Vox Media: We want to hit you in the face with money

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on February 13, 2014

From The News Desk

For a content company, Vox Media is filthy rich. As Sarah Lacy told Vox's CEO Jim Bankoff at PandoMonthly in New York, "I've remarked several times when I pull up The Verge I frequently feel like money is hitting me in the face. It looks expensive."

Later, Bankoff said, "We want to have experiences that hit you in the face with money, because they're so good. I'm glad that you noticed that. Thank you."

The company has raised a total of $61.1 million from Comcast, Accel Partners, Khosla Ventures, and others. It's bankrolling its efforts so that it has the "financial security" to take big risks.

The company wants to achieve both massive scale and incredible quality, like if Buzzfeed and Vice merged and made some beautiful, profitable baby that looked like Condé Naste for the digital era. It's an ambitious goal. The obvious followup question: How much will that cost?

When asked about Vox's burn rate, Bankoff was quick to say that two of its publications -- The Verge and SB Nation -- are profitable already. Polygon "will shortly be profitable," and Curbed was profitable when it was acquired.

It might be a surprise to some that three of Vox Media's entities make money. It has invested oodles of cash on things like beautiful design experiences, video studios, and the best reporters it can find. But to Bankoff, that's all part of the monetization strategy.

"The whole Internet content industry and the whole Internet advertising industry has been racing to the bottom," Bankoff says. "At Vox Media we want to race to the top."

He sees advertising schemes as a tale of two markets. One one hand, there's a real time bidding, programmatic, scalable, frictionless approach to advertising. In contrast, Vox takes a brand building approach, believing that crappy little banner ads aren't good for the advertisers or the content creators.

At the same time, the company doesn't want to pour endless money down a content and design hole. Bankoff is thinking bigger picture. Vox Media's publications pay a lot of attention to using technology and workflow to make quality scale.

"You can't do it as a one-off and expect it to work," Bankoff says. "How do we take something that's beautiful, whether it's a feature layout, whether it's a native ad campaign, and how do we get that to scale across big numbers, big audiences, big dollars? That's our mindset, and that's why we've been successful from a business perspective."

Then he chided Lacy for having such low expectations in her Web experience. She laughed.

"It's not a laughing matter, Sarah!" Bankoff says. "We've been conditioned to have crappy stuff." He says there's a historical trend of believing that the only way to do content on the Web is to do it cheaply and poorly, because otherwise the business model won't support it.

Lacy then asked him where he thought Vox fit in, between the Huffington Posts and Business Insiders on one hand, obviously going for mass, and the Vices on the other, going for high quality.

"You have quality on one end, and you have scale on the other end. You're saying there's no one in the top box of quality at scale. I'm saying that's the box that we want to occupy and that we're well on our way to occupying."