How to launch a brand now
Change how you think about media brands. Lex Fridman is AI and more. Behind the Bored Ape community. You got what I need.
Welcome to People vs Algorithms 19.
I look for patterns in media, business and culture. My POV is informed by 30 years of leadership in media and advertising businesses, most recently as global President of Hearst Magazines, one of the largest publishers in the world.
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Kanye on the brain
Procrastination led me to the new Kayne West Netflix docuseries Jeen-yuhs. The first two episodes might make you feel better about an artist whose growing idiosyncrasies risk him landing in a class with a deranged Phil Spector rather than, say, Picasso, who's genius overshadowed deeply entitled behavior. As Kanye's mother Donda advises, "You can’t be a star and not be a star. You gotta have some ‘oomph’ about you.” Check.
Kanye is a relentless creator with unbounded confidence, a trait Donda saw as his greatest gift and potential undoing. She finds a quiet moment to warn young Kanye of its dangers, intoning "the giant looks in the mirror and sees nothing." Kanye was shameless in his efforts to bring the community on side, never resisting an opportunity to showcase his skills or ask for the business. Fortunately, he had the goods. Confronted for the first time by a young Kanye throwing it down in the studio, Pharrell, moved by what he just witnessed: "Very rarely do you encounter self contained people... This man can do everything himself. That is truly gifted."
With Kayne, it's hard to separate the person from the concept. He thrives on confrontational narratives. I suppose fans and cultural voyeurs appreciate the contradictions. One wonders if it's the meds talking or calculation. After all, it's hard to play human as media brand. Brands need tension to stay interesting. Elon, another human media brand, is similarly predisposed. But it's hard to deny it's effectiveness. I would argue that Elon's willingness to play the part is as important as his grit or his technical genius to the success of Tesla and his other ventures. Beware creators and entrepreneurs, this could be you.
Creating media brands in a no-friction world
Turns out this was a productive distraction. I've been thinking about what it takes to launch a media brand now, and what will succeed next. Let’s quickly acknowledge the shape of the world we are now creating for. Digital removes media type as a constraint. Everybody creates and humans are nodes of distribution. Media seamlessly connects attention to transactions. New structures, DAOs in particular, offer new ways of thinking about organizations and incentives.
These forces will change what wins next. They look more like Kanye (let’s just go with it). Which is to say creative talent rises above institutions, as does real involvement and connections to the communities of which they are necessarily a part. The speed and creativity with which we create new media experiences and how we think about lines between media types is going to change. So will the shape of organizations that make it.
Media type used to be the starting point — launches were defined by format — a magazines, website, maybe a cable channel. We looked for whitespace in an underserved audience, around cultural inflections or importantly, advertising appetite for an audience. Constraints defined the playbook. The structure of the media ecosystem meant launches were expensive. Media, as a consequence, held to a stable oligopolistic structure.
Waves of innovation would emerge, born of technology breakthroughs (cable) or moments of swift cultural change creating tailwinds for new voices (late sixties Rolling Stone). More recently, modern distribution accelerated disruption, creating opportunities for new platform and media brands. A new fragmented information space created Yahoo! then Google. Google begat About.com. Bandwidth and mobile phones with cameras created Youtube. Facebook innovated with a system for connection and identity that early Web1 protocols had ignored, then added a news feed which created Buzzfeed and a bunch of imitators that evaporated when the algo changes restricted distribution. Social launched careers of dozens of influencer media brands. The blockchain created Bored Apes. New ways to move information creates new behaviors, these behaviors create opportunities for media innovation.
Thinking about format innovation
It was my friend Rich Antoniello, founder of Complex and all around smart media guy, who emphasized format innovation. I always think about distribution. He made a great point: “Starting with distribution is the wrong way to think about it. You have to start with innovation in narrative and format."
The narrative part is pretty straight forward. It is having something to say. It's the synthesis of topic, point-of-view and personality. Format is all the ways in which it is packaged and presented.
Howard Stern brought a new format to talk radio with active listening, empathy and irreverence. Axios brought format innovation to email and text more broadly with "Smart Brevity." Pewdiepie became a YouTube sensation with his novel style of first person video gaming commentary. TMZ climbed to the top of gossip media under the savvy leadership of lawyer turned gossip magnate, Harvey Levin, and his keen understanding of how to blend scandal with investigative reporting and turn the process into theatre on TV. David Portnoy brought the same sensibility to sports with what he calls "sports/smut." Rich and team brought format innovation to digital video by using hot sauce to disrupt media training and create a novel celebrity interview format with Hot Ones.
The key is uniqueness and authenticity, a talent-driven process starts to feel more like music A&R than a rigorous strategic planning process. Topic is important, but less important than the people and the community connections they unlock. Innovation in an unconstrained world welcomes a child-like curiosity and freedom to express in a way that is somewhat antithetical to responsible media making. Formats are begging to be bent, at the speed of a meme.
Media companies as record labels
Modern media exists on a continuum from personal brand to institutional, as Brian Morrissey points out in his latest newsletter, "The institutional-individual brand continuum":
The media brands of the future, I have no doubt, will more frequently than not put individuals at the core of their models, more often than not to connect with specific communities. It’s what is powering emerging publishing brands like Puck (I distribute some of The Rebooting through it), Defector, Every and Workweek. Institutional brands will move closer to the middle by emphasizing individuals while many individual brands will become collectives and, like it or not, mimic the model of Barstool more than legacy institutional brands. Newsletter programs from The Atlantic and The New York Times are evidence of this shift.
It does seem to me that its form increasingly comports to the creator. The internet is communication and media in one. Communication is personal. Media takes its shape.
Interestingly, and in sharp contrast to media launches of old, many successful media brands have risen with very little investment. We see this with personalities as media brands from Kardashian to Lex, Pomp to Pewdiepie to Portnoy. New media operational structures emerge to support talent, much like the one I spent several years working on, Say Media, designed to unencumber creative talent from essential platforms, monetization, partnership, growth-hacking and back office support functions.
The idea is on many people's minds. Over the past couple of weeks Ben Smith and Justin Smith have been shopping for cash for their new media venture. I don't have first hand knowledge of the plan but my understanding is it's a rebundling premise, in the spirt of Puck. Rescue great talent from the confines of old media. Give them a broad canvas and make them owners. Launch with the tailwind of the 2024 presidential election. Focus on email to start. Expand with talent.
Getting beyond the community cliché
At risk of over emphasizing the most over emphasized word in Web3, community matters. When distribution is basically free and frictionless, the two most important things, beyond raw talent and format innovation, are the power of the community around the brand and the stake everyone has in it, both of which are primitives of the Web3 world. Community is distribution.
While this has been true for a while, Web3 has potential to supercharge it's importance with the added gravity of ownership. Ownership is a powerful motivating force, even when the stakes are inconsequential. Governance is a close cousin. Not everyone has to exercise the right, many new forms of how governance is delegated and managed alongside more dedicated leadership structures is an area that will see tons of innovation with DAOs. Underneath all of this will be clear values alignment. This is new and the clear chain in modern media structures, a straight line between mission, values, ownership and community.
Regarding Joe Rogan's troubles of late, Evan Armstrong of Napkin Math makes a good point that once an content brand has achieved escape velocity it detaches from platform and the community is platform:
When this feeling of buy-in persists across an audience and hits some a level of critical mass, a creator becomes relatively platform-proof. They can shift their audience from medium to medium, site to site. Sure, they may get dinged as they lose their marginal fans from one platform and fail to pick up new fans on their new platform at the same rate. But once you have a big enough, loyal enough following, you move past the point where de-platforming is an existential risk.
The new media entrepreneurs must be community sleuths. They will understand what connects a group of people around a passion point and how an organized effort can improve connections, create onramps for newcomers and turn the structure into value for those that need to pay to tap the buying power of a group of people.
Perhaps it looks something like an inverted pyramid now:
Let's summarize a bit. Before, the media invention process centered around innovation in how we tackled a topic, was constrained my media type, focused on early wins in audience growth and advertiser interest. Many of the same things still matter, but what I am suggesting is how we think about growing a brand around a mission and community is different now.
Comparing then and next will look something like this:
Identifying communities of shared interest becomes a better starting point than targeting topics, an approach which has historically been driven by the needs of advertisers. Sports and gaming offer good examples of profoundly engaged communities. Invested creators are the pillars of the model. This is conceptually where media and music and entertainment merge; expert talent is absolutely central. But it's a new kind of talent, as adept at creating community and empowering others as creating media itself.
One is best served to not overemphasize the particular form of media as a place to start (unless, of course, you make movies). We will have active media and passive media, news, lifestyle and entertainment. But the relationship between consumers, creators and owners will change. This change will be driven by an invested community encompassing creators and audience, all with skin in the game.
Every media pitch to investors over the next five years will include aspects of the above. Nobody will underwrite a website.
And, to close… a thought from Kanye: “If you ask me a question like what is your greatest accomplishment, it should be what I’m about to do."
Have a great weekend…/ Troy
Bonus inside every newsletter
1: Lex Fridman is the Charlie Rose for a technically-literate generation. A Russian-American AI research scientist and lecturer at MIT, Fridman has become podcast famous for his eponymously named shows, started in 2018, bridging worlds of AI, history, philosophy, science, the nature of consciousness, love and power.
Fridman's monotone belies his open-minded, sensitive and conversational intellectually-agile style. Like advanced AI himself, his precise rationality has been programmed to show shimmers of emotion. Fridman’s questions are informed, his summaries showcase a rare ability to quickly grok deep subjects, to simplify and find interesting threads inside of ideas and people behind them. Episodes are long and meaty, typically 2 hours.
This weeks Mark Zuckerberg interview is worth a listen. His emotional intro:
My goal in conversation is to understand the human being before me, no matter who they are, no matter their position, and i do believe the line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.
So this is it. This is our world. It is full of hate, violence and destruction. But it is also full of love, beauty and the insatiable desire to help each other.
The people who run the social networks that show this world, that show us to ourselves have the greatest of responsibilities. In a time of war, pandemic, atrocity, we turn to social networks to share real human insights and experiences, to organize protests and celebrations, to learn and to challenge our understanding of the world, our history and of our future. And above all to be reminded of our common humanity. When social networks fail, they have the power to cause immense suffering, and when they succeed, they have the power to lesson that suffering. This is hard. It is a responsibility perhaps unlike any other in history
2: This print ad delivers. From Creative Bloq:
The ad features the flag of Norway, along with various rectangular boxes highlighting details which, on close inspection, resemble other countries' flags (including France, the Netherlands and Finland). Like all the best print ads, it's guaranteed to raise a smile – although in this case, one tinged with an unmistakable hint of nostalgia.
3: The monkey business behind the Bored Apes, from OMR
The Bored Ape Yacht Club has become one of the most-prestigious NFT projects on the planet. But what kind of tactics did it employ to tower above the millions of other not-really-dissimilar NFT collections? OMR cut through the monkey business and found companies pushing the project on the downlow—all in the pursuit of their own interests.