The power of partnerships

For all the talk of the creator economy, going solo isn't practical for most

Hope everyone’s August is going well. I’m escaping the stultifying heat of Miami next week for the slightly milder climate of New York City. This week, I’m getting around to writing about a topic that’s been on my mind for some time: Partnerships. Much of the focus on the so-called creator economy tends to overlook that most success, even if it’s written about as the product of some grand wizard, traces back to complementary partnerships. Shoot me a note at with what you like, what you don’t. Also, I’m lining up sponsors for the fall, so check out my sponsorship kit if you want to reach people building sustainable media businesses.

Every Thursday evening, I hitch a ride with my neighbor Franco, a remarkably fast 76-year-old Italian guy, and head three miles south to South Beach. We’re not there to party but to do track workouts with a running group at Flamingo Park. I’ve run for 25 years, but I’ve never been one for the track. But I know what’s good for me. As the heat index scrapes in the mid-90s, a typically South Florida group of people slipping in and out of Spanish and English gather on the infield for the group leader to give his pre-workout talk. Elliott is a source of all kinds of wisdom that applies to more than just running. Some highlights:

  • “You want to get faster? Run with people faster than you, try to keep up.”
  • “You are not gonna die. I’ve been running 30 years, haven’t managed to kill myself yet.”
  • “Humans are social animals. Running in groups makes us better and accountable.”

The last one stuck with me as I’m reading “The Cult of We,” the jaw-dropping story of the utter shit show that was WeWork under Adam Neumann, and contemplating what’s next for me and for what people are calling the creator economy.

One of my biggest takeaways from the wheels coming off at WeWork is that Neumann did a terrible job in putting aside his ego and complementing his undeniable gifts for both seeing the changes to how we work early and in separating rich people from their wallets. He never saw the need to cover up for his obvious deficiencies with a true partner. His nominal cofounder, Miguel McKelveny, comes across as happy to be fabulously rich and willing to cede near total power to Neumann. Instead, Neumann’s closest true partner was Masa Son, the Softbank leader who rather than balancing Neumann’s wild and erratic decisionmaking and seeming indifference to operational rigor by egging him on to be crazier. Reading it makes you wonder why the board never reined in Neumann. But in the end, I believe of his many shortcomings, Neumann’s lack of self-awareness was his greatest.

Nobody likes to admit they need help. This goes double for those with drive and ambition -- and, let’s be honest, a healthy bit of ego. We had a town hall one time at Digiday where the CEO and I answered questions. It struck me as a bit corny since we weren’t thousands of people. In any case, one question was about leadership traits. I skipped the pat answer about “vision” and chose “self-awareness.” I think self-awareness is powerful because nobody is good at everything, and in order to “scale yourself” you need to complement your strengths with people who have different strengths. The biggest mistake -- and I’ve seen it made by junior managers up to CEOs -- is doubling down on your perceived strengths. Our own evaluation of what we’re good at is often not completely accurate, more like “based on a true story.” After all, we’re all the protagonists in the drama we write about our lives.

In media businesses, there are essential partnerships that need to take place between the leader driving the content (and therefore brand) and commercial operations. The great shift we’re seeing as institutions cede power to individuals is, in my view, real and profound. But it is more about a rebalancing. Too often, the notion that “sales solves everything” led to an imbalance of power in publishing businesses, particularly in indirect models where the content was necessary but insufficient. The content was a means to an ends, with the ends being ads or sponsorship sales. The rebalancing we’re seeing is, as more publishing models move to direct monetization through subscriptions and selling products, is the content side is business too.

But that doesn’t obliterate the need for a strong content-commercial operations partnership. Years ago, a CRO made a point to me that the church and state divide was often overblown, since most editors-in-chief are very commercially minded while the top commercial leader of a premium brand is the most protective of the editorial. I think we’ll see new types of these partnerships emerge. A good case in point is Smooth Ops, a new kind of partnership between editorial and commercial operations, run by Morning Brew veterans Josh Kaplan, Kinsey Grant and Jenny Rothenberg. The devil is in the details and execution, but in my view, Smooth Ops is addressing a true market need. More individuals will break apart from institutions for a variety of reasons -- the inequity of many of these businesses, the soul-sucking existence of stodgy corporate environments, true editorial freedom, etc -- but find themselves in need of a true partner to complement their strengths (and cover up for their weaknesses). This is something Bleacher Report founder Dave Nemetz has preached:

“Creators need a better way to get the early operational support they need. And there's a clear demand for a matchmaking service to pair established creators with skilled operators.”

Media businesses are full of partnerships, whether between sales and marketing, editors and reporters, designers and developers with everyone, the newsroom and producers. Those partnerships will evolve in micro-media businesses. I see most of these partnerships becoming more like a running group. We all do the majority of our training separately, but if you’re going to run two miles all out or a 20-mile long run, you come together with others.

The case studies we typically hear about of individual operators crafting their own micro-media companies and doing it all -- writing, podcasting, video, rolling funds, ad sales, product, marketing -- are going to be exceptions. We all need to sometimes run with others in order to get faster.

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