EM Executive Chat: 10 Questions with Pia Barlow, SVP-Originals Marketing at HBO Max – Event Marketer

EM Executive Chat: 10 Questions with Pia Barlow, SVP-Originals Marketing at HBO Max – Event Marketer

EM Executive Chat: 10 Questions with Pia Barlow, SVP-Originals Marketing at HBO Max

Barlow offers insights on the brand’s ‘Gossip Girl’ premiere event, Gen Z and shareability

HBO Gossip Girl_Rooftop_Calen Rose for HBO Max

Following the Monse fashion show, premiere attendees headed up to the roof for an afterparty featuring photo ops, makeup touchups and F&B.

The evening before the July 8 premiere of HBO Max’s “Gossip Girl” series, an adaption of the wildly popular original show that aired for six seasons from 2007 to 2012 on The CW network, the streaming platform held a launch event and fashion show by New York luxury label Monse at the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. Conceived as a who’s-who event attended by pop culture entertainment enthusiasts, social influencers, fashion media and diehard “Gossip Girl” fans, the evening kicked off with the fashion show featuring pieces from Monse’s series-inspired collection, followed by a rooftop party peppered with photo moments and accented by the New York City skyline.

The reboot—or “extension,” as HBO Max’s Pia Barlow, svp-originals marketing, prefers to call it—follows the next generation of wealthy Upper East Siders who, while equally obsessed with maintaining elite status, are also concerned with social issues, diversity, fashion trends and, above all, authenticity. So, when it came down to marketing the series to both fans of the OG series and newer audiences, the network leaned into the fashion collab, influencer marketing and emerging social media tactics. We spoke with Barlow about the challenges of marketing the new series, appealing to young adult and Gen Z audiences authentically and how experiences are shaping up at the network moving forward.

visible-red-rocks-2020_teaserMore Executive Insights:

Pia Barlow Headshot_HBO Max

Pia Barlow

Event Marketer: What was the target audience, in terms of attendees, for the fashion show and launch event?

Pia Barlow: Fans of Gossip Girl, of course, and what we like to call the “pop culture dialed in.” So, pop culture entertainment enthusiasts, social influencers. Our influencer strategy plays a big part alongside of our social campaign. We need advocates to act as a megaphone and amplify for us, as well as media outlets and publishers from fashion, trade and consumer, on the entertainment and fashion side.


EM: You mentioned that when marketing the show overall you’re trying to appeal to old-school ‘Gossip Girl’ fans and the younger generation. How do you balance that?

PB: We debated this pretty vigorously at the beginning of the campaign. There is an assumption that YA generally means younger, but if you think about YA and what that means, it’s actually a mindset. You can be [age] 14 or 48. It’s about who likes this type of content, which spans a pretty broad audience. And that’s where the OG ‘Gossip Girl’ fan fits. The original ‘Gossip Girl’ ended up off-shooting all sorts of great shows on CW and across the entertainment landscape.

A big part is targeting what we call fans of like-minded programming. And then we also zeroed in on that younger Gen Z audience, [ages] 18 to 24, our HBO and HBO Max subscribers, and general pop culture, entertainment fans. That’s what balances it and makes it feel like you’re piercing culture.


EM: Talk about the strategy behind doing a fashion show collaboration with Monse at the event.

PB: Fashion is a clear entry point of the series, and in the original it was often a character on its own alongside the cast in New York City. It’s also one of the big reasons why the original wardrobe designer, Eric Damon, came back to do the new ‘Gossip Girl,’ because this new ‘Gossip Girl’ fashion takes an even greater role in this iteration and for this target audience. It felt thematically-aligned and authentic to celebrate the new series with an immersive fashion show. Monse was the perfect partner because it’s a new, disruptive New York luxury label that just created a collection inspired by this new world of ‘Gossip Girl,’ a sort of chic prep school look with edge. Eric was using a lot of the collection in the series itself so it felt like a perfect match from the beginning.

We streamed the fashion show live for fans globally on HBO Max YouTube, on the official ‘Gossip Girl’ TikTok, on Facebook pages, as well as the ‘Gossip Girl’ home page on HBO Max. On the livestream, we had a sit-down portion with Monse co-founder and creative director Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia and social media style guru, ashley aka bestdressed. They talked about how ‘Gossip Girl ‘was the muse for their fall ’21 collection, this rebellious reimagination of private school uniforms.


EM: The swag bag mailed to attendees’ homes on the day of the premiere was next-level. But you also gifted attendees a couple items at the event itself. Can you talk about what role that played in your marketing strategy?

PB: We worked with brands featured in the series to make sure it was authentic, aspirational, but relatable and in-world—that was always our guiding principle. Influencer boxes have reached new heights during the pandemic. But the idea of “gifting” suggests that we’re celebrating something. That’s the key element: We’re celebrating the return of this iconic, new series. The last thing we wanted to do is send off our guests with huge boxes, but we didn’t want them to come away empty-handed… so [we chose] gifts that felt authentic to a party with ‘Gossip Girl.’ The new Monse tees, the Constance Billard varsity jacket, etc. We worked closely with Eric and looked at the show for inspiration. We were very fortunate that a lot of brands wanted to work with us given how iconic ‘Gossip Girl’ IP had already been.


EM: Will you continue this gifting strategy moving forward for other shows and launch events as well?

PB: With the right types of shows. We want the recipients to feel a tactile sense of ownership with our programming. Content can feel so ephemeral these days so we want to build that lasting impression and experience with our shows.


EM: The launch event featured numerous photo moments for attendees. Can you talk about how they tied into the show’s themes?

PB: The elevated step-and-repeat was organic to the venue, and we were able to use that “XOXO” symbol that Monse embraced throughout the collection, too. Our goal wasn’t to be too ‘promo-y,’ but to let guests use that branded wall for quality content capture. Our social photographers captured fills with filters that tie into the look of our key art, which allowed fans to feel like they were part of the ‘Gossip Girl’ world. We had a Getty photographer there for social cred and then the 360 video was to make it feel immersive, elevated, high-fashion inspired. That played well with the New York City skyline background.

HBO Gossip Girl_360 Video_Calen Rose for HBO Max

A rooftop 360-degree photo moment gave influencers another reason to share the experience.


EM: Your RSVP process required guests to produce a vaccine card ahead of time or a negative COVID test at the door. That seemed to make the check-in process more seamless. Will you use this process for future events as well?

PB: I love that it fast-tracked the check-in process, because it’s all about the experience. We’re working with WarnerMedia, which has a COVID-19 task force that has evolving guidelines that are aligned with the CDC’s regulations and recommendations. So, we’re going to be keeping these protocols in place until we’re instructed not to do so, because safety is our top priority.


EM: The fact that you livestreamed the event makes it a hybrid experience of sorts. Will you take this approach moving forward?

PB: We always want to make sure that we can expand the reach for people who are not there, so I think that these types of livestreams do that. And this was the perfect event for both; it felt organic and authentic to the show. Where it makes sense, the more we can do experiences like this to make people feel like they’re part of it—even if they’re not there in-person—is really important.


EM: What are the unique challenges of marketing a reboot series?

PB: As you can imagine, there were tremendously high expectations for such an iconic show. It really set that YA TV craze on fire. And with high expectations comes high responsibility. It was exciting—but nerve-wracking—making sure that we not only honor what made the OG GG such an iconic cultural phenomenon, but also recognize that this new ‘Gossip Girl’ is its own unique show with new and more current characters, social commentary, fashion trends and even [a new] tone. So, it was thinking about how to balance that and make sure that we super-served and rallied the fans of the original while appealing to new audiences that cared about authenticity, diversity and social issues, which the series does in a thoughtful and organic way.

This new ‘Gossip Girl’ is not a reboot, per se, but an extension of the series that showcases that evolution of the Upper East Side elite. In Josh Safran’s 2.0 version, privilege doesn’t come only from protagonists’ wealth, but from their social influence and status, which makes it more relatable to today’s YA audience and raises those stakes, considering our digital society. The challenges were around making sure we were honoring the original ‘Gossip Girl,’ but evolving it in the way that the show has evolved. Our tactics were around embracing social and being social-forward and inviting our audience to co-create that campaign with us.


EM: Can you talk more about the tactics you used? What were the specific ways in which you marketed the show in terms of channels and platforms?

PB: This YA and Gen Z audience can smell a fake a mile away. So, we knew that our campaign couldn’t just parrot trends. It had to lead and drive them, and drive culture. Considering the series plot, our campaign had to be social-first. But social has gone way beyond just Insta and TikTok. Those are just table stakes now. We needed to bring the audience into the world of ‘Gossip Girl’ through a transmedia approach by blurring that line between the world of ‘Gossip Girl’ and reality. We kicked off the campaign on Memorial Day weekend with Community, which is a text-based conversation platform that enables instant and direct engagement using texts. And because ‘Gossip Girl’ has such a distinct, unique voice, it was a no-brainer to use it to send fans updates, sneak peeks and little teasers to make our social campaign feel interactive, fun, exclusive—like you’re getting a hot tip from Gossip Girl herself.

Social is going to be the ongoing engine and machine throughout the weekly episode drop. We just launched the Finstas [fake Instagram profiles] for each of the characters to extend the storytelling off-platform and in between episodes, so you feel connected to the show and the characters in a real-world way. And knowing that the audience is allergic to ads, everything we created had to feel like content, not just traditional ads or promos. That includes upending any kind of standard ad format, especially on social and digital. Instead of 15s and 30s and 60s, it was about, what does the storytelling mean? So, is it 12 [seconds], is it 42? Is it just a GIF?

That was how we thought through the creative strategy for the campaign. It also meant taking inspiration from the series. So, doing a fashion show at the premiere event and influencer and branded summer houses that drive conversation and shareability. Of course, we can’t ignore the traditional placements that we need in key broadcast and cable TV, high-impact outdoor, audio and podcasting, digital… The HBO tentpole marketing tactics we did as well. But the things that made it feel more organic to this audience—whether it’s partnerships, fashion shows or social—those are the things that are going to make it stand out to this audience.

More Scenes from the ‘Gossip Girl’ Premiere Event:

Photo credit: Calen Rose

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