Identity Crisis at Gawker? Nick Denton's Blogging Empire Working with Branding Agency Redscout

Gawker Besieged by Competition

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Nick Denton
Nick Denton

Gawker Media, which is battling heavily financed digital publishers like BuzzFeed and Vox for audiences and ad dollars, is working with brand-strategy agency Redscout, according to two people familiar with the matter. The relationship began last summer, one person said.

Former Gawker employees believe it's the first time the digital publisher has teamed up with a branding agency. The precise nature of the work is unclear. Both Gawker and Redscout declined comment.

Redscout, which is owned by MDC Partners, advises companies on developing a brand strategy. Its roster of clients include large consumer brands such as Pepsi, Lay's and American Express, as well as media companies like ABC Family and LinkedIn.

Last week, Gawker founder Nick Denton dropped a clue about the agency in a post where he defended the work of brands on social media:

"It's a hard job to boil down an organization's history and dreams into a succinct summary. I know because Gawker Media is currently going through a fascinating exercise in self-definition with a branding agency."

He did not, however, mention Redscout by name in the post, which appeared on Gawker's homemade commenting platform Kinja.

In December, Mr. Denton sent an internal memo to staff outlining broad leadership changes at Gawker Media. He also set forth his vision for the year to come:

"We will return to our mission: more linebackers with fictional dying girlfriends; less pandering to the Facebook masses. In 2015, Gawker will be the very best version of itself; I will be the best version of myself. We will be bloggers again."

His assertion hints at a crisis of purpose for Gawker. Since its founding in 2002, Gawker's suite of blogs -- which currently includes Gawker.com, Deadspin, Gizmodo, Valleywag and Jezebel -- has broken big, national stories, publishing, for instance, photos of the iPhone 4 before its release, lewd pictures of former NFL quarterback Brett Favre and the aforementioned story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, who told the media about a dead girlfriend whom, it turns out, never existed.

But in recent years Gawker Media has sought to rack up page views and unique visitors by publishing a barrage of content that would be widely shared on Facebook. Mr. Denton said as much in his memo. "Editorial traffic was lifted but often by viral stories that we would rather mock," he wrote. "We -- the freest journalists on the planet -- were slaves to the Facebook algorithm."

"Nobody knows what they stand for anymore," a one-time staff member said.

Still, traffic to Gawker Media surged in January: Unique U.S. visitors to all the sites combined climbed 30% from the month a year earlier to 58.7 million, according to analytics firm ComScore.

Working with a branding agency can shepard Gawker through this identity crisis and help it resonate with advertisers, according to Wenda Harris Millard, president-COO at MediaLink, a strategic advisory firm for media companies. "The noise level in the advertising and marketing marketplace is at fever pitch," she said. "It is very difficult … to distinguish one company from another."

A branding agency can help a media company understand how to articulate its value in a way that's "clear, attractive and defensible," she added.

The digital media landscape is fiercely competitive, with BuzzFeed, Vox and others all slugging it out for readers and advertising dollars. Gawker Media generated about $35 million last year from the sale of ads such as display units and sponsored posts, according to a Business Insider report.