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Troy Young on Lean Media Companies and the Shift Towards Creator Models

By March 30, 2022April 7th, 2022No Comments

Troy Young, former Global President of Hearst Magazines, and current CEO of New Co, joins Cross Screen Media CEO Michael Beach in a wide-ranging conversation on topics including a ‘leaner’ approach to building media organizations, the shift towards creator models, and the implications of Web3 and blockchain across industries. Watch our latest Screen Wars Thought Leader Interview here and read the full transcript below!

Michael Beach: All right, Troy. Thanks for joining us today.

Troy Young: It’s nice to be here, I’m a big fan of your newsletter – it’s just super easy to read and gets to the facts and doesn’t mess around.

MB: Likewise! You’re, you’re definitely raising the bar on original content, how you write, and I definitely want to start adding a little bit more analysis and text to what I do. I’m definitely a big fan of your newsletter as well.

TY: It’s so funny you say that this, this week I was thinking, “what am I doing?” I need to move in your direction. I need to make my newsletter more scannable. I need to be able to take it and be able to paste it into a Twitter thread. So, I did it this week. I’s a little bit more work to stitch something together in coherent prose than just bulleting it out but, I don’t think it’s what the reader wants. It’s interesting to listen to the audience a bit.

MB: I’m always interested in the feedback I get about the content people ask about or want to go deeper on. A lot of times it’s not the area I would’ve guessed, because I mostly do the high-level data points. I try to give context, but there’s obviously so much that gets left on the cutting room floor. I always get three or four questions about the same exact thing and when I’m writing it, I would’ve never thought that would’ve been the thing that impacted readers the most.

TY: I like your format and I like that it’s thematically connected, and it’s cool.

MB: Thank you. I definitely want to get into newsletters and creator models here a little bit later on, but to go way back, what was your first job and what learnings did you take away to be applied to your career?

TY: Well, I’m from Saskatchewan, and growing up, from about the time you were 15 or 16 you were expected to have a job. The idea was that you would pay for your own college basically. So, I had a bunch of crappy jobs. I was a dishwasher, did apartment maintenance, and mowed lawns among other things. My first real job was as a financial analyst, actually, at a big communications company called Nortel. I landed there by not being clearly directed. I went through the last couple of years of college and I didn’t really have anyone in my life to give me that advice. My dad had passed away, I was messing around, I had met this guy, and I had had a degree in economics and finance.

He said, “You should come and be an analyst and work with us.” As far as the learnings there, I saw that I liked numbers and the analytical side of things, but could tell that I wasn’t going to spend my life there. Although I want to caveat that given I work with a lot of financial people now and had I continued with that and pursued it, I probably would’ve gone into private equity which I think is an intellectually, conceptually, and creatively rewarding space as much as it is analytical.

When I was in that role, I thought to myself, “I’m getting the heck out of here. I don’t want to do this anymore.” After that, I went to graduate school and started working in media and found digital media was my first love. I love all the pieces of it. I love the systems. I love media, I’m very passionate about media. I like the technology piece. When I found that I understood it’s what I want to do.

MB: I’m interested to get your take. My background was in econ and finance as well, in undergrad. I always thought that I would go to business school and learned another craft. It seemed like that was on the shelf for 10 or 15 years, but now it’s an asset. I’ve found combining the thing you’re passionate about with the core understanding of business models and finance, to be an advantage. Do you feel the same?

TY: I think it’s a strong advantage, especially if you’re looking at buying companies or investing in companies and you want to understand the mechanics and the business models underneath them. There’s real poetry to a good spreadsheet and lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the economics of media and how much loss there is in the middle. I’ve always marveled at how much of a scaled digital media company’s business is dedicated to just operating and selling, whether that’s the platform, operations, sales, marketing, ad ops, audience development, finance, or back office.

If the pie is 100%, maybe 30% or 35% goes to the content creator and the rest of it’s used to make the business work. If you look over on the other side of what it takes for someone to put advertising into that model where the client says, “I’ve got a marketing problem,” and they’re earmarking that to put it to work, you’ve got this immense creative and media buying infrastructure that is the agency world. So you got agency infrastructure, ad tech, and then media operating infrastructure. How much of it really goes down to the creator?

It’s not unlike the record business where they say roughly 10% or 12% of the consumer dollar goes back to the artist. I’m really interested in how that changes and where more money goes. For instance, if you want to create a media company now, I’m into this idea of the “lean” media company, and how you find a mechanism to put more and more back into the creator’s pocket. I think we’re in a time where the best talent wins and you want to pay for that. That’s just an example of how you take the love of media and understanding of systems and numbers, to start putting them together.

MB: You’re a solo shop now and you can go on a Substack or another platform. They obviously have their fees but is there a point where there are 10, 15, 20 people and you decide to become a full-blown media company? At which point you maybe start to in-house some of those outsourced things, and then create this admin sales infrastructure? How big could you get without having to add that infrastructure?

TY: It’s a great question, Michael. I’m just dabbling and doing other stuff, but you should talk to a guy like Brian Morrissey, or Dan Runcie, who runs Trapital. They’re one-man bands that do sales, marketing, and content creation and augment their personal efforts with other folks a little bit where they need it. You’ve got that situation. I think you can make a good living there. Obviously, you don’t benefit from the leverage of taking a piece of a lot of people, but in that market, their lists are insanely valuable.

The maturation of content marketing combined with quality expert writing and great lists means that CPMs are effectively through the roof. You can charge a whole lot for a personalized insertion inside of that media product to a very high-value list, and make good money from it. You can also say that there’s an evolution of that model, which would be the pup model or something like that, where you aggregate really good talent and make them stakeholders in the business, don’t burden them with all that junk, just get them to work their beats hard, and then wrap a brand around it.

The personal brands make the media brand, as opposed to the media brand making the personal brands.

TY: The personal brands make the media brand, as opposed to the media brand making the personal brands. I think we’re at a time now where we just assume that you have all this infrastructure in a media brand, and then we collect journalists underneath of it. And I think we’re at a time when that’s being redefined.

MB: It’s interesting because I started to study a lot of these examples, whether going from writing to podcast or video, where the Scott Galloways and other people have actually started to set up teams around them get to an eight to nine-person group. It’s interesting to look at what share of those people are actually on the content, research, or copywriting of the production versus running the business.

TY: That is interesting. Scott’s a good example actually because he probably does have, as you suggest, maybe six or eight people, and definitely not seven, but you can see that his personal media empire has expanded in frequency, quality, depth, and media type. So, you can tell he’s got someone doing the research and I think I would put that in the bucket of making the content better, as opposed to what used to happen to digital media where you’d have a salesperson.

You probably had two to three support people for every salesperson. You had a marketing person that did all the packaging and remember you’re winning probably somewhere between 10% and 20% of the stuff you pitch. So, you’re packaging up an endless number of decks, concepts, and grids where you put all your ad products together. So, you’ve got your marketing folks, you’ve got your account management folks taking the deal once it happens, you’ve got the studio making the content, you’ve got ad ops, and then everything around it. There’s a lot of high carb headcount against every content creator, tons. And I think there’s a better way.

MB: Overall that leads to my next question on running a content business, we’ve covered a couple of these, but what are the major changes in recent years? What are the advantages of the current environment versus what it had been maybe 10 years ago? And what are the core disadvantages?

TY: Well, so the thing that a person like me likes about the media business is it’s really multidimensional. And it’s good for “left-right-brain” people. Like we said, in some cases it encompasses, the written word, video, investment platforms, advertising, etsc. And it ultimately doesn’t seem to ever get much simpler. You can simplify it for sure, but right now we’re dealing with the next complexity which is the blockchain and what that means to IP, micropayments, and even how you think about overall organization design.

I think one of the most profound things that we’ll see, that’ll take a while moving forward, are concepts like DAOs are really powerful. You’ve seen the tug of war between content creators looking for power and representation inside of media companies with the union movement. And on some level that’s understandable. Management generally doesn’t like that type of structure because you have to negotiate in a formal structure with another entity and in some ways that can get in the way of running a nimble, connected media entity at a time of deep change.

That’s the concern more than the money. I think you’re seeing these new organizational designs that are not hierarchical where more people have representation and share in the cap structure of the organization. I think that’s really interesting and believe the next generation of leaders are going to be faced with a lot of interesting decisions about organizational design and a lot of innovation will come out of that.

I think that we're moving into a time where the advantage goes to finding the best content creators and creating a structure that works for them.

TY: One other point I would just make is I think we’ve come through a time when the advantage went to the system builders and hackers, where people knew how to harness technology and grow audience against a system dominated by Google and Facebook. There’s a lot of mechanical hacking to make that work and it was advantageous to a certain mindset and type of people. I think that we’re moving into a time where the advantage goes to finding the best content creators and creating a structure that works for them. And so it’s more about good content now than it is about managing the infrastructure and the system.

MB: I look at our newsletter numbers every week and I’m always blown away by how many people consistently read every week. That is such a high leverage production for us versus, 5-10 years ago, how much you would’ve spent time to go speak to a room of 200 people, and you can get +10x that every week to read your content. Thinking back to 1,000 True Fans by Kevin Kelly, I think that the world’s really hitting now where you can make a living on it and you don’t need to necessarily have a diluted message to 3 million people.

TY: Yeah. And I made this point a couple of times in the last couple of weeks and it’s a little obsession of mine right now. I think one of the things that you do really well is formatting. The format that you’ve created not only makes it easier to assemble your point of view every week, but it creates an expectation with the audience where it’s like, “I’m going to read that,” and “I know I’m going to get a quick hit and it’s going to make me smarter.” And it’s not a lot of work on their part.

That’s bugging me right now, because my newsletter is a lot of work. Not for me personally, it is work for me, but it’s a joy to do. It’s work for the reader. When you read Strategery, it’s such a pain. Meaning it’s not that it’s not great. It’s just intellectually dense. And you’ve got to work your way through it. It’s like going to school.

MB: You can’t read that on a phone.

TY: Yeah, exactly- format’s very important.

MB: Preparing for this, I was thinking back about when I met you 10 or 11 years ago in the Say Media days. One thing I’ve been struck by recently is that there were obviously a ton of innovations there, but two that have struck out that I think are hitting today, much like the 1,000 True Fans. One, the cost per engagement pricing on media, and the fact that it was CPX, right? Was that the format you guys had?

TY: The thing that I made there was called CPE. And I wanted something different and I was probably naïve enough to think that I could challenge the industry by changing a pricing mechanism. It was a pricing mechanism and a marketing ploy. I remember one of the great achievements in marketing at what was VideoEgg, which ultimately became Say Media, we animated this short video where it said CPM and we had this little character, this bird, that walked over and foisted the “M” up onto its side, so it was an “E,” “CPE,” get it?

We wanted to optimize for attention and realized if we started selling that way, it would put pressure on our technology people, our product people, and everybody in the company to get extremely good at it, seek out that kind of inventory, and build ad products that supported that.

TY: The idea there was that what we wanted was to put pressure on ourselves to optimize on behalf of advertisers. We felt like attention and engagement were important metrics, that could sit alongside other performance constructs, like cost per click or cost per acquisition. We wanted to optimize for attention and realized if we started selling that way, it would put pressure on our technology people, our product people, and everybody in the company to get extremely good at it, seek out that kind of inventory, and build ad products that supported that.

We did the CPE thing, and I look back with very fond memories of those years for lots of reasons. The most important is the great people, many of whom I’m still connected to, guys like Matt Sanchez, who I worked with for a long time, but just special people overall. We were idealists and the business was just in some ways too ambitious and too complicated and fed with too much venture capital. So it was really three businesses. It was a business that was a very innovative ad network that was focused on innovation and format and pricing, and it did pioneering things in both app and video advertising.

Do you know that overlay that sits on YouTube videos? We invented that. I remember going down the street to YouTube, who were exploding as a distribution platform, and saying “you should do this. We should do it together. We should make it a format.” Now I look at it and I’m like, oh my God, I can’t believe I did that because it annoys me as a user. I called it the ticker at the time; it was a lower third. We experimented with putting it in different ways at the top of the video and the bottom of the video and all that.

We did a bunch of other stuff like building a big publishing platform. We bought media properties. We chafed at the notion that the internet was in any way close to being done in terms of the meshing of content and ad experience. We did things like we had the Clean campaign. We thought that basically media pages on the internet were a cluttered mess and that if we could simplify them and create higher-yielding ads, we could create a better ecosystem for everyone- more yield on one hand and a better experience for the consumer and a better experience for advertisers.

At the time we were interested in passion-driven media, whether Remodelista or Gardenista that were certain points of view on home and living, or service categories, like Dogster, that was focused on what life was like having a pet, it was community-oriented. We did tech stuff. We did really interesting lifestyle categories with Jane Pratt, xoJane. I was very proud of it, but we were competing on multiple fronts. We were competing with ad networks. We were competing with publishers. We were competing with people providing the platform in the middle. I think if we had focused on building a really killer engagement ad network, we would’ve made a lot more money.

MB: Definitely one of the best companies I’ve enjoyed working with. And I think your events really taught me that, A, you had a point of view and, B, you went the extra mile to communicate it and package it to the user. Thinking about newsletters today, I often think back, anytime I’d go to any of your events, I would always walk away with just a tremendous amount of value I’d want to put into it, and that was really going the extra mile.

Looking at our core business, we focus on video advertising. We’re really only focused on video. One of the top things that we see today is once you start to standardize your metrics, there’s massive mispricing of inventory. And neither seller A nor seller B’s buyers understands the difference. So, obviously, they have some bias, but a common thing from our team is why is this thing $80 and this thing is $20 when the quality, content, and everything’s relatively the same? I feel like I could give them your deck from 2011, 2012, on the CPE, and that argument is really hitting today in our space.

TY: I think that the measure of media performance by impression is slowly losing importance. And you’ll still see on one end, top of funnel, brand related, associative sponsorship type pricing. And that’s what I was alluding to when someone elects to advertise on a very premium newsletter with content marketing, you’re paying very high CPMs for the association and the intimacy of that medium.

I think the same applies to TV, but the other one is impression based stuff at the lower end of the funnel has essentially become a GMV based measure. So, it really is about, particularly as all the pieces are connected and you can track a visitor from impression to transaction. It really is a percentage of GMV. It’s a GMV measure like affiliate is.

MB: What would a Say Media look like today?

TY: I’ve thought about that a lot lately, to be honest with you. I’m thinking it has to do with this “lean media” concept and it has to do with the media type of blogs being in some ways revisited today with creators. I think the pioneering, I would just give credit to the pioneering firm of that time, which was Federated Media, John Patel’s company, Chaz Edwards, and all the people that worked on that.

They found really extraordinary emerging voices that were empowered by a new media type and an accessible platform. And they turned that into an ad offering essentially. They had like the best-emerging media properties. Now, the challenge at the time was they aspired to be all the things in some ways that Say was, which was “we’ll be your platform”, “we’ll be your ad sales organization,” and “we’ll help you develop partnerships.” In some cases it almost went as far as “we’ll provide healthcare and dental coverage and all that kind of stuff to your employees or to you whoever you put in there.”

Now, the problem with that was that their best customers or their best media outlets grew up and didn’t want them anymore. So, Errington said, I’m going to hire journalists and raise money and get a CEO and become a media brand and hire salespeople, so we don’t need you, because you’re taking too much of every ad dollar that comes in.

Having a business where your best asset is aching the leave is a misalignment of incentives somehow. One of the things that we did that was everybody in media wanted to do at the time was find advantage in-platform, When you had this system where you were so painfully dependent on a couple of distribution paths, in particular Facebook, which was an unreliable friend, and Google, which then became really the majority of distribution for most of that category of content. You wanted to find advantages in any way you could. Bringing everything together in a platform, page type, structure, and technology where all your data sources were lined up and you had one ad stack and you had publishing system that you could optimize, wasn;t the wrong thesis. It was that was an important part of differentiating and finding a permanent position for these media brands in that world.

But just to get to the point, it took tons of money and resources. You had a hundred people developing it and it took a really long time. So, now what I’m interested in, if you were to ask if, just to get back to the original question, which is what’s the future, I’m interested in a collection of service that puts the best creators together with an offering in the center that allows the most money to go back to them and at the same time helps them do the things they don’t want to do, or that are preventing them from getting to the next level.

So, that’s the Say Media of the future to me, which is leveraging other people’s platforms, creating a brand around the finest contributors across mediums, and helping them be more successful in advertising subscriptions and anything related to the blockchain. That’s what I think is interesting now. And just remember, the atomic unit of that world is that individual, and the best of them really are important nodes in the cultural landscape in terms of their ability to influence opinion and serve the reader.

I personally have found that newsletters from people that I like and respect have a level of, particularly from experts, provide me with really delightful content experiences that I value a whole lot and I find that interesting. Some of them are journalists, some are journalists slash experts, and some are just experts,.

MB: I find it’s just totally changed too. Something I read a newsletter on that’s an expert, if they come out with a video or they come out with any other piece of content or they’re reposting with somebody else, that’s also the first thing that I watch, it’s a decision process for me because I’ve got, obviously like everybody else, 1,000 times more content than I can watch, but I’m almost locked in because I just place such a high value on their content, to begin with.

TY: We probably have similar media consumption behaviors.

MB: Back to your earlier point, I know you published on Substack. Do they offer that dynamic today, or are these people going to get too big? Are they going to have the Errington problem where they start their own brand?

TY: Some will, I suspect some will. It looks like someone like Brian’s on that path. He’s leaning into his brand called The Rebooting and you could see them adding resources underneath it. But like I said, I think there’s a continuum. And it’s like the Scott thing that you said, there are individuals and that’s what they want. There are people that effectively want a collective, and some people that will pursue the media brand path. So, I think you’ll get a mix.

The difference now is, there are a bunch of differences, but first of all, subs didn’t exist back then. So, now you can be a high-end creator and have several hundred thousand dollars in subscriptions while being independent and having a good life. That’s a good situation that never really existed. Things like Substack and the ability to quickly spin up a newsletter, gate it if you want to, have it published to the web, all that stuff never existed.

Now, what’s interesting is there’s always the tendency for companies like Substack to try to find their own economic power or their own distribution power. And you’re seeing that right now. So, they’re working on making their ecosystem stronger as an independent ecosystem. And I think it’s really something to watch because last week they released an app and that app basically rolls together all your subscriptions in one delightful little package.

Just think about what’s going on there. The app previously was my email box and I prioritized the newsletters I got, in my own way with everything else that I’m doing, both personal communication and media.Those are the decisions I make about how to filter, package, sort and all that. And now they’re saying, well, when you own the app and you own the environment, you’re the curator.

Then you start getting into all these complexities around how you jack your way into that system as a media creator. How come they’re not promoting me? I noticed they’re giving you slugs to promote your favorite other Substack writers in your email newsletter. So, they’re starting to build a little recirculation economy inside of that. And in some ways, Substack today is no different than Medium. I would say that they’re the biggest challenge to Medium that you see out there in some ways because it’s the same idea. It’s for writers, it’s obviously email-centric, it’s really easy to do subscriptions, and the subscriptions aren’t up to Medium. they’re up to the individuals in an app.

The nice thing about it today is the ability to take your list and walk. If you don't like the rules, it's not that hard to leave.

The nice thing about it today is the ability to take your list and walk. If you don’t like the rules, it’s not that hard to leave. And I think that’s the nice thing about having a list; it’s freedom. The relationship is between you and your list and while the technology’s important, it’s not going to get in the way. It’s just an email.

MB: That seems to me a bit like a red line. You sign up through the Substack app, but you don’t actually show up to the user, that was always the problem with Medium; you just couldn’t with any rhyme or reason, tell when you hit their distribution algorithm, but you didn’t really have any way to take those people with you.

TY: I think there’s a difference between paid and free, because if Substack is the subscription infrastructure, and you rely on that, shifting that somewhere else means that you have to, I suppose, reauthenticate a credit card with somebody. And in that process, you’d be pretty concerned that you’d lose a bunch of subs. And when that’s how you’re putting food on the table, you’d be very careful about it, but more or less it’s portable.

Troy Young Interview Part Two

Michael Beach: I love this video posted from 1995 showing someone talk about the internet, and it’s wild. Two things, we caught up in New York last fall and talking about Web 3.0, my immediate take was “I’ve really got to get up to speed on this fast.” And then, that video of where you might think we’re in the cycle. You read about it all the time. You think that this thing is pretty evolved, but you look back on where the internet was in 1995 versus today, and it changes your whole perspective.

Troy Young: There are two things going on there. One is the early stages of a technology. The other one is cultural, it’s always strange to look back at how much things have changed in terms of how we dress, talk, and the quality of media itself. There are so many things that have happened over those years. The internet was this basic communication system first, and that was cool. It was like a modern ham radio. There’s another interesting media phenomenon, which is companies becoming media companies in legit ways, like A16, who’s a publisher and venture capital company.

Anyway, they posted this conversation between Chris Dixon and Brian McCullough (who wrote the book How The Internet Happened). It’s from a while back, but it’s wonderful nonetheless, and it’s about the evolution of all the technologies, personalities, and systems that make up the internet. I’d really encourage people to listen to it, it’s fascinating.

Having said that, there are these layers of this communication system, and it’s like a publishing system at its most basic, like blogging and the persistence of blogging. Then, it’s an advanced communication network that takes into consideration an interconnected set of relationships, that’s like social networking. And then, it becomes a service system where you can do your banking and investing. In the past, you would’ve had to go and visit someone to do those things with a lot of middlemen involved in it.

Then it became a shopping system, where you could buy stuff. What’s most bizarre and disruptive about this latest web iteration is that all of those things existed independently of a native financial system to the medium. That’s not to say that you couldn’t make a credit card purchase, but when a digital asset is something that has value, when you can trade anything at any time, when everything is essentially tokenized, it has a value and there’s a native currency to all of this.

It really is mind-bending whether you’re looking at the process of buying a home in New York City and how you might reimagine it when I could literally move some tokens on the blockchain and take ownership of a deed or to the inefficiencies in the insurance market, which is colossally inefficient. Just look at how many Geico and Progressive ads you see on television, a sure sign of its inefficiency, to the fractionalization of everything, to the tying into voting systems, to the pressure it puts on how we think about the unit of organization that is the modern corporation. 

The internet was this little thing and now has become this broad infrastructure for everything we do.

TY: It’s just insane how broad the implications of crypto and blockchain will be to the economy and its ground zero. The internet was this little thing and now has become this broad infrastructure for everything we do. From communications to transactions, to the valuation of time, to the management of stakeholders in an organization.

I remember I was running an internet services company as a young person in the 2000, and we were doing early e-commerce stuff and bringing brands onto the internet for the first time. We were saying that you would be able to buy groceries or get anything you wanted brought to your home. There were things like Cosmo and burgeoning online retail things. At the time, it was crazy and exciting, and it felt like the world was really changing.

I would say what’s happening now is more profound. I think what we’re going through now will have ups and downs because it is totally financialized meaning there is tons of fraud, and grifters.

I talked to a young consultant the other day at McKinsey, who is intensely Web 3.0 literate. And for that group of people, the mission is evangelical because it’s really tied to a generation’s desire to reshape the world. These are people that grew up native to all these technologies, into gaming, and into these communication formats. I’m excited about it, and I hope that the pressure it puts on the world helps us develop a little more harmony because that feels a little challenging right now.

MB: I loved your early 2000 example because it feels like in ’99, 2000, you had a group of people that all they wanted to talk about was stock prices, “did you see who IPO’d?” “Did you see this?” And then you were talking to people who were all about infrastructure, and what the internet could do. When the bubble burst, that initial group of people just stopped talking about the internet for a couple of years, and I feel that way about crypto. You got people only talking about the speculative part of Bitcoin and everything. And then I talked to you about all the impacts that technology can have on society. And I feel it’s so similar today, where I’m not having the same conversation with two people.

TY: I think there are a lot of similarities and I worry that a lot of people get left behind. Over time, concepts always get brought into the mesh of how we think and work, and you see that happening with how the internet became part of popular culture and how we think about things. The same happens with streaming, we absorb these. But, the conceptual density of crypto is really advantageous for highly technical people.

I think it’s really important that we bring along a lot of people as we move through this time of change, and it doesn’t become a “tech bro” situation. I think that’s really important for next-generation media companies that are helping people understand what this means. And that we go through it in a way where we’re really cautious of the externalities and the unforeseen consequences on the kind of society that we’re creating. There’s a good cover story in Time magazine that I would recommend people read. The article profiles Vitalik Buterin, the creator of Ethereum, his evolution, and what he thinks about what’s going on right now.

Content plays a really important role in everything: How we entertain ourselves, how we communicate, how we buy things.

MB: Put your investor hat on in this area. What companies are you most excited about? What problems are they solving?

TY: I’m excited about a lot of things. I invest in stuff, advise companies, and work with private equity investors. There’s a whole range that I’m interested in. I love broken companies, and it’s one of the reasons I like private equity. Because you can take something without the right alignment and the right intensity, and turn it around; creating value really quickly. Looking forward, the whole world is downstream of content now. Content plays a really important role in everything: How we entertain ourselves, how we communicate, how we buy things. 

That’s where I spent most of my career, and I’m really interested in next-generation content and what it means to other parts of the economy. As an investor, I’m really interested in niche media. For example, I invested in this young company called “Drug Hunter.” It’s focused on helping early-stage drug researchers do their job more effectively and connect to one another. It’s community and media together. What’s interesting, I think, is that the vernacular of social media is changing the form of media entirely. You see things like @Litquidity which was a bro-y, spoofy, Instagram account, now becoming legitimate media.

And they have a newsletter called Exec Sum, which is quite a bit more serious. I love people that are thinking about how media is changing and how the texture, flavor, and feel of it changes. I also love vertical media, because you can put experts against the specific needs of a community. So I’m interested in that. 

I’m working with a company called Medallion, we raised money, and it’s helping artists build better connections with audiences. And it’s using the blockchain to tokenize communities to create more effective ways to manage fans and fandom, and to monetize them. Overall, I’m interested in content that just has a higher or lower signal-to-noise; in what I think is a shift from page views to list. We are obsessed with pageviews in my world. And that drives everything, the number of impressions, the amount of affiliate revenue, subscription potential, all that. What I really like now are businesses that have really valuable influential lists of people that really care about the content that’s being created.

I’m also very interested in the connection between transactions and content. I like companies like Food52, and I have a bunch of friends at The Chernin Group. I talk to them a lot about stuff like this. I’m really involved in a company called Milk Street, which is “food meets commerce meets IP.” They make a video, then they make television shows. But underneath of it all is a specialty food store focused on global flavor. It’s got a great mission that it’s about bringing the world closer through food, and it’s founded by Chris Kimball, who did America’s Test Kitchen. It’s amazing, they built a really big business reinventing lifestyle merchandising in retail for young men. And they never opened a single store. It’s pretty crazy. It’s a legit, big business now. They have a lot of house brands, they make their own stuff, and I’m interested in that.

At its base, all of this is about valuable connections between content, people, and products that are born of imaginative thinking and cultural connection.

TY: At its base, all of this is about valuable connections between content, people, and products that are born of imaginative thinking and cultural connection. That’s what I love. I spend a lot of time looking for hacks in the system, which are like, “how do you build an audience quickly,” “how do you hack your relationship with a Google or Facebook,” and “how do you build better platforms to do that?” I would say, as I’ve gotten a little older, I’m more interested in the thing at the base of all that, which is how good are the products and content you’re making?

MB: Let me get you out of here on two questions. Sitting here a year from now, what’s one prediction you feel strongly about that you think nobody is talking about?

TY: There’s more than enough to pontificate around when you talk about the metaverse, creator economy, streaming wars, and super apps. There’s so much. But it strikes me that the very nature of truth is under siege. 

We’re losing an ability as a society to know what to believe, and this isn’t a right or a left thing. It’s about living in a mediated world or a virtual world. Sometimes it’s really hard to know what to believe, and in a virtual world, the line between truth and fiction doesn’t matter that much, because it just merges to a narrative, and it’s the stories we tell one another and people don’t die.

When the line between what’s real and not real starts to have consequences, is when people are suffering, and it’s life and death. It means a lot. I would like to believe that we have a better mechanism to authenticate the truth. As our reality has been effectively virtualized, we spend all of our time getting information from a screen. Truth has suffered in that shift. So I’m interested in mechanisms that help us understand what’s true, and this is especially important when there’s a human consequence. So, if we come back and there’s progress on that, right on. 

There are tons of things that people maybe don’t talk about enough. I think one little throwaway would be the nature of advertising holding companies, which were these enormous structures that were created around aggregating up companies, putting them under and outs, and mapping together multiple agencies in global networks to serve big brands. I think that time is ending.

I think you’re going to see radical change there, where they look more like platform businesses and expert networks. The process of deploying a piece of creative against a brand through a global agency network, dependent on expensive creative and vast systems of human beings buying, I think that’s changing a lot right now. That doesn’t get as much attention as the change in social networking and stuff like that, but I expect change there. We’ll see what happens.

MB: What should we be reading? Who do you recommend? Especially in the area of Web 3.0 and crypto.

TY: You can put it in categories. You’ve got legacy news, you read the FT or Wall Street Journal or New York Times, you’ve got podcasts, which are great and personal and super informative, but they take a lot of time. You’ve got newsletters, you’ve got video, you’ve got all the live stuff, Reddit, Twitter, Discord. What I would advise people to do, is to try to think about a system to get through all of that as quickly as possible. 

I’ve been thinking, “How do I structure my morning when I get out of bed? What’s my quick hits, and then what do I follow it up with? And what about when I have a little bit of extra time?” Thinking about how you process an overwhelming amount of information is really important. Some people like to say, “I’ll get it all through Twitter.” Some people spend a lot of time in their email mailboxes. Some people have a commute, and they do podcasting and stuff. 

Thinking about how you structure what you receive is really important. If you’re interested in Web 3.0, there’s one that someone sent me that I spend a lot of time on called Milk Road, you probably read it, Michael, it’s a Substack thing, I think. There’s Decrypt, and The Block, and Bankless. I’ve been looking at all the providers of the new up and comers inside crypto media. There’s a whole bunch there.

MB: I still use a Twitter list. There’s about a hundred people that I feel like I’ve got to read every day. I hit it two or three times a day and go start to finish. I do the algorithm a little bit, but I’m hoping they don’t take that away anytime soon. I’m still dependent on it.

TY: I don’t even do that. I should do that. You just hit your list, right? I just go on Twitter.

MB: I’ve just got to set a constraint on how many people can be in it. I make sure that I read that every day. And I go chronologically through it, so I don’t miss anything.

TY: Maybe you could send me your list. I bet that would be useful if you wanted to.

MB: I’m surprised they haven’t taken it away yet because they’ve just tried to drive so many people to the algorithmic feed.

TY: Thank you so much for having me. And I appreciate what you do, Michael. It’s always great to see you.

MB: It’s been great. Thank you very much.

Troy Young is a Canadian business executive and entrepreneur living in New York City. Former global President of Hearst Magazines, where he spent seven plus years transforming a legacy media company and one of the largest publishers in the world into a modern omni-channel media force. He has led fast-growing start ups, launched and run digital ad agencies. His accomplishments in media and advertising have been recognized widely including being named Media Executive of the year by Adweek. He was chairman of the IAB and served on the board of the United Way of New York. Troy was born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan, graduated high school as a boarding student at St. Michael’s University School in Victoria, British Columbia. He has a business degree from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Troy is currently advising early stage ventures, media companies and leading private equity firms.

Cross Screen Media is a marketing analytics and software company helping brands, agencies, and networks succeed in the Convergent TV space. Our platform creates a common currency across linear TV, digital, and CTV views so ad buyers can build a single optimized plan and sellers can prove the value of their inventory. For more information, please visit our website.

Michael Beach

Michael Beach

Michael Beach is the Chief Executive Officer of Cross Screen Media, a media analytics and software company that enables marketers to plan, activate, and measure CTV and linear TV at the local level. Michael is also the founder and editor of State of the Screens, a weekly newsletter focused on video advertising that is a must-read for thought leaders in the advertising industry. He has appeared in such publications as PBS Frontline, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Axios, CNBC and Bloomberg, and on NPR’s Planet Money podcast.