All Def Digital’s Million Subscriber Journey with CEO Sanjay Sharma

All Def Digital announced earlier this week that it has crossed the million subscriber mark on its YouTube channel, making it the fastest growing digital network for urban millennials, according to the company.

But the way All Def Digital CEO Sanjay Sharma sees it, it’s just a brief stop on the way to broader cross-platform success in digital, television, film and live events.

“YouTube was the beachhead, and we wanted to show that we could grow and scale organically on our owned and operated channel and build stickiness and high retention rates, strong engagement with an audience and go deep in a vertical,” Sharma told VideoInk. “We’re starting build on other digital platforms, principally Facebook, but we want to be anywhere the audience is online — Snapchat, Vine, Instagram. We also want to be cross-platform on media platforms, creating a creative engine, an accelerator, if you will, so that talent that we discover, whether it’s off of a stand-up comedy stage or Vine, can be plugged into this engine and accelerate their careers and make original programming.”

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Launched in 2013 by Russell Simmons in partnership with AwesomenessTV, All Def Digital targets urban millennials with short-form programming including the artist discovery series “The Signal,” the weekly sports show “Two Minute Drill,” the political commentary series “The Firing squADD,” and “Arts and Raps,” a hip hop interview show where kids do arts and crafts with hip hop artists.

Prior to All Def, Simmons had already enjoyed success across several mediums, starting with his music label Def Jam Recordings. Co-founded by Simmons and Rick Rubin in 1983, it launched the careers of a slew of seminal hip hop artists including Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys and LL Cool J. Later, he created the clothing line Phat Pharm and produced HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam” (1992–1997, 2006–2008), dedicated to African-American stand-ups.

But Sharma had something Simmons didn’t have — experience in digital video. He came to All Def in July 2014 after a five-year stint as executive VP of strategy and business development at gaming-centric multi-channel network Machimina, where he was one of the first employees.

Sharma is an Indian-American from Baton Rouge, La., but he considers himself a child of hip hop, and he and Simmons were able to bond over their shared interests.

Originally, Simmons had been looking to start his own cable channel. Facing congressional pressure, Comcast committed to carry several minority-owned networks as part of its arrangement to acquire a majority interest in NBCUniversal, which led to the creation of Robert Rodriguez’s Latino-focused El Rey Network and Sean “Diddy” Combs’ Revolt TV in 2013. Simmons was deep into discussions regarding his own network when he finally decided to go digital instead.

“Russell realized that, one, the cable business would require significantly more capital, especially if you wanted to do original programming and, two, that the world was going in a different direction,” Sharma said. “He’s got tween-teenage daughters. I’ve got two sons. And we both shared a common observance of our kids that they never really watch television.When they occasionally do, they’re watching it on a tablet or a phone, more commonly.”

The second epiphany was the realization that, in spite of the immense popularity of hip hop music and culture, its core demo, namely African-American millennials, was being underserved in the digital video space.

“There was a hole in the market big enough to drive a truck through,” Sharma said. “There was Tastemade for food, MiTu in the Latino category, Styehaul — all these vertical players that you know. No one had really stepped up into the category that historically is referred to as urban.”

Sharma and Simmons envisioned All Def Digital as hip hop’s answer to Vice Media. It wasn’t that they wanted to mimick Vice’s focus on news and documentaries, they simply wanted to follow its lead and ignore the traditional MCN model of aggregating channel partners at scale, and instead focus on producing original programming.

They also weren’t interested in conforming to others vision of what constituted the “urban” audience.

“The traditional media companies have always thought of urban as synonymous with black,” Sharma said. “And we think that, largely with hip hop and arguably with Def Jam Records, Russell cracked hip hop into the global mainstream and created a movement out of something that turned urban into a cultural identity and not a racial identity. It’s so fundamental to our business thesis and why we think it’s such a big opportunity.”

All Def is also about more than just digital. In July, the company has a first look deal with HBO, where it currently has five projects in development, including five projects in active development under its deal with HBO — the comedies “There Are My New Friends” and “The Broken Lizard Show,” the high society drama “Codes of Conduct,” directed by Oscar-winner Steve McQueen, a Def Comedy Jam 25th Anniversary special and a series curating performances from its weekly live comedy night in Hollywood. It has also developed ADD25, a digital platform designed to surface and develop emerging musical artists, and inked a deal with WorldStar Hip Hop to develop television content.

As broad as All Def digital wants to be with its distribution, it wants to stay narrowly focused on its demo.

Said Sharma: “We want to be authentic to the core, partly because we think it’s a dramatically underserved audience, but also because of what Russell has shown with music and and street wear, which is, if you capture it right and you’re authentic to the core and you tap into something culturally relevant, it actually radiates outward and breaks out. So it’s narrow on the one hand; it’s laser focused. But, on the other hand, when it breaks out, it’s so mainstream.”

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