Marvel shouldn’t get to have all the hypothetical fun.
- What If…? Complex Media
- Around The World
1. WHAT IF…? COMPLEX MEDIA
With the announcement of Marvel’s lauded comic anthology What If…? being turned into a new Disney + series , we thought it would be fun to look back at some scenarios over the last 10 years that inevitably changed the cultural industries. Let’s wonder what could have been.
What If… Complex stayed independent instead of being acquired by Verizon & Hearst (VHMP)?
(Full Disclosure: I have written for Complex and a few of its many tentacles in the past.)
The Historical Record
In late 2015, youth culture juggernaut Complex Media sold a minority share of their business—$21 million— to Hearst, the publisher of Esquire, Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping. The following April, Hearst and Verizon created Verizon Hearst Media Partners (VHMP) and acquired Complex Media, splitting the company 50/50 with a deal valued between $200 and $300 million. Their first launches?
RatedRed.com, a lifestyle channel aimed at young people in the heartland.
And Seriously.TV, a comedy network focused on Politics.
For those who knew pre-2016 Complex as a true unicorn*sorry, we hate this word too brand—one that almost seamlessly blended industry cred and broad commercial appeal—neither of these launches seemed like good signs for the future.
And yes, if you weren’t aware of these launches before now… this really happened.
These two verticals were the first result of VHMP’s “new” Complex. The same magazine that had Kim K on the cover before she was a household name, and the same media network that brought you Desus & Mero, Hot Ones and Sneaker Shopping, kicked off their new era with passionate arguments for rare meat.
Now, it’s obvious that this shift didn’t sink the ship. And considering the broader media fascination with the rise of Donald Trump, it’s not surprising that they took a swing at targeting the demographic that voted in the 45th President (and invaded the Capitol when he lost). But it just looks misguided and gross in hindsight.
Obviously there wasn’t cause for concern, considering that the company’s pivot to live events with the launch of Complexcon in late 2016 paid off handsomely, to the point that Complex diversified their revenue model, reducing their share of advertising revenue to less than 50% by the end of 2017. Instead, they chose to double-down on e-commerce (remember the initial hype around the Hot Ones-branded hot sauce?) licensing, syndication, live and virtual events (the aforementioned Complexcon exists now in IRL and URL formats), and creative services like branded content. This also meant a shift in priorities. Day one acolytes waved bye-bye to Complex’s print magazine and the brand’s scrappy underdog moniker. Gone were the days of culturally viable moments like deep treatises on Virgil Abloh’s PYREX flannels or rappers threatening to pull up on the masthead for perceived disrespect. In their place? Content that was scalable and sellable.
What If… They Didn’t Take The Deal?
Imagine, it’s 2016, and for digital media companies the mission is simple: Get over the wall.
The “wall” in this context, is $100 million in annual revenue.
Quick detour back to 2021: You’ve heard of most every media brand that’s made it over the wall by now, as the tiny club includes powerhouses like BuzzFeed, Vice, Vox, Refinery29, Huffington Post and Bleacher Report.
Since the acquisition, Complex has made it over the wall only once. The year was 2016, and they had just been acquired. 2016 was also the highest year for revenue for the company, followed by a nightmarish 18-month nosedive.
(Complex Media Revenue 2013 – 2020, IncFact)
Let’s say Complex stays independent—do they still go through these ups and downs? VC money is tempting, but many media brands have succeeded without it, just not quite at Wall levels.
Creatively, the biggest What If? is what happens to the higher-ups if they don’t get the massive payday from that merger?
You’d have to assume that EIC Noah Callahan-Bever probably stays instead of departing for Def Jam Records at the tail end of 2017. What happens if he and his team of editors (like the forever-underrated Donnie Kwak, Chris Schoenberger and others) are given runway to go both deep and wide with their stories?
And What If Everyday Struggle—the now-infamous 2017 – 2020 program that, for better or for worse, skyrocketed DJ Akademiks to broader popularity—gets the full attention of the folks in charge?
Here’s my spicy take of the week: I believe that if that deal doesn’t go down, Joe Budden becomes the Howard Stern of hip-hop radio, with Complex’s full editorial brain power behind him, instead of just the advertising department.
The phoenix-like rise of The Joe Budden Podcast (which deserves its own What If? column at some point) was built on Budden’s acrimonious exit from Complex and Everyday Struggle. Budden went on to his platform to explain the split in a now-viral clip:
I believe with proper business negotiation and editorial investment into Budden the same way that host Sean Evans and the aforementioned Schoenburger squadded up to bring us Hot Ones, Budden not only stays, but grows his JBP base via distribution and licensing much faster. If we go full galaxy brain: being under an independent Complex’s umbrella gives Budden and his team leverage to avoid that now-infamous Spotify deal. Rounding this idea out: it’s not unrealistic to then imagine a world where podcast co-hosts Rory + Mal get slotted into their own show aimed at a younger demo, instead of the horrible breakup that happened instead.
While fantasy scenarios are fun to…well, fantasize… about, it’s not like Complex went broke or anything. The ink still isn’t dry on their June 2021 acquisition by none other than Buzzfeed, to the tune of 300 million (if you’re keeping score, that means Complex Media has been acquired twice in 6 years at 300 million an acquisition).
Yes, hindsight is 20/20 and no one can say what would or wouldn’t have happened with any certainty, but given the anxiety-inducing mergers, acquisitions, and pivots to video that what we’ve seen from the media companies like Complex in the last 10 years, it’s hard not to wonder…What If?
2. AROUND THE WORLD
- How many videos does it take to get to 1 million YouTube subscribers?
- This is an INSANE read about how viral products are sold and marketed on TikTok!
- #CHICAGO: I made an exclusive playlist for fellow Chicagoan and pizza lover John Carruthers new “Pizza for Everyone” cookbook. Grab a copy to support a great cause and to read words from amazing writers like Kate Bernot, Nick Kindlesperger and Chicago’s “Hungry Hound” Steve Dolinsky!
- ICYMI, New York Mag tapped me and 22 other newsletter writers about our fave newsletters. I had to show love to the work of Dan Runcie and Trapital.
- Advertising/Marketing people, show this to your boss: The Post-Pandemic Hybrid Office Should Be Built For The Remote Workforce