Here’s hoping for an uneventful Inauguration Day. For some counterprogramming, this week’s issue of The Rebooting looks at the considerations for launching new brands, the need to get beyond your comfort zone and some praise for the art of the memo.
Launching new brands
One of the big challenges of sustainable media businesses is making efficient use of the infrastructure required to run them. By infrastructure, I don’t mean tech platforms, but the people and functions needed to underpin the core value proposition of media: making content.
Operating even a small media brand can be daunting. An ad model requires not just expensive sales people but also client service. Marketing and audience development are required. Tech obviously. Finance. Audience development. Design. Content studio. Multimedia. Pretty soon, an efficient content business is very inefficient.
The answer out of this situation is often new brands. At Digiday, I was reticent to expand into new brands. One reason was practical: Getting people to give a shit about one brand is a Herculean challenge; why do it all over again? The other was discomfort about going into new areas outside of my own core expertise. But the advantages of new brands were too many. Here are the core considerations for launching a new brand.
Do the circles touch? Back in 2016, Digiday acquired a fintech podcast and newsletter, then called Tradestreaming, in order to build a new brand in a new area. We subsequently renamed the brand Tearsheet, relaunched the site, and began building out the edit team from what was mostly a one-person operation. We failed. In looking back, we made a few mistakes. The biggest was never finding our lane to focus on within the gigantic category of the modernization of financial services. Fintech could be everything from blockchain to bitcoin to regtech to alternative payment providers. But operationally, we had a dilemma: Financial services was simply a different galaxy from media and marketing. The circles didn’t touch.
At about the same time, we launched a new brand incubated out of Digiday but focused on, at the time, fashion and luxury. (Glossy would evolve to focus on fashion and beauty.) What we found was this new brand worked because we could incubate it within our existing audience. The overlap was critical, as we began to cover the industry within our existing coverage before spinning it out to cover a far greater range of issues particular to the Glossy target audience but removed from Digiday’s.
Centralization vs fiefdoms. The trap of new brands is creating new fiefdoms. The old Conde Nast approach of different brands operating with near-autonomy is a relic. Media simply cannot afford to let ego overwhelm efficiency. Conde famously even extended its approach to tech, with dozens of different publishing systems.
The best approach to new brands is to centralize as much as possible that is not the editorial content. The editorial needs a dedicated team with expertise, but a shared infrastructure across tech, audience development, marketing, subscriptions and, to an extent, sales is crucial to making new brands sustainable.
Within editorial, we operated with the mindset and the operations of being a singular group but with different edit teams. (We added a third brand, Modern Retail, in the summer of 2019.) This allowed us to pool “shared services” like copy editing, design, podcasting and memberships. But it also allowed us to have insights from different brands applied to others more easily. I don’t think that would have been possible if we operated as if the three brands were in different companies.
Finding a common ethos. New York Media had the House of Brands approach I most admired. Many multi-brand media companies were oddball collections. I’m not sure if there’s much that unites the various Bustle Digital Group’s brands other than a shared love of SEO. But New York Media took a strong, even iconic brand in New York magazine and spun off niches like The Cut, Vulture and The Strategist that balanced having their own approaches tailored to their distinctive audiences but sharing a common “New York” sensibility.
That was critical in expanding into new areas. Each new area, as well as new geographies, requires tweaking. We found that things that worked for Digiday -- Confessions, for example -- did not work as well for Glossy. By the same token, Glossy had community dynamics -- the audience loved networking -- that were different from Digiday’s. But having a single team allowed us to have a common ethos and avoid becoming a random collection of misfit toys.
Going beyond your core product
One of the biggest tests for companies and people is how well you can stray beyond your comfort zone. Doing anything well consistently is frustratingly hard. Expanding into new areas is daunting.
But all strong media brands need to adapt into new forms of media. Getting stuck within a format, even one you excel at, is a recipe for stagnation. At Digiday, we began as an events company. The events format, then news, were comfort zones. Podcasts and a magazine were a way to project the brand into new formats. Some product expansions I’m focused on:
Axios moving from newsletters to TV and podcasts. Axios is four years old, and is easily the most interesting new digital media property founded during that time. One underrated success: expanding into TV and now podcasts. The Axios on HBO show delivered on its “smart brevity” ethos in a new format. I’m one episode into the Jonathan Swan-hosted “How It Happened.”
The Resistance publishers go Hollywood. Crooked Media has movie and TV dreams and aspires to turn its lens on new areas like sports. The Recount is moving into podcasting from its short-form video snippets. Even the Trump trollers at The Lincoln Project are plotting to become a full-fledged media company.
Writing it down
Our head of product, Aaron Gottlieb, had a good solution for the death of a thousand cuts that comes from being a shared service that becomes a dumping ground for endless requests of tweaks and changes: Ask people to write it down. Many instead want to meet and talk. But writing memos forces discipline and exposes loose thinking.
Hopefully one change from this long respite from offices will be a recommitment to writing it down. The meeting became the default in too many businesses. Meetings have their purpose, but Amazon showed with its regimented, memo-focused approach that meetings are not a replacement for the structured thinking required to put down initiatives in writing. Many people prefer meetings because they can just show up and react to what is said. I used to think writing was a particular skill and not that important in most business roles. In fact, the ability to write clearly and logically is one of the most important skills in business leaders. There’s a reason “all talk” is an epithet.
Things to check out
Here come the Substack competitors. Forbes is the first sizable publisher to come up with a Substack-like alternative. The bet is they can lure in independent-and upside-oriented writers who understand they want some form of guaranteed salary and benefits along with the infrastructure and expertise big media companies have. I expect several different forms to emerge for various use cases. The Forbes approach seems right for those with moderate risk profiles, but it will come at the cost of giving up half the revenue.
The Barstool Fund is an amazing achievement. To date, it has raised over $27 million for hard-hit small businesses -- and shown how strong of a community the Barstool brand has. The test of whether you have an audience or a community is moving people to action.
Ascential, organizers of the Cannes Lions, vowed to go on with the in-person event in June. This is…. Optimistic. One exec I spoke to this week noted that even the hardened ad tech road warriors have qualms about Cannes in just five months. Unfortunately, it is hard to see how vaccinations in the US and Europe reach herd immunity level until fall.