Vox Media reaches an impressive 130 million people each month across its websites and even more on social media. If the company or its namesake Vox news site aren’t familiar, perhaps you’ve heard of some of its other brands: sports-blogging network SB Nation, technology website The Verge, and food site Eater, to name a few. Then, there’s Polygon, a gaming and entertainment site that last year celebrated its 10th anniversary, and Today, Explained, a flagship Vox news podcast that put out its 1,000th episode in February.
On top of those milestones and many others, the company last year acquired Group Nine, significantly expanding its portfolio of brands with names such as NowThis, PopSugar, and Thrillist. The deal closed just a little over two years after the acquisition of New York Media in 2019, which added properties such as the decorated New York magazine, entertainment website Vulture, and political news site Intelligencer to the company’s lineup.
At the helm of this rapidly growing media network is Jim Bankoff WG96. The Vox Media co-founder, chairman, and CEO stepped onto the digital media scene around the turn of the century as an executive at AOL, where he was involved with the development of AOL Instant Messenger, TMZ, and other groundbreaking projects. Now a leader in the space for more than two decades, Bankoff shared his expectations for 2023, the qualities he seeks in digital brands, and his path to a career in media.
Wharton Magazine: The past year has been very eventful for Vox Media. What are you looking forward to in 2023?
Jim Bankoff: One of the things that sets Vox Media apart is our status as a portfolio of leading modern media brands. They’re all doing amazing, impactful work across various media types, ranging from podcasts to short-form social video to long-form written articles. Every day, there is something really important or fun and special being created by each of our brands, and I expect that 2023 will be no different.
The other part of Vox Media is the scale and strength of our full portfolio. When we go out to business partners, we are able to leverage the breadth of the portfolio to create meaningful partnerships. So, I’m looking forward to great work coming from each of the brands and to great business outcomes coming from the strength and might of the portfolio.
WM: You’ve been steadily acquisitive throughout the years, largely buying digital brands. What kind of characteristics do you seek in brands when you’re evaluating them for the Vox Media network?
JB: First and foremost, we want brands that are highly relevant and that engage audiences. I sometimes use the phrase “reach plus relevance.” I also use the phrase “quality and scale.” Looking at the digital publishing landscape, you sometimes have very large-scale brands, but they may not have relevance; they may just be pumping out cheap content or aggregating content.
On the other hand, you have strong editorial brands that might lack the scale to invest in ambition and to have a sustainable and meaningful business model. For us, it’s important that our brands have relevance with their audiences and the advertisers that support them — and also have the reach to make them viable and meaningful, and to enable them to have sustainable impact.
WM: You’ve alluded to how sprawling the digital media landscape is today. In which areas do you still see unique potential for growth?
JB: The areas of growth are always changing. We see a lot of opportunity in digital subscription products and in audio products such as podcasts. Podcasting is a great medium for us; it creates an intimate relationship with audiences who tend to be really loyal. It’s also a great product for marketers and advertisers for that same reason.
The Strategist, which is in the shopping space and is what I call an e-commerce affiliate business, is doing very well for us, too. We also have a growing television business that sells longer-form video to streamers such as HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon.
Another bright spot for us on the business side is an advertising marketplace that we run called Concert. Through Concert, we leverage Vox Media’s advertising technology and advertiser relationships to federate not only Vox Media’s advertising inventory but inventory from other premium publishers, ranging from NBCUniversal to Penske Media and dozens of others. We have a very simple value proposition to the advertiser: They get enormous reach, high performance, and brand-safe environments. It solves a problem for marketers and also supports the industry in important ways.
WM: On the flip side, what industry challenges are on your radar this year?
JB: There are a lot of economic headwinds going into the year. We know that interest rates are tightening, creating recessionary fears. The advertising space in particular is very sensitive to cyclicality. We’re making sure that we are prepared for that.
The other thing is that there’s a constant need to innovate. This industry does not stand still. Part of why I like media, but part of what makes it challenging, is that there are always technological changes happening that lead to consumer behavior changes. For instance, 10 years ago, we weren’t consuming as much content on our phones. A few years ago, we weren’t listening to podcasts. Even more recently, we weren’t watching short video clips on this thing called TikTok. We always have to innovate and adapt to new formats. We also have to be on the forefront of consumer taste and societal trends, which are also always changing. The talented people who work here are always growing, learning, and innovating to address those challenges.
WM: You recently spoke to students at Penn’s Venture Lab about entrepreneurship and their career ambitions. Looking back on your own career, what initially interested you in media?
JB: I developed the interest even as a kid when I would engage with media: magazines, records, TV, books. At some point, I thought “Wow, I wonder how these things are made.” I always had that curiosity.
Fast-forward to my senior year of college when I had an internship at CNN in Atlanta. That opened my eyes. I decided to go to business school to get training that I could apply to media. It was the right time where I was able to get in somewhat on the ground floor of the rise of the consumer internet and media products under the internet. I did that during a summer internship at AOL while I was at Wharton. It was sort of off the beaten path at the time. Most people were taking investment banking or consulting routes, but I viewed it as an opportunity to get involved in something new that also spoke to my passions. It was there that I got my first strong taste of building companies in this industry.
WM: Before establishing Vox Media, you became CEO of SB Nation in 2009. The network of sports blogs, now part of Vox Media, was instrumental in laying the foundation for the company you lead today. Looking back, what made you bet on what was a relatively small operation at the time?
JB: At the end of my AOL tenure, I saw that the internet was really changing. Search and social were enabling people to get information that was more specific to what they cared about. For example, great brands like ESPN were talking generally about sports. But if I was an Eagles fan or a Yankees fan, was there something that could address my own interests more specifically?
And on a personal level, I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I was kind of late in life to doing that. I hadn’t run my own company until then, and my wife and I had just had our third child. It was a bit of a leap, but it was one that I was passionate about.