TikTok’s Managing Director Talks About the App’s Future
The shortform video sharing app has had a wild 12 months. The next year will be even crazier. But what is TikTok? And where’s it going?
“There’s a lot going on,” are the first words out of Richard Waterworth’s mouth three days before Christmas. Waterworth, who spent nearly a decade as a European executive at YouTube before moving to TikTok this fall, has seen his rise in the company echo that of the shortform video app he now represents.
Initially brought in to lead TikTok’s marketing in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Waterworth found himself the U.K. general manager of TikTok after just three months in the job.
“The U.K. is one of our most important markets and we have been growing and investing in our local business and team here since day one,” said Alex Zhu, TikTok’s president, who himself knows a bit about speedy growth. When I spoke to him in the middle of 2016 about his young startup app called Musical.ly, Zhu had spend the night trying to patch together servers that burnt out from overuse.
“Richard has already made a huge impact on our company in a very short space of time and combined with his deep industry expertise, I am confident that he is the right person to lead the U.K. business into its next phase of growth,” added Zhu. (We spoke the day the Wall Street Journal announced TikTok was searching for a global headquarters outside China, of which London was on the shortlist — but before the story broke.)
Waterworth won’t give out user numbers for TikTok in the U.K., instead saying that the app is “really getting to a large scale” in the country. But we know that TikTok has been downloaded 1.5 billion times worldwide; in the United States, the app is now used by a higher proportion of 13-to-16-year-olds than Twitter and Instagram. And in the U.K., the key demographic showing growth is 16-to-34-year-olds, with particularly pronounced rises in those under 25.
“It really has created already a community which is joyful, authentic, and which is really creative,” says Waterworth. “People on TikTok are not afraid of being themselves, of being silly at times, of doing things that are just fun. I think that community environment is something we really value, and we know users and creators really value. That’s something we think is special about TikTok, and we really want to keep and maintain.”
That could be tough. “TikTok is a small but rapidly growing company,” he admits, full of “highly, highly creative people”. “There’s a lot for us to do across a business that’s growing that fast, but it’s an incredibly exciting period, and a fantastic challenge for all of us.” To help, the company is hiring nearly 70 staff in Singapore, and more than 40 in London, many of which are on its advertising team.
Advertising will be a crucial part of TikTok in 2020. The company is rumored to be rolling out advertising, with various parts of its advertising documentation available to partners. Ads can be targeted, depending on different variables, including interest, location, carrier and operating system type and/or version:
“We are growing that [advertising] side of the business,” says Waterworth, calling it “a really important side of the business” and “a big part of our 2020 plans.” But advertisers won’t just be shilling products to teens. With a broadening out of content type on the app, from comedy and sport to beauty and DIY or how-to videos, so the demographics of the audience on TikTok have changed, too. “We’re really seeing a breadth in terms of the content, and what that means is we’re seeing a breadth in the range of users using it,” says the managing director.
That includes one of TikTok’s favorite case studies — one that has been mentioned to me by at least three staff working at the company in the last six months. Sexagenarian farmer Chris Franklin posts joyous videos, including geese honking excitedly, for 100,000 followers from his farm in Wiltshire, England. “I give that example because it illustrates that TikTok is really getting very broad in terms of the content being shared there and in terms of the type of creators and users we see,” says Waterworth.
With that, TikTok itself needs to grow, both in terms of its internal size and scale, and its ability to meet advertiser demands while not alienating creators — something it has so far been successfully able to navigate, though some on-camera talent worry about the effect commerce will have on their brands. “We’re working very hard with commercial partners to make sure that as the app and the community grows, we’re enabling partners, whether it’s on the ads side or more broadly, to understand the community, understand how they can tap into it, and understand the commercial and branding opportunities in there,” explains Waterworth, though he’s also at pains to point out that “what’s first and foremost for us is making sure we can build a product that both users and creators enjoy, but also they find value in it, value and enjoyment and the same time.”
In part, that’ll be by making sure TikTok remains a safe environment. The app has been buffeted by allegations that it’s too close to China through its ownership by ByteDance, with U.S. national security investigations launched into its parent company. And when TikTok found its first flourish of fame, negative headlines focused on child safety issues. The app accepted a fine from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for collecting data on children under the age of 13.
“[We] are very clear and focused that having that fun environment requires us to have a safe environment,” says Waterworth. “We’ve been investing a lot in building safety tools into our app, making sure users are made aware of those tools, and understand how to use them, [as well as] getting feedback on how to improve them.”
Waterworth welcomes the U.K. government’s online harms legislation, due to be introduced before September 2020, and confirms TikTok has been “fully engaging” with the teams consulting around the legislation. “We really support the ambition of that paper to make the U.K. the best and safest place to be online and to run online businesses,” he says. “The ambitions there are fantastic and very much in line for our ambitions for TikTok, which is to create a product which is very exciting, very fun for people, but fundamentally which is safe and enables people to get good value from the time they spend online.”
That latter element is important, particularly at a time — Christmas — when new users are likely to seek out new playthings to occupy their thumbs during family downtime. The app has capped its first full year with a rundown of its top moments, and a big advertising campaign starring Lewis Capaldi and David Beckham. The hope is that those billboard announcements will bring the next 1.5 billion downloads.
But even that demonstrated the haphazard, seat-of-your-pants approach that comes with growing an app at such scale.
The neon frame that acts as the centerpiece of the campaign, into which people — whether celebrities or ordinary people — jump in, was delivered to TikTok’s London offices one winter day. But the 200 kilogram (440lb) wooden box containing the frame was unceremoniously dumped by those delivering it — and TikTok’s marketing team needed it up on the third floor. A group of 10 employees helped drag it up.
“We want TikTok to be a fun and creative community for everyone,” says Waterworth. “Being able to represent all the ways people want to express themselves and demonstrate their creativity is a really big ambition for us.”