Complex Networks CEO Rich Antoniello Crunches the Sneakers, Hip-Hop and Hot Sauce Numbers

'Lunch' with a multimedia mogul on the one-year anniversary of his company's acquisition by Hearst and Verizon

I’m guessing you’ve heard the line, ‘Everything is copy.’ Well, in Rich Antoniello’s ever-expanding digital world at Complex Networks, everything is content. More specifically–everything you could possibly imagine that can be laser-focused to appeal to 18-to-24-year-old males obsessed with hip-hop, sneakers, NASCAR and pop culture. Sports, not so much (More on that later).

Brooklyn-born Rich, who was already in the lounge at Michael’s when I arrived before noon, is nothing if not enthusiastic about his business. This man can talk (my pen literally ran out of ink trying to keep up), so it’s lucky he had a lot of interesting things to say. The fortysomething entrepreneur will readily admit he “doesn’t look the part” of a hipster mogul who loves hip-hop or the sneaker culture, but don’t be fooled. “All my interests are touchstones with Complex’s interests.”

Diane Clehane and Rich Antoniello

Indeed, luckily for Rich, his interests are perfectly aligned with a growing group of young male influencers. I had to ask about the sneaker thing. “I’m a huge fan of sneakers,” he told me. “People didn’t realize how many people care about [sneakers]. It’s a phenomenon. When Nike drops [the new] Air Jordans, it’s an event.”

Viewers of Complex’s newest interview series Complex Closets get an exclusive look inside the closets of a host of celebrities who own more sneakers than I’ve seen on display at the mall the last time I went to a bricks-and-mortar store. Hosted by Complex’s Joe La Puma, the series expands on their Sneakers Shopping franchise, the most popular sneakers style series on the web. In the latest episode, singer Chris Brown shows off his massive collection, talks changing shoes throughout the day, reveals his love for Allen Iverson and notes the brands he won’t wear. An earlier episode with Nick Cannon garnered 12 million views and raised the question, at least for me, who got custody of the closets when he and Mariah Carey divorced?

Rich, a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, joined Complex in 2003 as CEO, a year after the company was founded by Marc Ecko. He has transformed Complex from a print magazine into a multimedia platform reaching over 50 million heavily-engaged millennial males every month. Plus another 38 percent of their readers and viewers who are female.

The initial Complex print magazine broke even within three and a half years. That’s because, explained Rich, while he was toiling in traditional media, his thinking about marketing was anything but. “When I was talking about sneakers when I worked at magazines, people laughed at me,” he recalled.

Having worked at Saatchi & Saatchi, Proctor & Gamble and Wenner Media, Rich’s love and innate understanding of the media business was rooted to traditional realms. “Most people that go into media were media junkies,” said Rich as he tucked into his chicken paillard. “[Former GQ editor] Art Cooper was a god to me.” Rich saw that the print business was not innovating to keep pace with consumer tastes and clearly was not being tailored to serve a changing marketplace’s need for differentiation and niche marketing. “The industry had been spending too much money on direct mail and it didn’t work.”

To reach his desired audience of potential subscribers at Complex, Rich leveraged Mark Ecko’s clothing line and created special hand tags to promote the magazine and sell subscriptions. “We had a massive conversion rate.” In 2006, Rich told his investors they weren’t going to be paid back. Instead, he announced Complex was reinvesting “every dollar” on a projected basis and “going hardcore into digital.”

The decision has clearly paid off. Today, Complex Networks generates on average around 800 million video views a month across its owned and operated digital channels–Complex, Collider, First We Feast, Rated Red, Pigeons and Planes, Sole Collector and more. In terms of social engagement, it ranks as a top ten category publisher in the U.S. on both Facebook and YouTube. Complex is also #1 with males 18-to-24 and 18-to-34 in a competitive set that includes ESPN (“Young guys are less interested in sports–all the ratings are down in that demo”) and Vice. Their signature series Hot Ones and the aforementioned Sneakers Shopping each have over 100 million lifetime views. “This is a generation fueled by video,” enthused Rich.

Complex Networks, said Rich, was one of the first to focus on convergent culture and with its purchase by Hearst and Verizon in 2016, is now poised to become an even bigger player in this new digital world. “We are continuing to build on our most ambitious ideas and represent the best of what our brands can be.” Among Complex Networks’ intriguing current offerings: premium content with go90 including two series with Peter Berg’s Film 45–QB1: Beyond the Lights (“A real version of Friday Night Lights”) and Road to Race Day, an eight-part behind-the-scenes look at NASCAR champions Hendrick Motorsports that premieres tonight. “I’m not a NASCAR guy–my mom could watch this–it’s a personal drama and these guys are fascinating.”

I for one, after screening several Complex shows, really liked The Blueprint, which offers an in-depth look at how a cross-section of high-achieving men followed their own path to success. Jimmy Iovine was the first interviewee to be featured on the program. “There are only so many times you can read about Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos,” suggested Rich. “They’re not the only two successful entrepreneurs in the world.” The content and tone of the show is one, said Rich, that speaks directly to young men whose “father isn’t a VC [venture capitalist].”

The ‘up from the bootstraps’ mentality that is needed to succeed in the still Wild West world of digital is one that Rich clearly possesses. Growing up in Brooklyn, his father was a UPS driver and his mother a stay-at-home mom. After studying cost accounting at Binghampton, it was Rich’s cost accounting professor who encouraged him to not get caught up doing what he thought he needed to do to succeed, but rather, what he would most enjoy.

“I remember going to talk to my professor after the final and he told me, ‘You are not an accountant’ and I thought I failed the final. He said, ‘No, you got an A on the final and an A- for the course, but if you do this, you’ll hate it.’ Hearing that from somebody like that gave me permission to do something different.”

Rich calls himself “one of the luckiest guys in the world,” but after listening to him talk about his business he reminded me of that old chestnut, ‘The harder you work, the luckier you are.’ He summed up his experience this way: “I’m glad I grew up the way I did; I wouldn’t have had the fortitude to build a successful company if I hadn’t.”

Over the course of our 90-minute lunch, I got the sense that Rich goes to sleep thinking about this stuff and wakes up thinking about it some more. He is clearly passionate about the role played by social media in Complex’s success. “Social media is about various conversations that cut across multiple platforms,” he said. “It began as a way to merchandise our content and drive audiences back to our site, but that has evolved over time. We are embracing the more distributed nature of our content.”

“For example, a hundred percent of Snapchat is consumed in its platform. Seventy-five percent of our Facebook engagement keeps traffic in that environment. The goal is to remain top-of-mind with crazy-high engagement, while creating content that’s best-in-class. We know that this is going to power our next wave of growth as we build more premium video entertainment and maintain the ability to drive tune-ins wherever that content lives. Instead of having to spend on content marketing, we rely on the strength of our content to practically marketing itself.”

Before we said our goodbyes, Rich explained that today is the one-year anniversary of the company being acquired by Hearst and Verizon. “I am the luckiest guy walking around today.” Not surprisingly, he has big plans for the future. “I want to add a wide swath of content. My goal is to have Complex brands produce 40 new weekly shows for digital distribution.”

He wants to build on the “massive” success of selling sponsored programming. To wit: Old Spice sponsored Hot Ones on First We Feast (a hilarious interview show where guests eat increasingly spicy hot wings during their conversation). James Franco, Seth Rogen and Bryan Cranston have been guests. Every show includes ‘The Old Spice Moment.’ “These sponsors know what shows they’re going to be on and where. It’s all very specific. I want to do a lot more engineered content.”

Also on the books: The 2nd Annual ComplexCon November 4 and 5 in Long Beach, Calif. Over 38,000 people attended the inaugural event last year. “It’s got B-to-B and B-to-C, musical performances” and–wait for it–sneaker drops. “It’s our Super Bowl,” said Rich. “Our URL IRL.”

Here’s today’s Michael’s tables rundown:

1. Bestselling author Linda Fairstein, whose new book, Deadfall (her 19th!), is on everyone’s must-read list this summer. Linda was kind enough to introduce me to producer Greg Williams, the brains behind Love Rocks NYC, which raised $1.5 million for God’s Love We Deliver last year. Linda and Greg are in the throes of planning an encore for next year–March 15 (mark your calendars1). A host of big-name artists are expected to rock the house again!

2. Leslee Dart

3. Mickey Ateyeh and actress Brenda Vaccaro. I was thrilled to meet Ms. Vaccaro, whose heartbreaking portrayal of a recently widowed wife shut out of her adult daughter’s life is the best thing in Netflix’s new oddly titled and just plain crazy series, Gypsy. I told the actress that I found the depiction of Naomi Watts’ character, Jean, a New York City-based therapist who is going off the deep end and is stalking her patients’ friends and lovers all while trying to keep her suburban Connecticut life afloat, a bit much. It’s nuts. Ms. Vaccaro, whose voice is just as fabulous in person as it is on screen, told me: “I think the show is shown through Naomi’s [character] psyche. She’s really good.” That may be so, but I think it’s time for Naomi to get a new agent.

4. Actor Frank Langella

5. Former NYC police commissioner Ray Kelly who, it should be noted, bears a bit of a resemblance to Harvey Keitel

6. Andrew Stein

7. Michael Christensen

8. New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia, celebrating his birthday a week early with Alex Hitz and Brooke Hayward.

9. Cindi Berger and Moira Forbes

11. Bob Friedman

12. Kip Forbes and Becca Thrash

14. Simon & Schuster’s Alice Mayhew with author Doris Kearns Goodwin

16. Nick Verbitsky

17. Penske Media vice chair Gerry Byrne

18. Morris Goldberg

20. Christine Taylor

21. Barry Frey and Young & Rubicam’s Chief Client Officer Shelley Diamond

22. Suzanne Dawson

24. Liz Smith

25. Drew Schiff

26. Andrew Blauner

27. Rich Antoniello, Sheila Feren and yours truly

[Diane Clehane posts reports from Michael’s restaurant every Wednesday. She can be reached via email at lunch@adweek.com.]