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.