Q&A: Merck's Kevin Nalty, YouTube Star, Explains Why He Quit

Last Updated May 27, 2009 1:35 PM EDT

Kevin Nalty was Merck's consumer product director on Propecia until last week when he quit after a series of videos he posted on YouTube drew too much attention to the drug company. The move came after it emerged that he was "Nalts," the creator of a YouTube video titled "Farting in Public" (among others) that has earned more than 7.4 million views on YouTube. He is now a self-styled social media consultant.

He agreed to answer a few questions.

BNET: What will you do now? Do you have any clients as a social media consultant, if so who? KN: I'm already deeply immersed in video marketing with clients like Mentos, Fox, Crowne Plaza, MTV, AT&T and Holiday Inn. Some of these have come from Hitviews, where I've recently been appointed as "Chief Strategic Officer." Almost every major brand has a desire to move from traditional online and offline media, and engage in the conversation already taking place. The smart brands are engaging expert liaisons to help them be invited guests rather than annoying salespeople, and there are a load of amateurs with large audiences that can help.

I'm focusing on the industries that are already serious about this medium -- entertainment, consumer-product goods, and travel -- rather than pharmaceutical. However as pharma gets serious about social media and video marketing, it's a natural fit.

BNET: Do you make money on the videos you post? How (and how much, if I may)? KN: I do make money via YouTube's Partner program, but YouTube does not allow us to disclose that. I also make money from sponsored videos. Neither alone is enough to cover a family of six, but it makes my plunge into entrepreneurship less risky.

BNET: You said Merck knew about your videos before you were hired. What was your agreement with them regarding the videos? KN: We never had a formal agreement, and I took care to ensure that as a client and vendor of YouTube/Google I managed that potential conflict of interest very carefully. For the most part Merck wasn't concerned about my hobby, and I never listed Merck as the employer of Nalts. Once the firewall was broken by you and others, it was nearly impossible to protect Merck from the goofball antics of Nalts.

BNET: What exactly did you do for Propecia? (Do you take Propecia?) KN: I was Consumer Product Director of Propecia, and a happy customer. I'm glad to say I and my receding-hairline brother are good examples of how Propecia works, but I'm not holding my breath for an advertising contract. Do you know it's still almost impossible for me to describe Propecia without feeling obliged to add fair balance. I think that's going to be a lifelong dilemma.

BNET: Did you use any of your viral video skills in your Propecia marketing? KN: I inherited a program conceived before I arrived at Merck which involved some humorous unbranded videos, and contributed to some international videos. Ultimately it's a tricky brand for viral because of the regulations and because guys are sensitive about the topic. So I focused on more measurable tactics like paid search, and some social-media advertising.

BNET: Can you give us a blow-by-blow description of what actually happened at work after Mediaweek first linked you to Merck, until you quit? KN: Sorry -- I have a lot of respect for Merck and my former colleagues, and we both agreed to leave this behind.

BNET: Did you want to leave Merck? Were you offered a choice to stay? KN: Merck has some of the smartest marketers in the industry -- I was humbled by the brains. So this move for me was less about leaving Merck and more about pursuing the work that I'd do if I won the lottery. I love the intersection of marketing and entertainment, and needed to give it my complete attention. The press connecting Merck with Nalts made the timing right. I feel like Merck benefited from my unique perspective as a marketer and online-video "star," and I really feel bad if my videos reflected poorly on its image.

BNET: Although this happened suddenly, you seem to have become gradually more open about the videos over time. You've been on plenty of TV shows, for instance, and you spoke about your work at a drug conference. Did you think Merck would get used to the whole thing? KN: Merck and other companies aren't in the business of managing people's hobbies, but there were some gray areas for both of us. I did off-hour work for brands, but many employees have money-making hobbies -- from golf to wedding photography. Where it became complicated was when I'd speak at an event. I requested not to be listed as Merck, and made it very clear to audiences that my POV was my own. I was also extremely careful to not describe anything Merck was doing that wasn't public, or would violate FDA guidelines or confidentially.

BNET: Do you think the media/blogosphere treated you fairly? Name names! While I wasn't excited to read your post or John Mack's 39 stories, it's worth noting that I too am a blogger and writer. It was a fascinating story, and I would have covered it myself if I was in your shoes. But if I'm being honest, I was checking Google News hourly and cringing everytime I saw a new story (especially with "compulsive" in the headline).

BNET: What did your wife say when you quit? KN: "It's about time." The golden handfuffs aren't easy to shed, but I've got a rare skillset that's worth more outside Merck than inside. And at the moment she's on an errand as I watch our 6-year-old, Charlie. We just built a scooter and painted it together, and that wouldn't have happened if I had attended my all-day offsite scheduled for today.

BNET: What was the reaction of your colleagues to your videos when you were at the company? Did people like them or not? KN: I'm really curious about the reaction because I'm only seeing a tip of the iceberg. The people I've spoken with are really happy for me, and excited to see a friend follow his passion. Are there some that are rolling their eyes and glad I'm not a media liability? I imagine so, but I did not get the sense that anyone was angry.

BNET: What was the reaction of your colleagues when you quit? KN: There weren't many surprised people, although some like to remind me we're in a recession. Fortunately I have developed a rare expertise that happens to be in high demand. Online video is growing at about 40 percent per year, and I'm not sure the same is true for many pharmaceutical firms.

BNET: Any parting thoughts? KN: I think this case, while being a unique one, begs some important questions about social media as it relates to our obligations to our employers. For example, you seemed intrigued that I blogged from vacation, and put links to your stories. I would say a greater risk would be an employee that has a Facebook listing an employer, and then inappropriate photos on their pages.

While at Johnson & Johnson I helped devise policies in this area -- how can an employer protect itself from confidentiality breaches and negative press, while still providing its employees freedom of speech. It comes down to common sense ... for instance, while I thought making fun of my own ADHD was fair play given Merck's lack of presence in this category, I can see how that falls into a grey area. What if Nalts makes fun of his hairloss while also Propecia's product director? I would expect to see organizations developing policies in this area, given the gray lines. As a product director, I knew better than to make changes to a wikipedia that has inaccurate information on my brand. But is that common knowledge and well communicated among pharmaceutical firms and beyond?