How BuzzFeed, Vice, and Bill Simmons followed the same path to success

BuzzFeed is going all-in on video.

Vice is openly talking about being a $50 billion company.

Bill Simmons has a new show on HBO.

These seemingly disparate media brands have a few things in common. They are primarily digital entities. They have enormous scale and an attractive audience.

But how we came to use each of these brands — and make no mistake, “Bill Simmons” is a brand, not just a name — as shorthand for media success in 2016 is really just about one thing: They were each first.

BuzzFeed was first to perfect the dis-aggregated, we-will-find-you-wherever-you-are-with-extremely-compelling-headlines model. Now, the company has billions of monthly content views.

Vice was first to go all-in on delivering the kind of brash millennial attitude, and representative audience, of which all stodgy media companies now want a piece. Vice now has a television channel and a cosy relationship with media giant Disney.

Bill Simmons had a column on the internet in 1999. He launched a podcast in 2007. Now he’s in a television lineup alongside Bill Maher and John Oliver.

Shane Smith, the CEO of Vice, told The Wall Street Journal in an interview published last Wednesday that in the media industry, “Everything’s f—– right now.”

The other side of this is that a f—– landscape is good for Vice and good for Shane Smith.

Shane smithHeisenberg Media / FlickrVice CEO Shane Smith.

But as the Journal’s story lays out, Smith and Vice are as much the beneficiaries of the current state of play as the architects of it, the hackers of a new media landscape.

According to the Journal, ahead of a $50 million fundraising effort in 2011, Vice “earned as much as $40 million a year for getting bands to play concerts and appear in videos focused on technology and art.”

In other words, the company was doing native video advertising years before your Facebook News Feed was inundated with autoplay videos. Now, of course, we’re all video creators. (You can watch me, for example, on Facebook Live every afternoon.)

And the curious nature of Vice’s success is that its digital-first millennial focus led the company to secure the actual golden carrot that all media companies really desire: a television station.

So Vice, the first company to make traditional media entities and advertisers nervous about the future now has prime access to the very platform it made so vulnerable. It was the first company to complete the circle.

Last week, Vanity Fair reported that BuzzFeed would reorganise itself into two separate departments — BuzzFeed News and BuzzFeed Entertainment Group.

Jonah Peretti Buzzfeed 8127Business InsiderBuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti.

As Dan Roberts at Yahoo Finance noted, this is actually the second time this year BuzzFeed has reorganized, though Tuesday’s news puts an even sharper focus on the company’s push into video content. Even if that content is news.

As BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti told Vanity Fair, “Having more video-news capacity means that our reporters can write it up and also push that to our video team so they can reach an even bigger audience.”

The New York Times’ Mike Isaac noted that this quote implies all reporters are now producers, which is a fine job, just not necessarily what text-based reporters signed up for.

Almost any text-based media organisation — like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, or Business Insider — seems likely, in time, to convert a large number of their text-based reporters into something like a video producer.

This shift is going to be scary for many on the editorial side of these operations.

But from a business perspective, BuzzFeed’s pivot toward video is a luxury, the kind of shift many companies would kill to be able to make. Advertisers want video content, and BuzzFeed is being entrusted to create that content.

We can argue whether BuzzFeed or advertisers are the tail wagging this dog, but where the power lies really doesn’t matter. BuzzFeed is the brand companies want to spend money with, and BuzzFeed has the resources to maximise those relationships. And it’s all because they were the first company to give advertisers the audience they wanted, when they wanted, wherever they were.

Which brings us to Bill Simmons, the sports-writing world’s favourite writer, podcaster, and TV host to hate on.

Ben Affleck and Bill Simmons on the set of HBOBen Affleck and Bill Simmons on the set of ‘Any Given Wednesday’

It is not controversial to say that Simmons has some of the best real estate in the media industry. Simmons hosts a 30-minute weekly talk show on HBO, a network that allows its talent to do basically anything it wants inside time allotments.

And while you might be inclined to say, “Wow, what an accomplishment for a guy who began writing on a GeoCities website in the late-1990s,” this early beginning is precisely the point of his success.

Like Vice getting to native video ads first and BuzzFeed getting to scattered millennial audiences first, Simmons found an information-hungry, online-focused sports fan before anyone else.

Simmons’ GeoCities site turned into a gig on in 2001, and the popularity of his columns are certainly an integral part of ESPN’s huge success, relative to its sports-media peers, that has enjoyed.

And then, in 2007, Simmons began a podcast when no one knew what podcasts were. Now, everyone has a podcast.

(To complete the arc, we’d note that Simmons began writing an emailed newsletter before he even had a site. Another popular item right now? Newsletters.)

Both of these ahead-of-the-curve pushes from Simmons into new media turbo-charged his career. Not only did big companies not know what to do with these spaces, but Simmons’ audiences also intuitively understood these spaces. Thus, the whole thing, really, was all about Bill.

And now, Simmons isn’t just on television, he is the television. (It’s not TV, right? It’s HBO.)

But whereas Bill Maher came to HBO as an established political commentator and John Oliver joined the network with a ready-made news criticism polished during the golden years of “The Daily Show,” Simmons’ “Any Given Wednesday” — is very much a work in progress.

Simmons has said time and again on his podcast that he expects it will take 10 or so episodes to figure out what does and does not work. The reviews have been rough.

But I think it is because Simmons has become by far the most famous sportswriter of his generation who, most like Vice before him, hacked the system before anyone else knew what the system even was, that he draws so much scrutiny.

If no one watches his show on HBO or the network isn’t happy, Simmons will be out of a job. But I imagine this bar is a whole hell of a lot higher than critics of his show surmise.

And just as the viewership on Vice’s network might be seen as a sign of failure, or BuzzFeed missing revenue targets is seen as a cause for panic, Bill Simmons’ television show being, at times, utterly unwatchable, is not a death sentence. Not by a long shot.

Shane Smith, the CEO of perhaps the hottest media company in the world, said everything is “f—–.” He would know: it’s the reason he’s winning.

And it is because we’re in this environment that how we begin to sort out who tomorrow’s media will be comes down to whom we can pick out of a lineup more than anything else.

In business there’s an idea that companies who move into a new market with a slight delay enjoy a “second-mover advantage.”

In the current media environment, however, the advantages are going to those who moved first, the brands that were established before we really knew what they needed to be established for.

Recent research has shown that the amount of time users were spending on the internet was little-changed from 2008 to 2013. The upshot here is that media consumption habits, once set, are hard to break.

Despite much hand-wringing about the death of the television bundle, people are very obviously still watching television — it might just be on Apple TV, or Roku, or Netflix instead of a traditional cable package. Television is still king.

And as today’s media giants think about how to remain tomorrow’s media giants, the brands they want a piece of are the ones that already have access to their next audience.

BuzzFeed. Vice. And Bill Simmons.

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