In his undergraduate years at the University of Wisconsin, Ben Relles never imagined the lyrics “’cause I’ve got a crush on Obama” would catapult him into his current position as head of programming strategy at YouTube.
Relles, a UW alum and the speaker for this year’s UW Homecoming Wisconsin Rewind Lecture, helps video creators develop creative strategies and think about how they can take their ideas and make them more successful on YouTube. Relles said he works with creators to help their videos become more shareable, conversationalist, engaging and discoverable.
Relles said UW was always held unique opportunities for him, whether it was the kind of classes he took or clubs he joined or the businesses he worked with. He also said he learned the importance of trying new projects, taking risks and stepping out of his comfort zone in order to figure out what he loved to do and what he was good at.
Relles said an important lesson he learned at UW was to ask for advice and find mentors he could trust. These lessons, along with access to the professors and alumni network at UW, were key in helping him jumpstart his first businesses, he said.
Relles’ first foray into business was as a senior on campus when he started MarketVision, a company focused on direct and online marketing. Relles said he had only expected MarketVision to be a project he worked on during his senior year, but it turned into his first job after graduation.
After moving on from the company, Relles worked for an advertising company, through which he said he developed an interest in the entertainment side of YouTube.
“I was really fascinated by what YouTube offered people in general, which was the opportunity to create something and have it be seen by millions of people without the traditional systems in place and budgets required by traditional media,” Relles said.
Relles knew he wanted to film a music video that played on the ongoing presidential campaign and “I’ve Got A Crush…on Obama” was born. The music video quickly turned into a viral hit and currently has more than 26 million views on YouTube. Many even credited Relles for influencing the outcome of the campaign.
“I thought it was a narrative that would generate a lot of views, but I didn’t really anticipate that it would become a constant, representative example of how YouTube was letting individuals engage in the 2008 election in a way they never could before,” he said.
For students who want to follow in his footsteps and create viral videos, Relles said not to overthink the first video and to just post something. Getting instant feedback is a great way to get a sense for the kind of videos a person may want to make, he said.
Relles said UW students should take advantage of the unique opportunity they have to tap into the alumni network and talk to people who lead careers students would like to emulate.
Relles was honored as a Wisconsin Alumni Association Forward Under 40 Award winner and will be speaking at the Wisconsin Rewind Lecture on Thursday.
Although he said he has not been back on campus for 10 years, when he found out he would be coming back, he started to go through old pictures and started feeling nostalgic for his time on campus.
Relles said his time at UW gave him the opportunity to figure out the things he loved to do and what he was good at. The UW School of Journalism and Mass Communication also instilled values he said still play a role in some of the things he does at YouTube today.