How Joe's shows represent an ambition to go 'toe-to-toe with the legacy publishers'

House of Rugby launches, sponsored by Guinness

Joe Media has lined up a barrage of shows in rugby, football, men's mental health and business to build individual brands in niches where it believes young male audiences are bereft of quality, entertaining options. These shows, it hopes, will bloom into umbrella brands stemming out across various platforms and formats, and even live events.

To this end, Joe has launched its latest brand, the ‘House of Rugby’. This is the outlet's attempt to take a commanding share of UK/Ireland rugby coverage with the backing of a brand synonymous with the sport – Guinness – as a sponsor.

From a London studio, it delivers The ‘House of Rugby’ show and from a newly purchased Dublin studio, sister show ‘Baz & Andrew’s House of Rugby’ is produced. Each show recently celebrated the release of their first episodes and now live online in video, audio and text, all tailored to social channels. Highlights on social will act as a funnel into the podcast.

This is a model Joe hopes to replicate across different interests.

Joe-rnalism

Heading up editorial is head of content Evan Fanning, who previously tried to fast-track digital efforts at The Telegraph and The Guardian – a struggle he likened to an “uphill battle” at times. Joe, on the other hand, is a completely different beast; founded in 2010, it has no legacy in print and is instead trying to scale up to compete with these titles.

He said: “Going to a place like Joe with the freedom to attack things without the newspaper deadweight was really exciting. We say we do ‘traditional media, but digitally’.”

The title is hinging its bets on a newsroom dynamic where raw talent with a strong voice is overseen by editorial veterans, including Fanning and more staff from Channel 4, BBC and Sky. In some instances, Fanning said, writers were recruited for their tone and performance on Twitter, citing the hiring of Nooruddean Choudry (or Bearded Genius) as he is likely more widely known.

“We give a chance to young people, a lot of raw talent come aboard as a first or second job and they bring a lot of energy. We then give them a steer. That is how we shape our products whether it is in sport or men's mental health or politics.”

On how its new round of shows found life, he said: “We identify areas that are underserved where we can deliver in a 21st century, multiplatform way with a focus on journalism and storytelling.

“We look at the market and ask, ‘what are people not being delivered here?’” After identifying rugby, Joe explored how to deliver content in that space. “There were a lot of podcasts, and a lot on TV, but we identified a gap online.

“We then created something to fill the gap and then found a partner – in this case, Guinness, a stakeholder in the sport anyway. We then heard what they would like to do, match edit with what we would like to do and found a happy equilibrium.”

Most notably, House of Rugby is not a stand-alone effort. Fanning said: “We have eight versions of this ready to go.”

Client competition

The male-focused media brand often gets bundled with viral social publishers like Unilad and LadBible, who recently merged. It is a comparison the group is keen to get away from. Fanning points towards the vein of journalism running through the company as a differentiator.

With a team of more than 65 people, Joe Media reaches 6m unique monthly users, across a social following of 11m. Another metric worth noting is an average of 80m monthly video views.

Gavin Johnson, formerly of AOL, leads the commercial wing. He works closely with Fanning to develop branded content. Johnson claimed the title drives a lot of return business from the Unilevers and P&Gs of the world. Rather than pitching against the Lads for business, Johnson claimed it is ITV, The Guardian, Channel 4, News UK and Global it is battling with for partners.

“That's who are peers are now," he said. "We win a lot of business in this space against phenomenal, well-respected publishers. We have trust, quality content, and that highly desirable audience which is extremely hard to reach through print and TV. We get a lot of traction. We go toe-to-toe with the legacy publishers.”

These new shows will help it reach a “transient” young male audience. Its James O’Brien podcast Unfiltered is already receiving award nominations. This year its shows (including Unfiltered, Boys Don’t Cry, House of Rugby) boast more than five million downloads. Furthermore, it claims to have hit a 90% completion rate on this output.

Today branded content is an increasingly important share of its income. These client pitches are becoming ever more vital to the success of new media companies. Earlier this month Shortlist Media chairman Mike Soutar said about half of Shortlist’s income now comes from such partnerships.

Now Joe Media has established a strong voice in its market, and in-house talent who can service these brand efforts, the conflict is in ensuring there’s no friction or jarring difference between each department.

Balancing editorial and branded content

“A lot goes into making sure the campaigns sit naturally," Fanning said.

"Executive creative director James Wilkins (formerly of John Doe) helps there. And we have a strong editorial input on any brief that comes in and there is a lot of back of forth like 'let's pull that idea back in to make it a little more editorial, a little more in line with Joe.'"

Johnson built on this: “We try to mirror editorial and commercial side as much as we can.”

An example of this would be how one day an in-house animator was producing a video about the Chelsea manager smoking 80 cigarettes a day.

The next week this talent was working on a recycling brief for partner Coca-Cola with the intent of maintaining the same tone and style. With the best-branded output, audiences shouldn’t necessarily “see a difference” – they will be warm to “Joe’s familiar style, tone and production”.

Johnson outlined that its approach to partnerships and originals is building trust among clients, which grants it a competitive advantage. “It is a proof of concept. People like working with us. We deliver what we say we will. We can create high-quality content which a lot of our rivals are probably struggling with.”

There are challenges on the table. Balancing the stringent editorial principles with client demands on the branded side, for one. But Fanning outlined that as the title expands, one of his biggest fears is that it loses its underdog mentality.

“The growth of the company has been so rapid, we are at our very best when all elements of the company are working together, editorial, production all hand in hand. We are constantly punching above our weight, that's where the creativity and excitement and adrenaline comes from. But as you expand, keeping that ethos is a bit of a challenge. At the moment, fingers crossed, we're doing it.”

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