The Dotdash playbook

Neil Vogel's mantra: Best content, fastest sites, fewest ads

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This week:

  • Neil Vogel, CEO of Dotdash Meredith, spoke to me about the unlikely success story of a media company I thought had no shot at a comeback.
  • Cannes odds and ends
  • Thoughts on starting from zero.

The Dotdash playbook

Everyone loves a comeback, but few companies get them in the consumer internet business. ( Most companies have peaked and then set course on inevitable decline, with new owners either milking the asset on the way down or floundering unsuccessfully to reinvigorate the asset. Think of how many attempts were made to reinvent AOL and Yahoo. An ad network even tried to revive MySpace with the help of Justin Timberlake. Didn’t work.

That’s why it’s noteworthy what IAC has done with Internet 1.0 stalwart It was a company long past its peak in the first phase of digital publishing, having begun all the way back in 1994 as a place to find “expert” answers. The New York Times bought for $410 million in 2005, treated it as an afterthought to milk for cash and ended up selling it off to IAC for $300 million seven years later. With Neil Vogel brought in to lead the company in 2013, an improbable turnaround has taken effect.

The company broke into vertical brands, renamed itself Dotdash, and focused on quality, weeding out crap pages and focusing on fast-loading sites without the modern internet plague of endless content-rec ad network abominations and autoplay video everywhere. With a business model that depends on “intent” – people arriving at Dotdash pages are there to get something accomplished – the company established a reliably profitable model that enabled it to be the surprise acquirer in 2021 of Meredith magazine brands like People, Better Homes and Gardens, Food and Wine and more in a $2.7 billion deal. The combined entity, now called Dotdash Meredith, generated over $500 million in revenue in the first quarter. IAC expects Dotdash Meredith to return $300 million in “adjusted EBITDA” this year.

Neil, who I have known back when he was running the Webbys, joined me for this week’s episode of The Rebooting Show, and I liked how he broke down the simple-but-hard approach to sustainable publishing that aligns the interest of the publisher with the audience.

“Anybody who thinks they're going to reinvent the rules of historical media, don't give them money. You're not going to. Media is super simple. Collect and serve audiences that are valuable, make yourselves valuable to them, deliver them to advertisers, partners, and marketers in a way that works for your audience and your marketer. That's it. All the other nonsense, like any publisher that tells you they're a tech company, run for the hills.”

Here’s how IAC presents the Dotdash playbook:

Some takeaways from our conversation:

  • Having a good user experience doesn’t have to come at the expense of the business. Media is hard. I always mention how difficult it is to satisfy different constituencies: audience, advertisers, algorithms. Dotdash has proven that you can have fewer ads, faster sites and better content and still make more money.
  • Print still has an important role. Everyone likes to call things dead, and print isn’t going to be the driver of many media businesses going forward. But it still plays a role. It’s a good sign that someone like Neil is bullish on print, run efficiently, doing the job of being a statement of the brand.
  • Driving transactions is critical, but maybe not building products. There’s lots of talk of commerce media here in Cannes. Publishers have seen their commerce businesses as bright spots. Dotdash has a large chunk of their business in driving transactions. Still, Neil strikes a note of caution when discussing turning that into actually making products versus passing on customer to product companies. These are often different businesses.

Check out the episode on Apple, Spotify or Anchor. Send me your feedback:

Cannes odds and ends

I tried to put the scene at Cannes in perspective with my piece last week, but some impressions from the week didn’t quite fit but are worthwhile passing along.

  • Creating a “dealmaking atmosphere” is critical for industry events. What happens onstage at most events is a nice-to-have, not the value proposition. Instead, industry events create the most value when they can induce business deals to take place. Cannes is expert at this, and that’s why it still matters. “What a madhouse, but probably the best networking event I've ever been to,” one first-time attendee wrote me.
  • For all the doubletalk on diversity, progress is being made. It’s grading on a curve, but there is real progress being made in representation. Many rooms are still all middle-aged white guys (like me), but not all. I give a lot of credit to Vice for holding an informal event on a private island off Cannes that was the most diverse gathering I’ve ever been to in Cannes.
  • Cannes would be better with more creativity. I’m not talking about more ad dudes talking about the Big Idea, but bringing in more artists and people driving culture. Sometimes the marketplace dynamic of these kinds of events can overwhelm the original purpose.

If you missed Cannes and want to catch up on the week, my friends at Mediaocean have you covered. They’re holding a Cannes highlights recap tomorrow, Wednesday, June 29, from 11:30am to 1pmET. Mediaocean’s David Berkowitz and Rachel Lyall will be joined by Melissa D’Arienzo of LinkedIn and Jon Watts of the Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement. Some topics they’ll discuss:

  • The top 11 takeaways from this year’s Cannes experience
  • Measurement trends
  • How to make advertising more inclusive
  • Opportunities and challenges for advertisers

On starting from zero

One of the things I knew when leaving Digiday is I wanted to start from zero. I wasn’t sure why, but I liked the idea of starting over, even if it meant uncertainty and taking a financial hit. Starting something new is hard, often frustrating, and it brings you face to face with what you’re not great at doing. When you’re solo, there’s nobody to blame but yourself if things go wrong. That makes it simple. As the sign at one of Miami’s ubiquitous outdoor gyms near me says, “Only you can make it happen, so make it happen.” I always find parallels in distance running. Starting from scratch is a reality in running.

  • The only way to make progress is incrementally through consistency. Running rewards people who simply continue to do it and manage the ups and downs of aches and injuries.
  • Training plans are important, although the more you run, the more you understand, however imperfectly, where you are in your progress, when you need to do more and when you need to do less.
  • If you don’t enjoy the training, it will be a slog. Running a marathon or ultramarathon requires a lot of work, so if you don’t find that part rewarding, there’s not much point.
  • Nobody cares about your times but you. We all love metrics, particularly when the numbers flatter our egos, but most people who have run a lot will tell you their PRs aren’t what they find most rewarding.
  • Achieving most goals starts with bringing them into the realm of the possible. I remember when I first decided to run the 56-mile Comrades Marathon, the hard part was believing going twice the distance of a marathon uphill was possible. Then it just became a matter of execution in training and doing what was needed the day of the race.

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