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The Print Guy Who's Going 45% Digital

Complex Media CEO Rich Antoniello on Glossy/Online Integration and Keeping Faith in Print (Against All Odds)

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Here's something that I find rather fascinating in the summer of 2009: Magazines that actually continue to exist.

Complex magazine
Complex magazine
I've been watching Complex, the music-inflected men's lifestyle magazine, with a certain fascination since its launch in 2002. It's one of the many pieces in fashion entrepreneur Marc Ecko's portfolio, which has been both a boon and liability. When Ecko's been hot, Complex has fed off that heat. In a glowing 2005 profile of Ecko -- a white, "grown-up mall rat" from New Jersey who somehow built an urban-apparel empire that put him in direct competition with the likes of Jay-Z's Rocawear and Russell Simmons' Phat Fashions -- The New York Times Magazine noted that his properties had reached more than half a billion in sales across various brands, including Zoo York, Avirex, Ecko Unltd and a 300,000-circ magazine called Complex, taglined "The Original Buyer's Guide for Men." (Not long after that, Condé Nast launched its own buyer's guide for young men, called Cargo, but folded it after only two years.)

But with Ecko in the news lately as his fashion empire contracts -- he's been forced to slash costs, divest brands and refinance debt -- well, that's been not so great for Complex, given that his name is on the cover, just above the logo. (The grave dancers at Gawker, for instance, have made Ecko a frequent target this spring.) And then there's the surreal fact that one of the split covers of the June/July issue of Complex features comedic actor Jonah Hill dressed as Michael Jackson (complete with red leather jacket and sparkly glove) shot before Jackson's death. ("I've been obsessed with Michael Jackson, even the Jackson 5, since I was six or seven," Hill told the magazine.)

So why does Complex still exist, even as the original urban-glossy brand Vibe has bit the dust, along with other music-focused titles, such as Blender? For this latest installment of Dumenco's Media People, I spoke with Complex Media Publisher-CEO Rich Antoniello, a veteran of National Geographic Adventure, Men's Journal and Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide (where he handled media planning for Procter & Gamble, among others).

Complex is a magazine in transition -- Ecko may or may not end up selling his interest in it -- in an industry in transition, but it's particularly interesting to me because of something called the Complex Media Network, an online network that includes Complex.com and other sites not owned by Complex Media. In 2007, the Complex revenue mix was 95% print, 5% digital. Thanks to the Complex Media Network, digital jumped to 23% in 2008, according to Antoniello, and in 2009, the company is on track to derive 45% of its revenue from digital. The current Quantcast verified stats put the network at 5.6 million monthly uniques, with nearly 100 million impressions.

Simon Dumenco: I suppose that, given how connected Complex is to the hip-hop world -- you've had Kanye West, Nas, Pharrell Williams and others on your cover -- the sudden demise of Vibe helps you out. Your competition is thinning.

Rich Antoniello: On a personal level, Vibe closing pains me, as it was an iconic brand. They will definitely be missed. But it further proves that print-focused media brands/companies that don't truly have a digital strategy -- Vibe outsourced its monetization to a rep firm -- are not going to be around for much longer. In this environment, the more media companies realize how print and online content can feed and ultimately help each other, both content-wise and revenue-wise, the better the industry will be in the end.

Dumenco: OK, so let's talk about your own trajectory. You've got a really dramatic revenue trendline in going from a 95%/5% split of print/digital in 2007 to potentially going almost half digital in 2009. Clearly, the print in the mix is becoming less important and there's a point where you, as an old print guy, become a digital guy.

Antoniello: Exclusively, you mean?

Dumenco: Yeah.

Antoniello: Whether print goes away completely or it gets marginalized, those are two significantly different things. Right now, in the foreseeable future, I do not see print going away because of the one word that is probably the new 'synergy' -- it's integration, right? Meaning, cutting across several mediums, being able to truly deliver across multimedia platforms. There are digital people, but there are also still print people. We used the print portion of the Complex brand to open up the digital portion, and we've used the digital business to further open up the print business.

Rich Antoniello
Rich Antoniello
Dumenco: Let's talk about the digital business. Give me the Complex Media Network in one sentence.

Antoniello: The Complex Media Network is a 100% exclusive, premium vertical ad network for discerning style- and trend-focused young men 18 to 34.

Dumenco: What does 100% exclusive mean?

Antoniello: 100% of ad inventory on all partner sites, both sponsorships and integration, is sold and managed by us. Other ad networks represent sites that are also represented by other competing networks. Also, and potentially even more important for the long term health and vitality of our business, we do not supplement any of our inventory by selling it at a huge discount on yet another ad exchange.

Dumenco: You've got sites in your network like Dailydrop -- which covers style, gadgets, video games, etc. -- and more nichey stuff like JapaneseSportCars.com and Juxtapoz, the website for an art and culture magazine that also covers street fashion. How many sites do you have in total?

Antoniello: We've got 23 exclusive sites -- vs. other ad networks that need to include hundreds of sites to get to their similar reach numbers. Of course, all of this becomes even more meaningful when you consider we're providing this against the most hard-to-reach, discerning group of young men. The men who frequent the network are engaged consumers. When you compare that to, pardon the pun, heavy-traffic sites that do their numbers offering videos of skateboard wipeouts, you see a clear distinction in audience. If you were an advertiser, whom would you rather be talking to? The guy who just dropped $200 on some sneakers or denim or video games, and is now home and online researching his next purchase, or the kid who's ripping bong hits in his dorm, watching skaters get hurt and laughing with his buddies? I can tell you which one of them is more likely to be in a store tomorrow.

Dumenco: How did you decide to go from just having a magazine website, Complex.com, to building a network with outside partners?

Antoniello: In 2006, we began the ramp-up of Complex.com. And in the process of doing that, the idea of the network emerged. We focused on partnering with a select group of key vertical sites that were more focused on individual topics. We soft-launched April of 2007 with four partner sites. Since then we've added 18 more sites.

Dumenco: Give me an example of a print/online campaign you've worked on with an advertiser.

Antoniello: Just recently, look at what we developed for Dr Pepper Cherry. They came to us and they're like, 'We want to go down the style route with this. Dr Pepper Cherry is smooth, it embodies smooth, so what else is smooth in terms of style?' So we went and gathered talent that embodies smooth style and then we incorporated Dr Pepper Cherry into it, developed a print component and an online component, and now it runs across the entire Complex Media Network.

Dumenco: It's interesting that they wanted a print component as well as a digital component. You know, to bring this full circle, let's talk about Vibe again and the supposed death of print in general. Quincy Jones has expressed interest in buying Vibe -- which of course he helped found -- and bringing it back from the dead, but as an online-only publication, since he sees print as being "over." What do you say when even old dudes like Quincy Jones are saying print is done for?

Antoniello: His comment was a total knee-jerk reaction to everything that happened. You don't have to throw the baby out with the bath water. Just because Vibe magazine was not performing well does not mean that the print industry as a whole is over.

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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco

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