It’s the season for revenue misses — and belt-tightening. Facing a 5 percent shortfall in revenue, Refinery29 laid off 40, or 10 percent of its workforce. Verizon reported Oath was looking at flat revenue this year and would miss its lofty 2020 goal. Condé Nast made another round of layoffs as part of a sales reorganization as the company tries to cut its losses, reported at $120 million last year.
The media boogeymen are numerous and familiar to legacy and digital publishers. On the ad side, the duopoly are sucking up two-thirds of digital ad spending. Traditional media sellers have failed to replace their declining legacy businesses with digital dollars and digital ones have struggled to reduce their reliance on advertising. There’s a glut of media properties for sale, including Gizmodo Media Group and former Time Inc. and Conde Nast magazines, but ad-supported media is out of favor these days.
“The reality has set in firmly that growth is not going to be exponential unless you’re a new property,” said Tom Morrissy, president of media agency Noble People and a former publisher. “How are you going to monetize that growth and with new revenue lines? There aren’t any easy answers. The barrier to entry to starting a conference business is high and the margins are low. I remember when I could run an ad upside down and get them a make good. It’s so much more complicated than it used to be.”
Whether it’s recession jitters, political uncertainty or other factors, this year has also been tough for ad sellers, which means a more intense fourth-quarter scramble than usual. “Q3, according to everyone I talked to, was the worst ever,” one digital seller said. The signs of struggle are evident in public high-level departures and at the negotiation table with agencies.
“There’s a hunger out there,” said Ben Kunz, evp of marketing & content at Mediassociates. “We’ve had a lot more attention from some very major pubs for a mid-sized agency that we didn’t used to get. That’s indicative of a company or platform under pressure.”
“They’re being aggressive,” said John Wagner, group director of published media at PHD. “They’re being a little more fluid on negotiation and pricing or there’s a lot of heartbreak. We get a lot of phone calls with people asking, ‘Where did we fall short?’ There’s a lot more rationale that has to be provided if they don’t win the RFP.”
In the case of digital media, the argument is that these are still good businesses but that their VC backers set unrealistic expectations for growth. A classic example was onetime digital darling Mashable that sold for $50 million, a fifth of its value.
“It’s all of our collective fault for relying on the VC and whatever social media network you rely on,” lamented a sales exec who’s a veteran of VC-backed media. “Everyone thought you could get rich on content.”
Reality has set in there, too. Venture capital funding going into media has held fairly steady over the past few years (reaching $1.3 billion in 2018 as of Sept. 30, versus $1.7 billion in all of 2017, according to PitchBook’s Venture Monitor report for 3Q 2018. Media operators say VCs’ patience is running out.
Another veteran of a VC-funded media company said the leash is shorter, as that company found this year when it tried to raise money while still unprofitable and found doors were closed. The company ended up laying off staff to get to profitability.
“Investors want to see you on a path of profitability,” this person said. “Five years ago it was about your growth. There is definitely more rigor. There’s no raising money without a real valuation.”