Complex’s CEO Is on a Mission to Matchmake Millennials and Brands

Are you a sneakerhead? Do you keep up with the latest Meek Mill–Drake beef gossip like it’s your job? Do you just love pop culture in general? Then there’s a good chance you’re a millennial (or at least a really dope baby boomer).

And if you’re an advertiser hoping to reach those millennials, Complex Media wants to be your bae.

A mix of dozens of websites, blogs, and video channels, Complex Media attracted about 50 million monthly unique visitors in July, according to comScore. A majority of those are multicultural, millennial men, a group that marketers have traditionally found hard to reach.

The network strongly over-indexes for African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics, according to Quantcast, and the audience has interest in everything from the Kardashians and Kanye West to Kobe Bryant, Jon Stewart, electronic dance music (EDM), fashion, and, yes, sneakers.

“Our audience defines itself by its passions,” says Complex Media CEO Rich Antoniello, who founded the company 12 years ago with fashion designer Marc Ecko.

By tapping into those passions and assembling editorially savvy content teams around them, Antoniello’s sales and marketing professionals are able to construct targeted websites and blogs, social media campaigns, brand videos, and participatory sweepstakes.

“We know how to talk to our audience in a way that marketers don’t,” Antoniello says. “We were early in content marketing, and we are better at transferring our authenticity and credibility to brands through our content development.”

One of Complex’s more innovative capabilities is its creation of entire websites and publications for brands, as well as some creative sponsorship integrations. Here are just a few of the more notable examples:

  • Mountain Dew’s, a standalone culture and lifestyle publication.
  • Targeted websites like Triangle Offense, a basketball fashion and lifestyle site sponsored entirely by Bacardi rum during the NBA playoffs this year. (The sponsorship cost Bacardi $1 million to $3 million, according to AdAge.)
  • Deep social media integrations, such as the “One of a Kind” campaign developed for Dr Pepper. Launched in 2013, it included up-and-coming musicians, DJs, and fashion designers in videos describing ways they were unique in their approaches to their art.

Sometimes, the content Complex creates mentions a brand. Other times, you would barely know it’s been created on behalf of a brand—Complex certainly tests the line between sponsorship and branded content. But it’s almost never a boring product pitch, and the content always comes back to the core interests of Complex’s audience.

The approach seems to be working. More than 50 percent of the company’s revenue comes from custom content and sponsorship integrations, Antoniello says. That’s up from 22 percent for custom content less than two years ago, according to Business Insider.

Despite Antoniello’s on-record barbs towards Vice (which he called “overrated” and more of a production house than a news organization, in an interview with Digiday), the company’s strategy shares much more in common with Vice—which forgos scale for greater monetization—than with other major new media companies. In fact, he says Complex avoids the need for the constant scale of more general-interest media companies like BuzzFeed and Vox Media, and instead focuses on doubling down on their core audience.

“If you have your deepest conversation with a very targeted consumer whom you know and understand, you get great results,” he says, adding that to share their traffic with advertisers, they create “virality and engagement.”

The #OneofaKindStyle hashtag for a Dr Pepper contest, for example, encouraged fans to submit photos showing their own original style, and continues to rack up hundreds of tweets and Instagram posts two years later.

The network relies on Facebook for less than a fifth of its traffic referrals, Antoniello says, and he would only grow that reliance organically—not pay for it. He says he is reluctant to “give Facebook too much weight and influence.”

Instead, a lot of the conversations they inspire happens on the company’s sites, with people arguing about which rapper is best, or taking sides in hot topics like the recent Twitter skirmish over musician Meek Mill’s accusations that star rapper Drake didn’t author his own music.

Antoniello is not one to mince words when it comes to his belief in Complex’s ability to do good work for advertising partners.

“Making great content that not only attracts people, but engages them in something that editorial experts are great at… [that’s something that] brands—focused on making their products—don’t really know how to do,” he says.

And for Complex itself, he hopes that its relentless focus on covering the topics its unique audience cares about will benefit both the readers and the advertisers.

“We pay most attention to the people who come to us,” Antoniello says. “As long as we continue to serve them, the brands and advertisers will come, too.”

Image by valeriiaarnaud

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