The Lad Bible hires 16-year-olds in its newsroom to understand the next phase of digital media

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.

The Lad Bible, one of the UK’s fastest growing news and entertainment publishers, has begun to hire 16-year-olds and place them at the heart of its editorial operation.

Where once the school-leaver's role in news media was as tea boy (less so tea girl), running errands across the newsroom, these teenagers are encouraged to determine emerging trends, to contribute to making content and to help plan strategy.

The step, by a company which now claims to generate more eyeballs across its multiple digital platforms and brands than any other publisher in Europe, marks a distinct change from the oft-derided modern media trend of using young interns (usually undergraduates or recent graduates) as sources of unpaid labour. The Lad Bible’s teens have been hired under a newly launched apprenticeship scheme and will receive on-the-job training, mentoring and a wage.

The scheme is a sign of how modern media, struggling to keep pace with technological innovations that continue to disrupt its production and distribution methods, is becoming beholden to youth to make sense of those changes. Lad Bible is one of several publishers to have taken the view that emerging platforms such as Snapchat are non-native to mid-twenty-somethings and should be handled by younger staff.

Lad Bible is growing fast. It will shortly move out of the Shoreditch offices where I meet its new chief operating officer, Adam Clyne, and inhabit a space nearly five times bigger over two floors of a nearby east London building. That is its commercial operation, close to London’s adland and tech hubs. Its editorial office is a grand converted warehouse in Manchester’s fashionable Northern Quarter, with one storey given over to film studios. Both London and Manchester prioritise such millennial office features as the table tennis table and the Fifa gaming lounge space.

Redefining 'lad'

Clyne says that the Lad Bible’s mission includes redefining the very word ‘lad’. It surely contradicts all received marketing wisdom to have built a company on a brand name so apparently toxic in its association with lads mags, a dying media genre from a generation ago. Yet the Lad Bible has done this, with 15.9 million Facebook followers and an Alexa ranking of 14th biggest website in the UK, recently overhauling Mail Online to become the nation’s biggest content site behind the BBC.

After being accused of contributing to a new culture of misogyny during the early days of its four-year history, the Lad Bible now seeks a reputation for responsibility that would never have occurred to the editors or readers of magazines such as Nuts and Zoo. Its recent campaigns include 'UOKM8?', an attempt to build understanding of mental health issues among young males, and a branded content project with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, called 'Respect The Water', intended to reduce the numbers of young men drowning off the coasts of Britain.

“We see ourselves as a catalyst to redefine what it means to be a lad,” says Clyne. “Lads are no longer the lads of yesteryear – it’s a whole new genre, a whole new type of people.”

The community of readers that the Lad Bible is trying to create – across a portfolio of powerful and growing brands that also includes the Sport Bible, the Food Bible, the Gaming Bible and female-orientated Pretty 52 – has a different sensibility, and Clyne keeps a list in his office of the intrinsic qualities. “A lad is an everyday hero, a lad is a feminist, which surprises people but actually they are, and a lad is a woman because it doesn't have to be gender-specific. We see the Lad Bible as being more about a state of mind than a very specific demographic.”

No doubt the 16-year-old apprentices, who joined the Manchester office a month ago, can provide fresh understanding on the outlook of a modern lad. At 38, Clyne is “more dad than lad”, he readily concedes.

The teenagers were selected after building large individual followings for themselves on Instagram. “They are super-talented,” says Clyne. “We know this stuff inside out but they are teaching us new tricks, keeping us on our toes. It shows you the vision of the business…we are investing in talent.”

He says that more teenage apprentices may be hired. “It's probably the dream job for a 16-year-old, working for Lad Bible, and I'm proud that we can make that happen,” he says. “They will be looking into what videos are bubbling away, what kind of things will be interesting for us to explore. They are straight into the teams and their opinion is listened to properly.”

From Manchester to... Manhattan?

Clyne joined in June from PR giant Weber Shandwick, where he ran the digital operation. He saw it as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to work with a business that was not merely trying to transition to digital publishing. “They were actually living it – they were deep in the weeds,” he says.

He has already indicated that he sees youth-skewed news and entertainment publishers BuzzFeed and Vice as the Lad Bible’s natural competition, suggesting an ambitious strategy of American expansion. “The US is an obvious market for us and the big positive is we are not trying to build an audience from scratch, we probably reach 100 million a month there already,” he says. “When you think about America, what's interesting for us as a business is that the term lad doesn't come with any legacy baggage. It's just on our home turf we are having to reinvent what that terminology means.”

The Lad Bible is run by two twenty-something friends from Stockport, Alexander 'Solly' Solomou and Arian Kalantari. It shares some historical roots with the remarkably similar Unilad, which is also based in Manchester and has amassed an even more staggering number of followers on Facebook (18.4 million). From a branding perspective, it can’t be ideal to be trying to redefine the term ‘lad’ with such a rival fishing in the same waters.

Clyne claims not to be worried, suggesting that the Lad Bible Group is a far more sophisticated operation than its challengers (of which the successful Irish-based site Joe would presumably be another). “We are a bigger company in terms of infrastructure,” he says. “We are not just a viral video machine.”

Unilad might be big on Facebook but the Lad Bible’s brands are strong across a range of social media platforms. It has launched the photography-focused the Lens Bible as its first Instagram-only brand. The combined strength of the portfolio is extraordinary, with the Sport Bible having 8.6 million followers on Facebook (and matching Trip Advisor for UK audience), while Pretty 52 attracts comparable traffic levels to the Sun (according to Alexa statistics) and is more popular on Facebook than Cosmopolitan.

Especially important, in Clyne’s view, is the group’s expertise in data science and analytics, allowing it to offer commercial clients unique insight into the attitudes of a huge swathe of the youth audience. The UOKM8? work, and a Brexit-related campaign called Knowing Me, Knowing EU (which was responsible for tens of thousands of young people registering to vote), have involved considerable polling and data gathering. Clyne said the learning on mental health would be shared with specialist charities.

Crude content

This altruism does not come across in every piece of Lad Bible content. Unsympathetic use of 'funny' CCTV footage showing a distressed woman defecating in a lift, clips of an oversized 9-year-old acting like a 'beast' on a rugby field and shoving aside pint-sized opponents, and an interview with grime rapper Dizzee Rascal, using the C-word and boasting of his sexual conquests, are examples of questionable taste. Some advertisers might be wary of such an environment, no matter what the spending power of the audience.

Clyne insists that the Lad Bible newsroom has “checks and balances in place” and notes that the vast audience itself is a useful barometer. “We can see very quickly if people aren't happy with something and we are not averse to pulling something down if we think it's wrong.”

Just how much The Lad Bible makes from advertising is difficult to gauge. Although its content is free, it has a stated policy of not deluging users with ads. How much money is it making? “Well, we are a profitable company and we have been profitable since day one,” says Clyne. “We have between 110-120 staff and we are a profitable business. We do carry advertising on our website [but] it doesn’t over-dominate our site because we want there to be a rich user experience.”

The Lad Bible Group has a range of revenue streams, from programmatic advertising to branded content (clients range from the RNLI to film studios and snack brands such as Doritos and Domino’s). It licenses some of its own content and makes money from syndicating material from third parties on its sites. And it uses data capture to serve clients with insights into the youth audience.

Profitability is also surely helped by the wealth of free content the Lad Bible receives (between 500-1000 user generated videos sent in every day). The assumption is that there’s no payment. “We see it more as a reward and recognition,” says Clyne. “I think for some people it's a bit of a badge of honour [to be published on The Lad Bible].”

Happily for the publisher, the standard of this largely free material is improving. “We are now working with more contributors who want to use us as a vehicle to build an audience. It's less user generated in the traditional sense, it's planned, organised, it's well shot, crafted and has a story attached to it.”

Such a pattern, away from spontaneity and towards more ‘scripted’ video formats, would suggest the Lad Bible is moving further from news and more towards entertainment.

Clyne likes to define the site by using a phrase coined by one of The Lad Bible’s readers: “It’s not the news, it’s my news.”

Whatever it is, it’s working, and you don’t need to be 16 to understand that.

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

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