Canela Media Founder and CEO Isabel Rafferty Zavala Knew There Was a Market of Latino Viewers All Along

As streaming started becoming the norm in film and TV, Isabel Rafferty Zavala looked around and realized that there was a major gap in the market. Though nearly everyone agreed that streaming was the future of entertainment, there was no option that catered to the specific needs of Latino consumers. Thus, Canela Media was founded in 2019.

“We say it’s made by Latinos, for Latinos,” Zavala told TheWrap, noting that the service’s audience is the company’s “bread and butter” as well as its “passion.” “I believe that differentiation is what’s going to make us excel in the space for this specific set.”

The Latino audience didn’t just crave different content than other streamers, which largely catered to primarily English-speaking viewers in the United States. The consumers Zavala wanted to target had completely different needs. The executive’s background as the founder and CEO of the mobile marketing company Mobvious and her role as the former VP of sales and marketing at Adsmovil had taught her that where there’s a gap in the marketplace, there’s an opportunity.

“I knew Hispanics were always over the curve when it came to adoption of technology, so I’m like, ‘There’s a huge opportunity here,'” Zavala said.

She noted that first generation Latinos have low credit card penetration in the U.S.; roughly 60% of this consumer base doesn’t have access to one of the most common ways people pay for their streaming subscriptions. Her time working at Entravision Communications also taught her that rewards-based free models were very attractive to this demographic.

Additionally, she knew that more and more advertisers were interested in investing in long form video offerings for Latinos. The problem was most of the opportunities were for short-form video. Zavala married these insights together to create a FAST streaming service specifically designed to cater to Latino consumers while being attractive to advertisers.

That has led to a media company that currently has over 35 million monthly uniques and is pacing to hit 45 million in 2024 in the U.S., in part thanks to an exclusive agreement announced Thursday with Warner Bros. Discovery Conexión Latina.

Zavala spoke with TheWrap about her efforts for our Office With a View Q&A series.

Was there any trepidation about entering the crowded streaming space?
It wasn’t [crowded] back then. But it was a very intensive capital-based business, so that was my concern, ensuring that I could get the capital to be able to go after this very big opportunity. At that time, everybody was pushing me to go to SVOD, so it was very difficult to find investors that were aligned with what the product vision was and the roadmap.

In my particular segment, we were going to be the first … It could have been perceived by others that maybe our audience was already reached by the general market services, but we have very strong data and research to prove that [there was an opportunity]. So it was really the capital that was going to be the key determination if we were going to make it.

Has Canela’s growth been sudden or has is been steady and continuous?
It’s continuous, steady growth. There’s also a strong correlation with investment. To be able to grow it, you have to advertise a service. There’s also a huge retention of users, month over month. So, yes, it’s getting bigger and bigger each time, but I wouldn’t say it’s a change in the market but more a correlation with investment and the time we’ve been in the market.

Since you understand this user base and market so well, are there any other ways you’re planning to expand Canela Media?
Our goal is to not just be streaming but to be a one-stop solution for brands looking advertise to the Latino community. We have Canela Studios, where we create a lot of branded content. We’ve done incredible projects for brands like Hyundai and McDonald’s. We’ve expanded into data, so we have a very impressive data set to advertise that is deterministic. It is around 74 million devices in our data set that are unique to us. The beauty of this data set that all started with the base of Canela TV is that it allows advertisers to be able to identify Hispanics beyond Canela TV because we know our audience is not only consuming Spanish content. They are bilingual, and they’re also consuming English content. It really solves for the issue of lack of scalability.

We recently launched Canela Audience Solutions, and I think it’s going to be a game changer for brands looking to reach Latinos with accuracy. In the past, a lot of the data sets identifying Hispanics were based on census data or in high density zip codes for Latinos. The accuracy this data brings is unprecedented.

Then we have exclusive partnerships to provide more scale to our partners. In Latin America, we’re the exclusive partner of Pluto TV, with the exception of Mexico. In the U.S., we’re the exclusive partner of Marca, and Marca is the fourth largest publisher in the world in sports.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?
For recruiting in particular, this has always resonated with me. When I was a young manager looking to recruit my team, I was not very experienced in it. You started looking at people’s resumes, their background, their knowledge.

Someone very wise said, “It’s great that they have a background, but put more attention on the desire and the attitude that they have. You can teach anyone anything, but what you cannot change is that attitude and that hunger and that desire to thrive.” That has been very key in how we started Canela.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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