“They’re Not Consuming Your Shit Content”

A conversation with Complex Media & Michael Rapaport at the 2016 Digital Hollywood Media Summit in New York

On Wednesday, March 2, 2016, Slate was joined by Complex Media at the 2016 Digital Hollywood Media Summit in New York City for a special roundtable discussion on how the media outlet is creating conversations with millennial and urban audiences through it’s ground-breaking News, TV & Documentary Films. Complex TV News Bureau Chief, Cornell Brown, Marc Fernandez, Executive Producer and Head of Complex TV, Complex CEO Rich Antoniello, and actor, writer, producer, director Michael Rapaport sat down with Slate’s Ethan Grey to examine the balance between authentic storytelling & journalism, and marketing to youth culture.

For those not familiar with Complex, the network of fashion and pop culture sites targeted primarily at young men & women has recently climbed to the number four slot of the most engaged digital publishers, behind heavyweights National Geographic and Buzzfeed. While Complex may be best known for it’s flashy media presence, like being the very first magazine to use an up-and-coming Kim Kardashian as their cover girl, the company has hit its stride recently, focusing on topics that are important to the under 30 audience, dedicating channels to everything from sneakers &music, to issues of racial equality and the idiosyncrasies of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The central theme of the roundtable’s talk was a progressive, and almost breakneck movement towards the democratization of media, and the marketing dollars that, in part, make that content possible. Complex, alongside Rapaport, zeroed in on topics ranging from decentralized content curation & distribution, and the need for honesty and genuineness when speaking with millennials.

According to Complex, their approach really isn’t all that complex - “None of this shit is that deep,” acknowledged Antoniello. “[People] are looking for these vertical voices. Barriers have come down, and if you combine that with the wantedness from the public to consume different stories than ever before, it creates a tremendous opportunity out there,” Whether or not the approach is unique, it’s undoubtedly working. Complex’s uniques are up 68% year-over-year, and the trend is accelerating as Complex has added more longform TV & News content to its programming.

Contrary to some perceptions, short-form “pop” content isn’t what’s moving the needle for Complex, it’s News, with 80% of its YouTube views being its News segments with that number continuing to grow. That same ethos dominates the media company’s approach to news content development, with Cornell Brown setting the pace, producing segments, and nurturing emerging young anchors who have quickly become the face of Complex. Brown reflected on what it takes to influence urban and millennial audiences: “We get ‘Thank you for telling our story, portraying us in the right light,’ - especially with [covering] these rallies and protests. It’s about making content that our friends appreciate. We know success when we go home and our friends say, ‘Yeah, that was real’.”

Complex’s strategy is different than many mainstream news organizations - a bottom-up, “scrappy” form of storytelling, often unscripted, and always in a vocal style that reflects the culture and age group that is not only consuming it, but creating it. Brown’s news team is primarily made up of passionate millennials that display a healthy mix of fearlessness and charisma, along with a savvy eye for marketable news. As Brown put it: “We want to make the news, not report it. We let everyone else be knee jerk about that. We start and own the conversation….We have a comment box on YouTube - if we tell a story that’s not in our voice, they tell us, they find us in the streets. They let us know when we’re not being real.”

In keeping with the theme of (very) real content, Complex’s Marc Fernandez, spoke in-depth about the brand’s increasing forays into documentaries. Slate’s Ethan Grey posed the question of how Complex is attracting advertisers to invest in documentaries aboutelicit sneaker sales, social justice & drug running (in an environment where seemingly the only marketable documentaries focus on sports or world wars), Fernandez says “good story requires conflict, you can’t just be patting people on the back. We can tell ANY story through the Complex lens (and advertisers are responding).” Complex’s voracious use of social media to gauge audience feedback and show meaningful response to it’s advertising partners, while not unique, has been honed to a level of efficiency rarely seen in mainstream media. “All these mediums allow you to take shots” says Fernandez “if it doesn’t work, we have real time feedback, and we move onto something else.”

Rapaport was “creatively elated” with the opportunity to partner with Complex, which has provided a vibrant and unique platform for him to reach a fanbase that he otherwise might not have been able to obtain through “mainstream” channels. Complex’s blended footprint of ubiquitous video and independant-style film & news has lead to 700+ million monthly views on YouTube (doubling the amount of views for both MTV and Vice), Facebook, and the Publisher Network, which Rapaport cited as a motivator in aligning himself with the brand, and the pool of advertisers that continue to back his creative efforts.

Grey posed the question to the panel as to why “traditional companies” may lean towards labeling millennials and urban youth as “unengaged” or “apathetic”, Antoniello remained happily unapologetic in his view that there is no longer a need for companies to fit into antiquated media models, stating “[they say] it’s the hardest demographic in the world to reach, and it’s so complicated...and they’re [media companies] all doing it wrong” said Antoniello. “They’re all chasing it. They’re doing it qualitatively and quantitatively wrong. Qualitatively - you have to be inside out. This is for us, by us, from a content perspective. That’s why we have the explosion we have around the video consumption. This is not paid eyeballs. This is all organic. It’s not a voyeuristic approach, it’s an inside out approach. They’re all looking at it the wrong way, ‘OMG they’re so hard to reach,’ how are they hard to reach, how are they unengaged? There are no stats to prove that - other than the fact that they’re not consuming your shit content.”

Millennial audiences are changing the tides themselves, and often doing so in real time, creating the narratives, presenting the media with the challenge to listen instead of “force-feeding” news to younger viewers. Both Brown and Fernandez, made a point to call out the need to approach content with lean methodologies and expectations to pivot, adapting to the audience and viewing them as equal players in the development process. “Immersing our broadcasters into the story as participants - not just as voyeurs - that speaks to the power of that tone - which is very differentiated and is why we’re getting so many views around it - [it’s] not just the numbers but [it’s about] how you’re getting there and why you’re getting there. That’s the most impressive thing,” said Antoniello. In recognition of the brand’s increasingly effective role in shaping the conversation with their audience, YouTube picked Complex as a partner to be the voice of their 2016 election coverage, for both the Democratic and Republican debates.

Rather than being defined by specific platforms, Complex has instead bucked the trend of “conventional media” by deepening the two-way conversation between the brand and consumer to elevate themselves as a valuable news source, both to viewers and to advertisers. Ultimately, for Complex, and for organizations that can find their voice, the best stories are produced by embracing empathy and listening to your audience; ROI will follow.

Storytelling is and has always been about about reaching basic human circumstances that everyone can relate to - the objective is to be honest, confident, and everywhere - “It’s really simple shit,” concluded Antoniello.