Leandra Medine: The conversation around making money in digital media always sounds really dirty, but that’s not the way we approach partnerships here at all. As a matter of fact, we see our partnerships more as an opportunity to do really cool things than we do a necessary evil, so this week’s round table is a candid conversation with the team members who make it rain at this company about how Man Repeller makes money.
People involved in the conversation today are: our digital director, Kate Barnett, our director of integrated marketing, Patty Carnevale, and our account strategist, Jasmin Aujla, who’s brand new and has a very fancy English accent. Amelia’s here, too, because our creative team is pretty involved in crafting the programs.
Kate Barnett: There are so many positive shifts happening at Man Repeller, including the development of our marketing and sales team. This is such a good time to have this conversation!
From the start, one of the things that set us apart is that we’ve never worked with brands that didn’t seem like the right fit; our editorial integrity has always been more important. We sell display ads on the site and use affiliate links (when someone buys an item we’ve hyperlinked in a story we earn a small commission), but our sweet spot has always been integrated editorial, which is a form of native advertising. We find partners that make sense for our audience, our taste and what we care about, and figure out creative ways to work together.
Patty Carnevale: What’s been really special in having conversations with brands is that they respect that approach so much. They know and understand the value in that, that our voice is powerful.
Leandra: There’s no real confusion about what Man Repeller is or what it means or what the virtues are that we espouse — women being proud of themselves, using fashion as a language to connect with other women, not trivializing fashion, not allowing the trivialization of a woman’s interests just because she’s a woman — that’s been a very important piece of the evolution of Man Repeller.
It started as a sort of slapstick blog that I was writing out of my bedroom in my parents’ apartment when I was 20 years old and hoping to get hired at New York Magazine when I graduated. It was about women who literally dressed like “man repellers” — as in, wore stuff that men don’t like, but always with a message of empowerment because the tone was, “yeah, sure, he hates it, but I don’t care.” I actually used the site to start as a way to feel like I was taking control of my love life and thus still single because I wanted to be, because the clothes were more important. Since then, though, MR has become an attitude and a lifestyle and our goal is to continue to bring that attitude forward, not just for the next five years, or to sell in ten years, but so that the next generation of the people who are sitting around this table and the people reading this story can be proud of the world that they’re bringing their daughters into.
Kate: An important part of that growth is — and what I saw my role as when I came onboard was — continuing to give the editorial team the uncompromised space to create amazing content.
Leandra: The sponsored content that we were writing often performed better than our “organic” stuff (I hate calling it that because it’s all real), partially because the sponsored stuff really gives us an opportunity to force ourselves to be creative within healthy boundaries, which often allows for really, really fertile ideas to blossom, and also to get our hands a little dirtier.
We’ve never taken on any investors, we’re a super scrappy start-up, so when there’s a little bit of cash being offered we’re like, “What can we do? Who can we hire? Who are the freelancers we can employ to help us with this?”
Kate: “What can we do and how do we make sure it’s the best possible content?” So, already we’re going to hit the standards that we have in place for anything that we publish. I’ve always felt like we should be able to have a flashing sign on everything that’s sponsored that screams, “Somebody paid us to write this!” and have the content be just as compelling, and just as successful. I never want anyone to feel like they were “tricked” into reading a sponsored piece. And I’ll always want to help brands make a smart and effective investment in content that’s actually interesting and unique.
After five years of doing that, we have relationships in place where we can create more “out there” paid content with brands that trust us to make amazing stuff.
Jasmin Aujla, account strategist: I feel like authenticity is a word that gets thrown out there a lot and is starting to lose its meaning, so finding something that’s truly authentic is special. When people find out things are sponsored, it can kind of diminish that. I feel like transparency has really been our best friend, and being transparent is something that we’re continuing to do. The fact that my role is even possible here, that someone is here purely to think about the campaign strategy and ensure it’s true to Man Repeller’s voice through all the partnerships speaks to the integrity of the content that we create.
Kate: For content collaborations, we have always said, “We need to retain our editorial independence on this, and that is truly the value of the partnership. We’ll talk through what the concepts are, we’ll make sure that you’re comfortable.” For the first few years, brands didn’t even get to see integrated content before it went live. Now they preview everything before we publish — which they should absolutely be able to do. But the level of creative freedom that’s built into how we work has protected us from potentially feeling like we’re selling out.
And we say “no” a lot, as weird or shitty as that sounds, and as unusual as it is for a publisher to say “no” to money, we do.
Amelia: I remember that episode of Girls where Lena Dunham gets hired at GQ to be a sponsored content writer. At first she’s super stoked she has a writing job at GQ, then she meets everyone on her team and they’re really bitter and harshened by the realistic world of sponsored writing. They’re sort of seen as the “B-team” of editorial staff on the show. I remember watching that thinking, “I wonder if it’s actually like that at magazines,” because part of writing that has always been a part of my job here. The writing and coming up with concepts and scripts and storyboards and ideas for these partnerships.
When I tell people what I do at Man Repeller, I always say it’s like, 70% editorial and then the other part of the time I’m part of an ad agency in a really cool way. Like, we’re brainstorming concepts and cracking puzzles.
Leandra: It’s funny that I only discovered this three months ago, but I asked Amelia what she thought she was going to be when she grew up when she was young, and she always thought she was going to work at an ad agency. To that, I was like, “Oh! You kind of do.”
Amelia: It’s like the best of both worlds. I mean, full disclosure, certain partnerships have been hard to make work, but I’ve always found that part challenging in a fun way. It’s my equivalent of trying to figure out a math problem if you’re someone who likes math.
Of course, that feeling is a luxury because it’s just a part of my job, not the whole thing. I could see how burnout or boredom could happen if you’re strictly writing sponsored content. I think that goes back to what makes Man Repeller cool: how much creativity we’re allowed by brands.
I think the NARS Vlogger video was a really cool example where we just ran with all of these ideas we’d been hoarding inside our heads and were finally able to execute. Same thing with the first episodes of the Chatroom that we did with NARS. That was awesome. We’d been talking about it for so long.
Patty: When you think about protecting the mission of a media organization, the business strategy revolves around that idea. From an outside perspective, I saw Man Repeller as an organization that had that kernel of ambition that kept a protective layer around its voice. Now that we’re in the stage of growth, it’s easier to structure our business strategy around this idea because it’s something that we’ve been doing all along.
Leandra: Even before Man Repeller was a business and I had no clue what I was doing (still don’t but at least I’m aware of it!), people offered to send me stuff all the time. I thought that if people are beginning to recognize my work because of the way I dress and the way I speak about how I’m dressing, I’m not going to take product that isn’t true to who I am and wear that under the guise that I endorse it. I think I just applied that same tenet to: If people are signing up to be a part of this voice, I’m certainly not going to allow us to muddle that.
We should talk through the process of how an integrated story or a sponsored story is born.
Kate: Most of the programs that we run are from inbound requests, meaning that brands are coming to us. On the one hand it’s incredible that we’ve been able to sustain a business primarily from inbound requests, but it means there’s a huge area of opportunity — if any senior sales people want to be a part of this team, holler at us!
From the start of a program, we’re pretty consultative. So, a brand will get in touch with us and, usually — this is more for the larger custom programs — we’ll hop on a call and get a sense of their business goals, their timing, their budget. Then we get together internally and start to think about what creative programs we can put together.
Maybe a handful of times brands have come to us and said, “This is what we’re doing and we’d love you to be a part of it,” and it made sense. But that’s rare. For the most part we go back to brands with our creative concepts, creative executions.
Patty: We do a lot of the collaboration upfront in terms of getting everyone comfortable and making sure that we’re delivering a very real value to our audience and our brand. And, of course, a very real value to our partner. At the end of the day they are paying us for a service and for a unique position that we hold, so we have to keep those three things very much in balance. Once we align with the final concept, we get to work on all of the fun promotional elements of the plan and the writing itself, for the post.
Kate: And that’s where you guys come in.
Leandra: Yes. I will say that the editorial team is definitely quite involved in the formation of the plans, right?
Kate: For sure.
Leandra: Which is really fun. When we get an email from someone on the sales team asking for feedback for a program — let’s say Topshop, for example.
Topshop’s obviously a brand that, number one, is very important for Man Repeller because that’s where I had the idea for this site! But also because we wear the clothes, write about the clothes and would probably want to produce content with them anyway, which makes things much more interesting.
When we work with brands that are not as fashion-focused, that always lets us flex our creative muscles and explore what partnerships look like outside of the realm of styling and fashion rhetoric. We get to run wild and free with the concepts and ideas. Sometimes, Amelia and I have drunk integrated editorial pitch meetings. Some of our best ideas come out of those hangouts.
Amelia: Well, you and I are constantly talking about this stuff anyway — the bigger, larger-than-life type of ideas, the “wouldn’t if be cool if?” type-brainstorms. And, you said earlier, when given parameters and a budget tell us just how far we can play, it makes the “what if” ideas suddenly feel feasible.
Leandra: So because you guys are having the conversations directly with the brands and the agencies, are you finding that there is a lot of push-back and brand education that needs to happen in order for them to finally sign on?
Kate: Certainly a couple years ago, a lot of what I was doing was brand education — what they should expect, what metrics are important, how to make the most of their budget given their goals. Initially some of the concepts we had to really fight for. And it’s super fulfilling to see them go live, and to see them be extremely successful. I think early on brands understood that they wanted to partner with us. But they didn’t always understand what that meant.
Leandra: Originally, a lot of the requests that were coming in assumed that Man Repeller meant just me. The challenge of the past two years has been reeducating our partners and community and the world, frankly, about what Man Repeller is, that it’s not just me. It’s all of us. Often, when I’m stopped on the street, I’ll get asked, “Are you Man Repeller? I love the blog!” you know, I hope I don’t sound like an asshole but my response is always, “I’m Leandra, I founded Man Repeller, but you’re Man Repeller.
And you’re Man Repeller, and you’re Man Repeller.”
Amelia: Just like Oprah!
Kate: When Amelia first came on, there was the question of how people would react to an additional full-time writer. And it took a second for the audience to figure out that we have by-lines on the site, that not everything is written by Leandra. But, very quickly I feel like readers got to know and love you, and I think the same shift has been mirrored with brands. Being able to show that we have more than one writer on staff besides Leandra — Amelia and now Haley — as well as amazing freelancers, has really helped that conversation.
Amelia: I have a question. A lot of people ask me how we make money at Man Repeller. They want to know if it’s mostly ads or affiliate links or integrated editorials. Should we cover that?
Patty: Yeah, a lot of people ask about where banner ads come into play with our programs.
Kate: So, banner ads: they’re not a massive revenue stream for us. It’s one of those areas of “low-hanging fruit” that we’re catching up on. We’ve tested programmatic ad platforms, which means advertisers are bidding for that space on our site in real-time. Occasionally that means funky ads show up, but less and less so. Similar to the integrated ed that goes on the site, we want to see what the creative is. We want to make sure that the brand is interesting to our audience. Both for the user experience and for the brand’s experience in working with us. So, we do sell display ads on the site and they perform well, particularly custom ones that we design in-house. But we tend not to do interstitials or pop-ups or overlays or things that are hugely distracting–
Patty: Or invasive.
Kate: Or invasive. Or that take away from the user experience. That isn’t to say that we will never have something like that if it’s part of a cool collaboration and makes sense, but we want to keep the content at the forefront. So ads are a meaningful, growing, but ultimately smaller piece of the revenue stream. The largest is integrated editorial. We also work with companies like Reward Style and BAM-X for affiliate links. So, if you’re reading a story and in the slideshow the jacket by such-and-such brand is hyper-linked to a product page, then we earn a small percentage off of that sale.
Leandra: And we try not to sell Instagrams. Sometimes they’re integrated in programs or we’ll sell bundles. But for the most part, you’re not really buying a one-off Instagram.
Kate: Yeah. We don’t. For Instagram or any of the social platforms, we don’t really sell one-offs. We’ll occasionally do one in the right circumstance.
Leandra: And the reason we decided to avoid selling one-offs is because they don’t tell our story in the same way that the rest of our stuff does.
Kate: Exactly. We actually crafted a really interesting program for Robert Clergerie earlier this year, where instead of doing multiple integrated editorials, we did a day in the life of a shoe, experimenting with actual consecutive story-telling through Instagram. And I think that’s a good example of how these opportunities allow us to test new types of content.
Amelia: I don’t want to derail this, so if it does, just tell me to shut up, but I think we’re unique in the fact that what we are so passionate about we write about in general. Like, Leandra will be obsessed with a pair of shoes and Instagram them for no reason other than actual love. I have done stories where I’m freaking out over Reformation or Tory Burch or Club Monaco — and I really am. That’s why I wanted to write about it. Friends in the industry will text me like, “Paid post, huh?” And I’m like, “No!! I just need everyone to know what I’m obsessed with at the moment.”
But it goes to show that when we do write about stuff that we’re getting paid for, when we work with brands we’d already want to write about, it’s very synergistic. It’s natural, and it’s something we’d already do. We’d NEVER write a paid review, but could I genuinely be as excited about a brand that I was paid to write about with some story-twist as opposed to one I wasn’t getting paid to write about? Yes.
Leandra: Yeah. I was having this conversation last night. I was telling a designer about the trajectory of Man Repeller, how I’ve always been a clothes fiend and how sometimes, when I’m having an especially stressful day at work, what I’ll do to shut off is flip through pages and pages of product on like, Net-A-Porter or Matches or Topshop — whatever it is. It’s sort of therapeutic. And a lot of stories are born out of that.
Kate: Right. We don’t let a brand sponsor their own fashion week coverage, we don’t do paid stories saying, “How is this so good right now?” When I tell brands that, they’ll often say, “Well, what about that story on Reformation?” And we explain: that was completely organic, not sponsored, and that’s the only way that we would say something so over the top. You don’t want to pay for a story like that; it won’t be that good, because it won’t be genuine. Let us get creative, and let those other posts be the fun asides that happen naturally.
Jasmin: Because I’m new, I’m curious: Has there ever been an instance where you guys have found a brand and you’re just like, “We love them so much we want to collaborate with them because we believe in them?” And like you’ve been the initiator?
Leandra: We do that all the time. Sometimes I feel like Kate is my personal dream maker. I’ll email her and be like, “I’m obsessed with X idea, who can help us make it happen?”
Kate: Well, you highlight smaller brands a lot, which I love, so there have definitely been times when you have said, “I really want to work with this brand, they’re not gonna have a budget to do something massive, but let’s figure out a way to work with them.”
Leandra: Like with Frances Valentine. Those were really fun shoes, and we love the people behind the brand, and the company was just getting off the ground. The shoe designer is a former Prada designer, and you can so see that influence in the shoes, they’re so good. So we were like, “We want to do an anti-Valentine’s Day dinner. Why don’t you just come on as a sponsor?”
Kate: That was so fantastic.
Amelia: It was a cool example of what you’ve been talking a ton about, Leandra, in the integrated editorial meetings, about moving some of these partnerships off the website and into real life, having them exist physically, like in terms of an event or whatever it is.
Leandra: Right. I’ve become obsessed with what Man Repeller looks like as a universe. Which totally plays into the conversation about Man Repeller as an attitude, and the changing definition of media. And it’s anything that just makes you feel, right?
Amelia: Right. And that, all of that, literally none of that would be doable unless one of us wins the lottery and wants to give it all in to Man Repeller, or we partner with people who can help us make these visions possible.
Kate: Part of the reason why we are so excited to have Jasmin here is to help us shift some of the relationships that we have online to offline. And one of the things that I’m particularly excited about this year is figuring out how to expand upon the relationships with have with our readers who comment, because we know them, and some of them have interned here — and are interning here — and we want to get to know all of them better.
Leandra: We found Harling because she sent in submissions for the Man Repeller Writer’s Club!
Kate: We’re all here to serve two goals that aren’t just important within Man Repeller, but that are important within our lives: building and fostering a community, and creating the kind of space that we would want in our own lives. That we do want in our own lives.
Leandra: I feel like I had a real “aha” moment a couple months ago when I was talking to my mom about a time when she was younger and really, really felt like shit, and she told me, “I needed Man Repeller. And I didn’t have it. But so many women have it now because of you, because you’re sharing this.”
And I realized how this thing is no longer for me, or for us. It belongs to our readers. It’s that thing about when you make art, right? When you make anything and you put it into the world, it no longer belongs to you. And that’s inspiring and refreshing in many ways. It’s also very scary, but I believe that as a business owner, the reality of running a successful company is such that if your purpose isn’t greater than you, and ultimately altruistic, you can’t really succeed. As a happy person, and as an enterprise.
Kate: Yeah. I think there’s a soul both in what we do and what we’ve created that we all feel a responsibility toward. That’s meaningful.
Leandra: Yeah, there’s a soul. There’s certainly a heartbeat, too.
Amelia: Definitely. Okay, I think that’s time…
Leandra: What do you guys think about this conversation?
Kate: I think it was good! If there’s anything that we didn’t touch on, if readers have any other questions, are running their own blog, or if you just want to know more about how we do business, how we make money, ask in the comments section. And Patty and Jasmin and myself and everybody else will be happy to answer!
Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis; creative direction by Emily Zirimis.