From bitter rivals to brothers in arms? Inside the LadBible/Unilad merger one year on
It's been one year since LadBible acquired indebted viral rival Unilad in a dramatic deal co-founder Solly Solomou promised would “transform the media landscape globally". The Drum explores how a social media empire was formed from 'lads' once in bitter opposition.
Several digital media publishers have consolidated in the last year - but few mergers were as compelling as the LadBible/Unilad armistice.
After entering administration last year, dozens of potential bidders swarmed a wounded Unilad, hungry for its social media reach. It was subjugated by primary creditor LadBible, after it stealthily acquired £5m in debt owed to ousted Unilad founder Alex Partridge. One bidder dubbed it "a genius move", another bitterly regretted not securing the debt.
Now LadBible's alpha lad proposition has more than 120 million social media followers. It is the second most-viewed media property on social according to Tubular Labs, ranking ahead of Disney but behind WarnerMedia. Closest rivals BuzzFeed, Jungle Creations and Group Nine trail behind.
This heated battle foreshadowed tough times in digital media, as outlined by Jonah Peretti in 2018. Since then, some envious publishers have tried to emulate the scale of the lad empire; others dismissed the drive-by mass audience of social in favour of niche, loyal, engaged fans.
Meanwhile, LadBible Group has been quietly reforming. But like any merger, it's had its difficulties.
In the early 2010s, Unilad and LadBible industrialised banter, viral video and fast news – first from university campuses, later from Manchester's Northern Quarter. Much like the Gallagher brothers, the lads did not get on. On the merger, media commentators struggled to differentiate the brands; one thought they were already merged.
Many of the 200 Unilad jobs were saved, though marketing, commercial and HR roles were consolidated. The combined group's 248 employees are now split across Manchester and London offices.
They've come together "incredibly well" claims Arian Kalantari, LadBible co-founder and chief operating officer.
But it wasn't without challenges. One former Unilad employee described the weeks following the merger as “pretty grim” and says there was an atrophy of employees to rival publishers and social agencies.
Nonetheless, Unilad's fate was unlikely to differ. A failed Unilad bidder reflects: “The business hasn't changed much. It is probably more profitable, they haven't done a terrible job and needed to make big cuts. It was painful but it was a must-do that we would have done too."
But bringing together to brands with deep-seated rivalries came concern over a clash of culture, which still lingers: "Both sides had were indoctrinated to hate each other. Bringing them both together was never going to work. They look at each other saying: 'you're my bitter rival'."
This may be in part due to the decision to keep both the brand separate. The former employee says before they left there was "a lot of promise of integration which never came. They are both working separately on different floors.”
But, there was less audience crossover than "initially" expected while the individual strength of the brands and difficulties in consolidating Facebook pages may have contributed to the ongoing separation.
Kalantari says that both brands remain editorially independent in the name of “a healthy atmosphere of competition." But they do need to be better “differentiated, for both consumers and advertisers."
Going forward, broadly Unilad will focus on music while LadBible is developing longer-form content. The latter tested the waters running social documentaries with Channel 4 last year and its analytics have since shown that almost half of its social video posts lasted more than a minute in 2019, up significantly on 2018.
But Unilad and LadBible titles “are part of a much larger family” that also includes SportBible and GamingBible. Unilad Adventure will be receiving “more attention” in the coming months too, says Kalantari.
On the effectiveness of these channels, he says: "We let the numbers do the talking."
Lizzie Barclay, head of marketing at LadBible Group, has helped with “important calls” like merging the competing food and gaming verticals. Cuts were made where necessary.
“They weren't different enough. We could better serve the audience with a consolidated team and brand.” says Barclay.
Similarweb analysis of the LadBible and Unilad websites claimed more than two-thirds of visitors are male and a third of the audience is aged between 25-34. There is now a concerted drive to build a female audience (Vice bought Refinery 29 for this reason) which saw the LadBible Group relaunch Pretty52 as Tyla last week in a move to ‘shed its bro image’.
Such trangressions are long in the past. LadBible is increasingly a brand with a cause. Efforts to raise waste plastic awareness claimed a Cannes Lions award in 2018, and drives to get its massive male audience openly talking about mental health deserve credit.
Kalantari has set an "aspirational star" for the group to "build communities that laugh, think and act”. He adds: "Even though the brands serve consumers differently, they all tie up into our mission statement.”
LadBible claims to reach 80% of UK Gen Zers. Beneath this reach, the group’s ad income is split three ways between on-site advertising, branded content and third-party platform ads.
By January 2018, it had hit 430 million views on sponsored campaigns across Facebook, Instagram and YouTube according to Tubular Labs. Top partners include such the Army Jobs, PokerStars, Domino’s Pizza, ABB Formula E and Three, which has its own co-branded channel Relaxing Stuff, debuted by a remarkable Louis Capaldi ASMR experience that drove 7.3m Facebook views.
Barclay says the ASMR channel “complemented plans to make wellness more accessible for the same demographic,” but adds there are no plans to develop any more co-branded channels. Few videos have sniffed at the heights Capaldi's 'jobby' video.
Making the wider proposition more appealing and the advertising proposition more grown-up is the recent appointment of “industry titan” Colin Gottlieb of Manning Gottlieb Media fame, for a hands-on role to work with clients.
“We’re all going to learn from him, and I’m confident we’ll teach him some new tricks to,” Kalantari says. The partnership will help it unlock “additional value from its audience”, he adds. Joyride, its branded content agency, will likely be a cornerstone of this strategy.
Ad packages also need to be simplified, Kalantari admits: “It needs to be easy for people to do business with us.”
Ed Paine, a media account director at Agenda21, admitted there's still a job to do on shifting the perception among some advertisers. "LadBible, on the face of it, is innocent enough, but it does innately create a level of subconscious bias and assumptions about its content quality and style," he says.
"There are also market perceptions that LadBible has a lower quality inventory than other publishers".
Paine adds that while he believes the content is well received and reaches young affluent audiences, "relevancy, context, brand perception and brand safety must be evaluated too when looking at potential media partners."
He recommends more flexibility in its client solutions and reminds buyers that a "Facebook video view (counted as three seconds viewed at 50% of the unit in view) is not equal to video views across alternative inventory sources."
Between the first half of 2018 and the same period in 2019, average monthly website traffic dropped by more than 10% at each title. Similarweb claims LadBible saw 46.5% more traffic than Unilad in this time and post-consolidation, the group was up 9m views a month.
Social traffic to both was down 6.5%, although direct visits and organic search increased, indicating that more people actively seeking these brands, rather than passively consuming on Facebook.
But there remains a dependency on Facebook, which hasn’t been short of controversies – be it for inflating video views by as much as 900% or switching NewsFeed algorithms to force brands to pay to reach audiences they built. In 2019, Facebook accounted for 98.6% of social traffic to Unilad and 96.3% to LadBible (up from 95% the year prior).
Website data only tells part of the story; after all, these are social publishers. Tubular Labs tracked views across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. In January 2018, minus Unilad, LadBible received 9.42bn monthly views. With Unilad, in September 2019 it posted only 3.75bn views.
However, this may not be as troubling as it looks. Between January 2018 and September 2019, there was a significant reduction in posts which hinted at a push for quality over quantity. It also be the case that amid industry scrutiny video measurement has become more accurate in that time. Regardless, the group has “maintained a place among the top cross-platform media and entertainment properties in the world… despite decreases in views,” says Tubular.
If Kalantari is nervous about LadBible’s Facebook reliance, he’s not showing it. This is, after all, a business built on Facebook, and one that has done very well from Facebook.
In fact, it's just signed up as a partner to Facebook Watch, it's long-form video platfrom, that will see it produce a number of new celebrity fronted shows.
“We’ll never announce we’re ‘moving away’ from Facebook - far from it. We have plenty of new projects going on with them and a fantastic relationship. It’s an exciting time.”
Richard Beech, director of the Ginger Agency, formerly of DriveTribe, BBC, Joe Media and BuzzFeed, and The Drum columnist, says it is difficult to argue with the billions of views LadBible generates - but hints that its a declining market.
“You don't get the sort of reach it has without being the lowest common denominator. Many of its top videos are third party videos of animals doing cute things or people failing at stuff.”
He calls it the ‘You've Been Framed’ of the internet - but "not as an insult," he adds, "almost everyone likes to watch these videos".
However, there is an increasing demand brand purpose.
"Many advertisers are more interested in aligning the messaging of their campaign with the brand values of a media partner. If they want reach, they can buy it via Facebook.”
Demand for narrow, specific, audiences is increasing. Smaller publishers can better reach them with tailored content.
He concludes: "It is gradually investing in other areas. It can do it without worrying about Facebook doing anything that would jeopardise its reach.
"LadBible needs Facebook, but Facebook also needs LadBible to keep flooding its with wide-reaching content. Three things are inevitable in life; death, taxes, and being tagged in the comments section of a LadBible video of a dog skateboarding, by somebody you haven't spoken for ages."