Complex Culture: Q&A with Rich Antoniello, Founder & CEO of Complex Networks

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Scarlett Johansson on Hot Ones, eating chicken wings slathered in progressively hotter sauces, trying her best to answer questions about Avengers: Endgame while clearly in pain. “Old Town Road” rapper Lil Nas X ditching his cowboy boots for kicks, going Sneaker Shopping with Joe La Puma. More than 60,000 fans walking through the gates at ComplexCon to catch a session with Virgil Abloh, Issa Rae, Tommy Hilfiger, and NBA legend Allen Iverson.

It’s all so Complex. A brand driving the cultural ethos behind sneakers, hip hop, style, food, art, and design.

“We believe that we are the voice of youth culture,” says Rich Antoniello, co-founder and CEO of Complex Networks. But it’s not just about pandering to trends or following what’s cool. It’s about defining what “cool” is by being original, authentic, and creative. And doing it all while having fun. Complex isn’t trying to build a relationship with consumers. Antoniello is adamant: Complex already has one. Take sneakers, for example. They wouldn’t be the cultural phenomenon that they are if Complex hadn’t been at the forefront of defining the sneakerhead movement.

“I like to say, ‘Others report on the news. We make it,’” he says. Antoniello explains the strategy and vision behind Complex Networks, and what makes the company so successful in our fragmented world. While he does proclaim that Complex has an “inside out” influence on its audience, Antoniello is a business leader who clearly has a deep “outside in” understanding of his audience and the massive changes happening both inside and outside the media industry.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What type of relationship are you trying to build with your consumers?

We’re not trying to build a relationship, we already have it. Sneakers wouldn’t be the “out of nowhere” cultural phenomenon that it is if we hadn’t been at the forefront of defining that. I like to say “others like to report on the news, we make it”. A lot of our video programming like Hot Ones or Sneaker Shopping or Everyday Struggle – we produce those shows and then all of our “competitors’ then cover our content and iterate off of it.

The role of brand is to stimulate. It didn’t used to be but it is now. You talk a lot about this idea of constant iteration. Constant iteration, always changing… Is that the way brands are built in the future?

If you think the fragmentation to segmentation and marketplaces in all sectors is a trend, you are delusional. It is a permanent cultural shift and you have to embrace that.

So, you can put your head in the sand and continue to fight that, or you can embrace the fragmentation and make it a part of your strategy – and turn a negative into an advantage. Let me use Hot Ones as an example. Complex Networks is a stable of multiple brands, overall it is only 48% funded through advertising revenue. The rest is advertising, syndication, licensing, e-commerce, and events. That is very diversified compared to most media brands. But it is not one size fits all from brand to brand. We have to be very iterative and open to opportunities within that.

Complex, the main brand, probably has about 60-65% of money from advertising but First We Feast is only 5% ad driven. We’ll probably do $15m of Hot Sauce sales alone – and that’s just sauce; it doesn’t include sweatshirts, hats, other product – that drives a ton of licensing. That’s where iteration and creativity comes in. You have to come back to the same overall tenets on a strategic basis – the tactics are where you need to iterate on a consistent basis.

You run an annual event called ComplexCon. It sounds absolutely amazing – and highly disruptive to the media world. What is ComplexCon, and where did the idea come from?

ComplexCon is the culmination of our brand. It’s Complex brought to life. We look at it as the cultural Super Bowl or the cultural World’s Fair of sneakers, hip hop, culture – and how it all affects food, products, experiences, listening, and even conversations.

My former partner and lead investor, Marc Ecko, and I and several other key people on the team wanted to do something experiential to take Complex to the next level. The challenge was not just to do something large and spectacular, but to do something massively differentiated that actually gave value back to the consumer and then, secondarily, made money.

When we started challenging ourselves with all of those things, we realized how multifaceted it was, and how many components it would take to create something that the world had never seen before.

Walking around those first two days of ComplexCon changed the way we look at our brand. A lot of people in media measure in terms of reach, scale, or engagement. But I realized that if you don’t have impact and influence to activate your audience, you really don’t have a very deep connection with them.

Complex started as an edgy and niche brand. As it grows, do you worry about the danger of becoming mainstream?

We have become mainstream. Mainstream to me is more of a measurement of the amount of people that you touch. The key is to continue to increase the amount of people you touch and are aware of your brand without losing credibility and authenticity. For example, take the math behind a dock. The deeper you drive a piling into the ground, the more you can go out horizontally without the dock tipping over into the water.

Every time you want to add a few more horizontal planks and become more popular and more ubiquitous, you’ve got to make sure that you do more verticalized content to balance that out. And now the dock becomes gigantic, but it also still has balance. That’s the way we think about building our brand – you increase the reach, but you don’t give up authenticity or credibility to get there.

You’ve said that we are about to see the biggest shift in media and advertising we have ever seen. I’m assuming you’re talking about fragmentation and segmentation, which is getting more and more niche. Is that right?

That’s one component of it. I think you’re seeing a lot of things happen all on a concurrent, crazy basis. We’ve never seen a confluence like this before of massive consolidation, unfortunately not out of strategy but out of duress – people losing money, overfunded, lack of overall strategy, no path to profitability, large traditional companies that are stuck in old school distribution and revenue models that think they can buy somebody else to come up with a strategy. Some of it will work, most of it will not.

Complex is the biggest youth culture brand. Notice I didn’t say “media.” If you want to be a successful brand in the future, whether you’re media or not, you do not define yourself by your distribution platform, because there will be many.

You do not define yourself by the amount of different products you put out, because you will need many. It sounds very “duh,” but I don’t think a lot of people are thinking that way. And if you don’t think that way on a predictive basis, I think you’re out of business.

Lots of brands are struggling with the political divide and polarization we’re seeing today. Some brands are taking stands. Complex is absolutely in the center of culture, so how do you deal with that stuff?

No one has figured out how to be right about that all the time. I think that’s actually the wrong goal. It’s not about trying to be right. The best advice I can give for any brand, including ourselves, is to be true to yourself and your audience.

Our writers and content developers are given carte blanche because we build everything internally. So the tone of what we do is really “inside-out.” Because of that, a collective voice comes together for Complex. It could represent a lot of different micro angles even within each of those conversations, and very often all of that content makes the air – not contradictory, but seeing all sides. It’s very important to be true to the brand and the voice. Even if somebody doesn’t agree with you, they can appreciate, hopefully open their eyes, and have a conversation rather than be part of the talking points that push people to the fringes.

Where is youth culture headed?

Everywhere! The tone of it is a combination of irreverence and caustic to a degree we’ve never seen before. That’s the only thing that is unifying. Everything else is, Well, okay, what niche of niche, what subset of a larger subset of a movement are you part of? I find it funny, there are gigantic communities on many social platforms that are subsets of subsets of subsets, and most people don’t even know the categorization unless you are a participant in the group. Again, you have to embrace the fragmentation and segmentation. There is no one singular direction.

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