Ben Smith in the NYTimes: “The Biggest Digital Publisher You’ve Never Heard Of”

From a Ben Smith Media Equation story in the New York Times headlined “You’ve Never Heard of the Biggest Digital Media Company in America”:

INDIAN LAND, S.C. — Lindsey Turrentine first heard of Red Ventures last fall, when it bought the venerable tech news site CNET, where she in charge of content. She sat down at her kitchen table in Berkeley, Calif., and frantically started Googling to find out what it was.

Her experience wasn’t uncommon. People working at the tourism guide Lonely Planet, the travel site The Points Guy and the health and medical information site Healthline were similarly blindsided in recent years, when Red Ventures bought up special interest publications in a multibillion-dollar shopping spree.

Their Googling and mandatory corporate retreats led them to the company’s South Carolina headquarters, a 180-acre campus with a cluster of modern buildings, a fire pit, a six-lane bowling alley, spin room, pickle ball courts and 264 residences for employees who choose to live where they work.

Red Ventures, which started as a digital marketing company, has attracted serious investments….Its location has helped obscure what is perhaps the biggest digital publisher in America, a 4,500-employee juggernaut that says it has roughly $2 billion in annual revenues…and more readers than any media brand you’ve ever heard of — an average of 751 million visits a month.

Here in Indian Land, I felt as if I were back in the Ping-Pong days of Silicon Valley in the early 2000s. Red Ventures has built a culture that blends warm enthusiasm, progressive social values and the ruthless performance metrics of the direct marketing business.

The company found itself in the publishing business almost by accident, and is now leading a shift in that industry toward what is sometimes called “intent-based media”—a term for specialist sites that attract people who are already looking to spend money in a particular area (travel, tech, health) and guide them to their purchases, while taking a cut.

It’s a step away from the traditional advertising business toward directly selling you stuff. Red Ventures plans to steer readers of Healthline to doctors or drugs found on another site it recently acquired, HealthGrades, which rates and refers doctors. Red Ventures will take a healthy commission on each referral.

At the center of the company is Ric Elias, the chief executive and co-founder. A 6-foot-5 native of Puerto Rico, he has quietly become one of the most powerful media moguls in the country, a Barry Diller of the South….

Mr. Elias, who spoke with me in the company’s bright and sprawling cafeteria, had played basketball that morning with a former N.B.A. player who lives nearby. He is the largest shareholder in Red Ventures, with more than 20 percent of the company, and so a billionaire on paper—though he hasn’t done the self-promotion required to get on the Forbes list.

“I think we’re a 20-year-old company that still is figuring out what we’re going to be,” he said. “And I don’t think we have anything to celebrate or tell.”

If you’ve heard of Mr. Elias, it’s probably because you’re one of the eight million people who have watched the video of his TED Talk, “3 Things I learned When My Plane Crashed.” On the top floor of the main building on the Red Ventures campus, he pointed to his own blurred shape in a painting of passengers walking onto the wings of the Charlotte-bound US Airways Flight 1549, the jetliner that made an emergency landing on the Hudson River in 2009, the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson.” Mr. Elias’s seat was 1D.

He returned from that near-death experience determined to remake his life—and his company. He devoted himself to causes, including a college scholarship program for undocumented immigrants, some of whom he has hired. And he started transforming Red Ventures, then a middleweight marketing company, into the kind of business where he would want to spend his career.

“This is the perch from where I’m going to live the rest of my life,” he said….“We’re not going public, we’re not selling. Red Ventures, as is, will never be a public company as long as I’m running it.”

He persuaded key investors—the private equity firms General Atlantic and Silver Lake each own about 20 percent—to back an ambitious expansion. And now Red Ventures is the largest in a group of private equity-backed giants that have been snapping up trusted media brands once left for dead. North Equity bought Popular Science, Domino and Field & Stream, along with the men’s site Mel. J2 Media, a public company, scooped up the old publisher Ziff Davis with its online brands Mashable and IGN. In addition to Lonely Planet, CNET, Healthline and The Points Guy, Red Ventures bought the education advice site BestColleges.

These low-profile media companies are riding a shift in technology as both Apple and regulators have eroded the dominance of the creepy advertising technology that allows companies to track you across websites. That has helped push the pendulum back toward the old-fashioned idea of connecting with readers seeking information relevant to their lives, whether it’s a Field & Stream article on the latest fly rods or a Healthline guide to Crohn’s disease treatments.

That’s the context in which Red Ventures—a company that backed its way into media after specializing in online marketing—makes sense.

Mr. Elias grew up in San Juan hearing stories of his late grandfather, a Lebanese immigrant who, according to family lore, built a huge produce importing business but lost it because he hadn’t paid his taxes. It recently occurred to him, he said, that he has spent his career trying to restore the family name.

He arrived at Boston College, in 1986….From there, he earned an M.B.A. at Harvard Business School. In 2000, he and a friend, Dan Feldstein, who is now the chief marketing officer of Red Ventures, started a business built on the notion of driving online shoppers to physical stores. It was a “terrible idea,” Mr. Elias said, and they quickly ran out of money. They spent the next few years digging out and repaying their investors, among them their more successful Harvard Business School classmates.

Mr. Elias and Mr. Feldstein sold the business to management in 2005 and started again under the name Red Ventures, becoming pioneers in that era’s efforts to link digital data and real world commerce. They entered the business of selling subscriptions for DirecTV and burglar alarms for ADT Security. Along the way, they figured out how to integrate online marketing and old-fashioned telemarketing—and they got very good at search engine optimization.

Other tricks were more ingenious. They purchased more than a million toll-free phone numbers, and each visitor to their marketing website was shown a different one. So when prospective customers called, Red Ventures knew exactly what they had been looking at on the site, which gave the agents what they needed to make personalized sales pitches. This was a pretty high-tech form of digital surveillance in those more innocent times. As the company grew and the market shifted, its founders realized that the technological know-how they had developed had itself become a commodity and that they needed to develop their own brands, not just sell others’.

In 2015, Red Ventures raised $250 million, which went toward its $1.4 billion purchase of Bankrate, a personal finance company that helps people comparison shop for financial products….That acquisition included The Points Guy, a site devoted to elucidating airline mileage programs and credit card deals. The Points Guy had built a profitable business earning commissions whenever people signed up for credit cards they had read about on the site—often in rave reviews of high-end cards.

The marketing of financial products promises far higher profit margins than the online “affiliate” businesses that underlie websites like The New York Times’s Wirecutter. While a publisher recommending a gadget on Amazon might earn a single-digit percentage of a shopper’s purchase, the “bounties” paid to Red Ventures for directing a consumer to a Chase Visa Sapphire Reserve credit card or an American Express Rose Gold card can range from $300 to $900 per card.

The arrival of Red Ventures’ executives hasn’t always gone over well among the journalists who find themselves working under Mr. Elias. Journalists, like members of a medieval guild (the guild hall is Twitter), tend to be more connected to the folkways of their profession than to any corporate culture, and some roll their eyes at Red Ventures’ rah-rah retreats, which feature fireworks and song. More troublingly, some reporters at The Points Guy, which also covers the travel industry in general…have complained that the new owners have eroded the already rickety wall between the site’s service journalism and the credit card sales that fund it.

Red Ventures is “all about profit maximization,” said JT Genter, who left the site more than a year ago. He and other Points Guy writers said they hadn’t been pushed to publish stories they found dubious — indeed, the site has occasionally offered carefully critical coverage of Chase and American Express, its dominant business partners. But he noted that Points Guy journalists are required to attend regular business meetings detailing how much money the site makes from credit card sales, which some take as a tacit suggestion to put their thumbs on the scale.

Mr. Elias said Red Ventures has a “nonnegotiable line” concerning the editorial independence of its sites, adding that he has given his cell number to CNET employees and instructed them to call him if they ever face pressure from the business side.

“I told them, ‘There’s a red line,’ and they’re like, ‘OK, we’ll see,’” he said.

Red Ventures’ roots in marketing, its investment in tech aimed at selling you something and its almost-accidental move into trying to provide readers with trusted, even journalistic, advice have made for an odd amalgam. And the company’s Silicon Valley style extends only so far. Most employees don’t receive equity in the company….

The company does offer a maxim-happy workplace, though, with inspirational slogans printed on the walls of its atrium in cheery fonts. The one I heard executives refer to most was “Everything Is Written in Pencil,” a motto that makes sense for a company that has changed almost entirely from its marketing origins to become a leading purveyor of service journalism…..

There’s quite a bit of good news in the rescue of old media brands by Red Ventures and similar companies — CNET plans to hire 150 new employees this year, for instance. A deeper concern may be what it will mean to transform the internet’s independent arbiters into nothing more than the gaping maw of the sales funnel.

Less gloomy, I think, is something else that Red Ventures represents: a challenge to the oligopolistic dominance of Amazon over the internet, and a model for independent media companies that have spent a generation either losing their core businesses to cheerfully ruthless tech giants or, at best, living on their scraps. For sites like Wirecutter, internet commerce often means, in practice, serving as an Amazon storefront, with revenue trickling in from modest commissions. But Red Ventures has succeeded by building a tech and media company that is independent of that particular Goliath, if not of another one—Google.

“We’re going to have a chance to be an alternative to the big walled gardens,” Mr. Elias said of his company. “This is a plane that just got some altitude.”

The talk of planes prompted me to ask Mr. Elias how he got back to the Carolinas after the Hudson River landing. He said he’d told a surprised agent he wanted the next flight out.

“The lady looked at me like I was crazy,” he recalled, but he’d figured that “if I don’t get on a flight right away, I may never fly again—and if the next flight goes down, it was me God was coming to see.”

Ben Smith is the media columnist. He joined The Times in 2020 after eight years as founding editor in chief of BuzzFeed News. Before that, he covered politics for Politico, The New York Daily News, The New York Observer and The New York Sun.

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