The 2021 Rebooting Awards

Like the rest of the world, 2021 was a rollercoaster year for the media business.

Welcome to the final issue of The Rebooting for the year. Last year, I gave out some awards, so by doing it again this year, I’m making this an annual tradition. One reader suggestion I’m taking: What are some topics you’d like to see explored in 2022? Email me with thoughts:

Before I get to the awards, a word from The Rebooting’s sponsor, Mediaocean.

If you’re skipping CES next week, that doesn’t mean you need to miss out on the action. The Mediaocean Retreat is going virtual with two days of thought leadership programming. Join the livestream on Jan. 5 and Jan. 6 from 12pmPST to 4pmPST to hear from leaders in the media, marketing and tech worlds. Speakers include recent The Rebooting Show guest Rishad Tobaccowala, Twitter chief customer officer Sarah Personette, Cadillac CMO Melissa Grady and S4 Capital CEO Martin Sorrell. Check out the agenda and register now. The sessions will also be available on demand after the event. Register for the Mediaocean Retreat and the day of the event you will receive a link to the livestream.

Like the rest of the world, 2021 was a rollercoaster year for the media business. On the plus side, many media businesses benefitted from a buoyant ad market, more diversified businesses thanks to audience revenue and commerce, and new models like newsletters continued to grow.

Exit of the year: Politico

Axel Springer buying Politico for $1 billion is a testament to the power of nailing a niche, building a diversified revenue streams and taking a long-term approach to growth, not to mention the power of intersections by operating a hybrid consumer-B2B model.

Mirage of the year: SPACs

Last year’s TRB Awards gave SPACs the Lifeline award, but this year they proved, unsurprisingly, to be mirages. Combining loss-making companies under the umbrella of a larger loss-making company turns out to not excite investors so much, as evidenced by the flood of withdrawals from BuzzFeed’s SPAC. SPACs are a short cut, and the thing with short cuts is they often are too good to be true.

Deal of the year: Dotdash buying Meredith

There are few comebacks in media, but somehow Dotdash has pulled off the rare exception by turning around by unbundling into distinct brands and then – this part is important – nailing the execution by building sustainable operating and business models. With its $2.7 billion deal to acquire Meredith properties like People and Entertainment Weekly, Neil Vogel and team are now firmly in the big leagues.

Overhyped media trend of the year: community

I plead guilty. True communities are incredibly valuable for those able to put themselves in the middle of them. But most claiming a community – or calling their subscription a membership – are just putting lipstick on a pig. My test of whether you have a community is whether the people in your audience want to connect with each other because that brand represents a point of view. Most communities are audiences.

Monetization boom of the year: Gambling

The boom in legalized gambling has turned many parts of sports media into cash cows. The takeaway here is that media is a great business when it can act as the front end to transaction businesses. DraftKings paid $50 million in a three-year deal with Dan Le Batard’s Meadowlark Media; and FanDuel inked a four-year deal with the Pat McAfee Show for $120 million. Of course, booms are usually followed by busts. But sports gambling is so far the best example of media as an efficient customer acquisition tool.

Investor of the year: TCG

The most interesting media companies are nearly indistinguishable for the most interesting direct-to-consumer brands. TCG has consistently backed media companies with high potential, from Barstool to Food52 to Hello Sunshine. That TCG is placing such a big bet on crypto is reason enough to pay attention.

Under-the-radar media success: Future

There are many types of publishers with different business models. It turns out if you were to bet on one algorithm, it was better Google’s than Facebook’s. Intent publishers with tons of service content like Dotdash and Red Ventures are large and profitable. Another in the mix: Future, the UK-based publisher of brands like TechRadar and GoCompare, along with magazines like Marie Clare. Not the sexiest of portfolios, but also very profitable: Future has $814 million in annual revenue and booked $145 million in profit.

Substack of the year: Not Boring

In March, I wrote about how Packy McCormick is building a powerhouse media brand. This turned out to be a good call. Not Boring is the Stratechery of now, combining incisive analysis of the next iteration of technology with a business model that uses the attention generated by media to fuel an investing business. Thanks to Not Boring, Pack’s money is worth more than other investors.

Podcast of the year: Business Breakdowns

The rise of Explainerism has morphed into something more interesting with expert-level content that goes deep into specific areas. Business Breakdowns is a great way to learn about everything from what makes Moderna unique to figuring out Solana to what Cardlytics does. I recommend the spinoff Web3 series for the crypto curious.

New media newsletter of the year People vs Algorithms

I appreciate that the newsletter boom has led more people to write. The truth about writing is it tends to be harder to well and consistently than many believe. Rarely can people who are on the “operator” side pull it off. Troy Young is doing it with his regularly interesting and valuable insights into where the media business goes next.

Flameout of the year: Ozy

Last year, I gave this award to the artist formerly known as Quibi. But Ozy’s issues were easy to see for years. Ben Smith’s expose was overdue – and a good reminder that when things don’t seem to add up, they often just don’t add up.

Solo creator to watch: Trung Phan

Memes and threads are new information formats that make me feel old. It’s how I imagine people my age felt when Twitter started. Trung has built a huge following not just for flashes of brilliance like this and this, but also for his consistency.

This time last year, we were told that the sky would fall, democracies would collapse and life would never be the same. Didn’t happen. In fact, for all the hand-wringing about Apple’s privacy restrictions and other hurdles, advertising had a remarkable year. Everyone’s out there trying to create leverage.

Newsletter trend to watch: Owning the weekend

Newsletters are important because they bring back the essential function of media: providing thoughtful curation and a point of view. That went out the window in the spray-and-optimize era of search and social, where brands were publishing thousands of pieces a day and relying on a SKU media approach. That curatorial approach is ideal for the weekend read, the successor to the FT Weekend. Look for more in this area along the lines of Morning Brew Sunday Edition, The Information Weekend and Air Mail.

This is the final newsletter of the year. I want to thank all of you for reading, as well as the companies who have supported The Rebooting through sponsorship programs.

  • Mediaocean: Aaron Goldman reached out to me about sponsoring before I even wrote an issue. Check out their virtual event next week.
  • Hashtag Labs: John Shankman not only knows ad tech, but he’s also affable. HTL is building ad tech solutions from a publishing point of view.
  • One Day University: When Steven Schragis emailed me, I wasn’t sure about the fit, but ODU has found an actual win-win proposition by bundling its courses product with publisher subscription programs.
  • Silverblade Partners: Bernard Urban is an advertising guy who knows banking. He also patiently explained the ins and outs of factoring to me. It was like learning the basics of programmatic all over again. Silverblade is addressing a real need as publishing build resilient business models.

Enjoy the final days of this weird year. Drop me a note with things you’d like to see from The Rebooting in 2022.