We are planning events for the fall. Let me know if you’d like to be on the invite list. This week, I have a podcast I recorded with Dotdash CEO Neil Vogel in Cannes.
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“I would do it again in a heartbeat”
Some of us look back fondly on late 2021. The pandemic was still going on, but the economy was roaring. At Dotdash Meredith, CEO Neil Vogel recalled sitting around with his management team, after $2 million in “incremental” ad revenue appeared, and wondering, “Have we hit peak Dotdash?”
Dotdash itself is one of the great internet business stories. Its history stretches back to the earliest days of the commercial internet, when Scott Kurnit started The Mining Company, to be renamed About.com in 1999. The company embodied the entire promise of the internet: It would create niche topic sites, staffed by expert “guides,” to satisfy any curiosity and need.
I wrote about About in my first journalism job, reporting for Silicon Alley Reporter. Most of the companies I covered from those days – a rogue’s gallery of ill-fated startups like Pseudo, Kozmo and Urbanfetch, Rare Medium, Bolt and Alloy – would come to very little. Some were dumb ideas, some were just ahead of their time. But a few toughed it out: Razorfish (companies need websites), DoubleClick (ads always win), and About. In fact, About kept The New York Times afloat for several years following the NYT buying it for $410 million in 2005.
About was sold to IAC in 2012 for $300 million. Neil and his team’s revival of what was renamed Dotdash in 2017 is one of the few comeback stories of the internet. Most internet stories go the way of MySpace.
“We had a really great formula: make incredible content, make really great sites and experiences, and have fewer ads that work better,” Neil told me at a Cannes villa after the French hip hop was turned down.
Which brings me back to late 2021, because that’s when IAC plunked down $2.7 billion to buy the storied Meredith brands: People, Entertainment Weekly, Better Homes & Gardens, InStyle. It was something of a minnow swallowing the whale, and indicative of the prevailing winds of publishing that were moving against glossy brands and toward performance workhorses.
“We had this incredible ability to serve users and to make advertisers happy because we had lots of intent,” Neil said. “What we were lacking was brands.”
Of course, soon after the deal took place, Jerome Powell decided he’d seen enough with the normalization of $7 coffee and started hiking interest rates. The repricing of markets isn’t fun. And the now re-re-re-rechristened Dotdash Meredith has been no different. As it has integrated the Meredith properties, it has also dealt with a soft ad market it can do little to mitigate. You are not going to sell as many mortgages when interest rates are high. In the first quarter, Dotdash Meredith revenue declined 23% year over year, including 15% in digital advertising.
“We bought at the frothiest point in the market,” Neil allowed. “The market is going to go up, the market is going to go down. If you look out at a long time horizon, it doesn’t matter.”
Neil and I discussed the deal (“I would do it again in a heartbeat”), the demise of the third-party cookie (“We don’t need cookies to deliver scale and performance”), and WTF AI (the whole market is going to change).
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H2 vibe check: Mark Stenberg takes the pulse of publishers going into the second half. One thing that stood out: How much publishers like BDG and Semafor are shifting to areas like events. (Adweek)
Creators beware: The FTC is tightening up its digital advertising disclosure guidelines for the first time in 15-plus years, with a clear eye on the murky world of creator endorsements and product placements. (FTC)
Churn mitigation: Subscription programs are a two-front war to acquire customers and to keep them. The latter too often gets less attention but is critical to avoiding a churn spiral as seen at The Washington Post. One of the basic issues all direct-revenue businesses face: payment failures. (Reid Tandy)
Ads/free usually wins: Given a choice, most people will put up with ads to get stuff they want for free. Streaming is no different. (WSJ)
Twitter as zombie: I will not add to the oeuvre of Threads content. I will say as a Twitter addict, Twitter has been in terminal decline for many years, and what we’ve seen is an acceleration of its inevitable descent into being a Mad Max corner of the internet. (Eugene Wei)
But one Threads review: Garbage Day’s review of Threads is reminiscent of how Anthony Lane treated new installments of Star Wars. (Ryan Broderick)
Hold the M&A: Luma Partners sees “one of the slowest M&A markets we’ve seen in a decade. (Luma)
Barbie is a menace: I just hope The Washington Post got a piece of the massive Barbie promo budget for this pop-up Barbie newsletter. (WaPo)
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