Memo: On New Mutualism And Media

Ecosystem

There’s an awe-inspiring scene in Master and Commander, the film set in the Napoleonic War based on the series of novels about fictional Commander Jack Aubrey written by Patrick O’Brian, that establishes the climax. Aubrey is portrayed as a leader, mathematician, astronomer, and musician. His appreciation for deep generalism plays a role in the film’s conclusion.

In the penultimate scene, the British frigate’s physician Stephen Maturin (portrayed by Paul Bettany) is also a deep generalist. Maturin, an accomplished cellist, is an avid naturalist and life scientist. While shored on the Galapagos Islands for a short time, the character treks out with a small contingent to find and document new wild life. Unable to find the “flightless bird”, he stumbles on a walking stick insect (phasmid) and he brings it to the ship. As the story goes, Aubrey marvels at the insect’s abilities. As the story progresses, he applies the discovery to his own circumstances.

Captain Aubrey’s ship, the HMS Surprise, is inferior to France’s HMS Acheron in size, speed, and durability. After observing how well the phasmid deceived him, Captain Aubrey (Russell Crowe) has an idea to disguise his ship as a civilian whaler. It allows the Surprise to appear harmless; the Acheron pulls in close enough for the HMS Surprise’s cannons to finally damage the hull of the much stronger ship. Ultimately, the Surprise defeats the Acheron. It’s a moment in which biology serves as an applied science. In one of O’Brian’s final novels (The Hundred Days), the author summarizes a running theme throughout the twenty-part series.

Wit is the unexpected copulation of ideas.

I began thinking about other biological concepts and applied sciences. I landed on symbiosis and its role in evolving ecosystems. Symbiosis is a biological concept that defines a partnership between two organisms. It’s allowed wildlife to defend from agitants, it’s produced energy from sunlight, and it has provided food. We are all engaged in symbioses of some sort. A form of symbiosis is called mutualism.

Mutualism is the association of two organisms of unrelated species that provides benefits between the two organisms. None of the examples that I found were more critical than the relationship between humans and plants. Humans use the oxygen that plants provide, exhaling the carbon dioxide. Plants use the carbon dioxide to create the oxygen needed by humans.

Bees and The Flowers: Media and Commerce

For a number of years, media and commerce operated in a mutualistic manner. For a time, sites like Amazon, Target, and Walmart needed product demand and digital publishers would provide that demand for a percentage of each sale made. It was a win / win. Media could monetize its traffic in new ways and brands could advertise without upfront costs. Affiliate commerce has been around for nearly 30 years; Amazon launched Amazon Associates in 1996. Hundreds of publishers depend on Amazon for revenue today, including BuzzFeed, Vice, and Vox Media. On the about us page of Skimlinks, a leading provider of affiliate commerce technology, it makes note of the how ingrained affiliate marketing has become in the media industry.

The leading publishers in the market have developed to such a place that in the last few years they’ve now spun off commerce content into its own dedicated brand. Publishers like New York Magazine are so successful they can dedicate entire editorial teams and brands to creating commerce content that helps them earn up to 25% of their revenue from affiliates.

As the ecosystem changed, publishers changed with it, from banner advertising during web 1.0, to programmatic ads, from the “pivot to video”, to native advertising and branded content, and to today’s content-pumping commerce teams. But no change has occurred more suddenly than COVID-19. And the juxtaposition is noteworthy. When else has physical biology required renewed wit? An actual virus has altered the symbiosis of media and commerce.

Seemingly overnight, COVID-19 altered the symbiosis between publishers and the brands and marketplaces that need its demand generation. In some cases, the symbiosis was ended altogether. In a recent report by The Information, Jessica Toonkel explains:

BuzzFeed is more exposed than other digital media firms: It got about 20% of its revenue last year from the business, with half of that coming from Amazon and Walmart, the people say. […] With some deals, including ones with BuzzFeed, the retailers guarantee a minimum level of payment regardless of the traffic generated by the posts on the websites. That could explain why Amazon and Walmart have suspended the payments now. [1]

Like a virus, itself, Amazon’s decision to change and / or withhold payment structures had industry-wide implications. A number of the top marketplaces followed suit.

Walmart’s rationale for cutting its affiliate marketing program is not clear from the information available. It could be a cost-cutting measure in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it could also be a way to reign in a channel with a reputation for being a free-for-all prone to high levels of fraud.

Yet, Walmart isn’t alone in cutting affiliate programs, per the Business Insider report, which notes that retailers Macy’s, Patagonia and Victoria’s Secret have taken similar steps. These moves are likely to impact the ability of influencers and other creators to generate revenue. [2]

Across the board, online retail penetration has skyrocketed, spurred by social distancing mandates and demand for essential goods. Amazon has accounted for this by advertising the hire of 100,000 warehouse workers and delivery drivers, a clear sign that this demand may become a new normal. Couple this with retail’s retraction in advertising spend and the calculus is altogether different than it had been in December 2019.

These changes are affecting the most diversified and well-positioned of media brands. Consider Highsnobiety’s layoff of 50% of its workforce, setting off a far-reaching effect on retailers, influencers and public relations firms.

Highsnobiety was one of a few publishers who invested in product creation for its commerce business, rather than just peppering its site with affiliate links. The problem is that, in times of economic downturn, restricted movement, rapid changes in consumer demand and a knock-on effect on all elements of the supply chain, the latter is much more flexible and risk-averse. While affiliate models present challenges like stock shortages for publishers during the spread of Coronavirus, those relying on brands for their supply chain and co-creation will be left exposed. [3]

Highsnobiety has been a success story. This makes the news even harder to fathom. Founded 15 years ago by David Fischer, the early shoe blog evolved into a multi-faceted media operation. Snobiety employed workers on multiple continents and continued to follow the tides of media’s evolution. Though young, its online store was reportedly successful, selling out of limited runs of aspirational goods. When Fischer finalized the $8.5 million round from Felix Capital in 2019, TechCrunch editorialized its success:

The company claims that for the past three consecutive years, it’s grown 100% year-over-year, and its employee base grew from 15 to over 100 across its offices in New York, London and Berlin. [3]

But a former employee’s recent post facto clearly describes the cracks in today’s form of modern luxury, new luxury, and leanluxe™ ecosystems.

What happened at Highsnobiety on Monday is not an isolated incident. It’s an indication of how quickly the ground is shifting for new media companies, especially those heavily invested in brand-sponsored, hype-based journalism. A business model laser-focused on shilling a lifestyle of “new luxury” via designer goods and overpriced apparel, it seems, is only as good as the economy health of its global readership. [4]

We’re observing how delicate the ecosystem has become for retailers and media sources alike: the bees and the flowers. This has compounded matters. For the vast majority of direct-to-consumer brands who’ve grown dependent on earned media, affiliate commerce was that engine. As such, many brands are drowned out by COVID-19 coverage. Meanwhile, retail media sites like Gear Patrol are marketing designer masks with some of its most precious real estate, and Goop is explaining how to decontaminate the home above its fold. And in a fit of irony, Highsnobiety is advertising a series called “Quarantine Home Entertainment.” When the dust settles, there will be a few short-term takeaways with long-term implications (Nos. 1-5):

No. 1. Amazon doesn’t need publishers for demand generation any longer.

It took less than 30 days for Amazon and other top marketplace retailers to punish its media partners. In A Familiar Strategy, I discussed this:

Unlike Facebook, Amazon will have their own products, a proven sales funnel, and consumer demand to rely upon. Amazon’s ad partners are fueling an unparalleled shopper acquisition machine. [5]

With historic levels of organic demand, there is a diminished need for media-driven traffic. Though this will likely subside, Highsnobiety’s layoffs are an indication that a number of less-suited media brands may not be around for the v-shaped recovery.

No. 2. Streetwear culture isn’t as critical as we once believed.

The streetwear movement (and the modern luxury culture that it spurred) is at risk without a digital media industry to support it. With a decrease in discretionary spending and a shift away from non-essential goods, there’s been a redefinition of luxury.

No. 3. We only care about the lives of others when ours are safe.

The influencer economy is at risk and so is the appeal of proximity to aspiration. In a recent report by Vanity Fair, this vignette illustrates the divide between the fortunate and the

Now authenticity is colliding terribly with a lack of self-awareness in the face of crisis. The most flagrant version made the rounds on Tuesday due to a Twitter thread. A few weeks ago, [Arielle] Charnas took up a doctor friend’s offer for a coronavirus test; tests were especially hard to come by then, and still are. She broadcast it to her 1.3 million followers. This did not go over well in her comments section and on other internet forums. [6]

No. 4. It’s increasingly difficult for brands to earn media.

It’s often the case that the mechanics of a brand requires earned media. A growing number of them are reporting on the compounding effects of a loss of revenue due to decreased affiliate sales and a loss of opportunity due to insufficient earned media. Product releases, hires, partnerships, endorsements, collaborations, and other brand developments are not covered through traditional public relations channels. This will force more brands to redirect resources to other forms of creative marketing. Even so, a number of retailers have still found ways to generate media attention.

In a conversation with Jack Carlson, the founder of Rowing Blazers explained how he’s navigated this over recent weeks:

The truth is that I think the way we do things is a lot more work than pumping money into digital ads or buying up big media partnerships. The way we do things requires constant newness; it requires producing limited runs of product and sometimes, even to my chagrin, selling out right away; it requires our products to have a robust sense of story and meaning behind them; it requires thoughtful copy and rich, meaningful projects and collaborations (collaborations that you do for the right reasons); and it requires a little bit of luck or whatever magic dust has help us to start establishing a cult following of highly loyal customers who actually want to read about our latest projects. These ingredients are all fundamental parts of our business model anyway, but this way of doing business is almost the exact opposite of how most DTC brands function.

No. 5. Publishers must create new, profitable partnership formats.

Advertising spend is down, non-essential affiliate marketing is on life support, subscription strategies are nascent, and direct-to-consumer commerce is a rarity. Media is being forced to evolve, once more. And so are brands.


The climax of one the great war movies isn’t about war at all. Rather, a moment of inspiration led to an improbable outcome. “Natural symbioses occur between the most unlikely of partners,” writes Rafe Sagarin in an HBR report on limitations in professional settings. Like the symbiosis of bees and flowers, digital publishing and retail are a form of mutualism under siege. The relationship has faced a costly disruption, damaging untold numbers of businesses. What new relationships will take its place? For either industry to identify steps to regain equilibrium, some measures will be reinvented. If weeks turn into months, this will require even greater thoughtfulness and swifter action. Wit is the unexpected copulation of ideas.

By Web Smith | Edited by Hilary Milnes | About 2PM

2 thoughts on “Memo: On New Mutualism And Media

  1. You make some really good points here. The standout one for me is that when sh*t gets real, people become far less vacuous and start to focus on what is actually important.

    So magazines that have filled their pages with de facto ads for discretionary spend products are going to get hurt. Others, like Huck (https://www.huckmag.com/), The Surfers Journal (https://www.surfersjournal.com/) and – personal plug for the magazine that I co-founded – Like the Wind (https://www.likethewindmagazine.com/), that eschew product ‘reviews’ and actually provide real value to their subscribers, will not only survive this crisis, but might also benefit in the long run.

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