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'Welcome to constant iteration': Complex's Rich Antoniello on being a publisher in late 2018

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Antoniello
Antoniello Credit: Ad Age Staff

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Rich Antoniello is a Brooklyn-born boss fond of making big predictions.

"We are about to see the largest shift in media and advertising we have ever experienced in the entire world," says the Complex Media CEO in the latest episode of the Ad Lib podcast. "Most people are not only not preparing for it but they're going to be in a situation where they have to react—and react knee-jerk."

Co-founded by designer Marc Ecko in 2002, Complex under Antoniello's leadership has evolved from a fashion-house's bi-monthly print magazine into a hydra-headed multi-media, multi-channel, multi-everything youth culture network. In September, Complex reached more than 49 million unique visitors, up 10 percent from the year before, according to Comscore. It also saw 28.9 million video views (down nearly 30 percent), also according to Comscore.

"Social media has allowed for verticalized audiences to scale," he says. "Now you have multiple platforms that allow very vertical, niche audience to explode because it's so easy for people to find common interests. It's only a hashtag away."

This weekend some 60,000 sneakerheads, rap stans, jocks, gamers, design nerds and foodies will descend on Long Beach, California, for the third annual ComplexCon. The consumer-facing pop culture bonanza is the physical expression of Complex, which Antoniello has been driving for the past 17 years.

"You used to be able to figure something out and you had at least two or three years to exploit it," he says. "Now? Welcome to constant iteration. You better be a self-disruptor constantly."

For example, Complex was early to video. And yet Antoniello cautioned other publishers against adopting a video-heavy strategy when it became in vogue after Facebook announced it was leaning into streaming. Many publishers crashed and burned by putting too many eggs into that video basket. Now Antoniello warns against the publisher scramble to diversify revenue (see: the endless stream of undifferentiated events) without thinking about their audience first.

"You need to be able to have an idea of how you're bringing value to the end consumer," Antoniello says. "I don't think people apply any strategy to a lot of these things. That's why you see a lot of also-ran events and then they wonder why they fail or lose money doing it."

We also discuss how Complex's joint acquisition by Hearst and Verizon in 2016 has been playing out for the brand ("everything presents challenges," he says) and what the media landscape looks like to him in this era of mass consolidation.

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