Q&AA: Rafat Ali on Media, Marketing Travel in an 'Age of Anxiety'

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Rafat Ali.
Rafat Ali. Credit: Illustration by Sarah Tanat-Jones

Rafat Ali is co-founder and CEO of the travel site Skift, which covers the business side of the travel industry. In publishing circles, he's also known as an astute and pointed observer of digital media. For this interview, he dons both hats. We also touch on his time growing up in India, where he first learned about media and advertising by reading Ad Age, or so he says. Our conversation has been edited.

So, you started out in journalism?

My reason goes back to when I was a kid in Delhi: Growing up, we used to get all the copies of Ad Age.

You're kidding.

My career started as a journalist at this magazine called A&M, Advertising and Marketing, which was the Ad Age of India. It shut down a long time ago.

You grew up in India, but came to the U.S. for grad school, is that right?

Undergrad in India—in computer and engineering—grad school in Indiana. I went from tech to journalism; now the world's going from journalism to tech. I wanted to be a copywriter when I was a kid. Print was the fascination—you could create these ads that people gave a shit about. I tried to get a job as a copywriter at an ad agency when I first got out of college. I did not.

So you went to grad school and found yourself at ground zero for the birth of digital media.

I came to New York from Indiana—from India to Indiana to New York, just whole different worlds, all three of them. I worked at a couple of dot-coms, including the first iteration of Inside.com. It was like the Variety of the East Coast. I was the lowly intern. Steve Brill hired me full time. But that shut down right after 9/11. Then I went to Silicon Alley Reporter, Jason Calacanis' thing. The magazine had shut down when I got there because obviously the bubble had burst, so I was writing online. Really, that's where I learned the power of email newsletters, which have been a thread in my life, from my previous company to this company as well.

Newsletters are having a moment now. But you've been a believer all along?

It's been consistent. Email has been there for a long time. Silicon Alley Daily was a daily thing that the Silicon Alley Reporter had. I used to write that and learned the power of being in people's inboxes every day at the same time—the power of it as a media brand-builder. The daily promise of being in your inbox is a thing that people have always underestimated.

And you took that to PaidContent?

PaidContent was an accidental company, meaning I was a journalist blogging and I had no business sense of how to start anything. The fact that I came up with the worst name clearly meant I wasn't trying to make a business out of it. I just fell into it.

So, you were covering this new digital media industry, but you were also of the digital media industry.

While we were documenting the changing business of media primarily from a digital perspective we were also part of the story to some extent—in the sense of being independent journalists starting our own company using blogging as the tool—and so we learned tons. We were 25 people when we sold to The Guardian in 2008.

And The Guardian didn't really do anything with it.

I think 2007 was our peak. We sold three months before the 2008 crash.

Good timing.

Yeah. I traveled for two years, 2010 to 2012, trying to find myself, I guess. Whatever.

Did that inform what became Skift?

Certainly. We're not a travel start-up. We're a media company that just
happens to be focused on travel.

You're more of an Ad Age for the travel industry.

Yeah. Bloomberg, Politico of the travel industry. We started in the summer of 2012. It was me, Jason [Clampet], my co-founder, Dennis [Schaal], who's my executive editor. Now we're 49 people.

Why did you acquire a totally different vertical in Chefs & Tech last year?

We renamed it the Skift Table, and moved beyond travel into the business of restaurants. We think the lessons we learned from travel are applicable to the very adjacent vertical of restaurants. We think they have similar characteristics where we can make a mark.

The shared DNA here being that both go narrow and deep?

Narrow and deep with a focus on marketing, strategy and tech in industry. If we do a third vertical, I've said publicly I would like to explore luxury retail. We think the trifecta would be very interesting in the long term. The majority of consumer disposable income is spent between travel, restaurants and luxury retail. If we could be a business information company that spans all three, it could be a very interesting proposition. But for now that's just a dream. I'm a believer now of a single brand that has verticals in it.

Meaning you were a skeptic before?

I know Gawker and Vox and others have taken a philosophy of different names for different things and they have their reasons. I think in a b-to-b context a single brand that drives the whole business makes a lot more sense.

What are you excited about in media in 2018?

There's more realism about where we are today, the understanding that direct relationships matter. Nobody is the savior of media; you yourself are. There's a flight to quality in all possible ways. There is still an importance of large-scale quality media: New York Times, Washington Post, CNN. For all of us in the media who tend to laugh at CNN, imagine if those three did not exist last year.

If you're differentiated and you're expert, you stand apart. And you can charge for it.

I'm a big believer in energy, the sheer energy you can bring to bear on something new. I'll give the example of Axios or a brand like Cheddar. These are founders hustling 24/7 and really putting tons of effort into it and breaking through. Sure they have funding.

And you have avoided VC?

We've raised $3 million historically. Very small in the scheme of things. We ended 2017 in profits again, essentially growing from our own growth. What a novel concept!

How would you define your audience?

The most ideal persona would be a CMO: CMO of Hyatt or Marriott or British Airways, et cetera. Every day we wake up and ask, "Is this useful to the CMO of __?" If it is, we do it. We bet on CMOs and marketing functions becoming the center of public-facing companies.

What were the big stories of 2017 for you?

Travel is not divorced from the larger realities of the world. Travel gets affected first. So any kind of larger geopolitical issue is big on the minds of any large travel agency. Marketing in an age of anxiety, uncertainty, was certainly the biggest theme for 2017 and will continue to be for 2018.

You're doing a print magazine three times a year, too. The title of the September issue is "Travel in an Age of Permanxiety." What's that?

It's a term we coined. We love coining terms because it's hokey and it works. "Permanxiety," short for permanent anxiety, is the state of the world we're all in. How do you market travel when tomorrow you're marketing a destination and suddenly it's, "Holy shit there's a bomb blast!" or something else there?

You write about traveling as a Muslim.

Yes, pretty deeply. Brands have no choice but to be politically active. Travel brands can't sit on the sidelines, so that's a big theme we covered last year.

Can you give an example of a brand that is successfully active?

I don't know if it worked, but Hyatt is a brand that certainly has done ads around inclusiveness and diversity. Airbnb has certainly been very active around that topic. Marriott's CEO has been very open speaking about it and active at the policy level in general. A lot of cities are saying they're sanctuary cities and they're open for business. L.A. has been big on welcoming travelers since the travel ban was announced. L.A. was affected because it has the largest population of Iranians outside of Iran.

What about your younger readers?

They want more experiences than actual things. While at times that idea feels like more of a marketing pitch than a reality, we're seeing this in travel. And food has become the center of all conversations everywhere. A lot of people travel for food. My wife and I were recently in Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur. The main reason for being there besides me speaking at a conference was to eat.

What was the best thing you ate?

Oh my God. The confluence of Malaysian food, Indian food and Chinese food is incredible. I would highly recommend it. And it's hot as hell.

Listen to Brian Braiker's full conversation with Rafat Ali on the Ad Lib podcast on on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play and iHeartRadio.

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