How Group Nine And Thrillist CEO Ben Lerer Steered A TV And Digital Media Marriage

Six months ago, Discovery Communications invested $100 million into Group Nine Media – a media rollup including Thrillist, NowThis, The Dodo and Discovery’s science and tech pub, Seeker.

And it’s finally all starting to cohere.

“We’ve stayed super heads-down and our NewFront was a really good excuse to give ourselves a deadline,” said Ben Lerer, Thrillist’s co-founder and the CEO of Group Nine, following the media holding group’s swanky coming-out party in New York City’s SoHo late last week.

“We knew that within six months of closing this deal we wanted to act like one company with one sales team selling across all brands and our technology and data stack as this centralized piece everyone is leveraging and building on,” he added.

Since Discovery’s investment, Group Nine claims it has 4 billion monthly video views across all of its properties. It now hopes to expand into verticals like sports, and will launch NowThis Sports with Discovery-owned TV network Eurosport this fall.

AdExchanger caught up with Lerer.

AdExchanger: What’s changed operationally since Discovery invested in Thrillist and you became Group Nine CEO?

BEN LERER: You have to figure out what you consolidate, how you connect the brands and where you leave them to their own devices. You have to figure out how to take advantage of scale and where you can make better decisions by working as one. 

At the end of the day, this was about having constant communication and creating transparency amongst the groups for what each brand does well and where we can learn from each other.

Many traditional TV companies, like NBCUniversal and Turner, are investing in digital media. Is this an ongoing trend?

In every medium, there is consolidation. It came to print with the newspaper business, television, and I think it is inevitable that it will come to digital where all of these independent media brands, which have been built digital-first, will not be floating as independent entities forever. We thought, as Thrillist, The Dodo or NowThis, we can wait to be consolidated by somebody or we can get in front of it and actually build something from the ground up and start the consolidation ourselves.

What’s been the biggest upside?

It’s hard to go it alone. You want a bigger seat at the table with the platforms that distribute your content, with your advertising partners and more scale so you can find potential investors or to partner with traditional media companies.

Size matters, and so I think you’ll see more of these holding companies that exist. When you look at all these traditional media companies – TV networks are built on very traditional pipes and, to varying degrees, the leadership at these TV companies realizes there’s a new generation of consumers who think of social pipes the way we used to think of the cable pipes.

What’s the biggest change for a digital media brand trying to make TV-caliber content?

Part of it is acknowledging that you don’t have to do everything yourself. For instance, Thrillist is working on a pizza-making competition series with a production company called T Group Productions, who makes really good TV. Meanwhile, we have a brand with a tone, voice and marketing channel with big, built-in digital audiences. A big part of it is recognizing we don’t have to go it alone or jump in the deep end and build out a giant team of people who only make TV.

You create a lot of social content for clients. Do you have an in-house agency?

We have 75 full-time people only in the business of making content with our brand partners. Traditionally, we had a group at Thrillist called the CoLab, and then at Seeker there was something called Seeker Studios.

We’re putting that all together and in the coming months will do a formal unveiling of that group. I’m a huge believer that in television you had one format and it was a 30-second spot. And you could make one piece of content and create an asset apart from distribution. In digital, that’s not the case anymore. You can’t separate content from the distribution anymore.

What is Group Nine’s strategy for combining content and distribution?

We’re trying to bring our distribution and content creation together as a package. Whether it’s us or BuzzFeed or Vice, a few of us have built these services groups because in order for brands to be successful, you can’t just create distractions from the content environment the consumer is.

And you can tell when brands do that because the only way they get viewership against the content they create is by paying for or buying reach on Facebook. There’s no organic audience. if you aren’t in the business of creating content that’s always on, and living at the edge of different distribution tactics on social, you can’t truly create that connectivity.

Interview edited for clarity and length.

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