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How Complex Media became one of the most innovative digital publishers

Back in September, I logged onto Twitter one day and saw that the actor Shia LaBeouf was trending. At the time I had only a passing familiarity with the actor; I’d seen him in a few movies, but none of his performances had stood out to me.

LaBeouf was trending because of his appearance on a YouTube show called Hot Ones. Produced by Complex Media, Hot Ones operates under a simple format: a celebrity sits down with host Sean Evans and answers a series of questions. Each question is preceded by both host and celebrity eating a buffalo wing, with the sauce for each wing getting progressively spicier. 

According to Complex CEO Rich Antoniello, this format isn’t a gimmick. Appearing on the Recode Media podcast, he argued that the spiciness of the wings forces the celebrities to shed their media training and actually open up. “In this day and age, whether it’s a sports star or a celebrity, they go on these junkets, and everything is measured and marketing trained,” Antoniello said. “And they say nothing.” The theory with Hot Ones, he explained, was “let’s come up with 10 questions that get progressively harder, [eat] 10 wings that get progressively hotter, and by the time you get to the fifth wing, you are so out of your goddamn mind … The celebrities are just breaking down.” Distracted by the heat, in other words, the celebrities lose their composure and answer honestly.

I think Antoniello’s explanation captures why I found the LaBeouf interview so mesmerizing. At one point during the interview, the actor takes a bite from a wing and immediately looks directly to the camera. “All right, this is a real show,” he says. “I thought you guys were just putting tomato sauce in these jars and tricking people.” The interview was funny, humanizing, and I came away from it genuinely liking LaBeouf, an actor whose biography had been, prior to my watching of that video, a complete mystery to me. 

Hot Ones isn’t just a one-off success for Complex Media. Founded in 2002 as a print magazine focused on streetwear and hip hop, Complex doubled down on its online presence in 2007, launching an entire network of online sites that covered everything from sneakers to music, and over the next decade it took on venture capital investment as it expanded into video, live events, and even its own retail products. In 2016, it was purchased under an agreement that gave both Hearst and Verizon 50/50 ownership of the company. It was reportedly on track to generate $200 million in 2019.

For the past few years, the media industry has looked to companies like Vice, BuzzFeed, and Vox as leaders in digital innovation — the models for how any publisher should operate in a post-print world. But I would argue that Complex, though it gets a fraction of the coverage of those other three companies, deserves credit for its versatility and business acumen. Not only has it generated impressive audience numbers across a range of media properties, but it’s also proved adept at diversifying its revenue streams, in effect defying the harsh economics of internet publishing.

For this article, I wanted to take a deeper look at three areas where Complex has been particularly successful — video, live events, and merchandise/ecommerce. 

Video

While it’s common today for us to mock publishers that embarked on failed “pivots to video” in the 2010s, Complex actually pulled it off.

For the first decade of its existence, the company was primarily text-based in its content output, but in 2012, the company diverted about 10% of its budget to launching daily video programs under the banner of Complex News. Those early videos were hosted on the company’s own websites, but its reluctant embrace of YouTube allowed its shows to truly take off. 

By 2016, it had shifted 80% of its content budget to video and was launching dozens of individual shows under Complex’s YouTube channel and a number of spin-off properties. At a time when most publishers were still investing in the shortform videos that catered to Facebook’s algorithm, Complex was already doubling down on longform programming with repeatable formats. A show called Everyday Struggle lasts about 40 minutes and covers hip hop and pop culture. For the show Sneaker Shopping, a celebrity wanders a hip shoe store and geeks out on their favorite sneaker trends. The Burger Show takes the same concept but applies it to — you guessed it — celebrities and burgers.

Many of these shows grew organically out of the Complex newsroom. “There are few dedicated video staffers at Complex,” reported Digiday in 2015. “Most writers are also tasked with producing, shooting and editing video, while video experts, in turn, write articles for the site and magazine.” Like the magazine Bon Appetit, Complex is adept at identifying staffers with video charisma and building entire franchises around them. Hot Ones host Sean Evans started as a freelance reporter at the magazine. Sneaker Shopping host Joe La Puma was an intern. 

Though Complex owes its early video success to YouTube, it didn’t take long for Hollywood, gearing up for the streaming wars and hungry for IP, to take notice. The since-shuttered Go90 plopped down $150 million for Complex shows, giving the company vital capital to scale up its video operations. By the time Go90 shut down, Complex was signing deals all over Hollywood. 

In some cases, cable networks merely syndicated Complex’s already existing content, as when Hot Ones got picked up to run on TruTV. It’s also signed deals for over 16 shows on Hulu and Netflix. For some of its Hollywood partnerships, it’s expanding into new formats. TruTV will soon produce a game show version of Hot Ones, and an iFlix deal will bring localized adaptations of Hot Ones to Malaysia and the Philippines. Much of this content will likely flow back to its online properties, where it can be monetized further. “All of them are licensed, so we own all of the IP,” said Christian Baesler, president of Complex Networks.

Live events

Complex certainly isn’t the first publisher to diversify its offerings into live events, but there are few media companies I can think of that have so effectively penetrated this market.

The company launched ComplexCon in 2016, hosting it that first year in Los Angeles, but it’s since expanded into a multi-city event that now generates tens of millions of dollars in revenue. Unlike the high-end conferences put on by outlets like TechCrunch and Recode that cost up to $1,000 to attend, Complex keeps its ticket prices relatively low as $55 for a single-day pass. 

But it also has scale; over 60,000 people attended a recent ComplexCon, with streetwear obsessives lining up hours in advance so they could buy merchandise before it sold out. Vendors pay a hefty price to participate at ComplexCon, but they can’t simply buy their way in, lest the conference lose the “cool” factor that makes it so attractive to attendees in the first place. “You can’t just get the biggest booth and show sneakers,” Antoniello said in an interview. “We’ve definitely trimmed down and said no to certain people who didn’t bring it.” Retailers reportedly sell as much as $25 million in products at a single ComplexCon. 

The cool products aren’t the only draw. Because of its stature within the hip hop and fashion industry, it’s able to attract top tier celebrities, YouTubers, and rap stars for its panels, and it also helps that Complex hosts, who often conduct live tapings during ComplexCon, are now celebrities themselves. 

If you combine vendor sponsorship, ticket sales, and food, a single ComplexCon can generate as much as $40 million for the company. 

Ecommerce/Merchandise

Nearly every publisher has moved into ecommerce in recent years, but for most this simply means launching some kind of buying guide vertical and slapping in affiliate links. Complex, on the other hand, has developed entirely new products and marketplaces that operate in conjunction with its content output.

It started with the show Hot Ones, which debuted a series of hot sauces that sold out within a few hours. “Soon after, bottles started showing up on eBay at marked-up prices,” reported Digiday. That first year, it sold $7 million in hot sauce, and was projected to hit $15 million in 2019. It also developed hat and shirt merchandise around the show.

That was just the beginning. In November, Axios reported that Complex is “building a sneaker marketplace and editorial app under the name of its current sneaker site, Sole Collector.” The site will presumably allow sneakerheads to trade and sell sneakers on the app, with Complex likely taking a cut of each sale. Then in December Digiday reported that Complex was opening an online store called Complex Shop. “The store, which will be stocked with dozens of items from some 70 brands, will also feature exclusive collaborations produced just for Complex,” Max Willens wrote. “Complex plans to add new drops and exclusive products on a monthly cadence starting next year.” 

Complex currently generates 15% of its revenue from ecommerce, but my guess is that number will grow dramatically over the next few years.


So why did a company that started out as a relatively small and obscure print magazine become one of the most innovative publishers, both on and off the web? Luck probably had something to do with it, but in all my research on Complex, I was struck by how adept it was at understanding its fan base and delivering exactly what it wanted. Few media outlets have that kind of connection to their audience, making their pivots to categories like live events and ecommerce all the more difficult to pull off.

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Photo by Viktor Juric on Unsplash

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