Nobody gives a f**k about your brand anymore
The future of media brands. One sentence for the future. Schwag time. Leading influencers by platform. High brow NFTs. A new way to learn French.
Welcome to People vs Algorithms #7.
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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"Nobody gives a fuck about your brand anymore". The line caught my attention. James Miller was on a podcast talking about his new HBO oral history Tinderbox: HBO's Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers. It came from super agent Ari Emmanuel. He was responding to a frustrated HBO executive about to lose a competitive bid for a new project. HBO was the creator friendly media company, a brand long adored by consumers, where premium perceptions created superior economics and big budgets. How could anyone pass up the opportunity to work with them?
The moment was obviously a reflection of Netflix’s rise and intensified platform competition for premium programming. But the line got me thinking about the state of media brands. What do consumers actually give a fuck about now? What is the internet doing to media brands? How might the next generation of brands differ from the last?
I suspect they will be more collectivist in nature, communities of shared interests rather than deeply hierarchical organizations of the past. Let’s break it down a bit…
Platforms offer something media brands do not.
Youtube, Instagram, Wechat, TikTok, Apple and LinkedIn are global access points to content and community. One might argue they are not media brands but their function is not unlike the networks of old. With one huge added consumer benefit — empowerment. They are user-driven platforms for consumption and expression.
According the the Interbrand’s Best Global Brands 2021, they are the most powerful brands in the world. Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft held the top four spots this year. Further down the list you find WeChat, Facebook and LinkedIn. Disney is the only traditional media brand that consistently shows up in the list.
One should not be confused about these rankings as it is a bit apples and oranges, — media is either a local, regional, or national business. That said, the platforms offer something new (other than a global footprint and sublime business models) that pure media brands cannot — user agency. From the report:
Inspired by the data from this year’s study, he writes of brands as “Acts of Leadership.” What this means is that the most inspiring brands are extending their leadership role beyond their direct product category to confront the biggest challenges we face.
Brands influence our individual beliefs, belonging and behaviours. But what strong brands do is unite people and create movements around shared goals, principles and a desired future.
As the shape of capitalism changes, the role of brands in this decade will not be to ‘change the world’ – but, rather, to give their constituents the agency, means, connections and conviction to do so; to be collaboration platforms – helping creators, consumers and communities collaborate and adhere to shared principles.
I asked a bunch of young people to name their favorite media brand. The response I heard most often was TikTok. To media execs this may seem like a misclassification. To consumers it is not.
The unsurprising conclusion is these platforms brands and the creator ecosystem they spawned have endeared themselves to consumers in ways that media brands have not.
Creators are the oxygen.
Mass media created mass media brands — TV networks (NBC), mass magazine brands (People), national newspaper brands (USA Today). Digital serves niches and tribes. Platforms have created the infrastructure to create media brands on a micro scale, witness the rise of the creator economy via platforms like Instagram and Youtube, columnists as media brands powered by Substack.
The terms “influencer” and “creator” are used in overlapping ways. The lines blur between actors, musicians, gamers, content creators and those that are just internet famous. We can just agree that these are an important new class of entrepreneurial media agents, offering a new generation with authenticity and value alignment that they expect from media. These are the new media brands — as important to a new generation as media brands were to the last.
It comes at a time when half of Gen Z get the majority of their news from social media (Morning Consult) compared to 17% of older adults. Just 12% get it from television. And when trust in mass media is down almost 20% from 20 years ago (Gallup).
The rise of platforms has thrown brands into a competitive battlefield, pitting media brands against creators, and advertiser brands themselves. The charts below shows follower count for a handful of leading media, commercial and creator brands on Instagram and Youtube.
Even the most successful traditional media brands have struggled to maintain scale on important distribution platforms. Some commercial brands have built large audiences. But creators have found outsized success. Driven by authentic, human appeal, creator brands have challenged media brands in influence and reach.
Niche brands sustain.
Strong brands are the lasting legacy of magazine media. These are small businesses with big brands, sustained through a direct, subscription-based channel to the consumer. The subscriber foundation was expensive to build, resilient and engendered an oligopolistic structure for decades. Brands are an obsession in magazine media — the spinal cord that connects the franchise, issue to issue. And an essential ingredient to the subscription proposition.
Magazine brands frame meaningful moments and as such became part of the vocabulary of popular culture. They are ultimate “collab” brands. It is through association with celebrity that they themselves have become famous.
Cable created important consumer media brands like Food Network and CNN. But these are exceptions. Cable brands do not conjure the level of clarity, niche appeal and cross-channel portability as magazine brands. More often, cable brands are defined by the show brands they underwrite. Some will manage to find a way to a post-cable future, but the economics of leaving the bundle will be challenging for most.
Truth be told, magazine brands’ survival is largely a function of a codependent relationship with Google. But this has consequences — the product is completely unbundled at point of consumption and has lost an important curatorial role. Magazines compete strongly in search (see last weeks charts), but here the brand is an afterthought. A recognized brand in search results (“best credit cards from Forbes”) reinforces credibility, but this lies a long way from culture-defining roles held a decade ago.
The brand winner here is Google, not the magazine brand.
A friend asked a revealing question this week — when faced with a choice between a great brand with weak search authority and a decent brand with great search authority, which do you pick? In my mind, distribution wins.
Are new brands as good as the old?
Media brands earn and are reinforced by a distribution position, the stronger that position, the stronger the brand. MTV built cable, cable made MTV legendary. When attention shifted from the TV to the phone, relevance and influence evaporated.
The challenge creating new brands in the digital environment is you lack distribution power to truly pound them into culture. Vice almost created a generational media brand. Some might argue they did. But the struggle of creating a resilient position inside of our convergent ecosystem was overwhelming. They thought the move to cable might help, but at that point it was too late, their audience had left.
Buzzfeed created a digital-first news and lifestyle brand with generational resonance. Complex, Refinery29, Bustle, Gawker, Vox did too. These are real brands, but it seems to me they lack the cultural significance of predecessors like the Rolling Stone, Time Magazine or MTV.
Enthusiast passions (and search!) power niche digital media brands more than ever before. They serve dedicated communities of interest with clear content needs. There are plenty of examples across every enthusiast category - food, watches, cars, outdoor, audio, crafts, wellness. The best have diversified revenue models mixing ads, affiliate, commerce and subscription. B2B publishers work similarly. These are the best businesses in digital media.
News competes for the partisan heart.
The erosion of local news monopolies and underlying business model, poor ad economics, a vastly broadened competitive space for attention, have pushed news brands to find a more persuasive path to a subscriber’s wallet. Are you a Fox or CNN guy? Join us… we think like you do! Objectivity works for few. Pressured to mean more to some, news brands embrace partisan positioning.
Where to next?
So let’s back up a bit and focus on the ingredients. Media brands are multi-sided — they need to appeal to an audience segment, to talent looking for the right environment to create, and to advertisers looking for an efficient way of reaching a group of people. A strong media brand connects all sides.
A great media brand is anchored in a differentiated point-of-view. Increasingly its power is activating a group of people around an idea. This, I think, is a point of departure for the next generation. Community, broadly considered, has always been a defining characteristic of a powerful media brand. But the idea of brand as center of collaborative, purpose driven communities feels like a point of departure. It’s akin to the difference between carrying a New Yorker tote bag versus contributing to an open source coding project.
It’s hard to not see an evolutionary progression here, from media to platform brands, creator brands and ultimately collectives. There will always be the need for the business infrastructure to tie a group of creators together — manage the business, build platforms, sell advertising, forge partnerships etc. — great creatives will want more agency and ownership in the enterprise. Future media brands will be shaped by this idea
Think about the blurring of lines between media and commerce and the inherent brand challenges therein. It’s easy to see how a media brand can take on the curatorial responsibilities of a retailer, harder to imagine media as a product brand. A tote bag works. A dress may not. There are exceptions. Apple is one of the few brands that adeptly moves from media to software to hardware to fashion. Better Homes and Gardens has successfully become a licensed garden product brand in Walmart. I expect that our preconceived notions about what are the limits of media will be challenged along this continuum.
Even more speculative, think about future brand as algorithm or code — a shared set of rules around how people work together or how content is managed.
In the end, the people that give a fuck are surely the people that create, grow and shape the brand through participation. This may be the best way to think about media brands moving forward.
I am grateful to all of you for taking time to read this. I hope you have a great Thanksgiving with family and friends… / Troy
Other good things:
1. One sentence for the future
Noted physicist, Nobel prize winner, quantum pioneer and all around bon vivant, Richard Feyman’s Caltech’s lectures were legendary (apparently!). His 1961 introductory course in physics was eventually collected in The Feynman Lectures on Physics. He began his first lecture by asking the class a question: If all scientific knowledge was destroyed in some cataclysmic event, and you could pass one sentence to the next generation, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? His response:
I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.
In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.
What would you write if you had one sentence to advise the next generation of media practitioners? What would you advise them in a few words. If you have a good answer, I would love to hear it. Please email me
2. Leading influencers by platform
From Axios: “The creator economy has produced thousands of social media entrepreneurs who have built mega-audiences in the millions — larger than many media companies. Often, they operate in parallel universes, with little overlap between platforms.”
3. Company uniform.
We made tons a great schwag in the old days at VideoEgg, a startup video platform and ad network I joined in 2006. This t-shirt was one of my favs. Someone sent me a photo the other day.
Shout out to my co-conspirator on all the Videoegg stuff, the remarkable Alex Schleifer, who went on to become head designer at AirBnB. He just launched his first game, “Laserboy”. Check it out.
Speaking of…. These new People vs Algorithms hats just came in.
4. High-brow NFT’s.
From David Salle on Super Rare. Current offer $139k.
5. Movies are global, TV is not.
Netflix released a their Top 10 reporting dashboard this week, showing weekly lists of most watched film and TV from around the world. Interesting to take a look. One quick observation. Red Notice, the entertaining low-brow action movie starring the Rock is #1 everywhere. TV hits tend to be much more localized. Squid Game was an exception.
Apropos to the influencer stuff above, the Rock charged a $1M “social media fee” to promote Red Notice across his social handles. Star and media brand in one.
6. The French connection.
During covid, my wife decided she was going to learn French. She’s used Duolingo for the past 480 days straight.
This week she gets in an Uber. She and her driver, a recent immigrant from the Ivory Coast, start talking about the process of learning French. Insists she must speak more to really pick it up. The app will not suffice.
They start a text-based tutoring relationship.
Now she is conspiring to create a new service that combines Uber and language instruction. Pick your language, order a car, learn along the way. Now you are going places. Genius.
What a crazy, wonderful world.