Me­dia

Cash for Cool

Newsweek International - - CONTENTS -

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Com­plex Net­works, is rat­tling off what he thinks about his com­pe­ti­tion: ESPN is flail­ing and has “the worst lifestyle cov­er­age” he’s ever seen. GQ is just do­ing what Com­plex did 15 years ago. “The big­gest chal­lenges to me,” he says, “are not our com­peti­tors, by any stretch.”

We’re in An­toniello’s New York of­fice, and other than the nice stash of booz, there’s noth­ing swank or ex­ec­u­tive it. Same for his black T-shirt and sneak­ers. The bro aes­thetic makes sense: The 46-year-old rules a staff of 400 mostly 20-some­things, the hive mind be­hind one of Amer­ica’s most in­no­va­tive me­dia com­pa­nies.

Com­plex started as a fringe lifestyle pub­li­ca­tion in 2002, fo­cus­ing on hiphop, sneak­ers and comics. It was one of the first com­pa­nies to build its busi­ness around the idea that sub­cul­tures would move from the pe­riph­ery into the main­stream. As its au­di­ence grew, Com­plex did too, evolv­ing into a mini em­pire of sites and chan­nels— in­clud­ing First We Feast, Col­lider, Pi­geons & Planes, Rated Red and Sole Col­lec­tor—cov­er­ing mu­sic, video games, sports, fash­ion and food.

De­spite that ex­po­nen­tial growth, the edgy, un­der­ground at­ti­tude re­mains. Now val­ued at be­tween roughly $250 mil­lion to $300 mil­lion (An­toniello won’t talk rev­enue, say­ing only that the com­pany has been prof­itable since 2010), you might say it’s Com­plex’s job to be cool.

The quotable An­toniello does oc­ca­sion­ally slip into CEO jar­gon— so­lil­o­quies about “ver­ti­cal­ized in­ter­est points” and “mar­gin com­pres­sion.” The name Com­plex Net­works is new, part of a joint ac­qui­si­tion by Ver­i­zon and Hearst Com­mu­ni­ca­tions in 2016. In the year since, the net­work has launched 32 shows, mostly on Youtube, and last week­end it hosted its sec­ond an­nual Com­plex­con, a two­day, star-heavy mu­sic fes­ti­val (Phar­rell Williams, Gucci Mane, Young Thug) in Long Beach, Cal­i­for­nia.

Show up at the Com­plex of­fices in a but­ton-up shirt, and you feel like a square. Each of its two floors are crammed with em­ploy­ees—young men and women in sound stu­dios, bunched around stand­ing desks, cross-legged on the floor. They stare in­tently at screens, head­phones in, dressed in fash­ion­able streetwear. Noah Cal­la­han-bever, Com­plex’s 38-year-old chief con­tent of­fi­cer,” is sport­ing an in­side-out clas­sic Cham­pion hoodie. “Scott Disick dresses like guys in our of­fice have been dress­ing since 2002,” he says, ref­er­enc­ing Kourt­ney Kar­dashian’s ex.

An­toniello and Cal­la­han-bever have been with Com­plex for over a decade, shift­ing from a glossy print mag­a­zine to dig­i­tal in 2007, from dis­play ads to spon­sored con­tent in 2008, and mov­ing into video in 2012. While views can be an un­re­li­able statis­tic, the com­pany re­ports an im­pres­sive 810 mil­lion per month across its net­works. Episodic se­ries like Ev­ery­day Strug­gle (a rap-cen­tric de­bate show) and Sneaker Shop­ping

(stars buy­ing shoes), many run­ning 15 min­utes or less, are mas­sively pop­u­lar. The premise of Hot Ones, filmed in a lit­tle stu­dio with a black back­drop, is par­tic­u­larly in­spired: Celebri­ties (for ex­am­ple, Kevin Du­rant or Ricky Ger­vais) test pro­gres­sively spicier—make-you-hal­lu­ci­nate spicy—chicken wings as they are in­ter­viewed by host Sean Evans. It was born as a one-off, but Com­plex quickly saw the weekly po­ten­tial: To­tal

“If we’re go­ing to be the lead­ing youth cul­ture voice, how can we just be text?’”

views re­cently shot past 200 mil­lion. “We took an in­ter­view show and to­tally twisted things. That’s not short­form dig­i­tal con­tent. That’s a se­ries and a brand—fuck­ing ready for TV, mass au­di­ence, mass in­flu­ence,” says An­toniello, who is fond of the word “fuck,” em­ploy­ing it as an ad­jec­tive and an ad­verb.

The so-called “pivot to video” (or, to the pub­lish­ing world, “lay off writ­ers”) strat­egy has, in the last year, con­quered the dig­i­tal land­scape. You can thank that pivot for the short au­to­play con­tent at the top of nearly ev­ery on­line story, in­sti­gated by the per­ceived lim­ited at­ten­tion of any­one un­der 25. It’s a wan­ton grab for the high ad­ver­tis­ing rates as­so­ci­ated with video, and An­toniello takes some credit for this con­tro­ver­sial evo­lu­tion. “We were five years ahead of the curve,” he says. “We were think­ing, If we’re go­ing to be the lead­ing youth cul­ture voice—pe­riod, end of story—how can we just be text?” But rather than cheap con­tent, Com­plex’s in­no­va­tion was to in­vest re­sources in mak­ing it good.

In other words, they don’t ran­domly throw stuff up on Youtube hop­ing to at­tract the “low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor,” says An­toniello. He and Cal­la­han­bever court left-of-cen­ter ideas, as well as sticky ta­lent. They were fans of hip-hop re­porter DJ Akademiks, for ex­am­ple, be­fore hir­ing him to co-host

Ev­ery­day Strug­gle in April. (Akademiks’s Youtube chan­nel has 1 mil­lion sub­scribers and 530 mil­lion views.)

An­toniello points to a re­cent episode of Vice­land’s hit show De­sus &

Mero as proof that Com­plex’s strat­egy is work­ing. The hosts spent a good por­tion of the half-hour dis­cussing a con­ver­sa­tion sparked by Com­plex’s Ev­ery­day Strug­gle. “Who’s the real con­tent de­vel­oper there?” he asks rhetor­i­cally. -  have aged well be­yond the net­work’s de­mo­graphic of 18- to 24-year-olds, but they were both kids who searched for an iden­tity through pop cul­ture— hip-hop, sneak­ers, comics or what­ever; they un­der­stand ob­ses­sions. What An­toniello ob­served 15 years ago, when he was still sell­ing mag­a­zine ads, was that pop cul­ture’s var­i­ous gen­res were cross-pol­li­nat­ing in ways they never had be­fore. What he then pre­dicted, with Cal­la­han-bever, was the mod­ern de­sire to brand pretty much ev­ery­thing, your­self in­cluded. And that, he says, is the foun­da­tion of Com­plex, as well as new-school me­dia suc­cess. “A brand means a con­sumer knows what that brand means to them and what that brand rep­re­sents in gen­eral. You’ve got to get that right first. And that takes time.”

Me­dia, An­toniello likes to say, is a marathon, not a sprint. To wit: After five years, stream­ing video is pay­ing off, putting Com­plex in an en­vi­able po­si­tion. In 2016, dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue sur­passed TV for the first time, with spend­ing for dig­i­tal video ads jump­ing 67 per­cent.

“A lot of com­pa­nies do th­ese things to check a box. They’re fight­ing to hold on to their old model,” says An­toniello. “We look at it as shed­ding skin—we know we’re go­ing to have to do it, so why not do it to our­selves?”

VIEWS MAS­TER Com­plex Net­works CEO An­toniello, op­po­site bot­tom; last year’s Com­plex­con, fea­tur­ing orig­i­nal art by Takashi Mu­rakami, left; Joe La Puma, host of Sneaker Shop­ping, with guest Bella Ha­did.

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