Complex’s Marc Ecko Talks Digital Media and Death of Demographics

Graffiti artist-turned-entrepreneur Marc Ecko shared some candid opinions about the evolution of media during his fireside chat at the Internet Week New York conference, currently running in the city.

By his reckoning, the traditional ways of understanding and targeting audiences are outmoded. He even described demographics—the usual way marketers parse the public—as dead, except to certain institutions that still lean on such information.

What is rising in its place is an understanding of audience based more on their tastes. “It’s about associations of voice and interest,” Ecko said. “Their interests within style, culture, and music.”

He is the founder of Complex Media, a New York-based media company that publishes a print magazine, online features, and Web-based video shows that feature an array of content about popular culture.

Back in January, Complex acquired movie and television news site Collider. In prior years, Complex acquired hip hop and indie music blog Pigeons & Planes, assembling a diverse mix of content under its roof.

Ecko made his mark in popular culture as the designer and founder of Ecko Unlimited, an urban apparel company now owned by Iconix Brand Group.

The origins and evolution of Complex reflect Ecko’s views on how he believes media needs to change its grasp of the public. He said when Complex magazine launched in 2003, it was born out of his frustration as a media buyer trying to market his apparel brand to consumers.

“If I wanted to be in fashion, I had to go to GQ. If I wanted to buy in skating, I had to go to Thrasher. If I wanted to buy in hip hop, I had to go to Source,” he said. “Why weren’t these conversations being had together?”

Rather than force the audience into silos, shaped by demographics, where they would only get one type of content, he created Complex to let people check out their blended interests.

“This cohort that’s into sneaker culture and street wear is also into fashion,” he said. “This mashup of high and low coexists.”

Eschewing demographics was not enough, though, for Complex to remain competitive in the media market. Ecko realized he needed to develop a Web strategy “when the head of sales was going to quit for a digital company.”

Around 2008, he said, Complex began its digital push online, which now has video as a big focus of the company. Filmmaker Spike Lee is an advisor to the company on its video strategy, Ecko said. It has been a sea change for Complex, which was rooted in written content, but one that he said led to the company to finding its own way with online video. “In the last two quarters, we’ve had explosive growth in video on YouTube and off,” Ecko said. “You can’t just do a YouTube-only strategy, it’s about the [intellectual property].”

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