Meet the biggest media company you’ve (probably) never heard of

TheSoul Publishing is a stealthy behemoth.

Slick Slime Sam is a pink rubber toy with two big eyes and a pair of glasses. Sam does art and design projects with their friend “Sue,” in their own, eponymous, YouTube series. One episode may see them building an electronic ATM out of cardboard, opening some blind bag toys or making Among Us-themed matryoshka dolls out of clay. Slick Slime Sam puts a STEM and sponsored content spin on those art and design shows that filled kids TV of yore. And, despite pledging to keep my kids off YouTube until they were far older, I think the channel’s content is mostly appropriate for my five year old to watch.

It’s one of several channels produced by TheSoul Publishing, a company you probably haven’t heard of, but will be intimately familiar with some of the shows it produces, including Five Minute Crafts. The channel, showing complications of oft-derided “life hacks” is the ninth biggest on YouTube. Recently, TheSoul boasted that it had reached a billion views across all of the platforms it distributes its shows on. This “viral” content farm, staffed by freelancers across the globe, has the sort of reach that only Disney wouldn’t be envious of.

On YouTube alone, TheSoul runs Five Minute Crafts (72.3 million subscribers), Bright Side (40.4 million), 123 Go (10 million), Avocado Couple (9.96 million), Slick Slime Sam (6.77 million), Doodland (5.07 million), 7-Second Riddles (4.14 million), Teen-Z (3.54 million), La La Life (3.42 million) and Frankenfood (1.06 million). These figures obviously don’t count the company’s reach on other platforms, like the 65 million likes Five Minute Crafts has on Facebook or the other 8.5 million followers on TikTok. Or, indeed, the volume of people who have subscribed to the localized versions of each of these series. The Spanish-language version of Slick Slime Sam, for instance, has 13.4 million subscribers alone.

“We want to focus on a specific type of content,” said Victor Potrel, TheSoul’s Vice President of Platform Partnerships, “positive, light-hearted entertainment.” The company’s brief is to make clips that will arrest you during your constant scrolling through social media. You can probably recall how many times you’ve unsuccessfully tried to scroll past one of those episodic baking hack compilations before being sucked in. Potrel said that while its content “resonated a lot before the pandemic,” “people were actively seeking that type of content” over the last year or so.

You rarely see people talking on screen in a TheSoul video; Slick Slime Sam’s friend “Sue” is never seen from the neck up. Potrel says that part of the strategy is to produce “universally accessible content” which is released in anything up to 19 languages. It also helps minimize the fact that TheSoul’s team is predominantly working remotely, spread out across the globe. (And, I’m sure, it helps that you can swap out performers depending on what they need to do in each episode, too.)

The production timeline for each show sees the remote teams brainstorm ideas, which are then passed to a quality assurance team. After that — in Sam’s case — the idea is handed to a script writer who will then write out the episode before it is produced. If it’s animation, it’s then handed off to animators, but for live action, it goes to a producer at the company’s European studios. Once it is edited and finished, the clips are localized, subtitled and then prepared for distribution on the various platforms TheSoul uses.

Talking to Potrel, it’s clear that TheSoul behaves more like a digital marketing company than a broadcast studio. It creates new channels shorn of any branding and puts it out as an experiment, analyzing how audiences respond. “We can put a piece of content, or a new show out there and get almost instant feedback from the audience and see if they actually like it,” he said. Then the company can “decide if we should invest more and grow this,” while at the same time avoiding any association with the parent brand.

No discussion of TheSoul is complete without addressing the more controversial elements of its backstory. The company was created by two Cyprus-based Russian nationals, a fact that raised hackles in 2019. Esteemed US policy blog Lawfare examined the company’s Facebook ad purchases and instances in its content which were “overtly pro-Russian” including the claim “that Ukraine is part of Russia.” Marker, similarly, explored this connection in a story published earlier this year.

Then, in early 2020, BBC News and chef Ann Reardon (from the YouTube channel How To Cook That) worked together to examine some of the “hacks” offered by a variety of video brands including Five Minute Crafts. One notorious clip suggested that dipping a strawberry into bleach would turn it white. Which naturally makes the fruit dangerous to eat, and could be lethal if unthinkingly copied by children. In both instances, the content was removed.

Potrel says that “it was a couple of inaccuracies in a very tiny number of videos that we corrected and then took down.” He added that the issues were “a mistake, basically,” and that the backlashes forced the company to “improve quality assurance and reviews of our videos.” TheSoul, as far as he was concerned, is in the business of producing fluffy, “positive content” and doesn’t want to wade into geopolitical waters at all.

On the subject of strawberry bleaching, the company is happy to rest in the ambiguity that its videos are for entertainment rather than instruction. “We consider our videos to be for entertainment,” said Potrel, citing the line that people rarely try to replicate the hacks themselves. It is, in some ways, the company’s greatest trick, producing content offering time-saving hacks while admitting, at the same time, that what it produces is mostly hooey.

Potrel said that the company was working to pivot away from this sort of content toward more professional work. He cited a clip series focused on glass blowing as something which is both impressive and viral, but is very clearly not something you can try at home. It’s important, too, to note that TheSoul has recently begun partnering with brands like Mattel, whose squeaky-clean image would be dented if TheSoul’s reputation was a little too seedy.

Even Vice, last year, seems to have reached the conclusion that the company is doing little more than working out the best ways to swallow YouTube’s audiences wholesale. The end result, of course, is that I’ll be sat with my daughter for years on end trying to work out if it’s really possible to build our own ATM out of cardboard, hot glue and a couple of motors.