This started out as a story about a small-town boy who made good, of how Kelly Bennett, born and raised on Vancouver Island, landed what is arguably one of the top advertising jobs in the world, or at least in Hollywood, as Netflix’s chief marketing officer, with an estimated annual budget nudging $3 billion.
When Bennett joined the streaming company in 2012, it was on the brink of its second great transformation. Five years earlier, it had pivoted from mailing out DVDs to streaming films and TV shows. Now, it was moving from streaming content produced by others to making its own. Through a combination of data, killer content and, yes, smart marketing, Netflix quickly changed what we watched and how we watched it—much to the chagrin of traditional studios, movie-theatre chains and cable companies—and became an inextricable part of pop culture, first in North and Latin America, and then globally. In January 2016, Netflix began, overnight, to stream in 190 nations—every major market except China. Since then, it has gone from 25 million subscribers to roughly 150 million, and now has a market valuation of $150 billion (all currency in U.S. dollars).
According to Reed Hastings, Netflix’s cofounder, chair and CEO, Bennett—whom he has called his “chief emotion officer”—has played an invaluable role in driving that growth. He and his marketing team of 1,000 spread across the globe have helped persuade viewers, via billboards, ads, emails and social media, not just to tune in to shows like House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black and Stranger Things, and movies like Roma, but to sign up for a monthly subscription in order to do so. And his team has done it in 20 languages.
But here comes the plot twist: About a month after I travelled to Los Angeles to meet Bennett for the first time, I got a call from a Netflix spokesperson. Bennett, he said, had decided to “retire” at the age of 47 (leaving behind a $6.2-million salary) once Hastings has found a suitable replacement or, in any event, by December. Officially, Bennett was stepping down to “be a better husband and father.” But were there other factors at play? He’s not the first high-profile Netflix executive to leave in the past year (long-time chief financial officer David Wells announced he was stepping down this past August). And there has certainly been tension at Netflix between the entertainment side of the business and the data-driven tech side—tension that has, from time to time, crept into Bennett’s relationship with Hastings. The CEO has been known to downplay the importance of marketing, going so far as to say that he foresees a day when Netflix’s algorithm (the one that fills your personalized home page with suggestions of what to watch, with varying degrees of success) is so precise, the company won’t even need to advertise its movies and TV shows.
And so this story became one not just about how a one-time hockey jock from Nanaimo hit it big, but also about why he’d walk away from it all.
As befits a company that straddles the worlds of technology and entertainment, Netflix has offices in both Silicon Valley and Los Angeles—a campus in Los Gatos, a posh town south of San Francisco, and a studio and 14-floor office tower on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. The latter is a storied site—a former farm purchased in 1919 by the actual Warner brothers. The world’s first talkie, The Jazz Singer, was made here, and so were the hit silent films starring the dog Rin-Tin-Tin.
The relics on display in Netflix’s lobby evoke much more recent productions. A replica of the marble chair that features so centrally in its first original series, House of Cards, sits in one corner, just waiting for visitors to perch on it and take selfies (though in the wake of sexual assault accusations against its long-time star Kevin Spacey, no one is doing so). On a glass table sits a bowl of candies whose wrappers feature the five guys from Queer Eye. An entire wall is covered in redwoods that I recognize as a setting from the movie Bird Box, starring Sandra Bullock. At first, I mistake the images for wallpaper, but then a butterfly flutters among the trees; it turns out the wall isn’t a wall at all but a giant LED screen. So much is not quite what it appears here.
It’s early February, the day after the Super Bowl, and outside the fog is burning off a hillside to reveal the white block letters of the Hollywood sign. It’s 9:30 a.m., and Bennett is presiding over the first of his Monday meetings with the 12 people who oversee Netflix marketing in the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. (He’ll sit through another such meeting later that evening with the team in charge of Asia and the Far East.)
Bennett himself is jet-lagged, having just returned from visiting Netflix offices in London and Amsterdam. But he shows few signs of weariness. He’s wearing a black shirt and pants on a trim frame, and his dark hair is moulded into a Tintin tuft on top. His voice is his most distinctive feature, though—it’s a radio voice, and his accent is Canadian with some British and Los Angeles on top, though it somehow never sounds pretentious, the way some mixed-up, mid-Atlantic ones can. He’s careful in what he says, private, his face friendly but hard to read.
Bennett runs a tight, cheerful meeting, asking open-ended questions, passing on his thoughts about promotional campaigns they’re running around the world. The previous night’s football game gets a passing mention. Bennett’s crew is far more interested in the ads—specifically rival HBO’s partnership with Bud Light to produce a spot promoting its flagship series Game of Thrones, complete with jousters and a fire-breathing dragon that swoops in to torch the spectators. The flashy ad was starkly different from Netflix’s own Super Bowl offering, for Richard Attenborough’s new series, Our Planet. It starts with an orangutan and her baby, the baby’s eyes staring straight at viewers before giving way to animals in their endangered habitats—whales, polar bears, electric-green toads—en route to the game-related tag-line: “We’re all on one team.” It’s a moving spot, with stunning images. But was it too quiet amid the noise generated by the other Super Bowl ads? “We tend to zig where others zag,” Bennett says.
They move on to discuss some upcoming promotional campaigns—here, “Rene” and “Jake” are Russo and Gyllenhaal, the co-stars of the upcoming Netflix horror flick Velvet Buzzsaw. Bennett’s question with respect to the talent is always, “Will they work for us?” (In both cases, the answer is yes.)
The meeting’s mix conveys the job’s variety. Bennett manages employees across seven offices globally, creating advertising across a bewildering array of media: traditional commercials, billboards, digital interactives, social media, email. On top of all that, the team is responsible for the overall Netflix brand, right down to the logo (a new version of which Bennett’s team had launched over the weekend, eliciting a terse, “Good job, dude” from Hastings for Stephen Bruno, a former HBO exec and Bennett’s global marketing chief, who was in charge of the project).
While he sweats through the meeting’s small stuff, Bennett says he always tries to keep one larger concept in mind. “I call it the brand bank. As a business, every interaction we have with our members or consumers that is generally positive is a deposit in the brand bank. If you open your TV and the brand loads, that’s a little deposit. You find a show that you like—a deposit; a show you love, that you binge on, like Stranger Things, do two seasons in a weekend? That’s wads of cash.” He won’t name names, but Bennett says many tech and social media companies work on trying to burnish their reputations only when things go wrong. “But by then,” he says, “it’s too late.”
By Bennett’s telling, if someone—anyone, really—had spotted his potential, he might have stayed in Canada.
His grandfather was a lumberjack, his mom a letter carrier and his dad a fireman. “Nanaimo was a place where you knew everyone, with a real working-class pride,” says Bennett’s older brother, Shane. Kelly was a hockey player with worldly ambitions: Shane remembers a map that hung on his brother’s wall, stuck full of pins to mark all the places he wanted to go. “You had this sense that he was going to get there,” says Shane. “He was always the first kid to try something—the first to have a skateboard, the first with whatever new trend.”
Young Kelly was TV- and movie-mad, pronouncing these rarely heard words: “I just loved Canadian television.” (He was a particular fan of The Beachcombers, which was filmed in Gibsons, B.C., just across the Strait of Georgia from Nanaimo.) But when it came time for university, Bennett opted to study business at Simon Fraser in Vancouver. His family had no money to help with tuition, so he worked nights and weekends at a Save-On-Foods supermarket to pay the bills. “I was putting in 40 to 60 hours a week at work and carrying a full course load,” says Bennett. “I didn’t have the university experience some of my classmates did.” He also couldn’t afford to accept low- or non-paying internships, which handicapped him when it came time to apply for jobs post-graduation. “Through these internships, people were landing interviews at places where they told me I didn’t have the experience. Well, how was I going to get that?”
When a job came up at the Save-On head office in Langley, B.C., Bennett put in his resumé. “I knew everything about that company,” he says. “I’d bagged groceries, done merchandising in the store, been an unofficial shop steward with the union. I knew what motivated their staff.” If he’d gotten the job, Bennett might have ended up tracking his brother’s career (Shane manages several London Drugs stores in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley). But they turned him down.
To dull the pain of rejection, Kelly went to visit a friend in London, England. “I planned on staying a couple of weeks,” he says, “but I stayed 13 years, mostly because I met a girl on my first day there.” (She’s now his wife of 20 years, Dominique, with whom he has three children.) Despite his lack of experience, Bennett landed a succession of jobs in advertising, a field he took to at once. “Nobody cared if I had experience, and I had a sense that it was my calling, that this was something I could be really good at,” he says.
His North American pick-me attitude helped. At one job, in the London office of a U.S. agency, whenever an executive would ask for help, “Here’s me, this 25-year-old saying, ‘I can,’ “ says Bennett. “What I didn’t realize was that in a British workplace, nobody will ever put their hand up and say, ‘I’m good at this.’ They wait to be tapped.”
He also wasn’t shy about diving into new things. In 1997, that meant the Internet. “There was this new digital thing coming that interested me,” he says, adding that it wasn’t all that different from offline marketing: “You still have to be a great storyteller and figure out how to motivate humans to do certain things.”
His social media cred got him hired in 2003 at Warner Brothers’ London office, where he worked on the digital side of campaigns for The Hangover, The Matrix and the Harry Potter series. The franchise about a boy wizard was just rolling out, and Bennett’s team became an early adopter of Facebook, building what was, at one time, the most liked and followed property on the relatively new social network. The content on Facebook served up what fanzines once did and more: a constantly refreshed feed of behind-the-scenes tidbits, images of the stars, the latest trailers, links to behind-the-scenes stories and to online communities of fans—mostly teens, obsessing together.
With each sequel, audiences grew instead of declined, according to Bennett. The challenge on the marketing side was to continue selling the films to fans as they grew older (along with Harry and his friends, who go from 11 to 17 over the course of the series), and as the tone of each installment got darker and more mature. “We tried to realize J.K. Rowling’s vision in the campaigns.” All told, the eight Harry Potter films have grossed nearly $8 billion worldwide.
In 2010, Warner Brothers moved Bennett to Los Angeles, where he caught Hastings’s attention. As Hastings puts it, “Kelly came on my radar because of the incredible campaigns he’d done for some of the biggest blockbusters at Warner.” To this day, Netflix bears the imprint of its two strikingly different founders: the computer-science nerd Reed Hastings and the self-proclaimed junk-mail king Marc Randolph.
Randolph came from a family of marketers. His great-uncle, Edward Bernays, was a pioneer in advertising, using the theories of another Randolph relative, Sigmund Freud, to persuade people to buy everything from Lucky Strike cigarettes (targeting women by portraying the act of smoking as a feminist rebellion) to bananas (appealing to North Americans by photographing celebrities eating them).
Hastings, meanwhile, has innovation in his blood: One of his East Coast forebears contributed to breakthroughs that led to the invention of radar, the atomic bomb and GPS, working from a lab attached to his New York-area mansion.
“In its DNA, Netflix had an equal measure of consumer insight—Randolph’s knowledge and sense of empathy—and Hastings’s expertise on the engineering side,” says Gina Keating, the author of Netflixed: The Epic Battle for America’s Eyeballs. “Both were equal—the yin and yang of the company, the art and the science.”
Randolph takes credit for two of Netflix’s greatest early insights: first, that movie renters wanted a greater selection than any one bricks-and-mortar store could provide, and second, that they were thoroughly sick of paying late fees at the local Blockbuster. He and Hastings charged a monthly subscription fee to customers to rent DVDs via mail (an innovation Randolph takes full credit for), choosing movies from a personalized web page geared to their movie tastes (an idea for which he shares credit with Hastings).
Hastings, who has a master’s from Stanford, created the underlying algorithm, Cinematch, that now powers the entire company. When Randolph left in 2002, Hastings took sole charge, relentlessly trying to perfect Cinematch’s accuracy in suggesting shows that customers will actually want to watch. When he wasn’t satisfied it was doing the best job it could, he offered a $1-million prize to any data scientists who could improve the accuracy with which it gauged viewer tastes; the prize was won by a team led out of AT&T Labs.
But as the company moved toward producing its own content, Hastings knew he needed marketing muscle. Enter Kelly Bennett. “We knew our future was increasingly global and increasingly dependent on creating our own programming,” Hastings says. “That meant we needed a CMO who could take on these twin challenges of introducing new markets to Netflix and then getting our members excited about shows and films they hadn’t yet heard of.”
At around the time Bennett came on board, Netflix bid $100 million for the rights to House of Cards, which starred Spacey as a climbing, corrupt politician in Washington, D.C. Netflix believed the show was a sure thing, based on the copious data it had collected from its subscribers: Fans of the original British version of the series, then streaming on Netflix, also liked movies starring Spacey and projects created by the project’s producer-director, David Fincher. The company was so sure it had a winner that Bennett’s team crafted an early email to Netflix members that confidently posted the title of the show and the message “Coming Soon”—just enough to intrigue the target audience, nothing more.
Although Hastings has called Bennett his chief emotion officer, the ads produced on his watch have been notable more for their ingenuity and playfulness than their appeals to feeling. A television spot for House of Cards in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election starred Spacey, then at the height of his popularity, and mimicked an actual presidential campaign ad: “This message approved by Frank Underwood.” (His character has since been killed off following the sexual assault allegations.)
A recent ad for Santa Clarita Diet—starring Drew Barrymore as a suburban zombie mom—starts off like a promo for a new weight-loss regimen but takes a gruesome turn: Barrymore happily eating human flesh from a bowl, blood trickling down her chin. To advertise its stand-up comedy offerings, it put up billboards around L.A. stating simply, “Netflix is a joke.” As Bennett says, “People thought, ‘Who’s trolling Netflix?’”
On the social side, the challenge is to think small. “Now, we say, How do you sum up your campaign in a tweet?’ “ says Bennett. “If you can be really precise about the story, you know you’re onto something. In 20 years, we’ve gone from a 30-second commercial being the ultimate thing, or the single-page magazine ad, to making an Instagram story that’s five seconds long. But it can reach 10, 50, 100 times more people in a moment than a physical printed ad or TV spot ever could.”
The social strategy also involves reacting to whatever’s happening online. Take Bird Box, set in a dystopian future where demons visit Earth; to look on them is death, so the characters wander about blindfolded. After its release, a meme arose on social media that had people walking around blindfolded in what they called the Bird Box Challenge. The Netflix response was deft and speedy: “Can’t believe I have to say this, but: PLEASE DO NOT HURT YOURSELVES WITH THIS BIRD BOX CHALLENGE. We don’t know how this started, and we appreciate the love, but Boy and Girl [two of the film’s characters] have just one wish for 2019 and it is that you not end up in the hospital due to memes.”
“We’ve developed a strong voice on social media,” says Bennett.
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To date, he’s had a princely budget to go at these challenges—it has grown from $1 billion in 2017 to a reported $2.9 billion for this year —but he bristles at the suggestion that it’s bloated. “The marketing spend may seem like a rather large number, but when you break it down, market by market, around the world, across 20 to 30-plus languages, it’s quite manageable—if you look at how other entertainment companies spend on a title-by-title basis.” Indeed, the marketing budget for Avengers: Endgame was reportedly around $200 million (with the movie generating $2.5 billion in its first two weeks). The Wall Street Journal has estimated HBO spent $20 million to promote the final season of Game of Thrones.
The biggest challenge for Bennett has been selling Netflix abroad. “In a traditional business, you expand market by market,” Bennett says. “You do deep market studies, lots of testing about whether there’s viability. We had done a lot of that in prior expansions. But this time, we learned about the markets after the launch.”
Netflix’s uptake in Latin America’s biggest market, Brazil, was initially below expectations. For one thing, broadband Internet wasn’t widespread, which meant subscribers couldn’t stream shows. Many were still watching local television shows the old-fashioned way. And so Netflix went to where the viewers were, taking over an hour of traditional television to air an episode from its ’80s-themed horror series Stranger Things, complete with retro-style ads and newscasts to fill the full hour. That strategy gave Netflix a subscription boost and won an award for creativity at Cannes.
It has also helped that Netflix is spending big to produce shows outside the United States, including in Canada, where it reportedly has about 6.7 million subscribers. This past winter, Netflix announced its intention to establish 250,000 square feet of studio space in Toronto and invest $500 million (Canadian) in production north of the border by 2022. It’s spending similar sums to produce work in many other markets. But even this has risks for its image: “Locals are getting restive about this American company coming in, buying up all the great artists and content,” Keating says. “I don’t think Netflix has any bad will, but just by being there, they change the market.”
While Netflix is certainly the leader in streaming, it’s still only capturing about 10% of screen time in the U.S. And it’s in for a fight. Disney is getting set to launch its own streaming service in November (it already has a stake in Netflix rival Hulu, which has 25 million subscribers). So is Apple. Amazon, meanwhile, has been bulking up its Prime offerings. That’s in addition to competition from the likes of YouTube, HBO, traditional cable companies and the remaining movie studios, MGM among them.
So far, Netflix’s defence against the coming onslaught seems to be to appeal to just about everyone. “Our members are super-diverse—everything from a parent who has pre-K kids, to young teens, to adults, to sophisticated elites who want to watch the hundred movies they need to see before they die, to people who love documentaries—we have all these different audiences,” says Bennett. “We want to be the pre-eminent destination for filmmaking and series.”
Ad Week writer Jason Lynch believes this is Netflix’s strength: “It wants to be all things to all people and provide a never-ending stream of new content in pretty much every genre you can think of, so its subscribers will have no need to seek out any of its rivals.”
Bennett, however, won’t be around to fight the streaming war.
When he announced his decision to retire in March—walking away with $19 million in Netflix stock—he said he wanted to spend more time with his family and “to contribute more to my community.” He immediately decamped to the High Sierras, in Yosemite National Park, with Dominique and their kids (aged 11 to 17) to wrap his head around the implications of his decision.
A few weeks later, after his return from the woods, we spoke again. So, what does the next episode in the Kelly Bennett show look like? “Given that I’ve achieved really everything I set out to achieve professionally, it’s time for me to refocus,” he told me. He has already accepted a seat on the board of the German e-fashion giant Zalando, and he hopes to join the boards of a few non-profits, particularly ones with environmental and educational missions. He even mused about teaching a marketing class at a local college. Though he’s lectured in the past at Oxford and Stanford, and could probably land a more prestigious teaching gig, he’d prefer to join the sort of place where kids without much money—kids like he once was—would study.
As for politics, Bennett has been known to give messaging advice to Barack Obama. So will he be offering help to any of the candidates in the upcoming 2020 presidential campaign? “No. No interest,” is his curt reply. He’s not leaving one hurly-burly to dive right into another.
Looking back on his seven years at Netflix, Bennett says it has changed the way he thinks about marketing, perhaps aided by Hastings and his Cinematch algorithm: “When I started, I thought advertising was 90% art—great creative, great images, great trailers, great storytelling—and 10% analytical. Now, I think it’s 60% art, 40% science.”
That could be a friendly nod to his data-driven soon-to-be-former boss. But a longtime Netflix observer confirms there has been tension within the company that might explain Bennett’s willingness to depart. Hastings has said publicly that one day, he wants to spend nothing on marketing, letting Cinematch do all the work steering viewers from one binge-watch to the next. (Indeed, reports have been circulating in the trade press that Bennett’s team is being disbanded once he departs—a rumour Netflix denies—and Stephen Bruno has already quit to become MGM’s chief marketing officer.) The algorithm is something of an in-house god at Netflix. But for his part, Bennett told me in our first interview: “I don’t think it’s realistic to imagine that we could ever get totally out of marketing.”
Post-announcement, he’s more plainspoken: “An algorithm will never really understand the human connection to movies, the universal truths in them,” he says. “Algorithms are not evolved yet to predict why people like the things they like.”
He ends our interview with a summary of the thoughts that visited him in Yosemite: “Something that big reminds you of your place in the world. There’s great beauty, great adventure. Being with your family in a place like that reminds you that there’s more to life than just your career.”
After some time away from this game, will the marketer in Bennett beckon him back? For now, his answer is no. But time can alter our views. What looks like static wallpaper one moment can morph, with the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, into something different, less fixed, the next.
Grooming by Emily Zempel/ Exclusive Artists