For Hearst, the deal is the traditional media company’s latest bid to diversify, as youth-skewing audiences shift toward Internet and mobile outlets. Complex joins Hearst’s investments in Vice Media, BuzzFeed, United Artists Media Group, and AwesomenessTV, in which it acquired a 25% stake for $81.5 million from DreamWorks Animation.
“The Complex team drives explosive engagement through smart, hip content that features exclusives from some of the top music and popular culture stars of our time,” said Neeraj Khemlani, co-president of Hearst Entertainment & Syndication and head of Hearst Digital Studios.
The investment brings New York-based Complex, started by fashion designer Marc Ecko in 2002, to $52 million raised to date. The companies didn’t disclose what portion of Complex is now owned by Hearst. Previous investors in privately held Complex include Iconix Brand Group, S3 Ventures, Austin Ventures and Accel Partners.
Complex operates in the same mold as other digital-centric companies in Hearst’s investment portfolio, and Khemlani noted that Vice (in its deal with HBO) and AwesomenessTV (with Nickelodeon) have successfully migrated their brands to TV. Hearst holds an ownership stake in A+E Networks as well as ESPN.
“If you have a great brand, great content and a large audience you can drive that wherever you want it to go,” he said. “Whether it’s pay television or movies on iTunes, all platforms are fair game.”
Complex’s sites focus on niche segments in pop culture, entertainment, fashion, hip-hop music, art and design, food, technology, sports and video games. The company reaches 57 million millennial males per month across owned and partner sites, and serves 192 million video views monthly — up more than fivefold from a year ago. Ecko started the company as a magazine, which continues to be published bi-monthly (the cover of the August/September 2015 issue, pictured above, features Khloe Kardashian).
With the funding, Complex plans to crank up even more video, CEO Rich Antoniello said. “As we look toward further expansion in digital and linear entertainment, Complex will have access to the extensive expertise, scale and partnerships that only a global media company like Hearst could offer,” he said. Complex earlier this year tapped Spike Lee as an adviser on video and branded-content initiatives.
Complex is different from BuzzFeed and other new-media players, Antoniello said, in that it’s been able to aggregate large audiences with content geared around specific vertical topics, such as sneaker culture.
In fact, Khemlani said he first got in touch with Antoniello about two years ago after the Hearst exec read “23 Things You May Not Know About Air Jordans” on Complex.com.
“I called Rich right after I read that… They cover pop culture unlike anyone I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Getting the attention of a male millennial is almost impossible these days, and it was no-brainer to partner with Rich and Marc.”
Complex has 331 employees, mostly based at its headquarters in New York and in L.A., where the company produces the bulk of its video programming.