After working in the Chicago and New York restaurant industries, Will Malnati leapt into the podcast business five years ago when he opened the audio production company At Will Media with just $30,000 from his own savings.
At Will Media has carved out a successful niche for its branded content, working with such big names as Amazon Studios, Audible, Animal Kingdom Films, Netflix, The New York Times, GQ, Hearst, Morgan Stanley, Town & Country, Viacom, The Clinton Foundation, and 1 Hotels. It has also recently ventured into creating original series, such as the satirical narrative series 14 Days with Felicity about the 2019 college admissions scandal that involved actress Felicity Huffman.
Podcast News Daily recently caught up with Malnati to talk about his company and where he sees podcast heading in 2021.
PND: To start, where does At Will Media fits into podcasting?
Will Malnati: Our business is made up of two revenue streams. We are a full-service production company. We become an extension of their brand and help them create and navigate within the podcast space. The other side of the business is original development where we develop and package different podcasts properties that range a span of genres from fiction and scripted to documentary.
PND: You guys seem to fly below the radar.
Will Malnati: The reason our company is unique and often flies under the radar is 99% of our shows are not ad-supported, so we’re not out there in the bright lights and getting ads on shows and creating big marketing campaigns. We partner with distributors and we partner with brands.
PND: It seems like the term ‘branded podcast’ doesn’t fit with what you do.
Will Malnati: I agree. Whereas in 2016 and 2017 when we first started, it did feel like we were doing some “branded” work. What we’re really good at is partnering with these entertainment companies and doing this lifestyle content. We’re very good with top-tier talent and big corporate environments surrounding the entertainment business. I think we’re the only company that has worked with Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV+, and the New York Times.
PND: Seems like there’s not really a name yet for this type of shows you’re making.
Will Malnati: I don’t think there’s a name for it. It’s evolved. It’s not like someone is doing a mayonnaise podcast for Hellman’s. We’ve seen a lot of those. But those are a tough sell, they’re tough to listen to, people feel like they’re a commercial in a lot of ways. But what we’re doing with some of these companies is there is a type of content happening and let’s make extensions of that kind of content. Let’s build on the content in your ecosystem and let’s amplify it and build a different strategy around it. That is what is interesting. There’s sometimes more to do with it, and there’s a bigger audience for it.
PND: What is bringing these big brands to you and to podcasting?
Will Malnati: In the past 18 months some of it was fueled by the pandemic. They were not able to put film crews on sets and create the video assets that they normally would for their campaign. So they have to go a different way of getting their talent and creators in front of people. The other part of it is just them watching the average listenership year over year increase. Once it was nice to have as part of their marketing artillery for the brand, now it’s a need to have. It is becoming more commonplace for brands to say we need to have audio as part of our strategy just as much as we need video and editorial.
PND: It seems like there is a cascading effect.
Will Malnati: That is kind of what is happening right now. As more and more studios see other studios getting involved, they don’t want to miss out on the opportunity.
PND: Does it come out of marketing or advertising budgets typically?
Will Malnati: It depends on what part of the strategy it is from. We work in different scenarios. Some are tied to specific projects. Some are tied to overall departments or overall strategies. But it’s not necessarily all one thing.
PND: How big do you think this type of content will become?
Will Malnati: You’re going to see it increase. As these case studies are being done internally in these big companies, people are seeing there are real conversion rates. And when people see that, you know they’re going to double-down on it.
PND: So why also produce original podcast series?
Will Malnati: The reason we’re doing it is from a business perspective it allows us to diversify our portfolio and not solely rely on production services. If one day all the budgets from these big brands gets taken away, and they don’t want to invest in audio anymore, I still have this other side of the business.
The other reason we do originals is because it’s different and it’s fun. We don’t have investors or anyone telling us what we should or shouldn’t do. And we’re a team of 25 that is able to come together and say what’s the most outside the box idea that we can we do and sell. And we’re having fun doing that and we’re making money at the same time.
PND: Is the real money right now in branded or original show production?
Will Malnati: It’s both. Whereas our production service side was trumping at first because that’s where our focus was, now our original side is starting to take over.
PND: Are you profitable?
Will Malnati: We have been profitable from day one. In the beginning especially we didn’t hire employees that we couldn’t afford. We managed our revenue smartly. And we didn’t get in over our head. If you looked at our P&L it would look like a company that had venture capital money infused into it. I want to be really careful about how we grow and about our finances, and I want to make sure we’re never in the hole so much that we can’t get out. I learned that from the restaurant industry and brought it over to this industry. It’s proven to work really well.
PND: How as the pandemic changed how you do business?
Will Malnati: We have had to get creative like every business and cut down in certain areas to save money wherever we can and not overspend. The way we are doing production right now, we had to get really crafty with the stay-at-home orders. That’s been a challenge and something we had to spend more money on to get equipment out to places that we normally don’t as studios weren’t options. But for me, it was worth it.
PND: Why’s that?
Will Malnati: If you look at a lot of podcast production companies and publishers during COVID, their quality went down. And they were okay with that. But for us, we didn’t want anyone to ever know that any of our shows were done on Skype. We wanted to make it seem it was business as usual and you shouldn’t be able to tell the difference. But to do that, it took a lot more coordination, a lot more testing different equipment and set ups, and I think we came out of it stronger.
PND: You’re splitting time between New York and L.A. When you reopen where will At Will Media be based?
Will Malnati: So much of audio is moving to the West Coast and the majority of our projects right now are on the West Coast. We may do some shared workspaces in both cities.
PND: Where do you see podcasting business going in 2021?
Will Malnati: There’s going to continue to be acquisitions and movie and TV studios getting involved in the space. There’s going to be different types of content that we haven’t seen yet. We’ve gotten to a place where a lot of different types of content exists in podcasts, but not every type of content. We’re going to start seeing things like musicals and plays, or other things that weren’t able to happen during lockdown, and that will open people’s eyes as we bring them over to audio-only format.
PND: Will big podcasters lead the charge or indie producers?
Will Malnati: I think the indie guys are going to have a hard time moving forward. That’s the reality. It’s going to become tougher and tougher as the consumers’ palate has gotten a bit more sophisticated. The marketing budgets have gotten bigger to promote a show and that can push out all other shows if it wants to because it has that muscle to flex that didn’t exist two years ago. A lot of people don’t like how big it’s getting, myself included, but that’s just how it goes.