Brand lessons from political campaigns

Building a publishing brand is increasingly like running for office


Thanks to all who signed up for information on “The New Attention Economy,” the series of conversations The Rebooting is holding in partnership with Kerv at the Cannes Lions from June 19-21. Each day, we’ll hold a series of conversations around the future of sustainable publishing models Monday), the future of TV (Tuesday) and the creator economy, and the future in a world of AI (Wednesday).

I’m happy to partner with Next in Media’s Mike Shields on the event as well as a daily Cannes email briefing that we have agreed will include no boring panel recaps or list of award winners. Mike and I worked together for years at Adweek and a distressingly short period of time at Digiday, but I’m completely over how he broke up with me at the Starbucks on Varick in 2012. At least he didn’t just text. We are also putting the finishing touches on a cocktail party at a villa and, hopefully, a publishing executive dinner. (On the dinner, get in touch if you’re interested in sponsoring.)

Sign up for “The New Attention Economy” and information on all things The Rebooting is doing in Cannes.

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Brand building as a political campaign

I had a call yesterday with CJ Gustafson, who writes Mostly Metrics newsletter, and he was giving me advice on a topic that baffles me: building financial models. I was trying to steer some of the conversation to areas I feel on firmer ground, like media business models and building brands. This column sprung from that call, so thanks CJ. Also, check out Mostly Metrics to explore the mind of a CFO.

Something I’ve been thinking about is how brands will be built in whatever lies ahead now as we move past the detritus of the 2010s era of chasing scale. Some of that future will be personal brands, some institutional brands that are a collection of individuals. AI is the wildcard, but likely more opportunity for the small and scrappy, even if it will prove an existential threat to some with rigid models and not much connection to a specific audience. Increasingly brand building in media will resemble political campaigns.

Candidates have to meet a moment

Many people never became president because their trajectory didn’t meet the right time. Mario Cuomo suffered this. Barack Obama was smart to seize his moment, even if his resume was thin for a run.

Media brands are no different. You can be too early or too late. The Messenger will debut soon with a throwback approach that feels more suited for the 2010s than the 2020s. Many times people will say a new brand isn’t needed because a category is crowded, but every publication goes through periods of weakness when the market is open to newcomers. Bleacher Report, for instance, exploited this opening pre-2010 by seeing ESPN not do the basics well. This is a good time for new brands that meet the moment, with lean approaches, tight focuses and as one founder put it to me recently “a distinct vision.”

Simple messaging beats wonky policy plans

Only the press obsesses over the policy papers on a candidate’s website. Trump understood that he wasn’t going to beat Hillary Clinton on whose energy plan was better. He was going to win by hammering home basic messages: build the wall, America first, deep state. Like all good politicians he repeated this to the point of absurdity because the more people hear a message, the more they believe it.

Media brands now more than ever need that kind of simple messaging. Sometimes I find it exhausting as someone far more deeply engaged with brands that go back time and again to their talking points. There is a point where we can all risk becoming caricatures. But simple messaging is an asset. The test of a brand is whether people start to describe your point of view externally the way you do internally. And the only way that transfer happens in a chaotic “information space” is through repetition. The legacy brands without a point of view who spent the last decade chasing whatever was the flavor of the day are doomed.

Single-issue candidates never last

Single-issue candidates like Andrew Yang (universal basic income) never last. Their presence is by definition temporal because their goals are to push the Overton Window to make an emerging issue politically plausible. A single issue is not enough to carry a candidacy.

The same mistake will continue to be made in publishing, as brands pile on a hot topic (must be 150 AI newsletters these days) or a novel article format. If all else fails, declare news “broken” and that you are there to fix it. There needs to be a deeper reason for a brand to exist, particularly at a time when there is too much of everything.

Contrasts matter

Candidates typically rush to “define” others with the goal of creating contrasts. And they do that because, to the casual voter (nearly everyone) a lot of what politicians say sounds alike. Few people are digging into policy papers for the nuances.

For publishers that means establishing a sharp differentiation from your peer set. If you can’t clearly define why your brand is different in a way that people understand and recognize, you have no shot. At its worst, contrasts are the equivalent of political attack ads. This is the playbook used by many political writers. But contrasts have a role. This is a time when “good enough” is simply not good enough. You can win on many levels – expertise, perspective, personality – but you better be clear what sets you apart – and do everything to compete on that basis, not where others are strong.

Relatability often wins

Obama famously remarked that Hilary Clinton was “likeable enough.” The comment drew ire, but it also spoke to a truth: a fatal flaw of Clinton’s candidacy was the squishy concept of relatability. As strange as it sounds, I believe serially divorced billionaire New York City real estate developer with a golden toilet was more relatable, mostly because Trump spoke in a way that was common to how people really speak. The outdated test was whether the candidate was someone you wanted to have a beer with. This was the area George W. Bush could reasonably fight it out with John Kerry.

This is why Trump’s huge rallies and yard signs mattered — and why retail politicking isn’t likely to away anytime soon.

I believe many brands going forward will lean on individuals so the audience or community feels more connection to them. AI will accelerate this and create a “human premium.” Relatability will trump aspiration in creating brand value. Bill Simmons and Dave Portnoy, in different ways, have done this masterfully with The Ringer and Barstool. That Barstool could regularly get thousands of fans to turn out to its events proved the power of its brand in contrast to the wafer-thin attachment the audience had to fly-by-night “disposable media” created in the 2010s.

More notes on the end of an era

In a twist of fate, tonight is the launch party for Ben Smith’s book, Traffic, a chronicle of the 2010s digital media scene in New York. The impact of that era – often defined by the pursuit of clicks from social media – is in the spotlight with the end of BuzzFeed News. Some more thoughts on lessons learned from a time of “years, millions, many talent lost”:

  • It was the unpredictability. Viral traffic is a hassle to monetize, Jacob Donnelly points out. You can’t plan ahead for it, and matching it to ad demand is very difficult, nearly impossible without programmatic, which BuzzFeed shunned until very late in the game. What’s more, ad models are boom and bust, with similarly unpredictable demand flows. These are fair points, and point to why homepages are (possibly) back. If I live long enough to see microsites become popular again…
  • It was Facebook’s fault. Publishers rode a tiger by its tail with the gusher of Facebook traffic, Gawker alum Max Read writes. In the end, that did them in, as the tiger decided it didn’t want to play anymore and was, in fact, rather hungry.”BuzzFeed and Gawker will be remembered in future movies and TV shows and novels as more than anything as symbols of a more-or-less lost decade, a privacy-flouting, social media-friendly ten years--the media equivalent of creative directors in raw denim, gingham shirts, and skinny ties.
  • It was the listicles. A hallmark of that era was a worship of optimization. The rise of the listicle is definitely a skinny-tie candidate. “Those silly lists were always such traffic gold in an era in which job security was seemingly entirely dependent on how many page views one could generate,” notes David Swindle, a veteran of the content mines era.


The publishing and broader media industry are in for another turbulent period of transition. Take 538. Since leaving The New York Times in 2013, Nate Silver’s data journalism project has bounced around from ESPN (weird fit) to ABC News (seemingly forgotten). 538 is on a glide path to extinction, as Silver is leaving after ABC cut back 538 even further. Its fate appears similar to Recode to be reorged into oblivion. 538 would have been better off as an independent enterprise rather than attached to behemoths.

Lifestyle isn’t in much of a better shape. Instagram exploded the competitive set for these publications, already struggling from the transition from print models. Some will live on as SEO husks tied to affiliate models or serve as cultural general contractors by putting on parties at Art Basel, but many will suffer the fate of Paper, which is shutting entirely, as broken by Mark Stenberg.

There’s no silver bullet solution to publishing business models. This bears repeating because this industry tends to lurch from thing to thing as the new savior. Subscriptions are one of those false saviors. Direct revenue is great, but it does not fit for a majority of publishing models. Time is recognizing this by taking down its paywall for digital content. Time will always be a mass brand, ill-suited for paywalls. I’ll be interested to learn how this move fits in with Jessica Sibley’s strategy for reinvigorating Time. As luck would have it, we are recording a live podcast on May 11 at Omeda’s OX6 event.

One growth area for content of all types is serving as the front end for other businesses. We’re seeing that most notably in the sports category, which thanks to legalized gambling has gotten very lucrative. The problem for sports media is while they got while the getting was good during the land-grab phase, as companies like DraftKings spent freely to build massive customer bases, they now face competition from those “partners” as companies like DraftKings roll out their own media arms.

In lieu of ending on a positive note, I’ll go the opposite direction. One of the specters hanging over the overall media industry is that, as tough as the last 15 years have been, they’re about to get far more difficult. The 2010s at least had a large infusion of venture capital and, even if most digital ad dollars went to Google and Facebook, rising tides etc. And then there were the interest rates. This is a different economic environment, platforms have mostly moved on from news entirely and are looking to end run publishers to cut deals with individuals, retailers are now media companies, former ad partners like DraftKings are competitors, demand destruction is happening in ad categories, and once reliable mechanisms like SEO are under threat. Perhaps most worryingly, former Facebook exec Rob Leathern sees AI leading to a structural decline in the size of the ad market, which historically has tracked with the size of the overall economy. Happy Thursday!

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