Agencies be warned, LadBible’s nerds want your ad budgets
After two days of quizzing the social publisher’s staff in London, The Drum reports back on the progress being made in its quest for credibility among the marketing, publishing and original content industries.
LadBible's Agree to Disagree series with Budweiser
LadBible started life as a Facebook meme page in 2012. It was immediately far-reaching as the business learned how to industrialize viral content. Credibility came later as it labored up the greasy pole of digital media. Today, by many metrics, it is the most viewed publisher in the world.
To get there, all it had to do was swallow bitter Mancunian rivals Unilad in 2018, ride out economic trends that wiped millions off Vice and BuzzFeed, win a few Cannes Lions awards and, perhaps most difficultly, convince advertisers it’s an invaluable partner.
At 450 staff, it boasts a sizeable footprint across English-speaking markets and regularly appears in pitches to work with the UK’s top brands. The US is next. Advertisers will hear a familiar refrain, that it alone has the platform, insights and creativity to woo Gen Z. What if it’s true?
What is LadBible in 2023?
The publisher shares thousands of pieces of content across countless social platforms. It looks effortless. At a glance, it’s snackable, subtitled, short and mostly brand safe. Lindsay Turner, director of marketing and communications, takes me through the Instagram feed on her phone. She has liked some of the posts but then, so had many.
Among her responsibilities is making sure LadBible better uses its frankly huge footprint for good. It has focused on driving sustainable behaviors, advocating against female violence and normalizing mental health discourse. Lad culture has come a long way in a decade.
Then I checked the dot com. I’m not a regular, but I appreciate how light it is and how it made me laugh. Visually, it’s like the Daily Mail bred with The Dodo. Today’s top story was about a man who can’t sit on the toilet. Yes, I clicked it. It was worth it.
It appears to carry fewer ads than national news sites and the team talks up how it doesn’t force a perspective on readers. This content is designed to transcend social filter bubbles. LadBible wants people debating in the comments section – not necessarily arguing, but discussing. So this is how to get more than a billion website impressions a year?
As I go deeper, I am surprised by just how exacting the platform gatekeepers are. These are nerds, not Lads. That clip of Pedro Pascal seductively chewing on a sandwich, the user-generated video featuring a cat doing something incredible, or that bit of sage mortgage advice – all purposefully feel at home, as cogs in the world’s biggest engagement engine. It turns out you can learn quite a lot from this content flywheel. But more on that later.
The reception area of LadBible’s London office is decked out in black gloss and red neon and signed football memorabilia. So far, there are no surprises. Up back, there are a few pristine ping-pong tables. Just out of sight from the parade of visiting gangsters, Love Islanders and media-trained footballers are ranks of bespectacled professionals deeply immersed in dashboards. I wasn’t quite expecting that.
Then, in a central kitchen area, an expensive-looking coffee machine has a laminated sign sellotaped on, reading ‘Do NOT use this machine during filming’. It rattles into life once during my visit and shakes the premises like an industrial cement mixer. There’s always filming going on in the Lad Studio, I realize. This machine must always be off-limits. There is a second studio opening in the Manchester office soon. Maybe that’ll open up some coffee windows.
Putting that aside, I had about 15 interviews penned in.
First up is Emily Driscoll, head of data, intelligence and planning. I didn’t know LadBible had a head of data, intelligence and planning. I tell Driscoll as much. “We’ve changed massively. We’ve always used data to inform what we’re doing but we’ve got cleverer in the last few years.”
A lot of media companies claim this, but one differentiator I see is its consumer research youth panel of more than 50,000 souls, LadNation. I’m shown examples of it conducting competitor and sector analysis, celebrity buzz tracking, quantitative research and brand uplift studies to sourcing audience questions for one of the Gallagher brothers. This research helped Visa get a handle on how young people were managing the cost of living crisis. Agencies regularly source “conversation starters” for pitch decks from it, as well as creative “hooks” once work is given the green light.
Driscoll’s team now, more often than not, has a direct line with client data teams where she regularly faces interrogation. She has one more responsibility, making sure the organization doesn’t fudge, nudge or “round up” its engagement data. Trust is hard to come by.
Mike Vaughan has been at the business since almost the very beginning. He’s now director of social. He started SportBible in 2013 and accumulated 100,000 followers in a few days. Even in 2023, it’s still LadBible’s fastest-growing brand. With its sleek production and access to top talent, it is now a far cry from its origins.
I ask Vaughan: “When did this become a real publisher?” He pauses then plucks out “four years in” (around 2016) when it left what he dubbed as the “startup phase”. He soon graduated into project management after it secured relationships with blue chip brands including Budweiser, Doritos and Activision.
“Just a few years earlier we were probably selling mobile phone cases,” he reflects. Back then, LadBible’s bread and butter was chiefly in “word and image,” but video was on the horizon. We’d reached peak internet access, 4G networks were popping up and smartphones were getting smarter. It was time for ‘the pivot to video’ – a trend that ripped the heart out of some publishers and was the making of others.
One of many pivots
Snapchat was an early partner. It wanted LadBible content and offered serious monetization around 2017. So Vaughan scaled up a video team. Fast. The Facebook opportunity came later when it finally launched video ad breaks. Vaughan admits: “At the time, most of our videos were 10 seconds long, we had to figure out what longer-form looked like to us”.
It was a grind. Six videos a day became 20. Some projects took off. Some didn’t. No one really knew what would work until it’d been tested with audiences. Tech platforms craved native video. They were pulling favorable CPMs on the videos they were forcing into market. Now, LadBible posts about 100 Facebook videos a day. Don’t mistake this scale for a blunt-force approach. Failure is not tolerated. Content is meticulously picked to generate engagement. Anything that doesn’t meet expectations is purged so it doesn’t kill the page’s algorithmic momentum. Some failures get a second life with a different post strategy, others are relegated to the tough lessons bin.
Jon Birchall, head of editorial strategy, previously at Reach, goes into detail about what type of content lands. It’s not always the organization’s proudest stuff, but every publisher has a few of these story types up their sleeves. Jeremy Clarkson stories do well, as does anything about Ryan Reynolds’s Wrexham venture. And, perhaps most shockingly, financial advice is a big hitter. “If you told me that five years ago I’d have thought you were mad.”
One thing above all stuck out from this conversation. He claims that LadBible publishes less content than its rivals. It has a slim 50 journalists and he believes it “really punches above its weight”.
The discussion moves on to brand building and driving audiences to first-party platforms like the dot com. Dwell time, returning visitors, reader sentiment and shares come up often, even if LadBible is no longer hooked on the scale that it and its contemporaries once touted. “It can’t be a flash in the pan,” Birchall concludes.
His colleague Simon Binns, who is the managing editor, helps coordinate all of this with commercial and social teams. He gives a good impression of the knife edge the business operates on. “Things can change on a sixpence tomorrow, we work in an industry that is so changeable. We try to predict what the next 12-to-24 months hold, but we also try to do the next 12-to-24 hours.”
It sounds hard. The social gods are a petty bunch. There’s no room for complacency. Binns explains: “Audiences turn off very quickly if they feel like they’re being gamified, spammed or relentlessly overwhelmed with stuff that they don’t care about.”
Vaughan explains how the company’s cautious growth has been about scaling up teams when there’s a financial incentive. He currently awaits better video monetization on Instagram and TikTok, but they’re coming. It’s a good time for videographers to get a CV into Vaughan, but they better be ready for a wild ride.
It’s no secret that tech platforms prioritize and deprioritize formats with reckless abandon and that entire business models are flipped in days. One of many examples comes from the final months of 2022, when LadBible went from mostly publishing long-form video (three minutes or more) on Facebook to shorter videos. One day something changed so that short outperformed long. The Lads followed. At least it’s easier to trim longer videos into shorter clips than go in the other direction, as he did all those years ago, jokes Vaughan.
Operations lead Jake Strong-Jones is a platforms expert. He lists the exact months a bunch of algorithm changes happen. I’d lost them in the pandemic blur. Thankfully, he catches himself before launching into a lengthy lecture on aspect ratio selection.
Strong-Jones explains: “We are really, really quick to pivot in things that work. We also try to find the right balance between making sure things look authentic enough on platform, versus making more premium-looking, top-quality stuff.”
This friction is reflected in the studios. I spot an interesting rig where a high-spec TV camera is attached to a mobile phone filming in vertical mode. The content has to look at home on the platforms. Every detail is accounted for. There is no one-size-fits-all solution more elegant than this beastly camera rig.
Meanwhile, the relationship it has with creators is in flux. Strong-Jones acknowledges that LadBible needs to better position itself as a partner. TikToks, Reels and Shorts, all underpinned by AI personalization tech, are surfacing smaller influencers and sending them into the stratosphere. There are more accounts with more than a million followers than there has ever been. More people, creating better content than ever before. The publisher needs to sit as an intermediary between them and understand what it could commission to please people and those pithy algorithms.
LadBible sees influencer accounts get huge in real-time. One staffer says they noticed the frenzy around Francis Bourgeois the trainspotter very early and got in on that. Another gives away that Italian chef Gino D’Acampo is one of the most loved celebs in the UK. Who knew?
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Can LadBible convince marketers?
After drawing numerous diagrams, going into decks and asking a great many questions, it is clear that the organization is confident it can do what it claims to do. No questions are off-limits and nothing is vetted in advance. The only barrier to my journalism is fatigue.
Then, Tim Pearson, chief revenue officer, walks in. He was formerly chief executive of media agency OMD UK and theoretically knows what the publisher needs to be selling to clients.
He’s tired of hearing LadBible described as a “wild card“. Instead, “it’s a trump card,“ he asserts. There are few organizations that “get” social, be they brands, owners, publishers or even the platforms themselves, claims Pearson. “We’re now increasingly creeping up that list of essential partners. Our competitor set used to be in the visual publishing space. Now they are in TV.”
The irony is not lost that, as LadBible tries to build out an original output that the team animatedly assures me “is definitely TV”, the TV giants are trying to build out a social presence that looks to emulate the success of LadBible. The sweet spot is likely somewhere in the middle.
Pearson says: “We can spot trends when they happen, we can make the trends happen. Brands aren’t necessarily set up with the right infrastructure to do that. LadBible gives them a seat at the table around culture.”
During discussions with the sales team, there is talk of ‘winning the World Cup’. Clients Budweiser and Google were the most talked about brands in their respective categories then. For the Bud work, there was a mere hour to film with some England internationals. A greater deal of prep went into making sure there wasn’t a wasted second on that shoot. Relaunching Nandos in the UK was another big project. Would you take a date there? The series made a compelling case that you should.
I’ve been in this situation a lot over the last few years. It can be painful to watch branded content in front of those who made it when a great deal of it is rubbish. But this wasn’t. It can’t be if it wants to get past the LadBible social gatekeepers. They can’t risk any bad content killing the algo-karma.
Still, there remains trepidation in some clients. They feel like, if they are going to sponsor something, according to Pearson, they’d be safer banking on the prestige of radio and TV. “There’s a whole world of premium video content that isn’t currently being tapped into by clients.”
Out on the periphery of this business is the immersive team. I was worried they were going to blab on about metaverse activations but instead, its head Joe Williams explains the “magic” in in-camera experiences and promises to share research in the coming months about the brand uplift they bring as a part of a campaign. I had fun playing with a Pot Noodle AR filter meanwhile. Advertisers envy those engagement times and will likely find a way to make in-camera content a cohesive part of a 360 campaign.
It all comes down to client ’bravery’. During chemistry meetings, the Lads work out just how ’brave’ clients are. They have a scale, to see just how ’out-there’ they can take the work. To activate effectively on social, brands have to be able to flex in this way. As the years pass, brands don’t need to be as brave as they once were to work with the Lads.
Legacy retail brand John Lewis is perhaps the best example of this. In 2022, it worked briefed the publisher to engage Gen Z. The brand, known for its evocative Christmas ads, finally acknowledged it needs help beyond its best-in-class TVCs. Will the relationship continue this year under new creative agency Saatchi and Saatchi?
At the end of the second day of Lad interrogations, co-founder ‘Solly’ Solomou pops in for a quick chat. “Got everything you need?” he asks. “Yes,” I tiredly respond. I think he wants to answer a few questions for the piece, but I already have about eight hours of recordings to wade through and a pressing appointment with a restaurant that distributes exotic cheeses on a sushi-style conveyor belt – I’ll refrain from comparing this to the business model of LadBible.
It’s no secret that LadBible wants to combat preconceptions the industry has about it. I changed my mind on a few things.
First, not a single soul blabbered on about AI, storytelling, metaverse or all the other things that marketers mention when they’re not really sure what to talk about. They showed me real things and they showed me their working.
Next, it’s clear that social publishing is a hardened, mature field and deserves more respect.
And finally, LadBible is a haven for nerds, not lads.
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