Joe Marchese’s Attention Capital Seeks Media, Tech Firms With True Connections

joe marchese Fox
Courtesy of Dustin Cohen

Attention – please.

In an industry eager to play up the worth of proxies for consumer attention – things like clicks, likes and retweets – a new company hopes to deliver more of the real thing.

The co-founders of Attention Capital intend to put together a holding company built out of various media brands that bring consumers together and technologies that help spark better measures of audience interest than many of the ones currently available. The trio is betting that people are growing tired of feasting on outlandish clickbait headlines and videos, and that advertisers who want to attract those consumers have become weary of measures of activity that have little to do with verifiable action.

“We think there’s a whole class of businesses that have outsized influence and undersized monetization,” says Joe Marchese, Attention Capital’s CEO and co-founder, in an interview. Executives declined to comment on the amount of funds they will have at their disposal, but a person familiar with the matter suggests Attention Capital hopes to raise between $400 million and $500 million.

The company has already partnered with Lupa Systems, an investment firm led by James Murdoch, to acquire a controlling stake in Tribeca Enterprises, the producer of the Tribeca Film Festival, from The Madison Square Garden Company. “In a world where amazing stories are getting lost in a sea of ‘content’ and filters are determined by AI, there is a massive market opportunity for curators,” Marchese wrote in a post describing why the companies were interested in the purchase. “And Tribeca is one of the world’s greatest curators.”

Marchese says his company intends to acquire a range of companies that give rise to “not virtual, but real connections” among consumers, and help their founders and top executives build them out. He likened the company to “a new IAC,” a reference to the corporation led by Barry Diller that encompasses such outlets as the Daily Beast, Angie’s List, HomeAdvisor and OKCupid. He is joining forces with Ashlyn Gentry, a former senior vice president at Palantir Technologies, the analytics-software company, and Nick Bell, the former vice president of content at Snap. Both will serve as managing partners of the new company.

Marchese recently left an influential role at the former 21st Century Fox, where he was president of advertising revenue for Fox Networks, and has cut an interesting figure on Madison Avenue in recent years. In sundry presentations, he has warned advertisers and media buyers that they are in a battle for consumer attention – and that they run the risk of losing. He points to a constant spate of warnings about bots, click fraud and low-quality digital content as signs that consumer activity is not being measured properly for the companies that underwrite media companies with ad revenue. He has predicted a looming “crash” that will bring down businesses that lose value by chasing meaningless audience metrics and undervalues outlets that cultivate quality relationships. He is also a founding partner at Human Ventures, a venture fund.

He made some counterintuitive plays for viewer attention while at Fox, championing the use of ads that lasted only a few seconds during football games and other big-event programming. He even pressed forward with an effort to cut back commercials – even local ads – from certain Fox primetime shows. He has enjoyed an alliance with James Murdoch, who bought Marchese’s ad-tech company, TrueX, for around $200 million when he was CEO of 21st Century Fox.

Other companies, including Marchese’s former employer. are making similar bids. Fox Corporation said Sunday that it had bought Credible Labs, a company that helps consumers survey rates for various loans, with Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch citing an emphasis on “direct interactions with our consumers to provide services they want and expand their engagement with us across platforms.” In May, Fox bought a stake in Stars Group, a company that helps people make wagers and bets online.

Some big advertisers have also expressed dissatisfaction with how digital media has changed the rules of the game. AT&T in February pulled all of its advertising from YouTube, citing concerns about ads being placed adjacent to videos that depicted the exploitation of children. Procter & Gamble in April urged the advertising industries to demand better quality of content and audience measurement from media partners. And Unilever in 2018 called for better standards for ascertaining the veracity of social-media influencers and their followings.

There are other indicators. Despite the rapid growth of digital media in recent years, advertisers continue to add to the commitments they are making to broadcast television. Volume of ad dollars committed in the industry’s annual “upfront” market has risen for another year, as Madison Avenue re-emphasizes the medium and its audience, even with an abundance of new opportunities at mobile, social and streaming-video outlets.

“We think much of the industry is being run on vanity measures that don’t properly value human attention,” says Gentry, in an interview. “We think that consumers are starting to think more critically about how they spend their time and attention. We believe that the next generation of media and technology companies will be successful if they properly measure and value human attention.”

Attention Capital could look to get more involved with well-known brands that could use help navigating the digital age, says Bell, or look at media businesses that get people to come together and form a community around a particular topic or interest. “Getting people to get out of their seats and spend time together is a really interesting proposition,” he says.

At a moment when consumers are grappling with smartphone alerts, enticements from voice-activated assistants and pings from wearable devices, Attention Capital’s lead trio thinks they are about to throw up their hands and gravitate to places that will give them a better return on their time and regard. “We believe that we are on the precipice of a moment where people realize that what they are putting in their brains is as important as what they are putting into their bodies – and probably more so,” says Bell.