The Complex guide to turning talent into franchises

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If you ask publishing execs for one publisher doing it right, you’ll hear Complex a lot.

That’s thanks to a long effort Complex Networks has made to build a set of franchises, underpinned by talent, that can be monetized in a variety of ways beyond advertising. Consider the following:

  • Complex has a $10 million hot sauce business it spun out of its “Hot Ones” talk show. Since premiering “Hot Ones” in March 2015, Complex has created a line of show-branded hot sauces, sold merchandise like hoodies to its fan base of “Spice Lords” and licensed international versions of the show. Next year it will premiere a “Hot Ones” game show on TruTV.
  • Sometime within the next year, the media company plans to launch a sneaker shopping app tied to its Sole Collector vertical.
  • Complex’s overarching food property First We Feast will host its inaugural event First We Feast Fest in 2020.

“What we’re starting to talk about is how do we give consumers different ways into a brand, not just a digital video series,” said Complex CRO Edgar Hernandez.

On Nov. 2 and 3, Complex hosted its annual streetwear culture convention, ComplexCon. Thousands of people visited booths from fashion companies like Atmos, Chinatown Market and Puma. Among the attendees was Pharrell Williams who attracted a horde of passersby snapping selfies as he was escorted through the Long Beach Convention Center. Several booths away, a smaller but similar scene played out as roughly half a dozen people pulled out their phones to catch Sean Evans, the host of Complex’s twisted talk show “Hot Ones,” browsing a rack of clothes.

Evans may not be a household name like Jimmy Kimmel or Stephen Colbert. But that depends on the household. The show he hosts garners 6.5 million views, on average, within four days of a new episode premiering, according to Complex Networks chief revenue officer Edgar Hernandez. “Hot Ones” has amassed a large enough audience to become a brand in its own right, spawning a growing number of alternative revenue streams and a model that Complex is now adapting with its other franchises.

Complex’s forthcoming Sole Collector app — “Kayak for sneakers,” as described by Complex editor-in-chief Damien Scott at the company’s NextFront event on Nov. 2 — may not be directly associated with its sneaker-centric shows “Full Size Run” or “Sneaker Shopping,” but it’s hard to imagine the company opting to create the app if it hadn’t cultivated an audience of footwear aficionados who tune in to watch “Sneaker Shopping” host and the company’s svp of content strategy Joe La Puma peruse the latest Pumas with celebrities like rapper DaBaby and soccer star Megan Rapinoe. Complex is directly capitalizing on the popularity of its sneaker shows with its debut podcast slate that includes “The Complex Sneakers Podcast,” which will be hosted by La Puma and “Full Size Run” co-hosts and Complex editors Matt Welty and Brendan Dunne.

Complex’s franchise template combines two growing trends among media companies in recent years: the centrality of talent for episodic shows and the conversion of those shows into intellectual property. Barstool Sports, Bleacher Report and Bon Appétit produce programs starring in-house talent. Vox Media and Gimlet Media have adapted its respective YouTube and podcast series into streaming shows. And BuzzFeed’s Tasty has pulled a reverse-Complex. The food property began by producing videos starring anonymous hands in pans, went on to sell its own pans and is now producing episodic shows featuring some of the faces attached to those hands.

The Walt Disney Company built its empire around a cartoon mouse. Little wonder then that Complex kicked off its NextFront event with a video of Walt Disney intercut with its own clips.

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