sides."

The session was also notable for Mendelsohn correcting Andrews’ introduction of van Rooyen as CMO of Sky to tell the audience that he had just been promoted to UK and Ireland chief executive.

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