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So What Do You Do, Jim Bankoff, CEO of Vox Media?

The former AOL exec discusses his plans to bring quality back to the Web

By Noah Davis - July 24, 2013
When Jim Bankoff took the reins as CEO of SB Nation in 2008, the company was essentially a network of fan blogs. A little more than four years later, the former AOL executive has dramatically expanded the offerings of what is now known as Vox Media, recruiting the Engadget crew to launch The Verge and debuting Polygon, a site dedicated to video games, as well. [Disclosure: I have written features for both SB Nation and The Verge.]

All three sites feature excellent writing, big, bold design and custom ad units and are becoming the success stories of what Bankoff calls the third phase of digital media, a time when quality meets scale. "It's the hybrid of a few things," he explained. "It's acknowledging that you can use data and smart technology platforms to your benefit, but you use them to help unlock and unleash creativity, not to supplant it."

Name: Jim Bankoff
Position: CEO, Vox Media
Resume: Joined AOL while still in business school and later rose to executive vice president of programming and products, helping to launch Mapquest, Moviefone, AOL Music, Engadget and others. Won an Emmy in 2006 for his role as an executive producer for the Live 8 concerts, the first such award given to a webcast. Served as a senior advisor to Providence Equity Partners and joined Vox Media as CEO in 2008.
Birthdate: December 23
Hometown: Upper Saddle River, NJ and New York, NY
Education: University of Pennsylvania Wharton MBA, BA in international studies from Emory University
Marital status: Married
Media idol: Former Time Warner CEO Steve Ross
Favorite TV shows: The Wire, The Larry Sanders Show
Guilty pleasure: Trolling Boston sports fans
Last book read: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Twitter handle: @bankoff
What do you do at Vox on a daily basis? Is your time split between the three sites, or do you focus more on long-term strategy and bigger picture issues?
I can remember four years ago when I first got started here. I would review every single pixel. I would go on every single sales call. I would clean up the conference rooms if there was garbage lying around or writing on the white boards. I guess I still do that. [Laughs] But we've grown to over 200 full-time employees and a bunch of contributors. My role is less about doing everything and more about empowering and enabling everyone else to do their jobs well. Specifically what that means is making sure they have the resources, the processes, the strategy, and the culture to be successful. I work with our partners and our investors, but in particular I work with our employees to make sure that they can create the best products for our audience and our advertisers.

"In a world where social is particularly important, substance does well. Substance is viral."

You started at AOL and stayed with the company for a decade in a number of different roles. What did you learn from seeing so many parts of a company like that, and how have those positions informed your work at Vox?
I think about that a lot. AOL was a roller coaster ride. I was lucky and privileged to be a part of it, both the ups and the downs. I was only at one company, but it was one company that evolved and changed so much. You had the start-up phase, the managed growth phase, the crisis phase and the pivot phase, which was when I came into being an executive. We were trying to transform the company from an ISP company to a media company. I never worked on the ISP side, only on the media side. It really forced me to think creatively about how to be entrepreneurial in a bigger environment. It was a test, and it's one that AOL and Yahoo! are still grappling with. The experience set me up for running this company.

For a brief period a few years ago, all the "financially successful" editorial companies were publishing quick hit, low-quality content. (Demand Media, Bleacher Report jump to mind). We seem to have swung back in the other direction with at least a nominal focus on quality, but quality takes time and money. How do you solve the quality/quantity/cost equation?
We believe that digital media is entering its third phase, what I call quality of scale. That's where we are playing. It's the hybrid of a few things. It's acknowledging that you can use data and smart technology platforms to your benefit, but you use them to help unlock and unleash creativity, not to supplant it. We have developed our own proprietary platform called Chorus, and it enables us to empower our writers and our videographers to produce really good stuff, but to do it in a far more efficient way and to distribute that stuff using all manners of digital syndication, whether its search, syndication or partner sites. In a world where social is particularly important, substance does well. Substance is viral. I think it's even more important to have quality in this era of Web media than it has ever been. The fusion of platform technology plus talent is what the next wave is all about, and that's where Vox Media is positioned.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Kelly Day, CEO of Blip?

Brands matter. One of the things that has been lost in the digital media space is the concept of high-quality branded media. Who is going to be the successor to Conde Nast or Viacom? We are all about brands and creating quality media brands. The results are that we have the best demographics for young males across sports, tech and gaming. We're No. 1 in terms of income, education, purchasing power and all the stuff advertisers want to see. When you invest in high-quality brands, it pays off with high-quality audiences and, ultimately, high-quality advertising rates. I think that's part of the third phase.

SB Nation started a longform section last year, and The Verge and Polygon do amazing longform work, too. Longform is great for word of mouth and the editorial reputation of a site, but has it started to pay off in a financial sense?
Looking at longform in a vacuum as a standalone is the wrong thing to do. I would imagine that if you had a media brand that is solely focused on publishing 5,000-word stories with beautiful proprietary photographs and highly-produced videos, it would be a tough thing to make that economically sustainable. Longform is a mix of creating a brand and building an audience. We intentionally don't look at it on a standalone economic basis. We want to be a large and profitable company. We want to grow our margin. We have serious investors and we run a serious business, but we believe the key to growing those margins is making sure that we have quality, engaging products. We can allocate investment across a variety of different endeavors, whether it's longform, shortform or video. It's the mix that consumers appreciate.

"You have to have a genuine, passionate interest in your work and what your company is doing if you want to have any hope of running it and running it successfully."

You've started experimenting with custom, full-screen ad units. How has that gone?
It's gone extremely well. From our advertising product side, our ambition is to reinvent digital brand advertising on the Web. Part of it is related to the quality of the content. If you're a brand advertiser and you're trying to create a positive image, you can't be in a sub-standard environment. You can't be in an environment that isn't consistent with the image you are trying to create for yourself. A big part of it is adjacency and being in front of the right audience, but another big part of that is having big, beautiful, high-performing ads. The ads we've rolled out have performed well, because they work for the audience and they work for the advertiser. They are big, bold, beautiful, and you can't help but notice and engage with them. But at the same time, you aren't frustrated and angry at the advertiser. You're excited about the advertisement in the same way you would be about a television ad or a magazine ad.

But do you think advertising in general can work on the Web? I feel like we've all gotten so good at tuning it out.
Absolutely. Unequivocally yes. It can work. It should work. And I think that advertisers have gotten a raw deal up until now. We, as publishers, have taken the path of least resistance. We have let other people define our products for us. We haven't been creative about advertising. Publishers would design a beautiful website, and then after the fact try to figure out where the rectangle was going to go. That's just not a way to be successful. It's not good for your consumers, your advertisers or your business model.

Having held several high-level positions in your career, what would you say is the best way someone can become president or CEO of a company?
All you have to do is start something up and call yourself CEO. That's the easiest way. [Laughs] The truth is that the best way is to be really into what you are doing and really care. That's not something you can fake, nor is it something you want to fake. You have to have a genuine, passionate interest in your work and what your company is doing if you want to have any hope of running it and running it successfully. I'm sure there are plenty of people who have made it to the top without that, but my advice is find what you are passionate about and do that, because that's going to increase your chances of getting to the top if that's what you want.

Noah Davis is a writer living in Brooklyn.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Kelly Day, CEO of Blip?

© Mediabistro Inc. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of Mediabistro Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of Mediabistro Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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