Old playbooks

The game has changed

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This week, the struggles Bill Belichick is enduring – his press conferences were grumpy when he was always winning, so no telling where this will go – reminded me of how outdated many digital media playbooks are – and with that, the coaches who run them. In Recommendations, the inevitable move back to BI from Insider, MediaLink wants to take over Cannes, and the end of the Twitter Guy. First up, a message from Omeda.

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Generecide: Business Insider’s move to drop the Business part of its name at the height of the scale era was a brand mistake. It took away the distinctiveness of the brand, caused confusion in the marketplace and left a confusing business that was simultaneously trying to do B2B and goey cheese videos. Now it might come to its senses and bring back the B to BI. Next: Bring back the slideshows. (Semafor)

MediaLink machinations: I would always joke that only in the media industry could MediaLink exist. I cannot imagine a version of its no-conflict, no-interest brokering in other industries. It would be fitting if MediaLink, which used Cannes Lions as the fulcrum of its business, ends up taking over the event from owner Ascential, which had owned MediaLink from 2017 to 2021. Events like Cannes are far more valuable for the type of behind-the-scenes matchmaking and relationship arbitrage that MediaLink does than the ostensible business around awards and panels. (Sky)

RIP Twitter guy: Twitter was always more important to newsrooms than the business. That era has ended, particularly as the now renamed X has confusingly taken away headlines to create a confusing user experience. The typically ham-handed move is part of a bigger shift by Twitter to stop sending traffic to publishers and instead compete with them. (Calm Down)

Greening programmatic ads: It turns out the overly complicated ad tech ecosystem is also gobbles up carbon. I doubt this will become a major impetus to overhaul programmatic ad system, but pressure to decarbonize will help accelerate shifts to direct supply paths and cutting down on unnecessary middlemen taking their piece as a dollar makes its way through the system. (Semafor NetZero)

More with less: On Wednesday, Oct 18, I’m speaking at the Self-Serve Summit 2023, powered by DanAds. My topic is the implications of what I call the more-with-less era, which will require reconfiguring existing media companies and also open lanes for new entrants that don’t make the mistakes of the last generation. Apply for a ticket to the event, which is from 9am to 6pm at Glasshouse Chelsea in NYC. (Sponsored)

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Old playbooks

Bill Belichick will go down as one of the greatest coaches of all-time, thanks to winning eight Super Bowls, with only Nick Foles keeping him from a ninth. Yet now, the Patriots coach is plodding through a forgettable season with a forgettable team. Maybe it was more having Tom Brady or the spying, or maybe Belichick’s approach has gone out of favor in an NFL that’s barely recognizable from when he perfected his playbook.

The other week, a media veteran remarked to me that many of the executives celebrated as world beaters weren’t all that good. Bustle’s Bryan Goldberg noted that for all the fawning stories written about these companies in the go-go times, their businesses weren’t nearly as good. Maybe they were in the right place at the right time. After all, as new Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Emma Tucker said recently, the media business has changed “beyond recognition.” A top publishing executive recently lamented to me about how the old playbooks they used do not apply anymore. This is a widespread sentiment.

I used to hear this said by digital upstarts about legacy media companies. But that was 15 years ago. There are now legacy digital media companies, built with now-outdated playbooks of mass accumulation of traffic through search and social, passing off the idea they were really tech companies because they had a custom CMS, and making money off display ads. That kind of expertise is mostly irrelevant in a media landscape that’s narrower and happily trades off big audience numbers for a fraction of that in durable direct connections. This is like being wedded to the West Coast Offense when the game has moved onto the Spread.

Niche won. That’s an emerging consensus. I’m struck by how different digital media executives talk now. It’s about being essential and specialized, with a direct relationship with the audience. The inflated visitor and view stats? Even Business Insider is considering bowing to reality that what made it distinctive was the Business part, not Insider, which was a dull catchall brand more suited to the idea that digital media would coalesce around a few big players. Instead, it turns out that smaller, specialized entities are far better positioned in the post-ZIRP era. Tucker repeated “distinctive” nearly a dozen times in a talk the other week.

The changes can humble Very Smart People. Lucas Shaw has a great piece in Bloomberg  on the struggles at Candle Media, a well-funded digital media rollup play headed by well-regarded veterans Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs. They bought at the top of a frothy market and are now reaping the whirlwind. Disney is floundering to a degree that Bob Iger’s “Ride of a Lifetime” has turned scary. As Andrew Rosen told me, the wholesale playbook isn’t applicable in a retail world. Two years ago, Dotdash bought the Meredith assets to run its intent playbook, but that too is in flux with search undergoing its own shift with the generative AI.

This isn’t unique to the media business. Across the economy, businesses are adapting to the end of easy money. Many businesses are struggling to counter a newly aggressive labor movement that can’t be fobbed off using the old playbooks. The best coaches adapt their playbook to new realities. Few are able to pull that off, which is why a coach like Andy Reid is unique.

The NFL and media are both copycat leagues. Remember when Miami found fleeting success with the wildcat in 2008? Pretty soon lots of teams were running the wildcat. Media isn’t all that different., BuzzFeed used to be the industry’s R&D lab, with many publishers outsourced big chunks of their strategies to a reverse engineered BuzzFeed. Then, the New York Times became the one to emulate since it pulled off a breathtakingly successful DTC business model pivot to subscriptions. BuzzFeed envy was replaced by NYT envy.

It’s not a surprise that CNN turned to former NYT CEO Mark Thompson to lead it into a post-cable future. And early reports unsurprisingly reflect that he will look to run a modified version of the same playbook he ran at the Times. What’s more, The Washington Post apparently wanted the existing Times CEO to be the Post’s new CEO.

The NFL similarly tends to recycle coaches. But it has seen an influx of dynamic young coaches who brought with them new ways of approaching the game – using analytics and liberally borrowing from college offenses – that have left many of the old guard scrambling to adapt.