The cruelest part of the end of summer is a compressed week on the other side. The way to make it more frenetic: prepare to move homes. I wouldn’t recommend it. Thanks to PubWise for sponsoring this week. I’m happy to have some great partners lined up in the coming months. Check out my sales kit and get in touch if you’d like to work together: email@example.com.
House of personal brands
The pandemic’s promise of a wholesale change in many areas of society and the economy – count me as one of the believers – is turning out to be overblown. The continued shift to remote and hybrid work appears an outlier of many of the changes that the pandemic had apparently accelerated. Most of life, for me at least, feels pretty much the same as Before Times. Consider these unfulfilled promises:
- E-commerce adoption accelerated by a decade. Turns out, no, it did not, as anyone owning Shopify’s stock can tell you.
- Crypto emerging as a massive new asset class while Web3 changes notions of ownership. Yeah, not happening, at least anytime soon.
- Food delivery gutting restaurants as ghost kitchens take over. Has anyone eaten delivery fries? Gross.
- Virtual events and Zoom in general obviating the need for in-person conferences and meetings. Good God, please, not another Zoom.
Of course, most shifts are subtle and take far longer than expected. Wholesale change overnight is rare. Most things end up somewhere in the middle, with incremental change rather than the revolution promised. I believe something similar can be said for the “creator economy,” at least as it applies to publishing.
Substack became synonymous with writers striking out on their own. I was one of them, although I confess to never seriously considering a one-person operation my ultimate goal. I would go onto the odd panel about this trend to pump the brakes on the idea that this pseudo trend was some kind of major threat to institutional brands. It always struck me as an elite phenomenon, and as Morning Brew CEO Austin Rief recently said, power laws always kick in on the internet. The so-called creator economy — a terrible umbrella term that encompasses everyone from OnlyFans models toYouTube celebrities to newsletter writers to hustle bros hawking courses — is due for a winnowing.
At the same time, the shift to individuals versus institutions is, I believe, a real and lasting phenomenon. You can’t see over 10,000 people showing up at the ghastly American Dream mall in New Jersey for a YouTuber’s new burger joint and not recognize there’s a cultural shift at work. The problem is there aren’t many Mr. Beasts out there. The idea that there would be a Mr. Beast of every possible niche was never realistic. Most people who are good at writing and building an audience are not as skilled in understanding and harnessing the growth drivers of a business. Substack did a neat trick of abstracting most of those operational necessities by a simplified, take-it-or-leave-it business model tied to recurring subscriptions. Any one-size-fits-all approach by definition is not going to work for many.
But just like the shortcomings of remote work doesn’t mean everyone is going to pile back into the office, we’re already seeing changes to how institutional brands operate and new forms of brands that emphasize the individual more than just the overall brand. I would expect Semafor to strike this balance, an update to the house of brands approach.
The question for solo publishers with some traction is which path to take.
The Mr. Beast model. The personal connection to the audience is the biggest leverage of this kind of direct-to-consumer publishing model. Many will choose to build out teams around them to keep themselves at the center since that’s where the leverage is. I see what Packy McCormick and Litquidity are doing as in this mode.
The collective. The reality of any creative endeavor is you need collaborators. The further reality of any media business is you need infrastructure to grow and make money. Substack is already figuring out ways for individual writers to collaborate with each other without giving up their autonomy.
The band model. The inherent tension of joining a group is giving up some autonomy. Bands serve as a model for how a group can get together in order to make something different and better than they could on their own. I know the snarky tweet is, Congrats, you invented a publisher lol. But this is somewhat different in that the individuals in a band, for the most part, are not interchangeable parts as in most corporate setups.
The network. One of the challenges of a brand that leans into individuals is you need to sacrifice consistency. If you want humans to be human, they’re all going to be different. There’s real power in building a network of like-minded individuals, only the need is to find a connective tissue for why the group makes sense together beyond joint ad sales and defrayed infrastructure costs.
I’m still optimistic we’ll see more sustainable, fairer publishing models emerge that shift power more toward the maker side. Would love to hear what models you see emerging.
Many years ago, a prominent exec groused that programmatic made it so buyers knew more about a publisher’s own audience than the publisher itself. While the advertising supply chain is notoriously opaque, moves to greater transparency are not enough. Instead, publishers need ad tech solutions that give them true observability, meaning the ability to not just see the actions automated systems are taking, but the ability to make meaningful changes accordingly. “Radical observability” is one way PubWise is helping publishers get more control over the supply chain – and earn more for their valuable audiences. Learn more in this podcast with PubWise founder and CTO Stephen Johnston, Jr.
On Apple’s digital ad power play
On Tuesday, I wrote that, despite the extreme cynicism of Apple’s power play to kneecap Facebook and grab a chunk of the digital ad market, maybe this could be a shakeup that will, in the end, move the digital ad industry in a more consumer-centric direction. One exec wasn’t having it.
“You’re far, far more optimistic about Apple than I. If they were consumer-centric they’d let an app unlock features for watching ads, just like they do with payment. But they won’t. At least not until they can take a cut. Also I support Lina but she is going to lose. The first company that fights her in court and shows any survey ever from ‘the public’ saying they are content to share data for discounts etc is going to win in our current court system. She’s going to set things back a decade unless a privacy law is passed first, and even then, good luck introducing a new ‘right’ in this judicial climate.”
I’m hosting a second podcast, People vs Algorithms. It’s a weekly show with Troy Young in which we discuss patterns in media, business and culture. You can check it out on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. The next episode, coming on Saturday, covers what 10,000 people showing up at a mall for Mr. Beast’s new burger joint says about media brands and retail; the rise of Shein; and how MAGA is becoming something of a lifestyle brand. Troy also talks about his love of the Egg McMuffin, if that’s your thing. Let me know what you think.
I’m usually skeptical of UK publishers who think they can enter the US market on account of the same language. As Zillah Byng-Thorne said on this week’s episode of The Rebooting Show, there are many cultural nuances that make that hard, even if there’s a shared language and overlapping cultures. One area I can see making sense: Gossip. US celebrity and gossip is far inferior to the UK’s long tabloid tradition. The Daily Mail has proven that this is a lane that UK publishers can fill. According to the Press-Gazette, Reach is mulling a US expansion plan for the Mirror and Express.
My suspicion is the final tally of the negative impacts of social media will outweigh the benefits. I was an early adopter and bought into many of the bromides about a “more open and connected world.” Max Fisher’s new book does an early accounting, and the results aren’t pretty. I’m not sure this is a problem that can be “fixed” exactly, other than social media hysteria and thirstiness simply becoming uncool.
Axel Springer is a fascinating media company from an American perspective. On the one hand, it is dominant in Germany, but despite buying Business Insider, a majority stake in Morning Brew and all of Politico, it cuts a lower profile here. Politico is an influential and admirably successful business, but I don’t see Springer’s “swashbuckling” CEO Mattias Dorpfner becoming a power broker like a continental Rupert Murdoch.
Congrats to Greg Gallant and team at Muck Rack for closing an eye-popping $180 million Series A investment after a mere 13 years of bootstrapping the business. Love to see good things happen to good people.
Final thought: There’s worse advice these days than advising we should all consider the option to “calm down.”
Thanks for reading. If you missed it, check out my podcast with Future CEO Zillah Byng-Thorne, who has engineered a remarkable turnaround that shows the power of well-run publishing businesses. Also, I appreciate if you could share The Rebooting because that’s the main way newsletters grow.