The Lad Bible is attempting to match its social media power with social responsibility

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Five years after starting out as a social media publisher, the Lad Bible has over 60 million active followers and has shown the scale of its ambition by setting up a “nation state” which already has a population greater than those of 17 countries officially recognised by the United Nations.

More than 96,000 people have registered to become “honorary citizens” of the Trash Isles, the vast expanse of plastic waste that now pollutes the world’s oceans, including one deadly conglomeration that covers an area of the North Pacific equivalent to the size of France.

It’s a stunt. But it comes with serious intent. Lad Bible has submitted to the UN a “Declaration of Independence” designed to make the Trash Isles subject to the UN Environmental Charter, meaning that these floating waste mountains would no longer be no one’s responsibility.

The Trash Isles campaign is also pivotal to the Lad Bible’s brand positioning. Described by Wired magazine as “the online voice of a generation”, Lad Bible now claims a monthly global reach of over 1 billion and it has adopted a new meme: “With Social Power Comes Social Responsibility”.

For the past couple of years it has been picking up its own dirty litter from the past. In its early days it found itself under attack as an online reincarnation of the worst of nineties UK “lads mag” humour. Laura Bates, author of the Everyday Sexism blog, cited it as an example of “a culture of misogyny sickeningly disguised as banter”.

Lad Bible matures

Whatever the merits of that charge, Lad Bible has cleaned up its act now. The biggest brand statements for the world’s fastest growing news site for young men are all about caring and sensitivity. It implores its millennial audience to have greater awareness of mental health, of water safety, of racism in sport, and now of the environment. “Over the past 18 months to two years we have been delving into more socially responsible content,” says Arian Kalantari, who co-founded Lad Bible with fellow student Solly Solomou in 2012.

The approach works because the Lad Bible has a vast, mainstream audience. It is not seeking to be trendy or to channel Hunter S Thompson in adventures of danger and excess. It is not Vice.

“Our audience are interested in fishing,” says Kalantari. “It felt like looking after the environment was the route we should go down. From testing the content on our audience we knew that the conversation around plastic and its impact on the environment was a serious issue they wanted us to cover.”

The Trash Isles campaign has had major impact and its level of celebrity endorsement is a signal of the growing recognition of the publisher’s reach.

The former American vice-president and environmentalist Al Gore agreed to become the first honorary citizen of the Trash Isles and set out a manifesto. “I will make reference to the Trash Isles from here on out,” he said. “Let’s come up with biodegradable materials instead of this junk.”

In an interview with the Lad Bible to promote his new film An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power, he also delivered a global exclusive by calling on Donald Trump, a climate sceptic, to “resign” as president. The story was covered by the likes of Fox News, the HuffPost and Politico, extending Lad Bible's profile in America, where it already has substantial audience reach.

Trash Isles even has a Queen, following a soon-to-be-published interview with Dame Judi Dench, who proposed her own coronation by the fledgling state, for which the Lad Bible has created a national flag that incorporates the shape of a bottle. The Olympic athlete Mo Farah has put himself forward as the Trash Isles minister of sport.

As important as the celebrity support is Lad Bible’s championing of the young “heroes” from its audience demographic who are working for a cleaner world, such as Trash Isles “ambassadors” Sarah Roberts, a plastic pollution campaigner, and Tim Nunn, a photographer and surfer.

Kalantari says that the idea of lads littering their takeaway cartons on a Friday night is an outdated one. “There is that stereotype of people throwing things out of the car window but I think over time things have changed,” he says. “What we are trying to do is raise awareness so that when somebody litters, the others in the group will stand up and say ‘Why are you doing that? Did you not know that all goes into the sea?”

Growing in new territories – including its own

He wouldn’t have lasted long at Nuts magazine with that attitude but Kalantari and Solomou have ably demonstrated their instinct for social publishing. Their Lad Bible Group, which also includes spin-offs Sport Bible, Food Bible and female-focused Pretty52, was ranked ninth by the Sunday Times in rankings of the UK’s top 10 fastest growing tech companies. With its production team in Manchester and its commercial offices off Brick Lane in east London, it now employs almost 150 people and its sales of £9.2m have increased by 208% in the last three years.

Lad Bible is looking at physical expansion into other English-speaking countries, and has large audiences in Australia and Ireland. “Our content performs very well out there and we have a huge audience in both those countries and the culture is very relevant,” says Kalantari. “The big needle moment for us is going to be the US and in the next 12-18 months that’s something we are exploring. The English speaking countries would be our first move.”

In the meantime, it is building its own overseas territory. The response to the Trash Isles campaign means that already has a bigger “population” than the Seychelles and Greenland. It is bigger too than Antigua & Barbuda, the recent destruction of which by Hurricane Irma has contributed to growing global awareness of natural disaster and changing climate conditions.

Kalantari argues that the 18-34-year-olds who make up the Lad Bible's core audience are more engaged with the subject of environmental protection than their elders. “It tends to be the younger audience that care a lot about this and it’s actually that middle-aged who have a lot going on in their lives and are less focused on this,” he says. “We are trying to lead from the youth perspective and to drive that change in culture around littering.”

He is enthusiastic about Lad Bible reader feedback calling for a return to financial inducements in bottle recycling programmes. “I think it was Coca-Cola back in the day, a little bit before my time, when you would return the bottle and it would get reused?” says Kalantari, still 26.

He places this environmental focus in a responsible publishing context that includes UOKM8?, a Lad Bible mental health campaign designed to reduce high rates of suicide among young males. Kalantari claims it has had an impact on the national discourse on the wider subject. “We found that 18 months ago nobody would talk about mental health but now you find that it’s very common – people will say ‘I’m not feeling too right’.”

Lad Bible produced a “Respect the Water” campaign in conjunction with the lifeboats charity RNLI to address the numbers of young men dying from drowning. The RNLI has returned for a follow-up campaign, featuring a “Float to Live” video showing how to react of you fall into open water. It is commercial work but feels like a classic public information film.

It explains why the Home Office came to Sport Bible this month with the offer of an interview with Home Secretary Amber Rudd to highlight an initiative to combat racism in football.

There is a growing understanding that Lad Bible has the capacity to convey such messaging to a young audience with scale and authenticity.

Taking brands for a Joyride

Commercial brands are seeing this too. Lad Bible has in the past year established its own branded content agency Joyride. Netflix worked with Sport Bible on promotion of the news series of its hit show Narcos, which happened to coincide with football’s high-octane transfer deadline day. Sport Bible promoted Narcos by using exclusive clips of classic scenes from the show to react in real-time on social media to big transfer deals. “It was lighthearted and entertaining, which was great for our audience, but at the same time it made Narcos relevant around the day it was launching,” says Kalantari.

For all its new social responsibility, Lad Bible still depends heavily on humour and entertainment to maintain its levels of audience engagement.

The interview with Dame Judi might have delivered great content for the Trash Isles campaign but it was planned as a comedy sketch with grime rapper Lethal Bizzle, who has coined the word “Dench” as a street term signalling extreme admiration. The Queen Victoria actress is apparently amused and there are the makings of a viral hit.

Lad Bible has 28m likes on Facebook but it is on Instagram and Snapchat where it is seeing the strongest engagement among the 13-20 year-old segment of its audience. In an innovative move, it hired two 16 year-olds to oversee this content (they are now aged 18). “People from that demographic who know how to relate to that age group,” says Kalantari. “I see those two platforms definitely growing. Terrestrial TV the numbers are dwindling. People talk about Snapchat and Instagram as social platforms but it’s only a matter of time before they are showing the sort of content we are seeing on TV.”

There is much talk in the wider media of the younger generation being given a raw deal by their parents and grandparents. Kalantari says Lad Bible will continue with its mission to be entertaining and socially responsible at the same time.

“Everyone loves entertainment but if you are sat with your friends having a drink you will also talk about other things, whether it’s sport or serious topics like mental health if your friend is not well,” says Kalantari. “We are about taking advantage of the positives and trying to keep the negatives down by helping the world.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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