Stephen Mai
Stephen Mai
A view from Stephen Mai

How I reinvented the concept of the lad

Friends and colleagues were baffled when Stephen Mai joined LadBible, but he saw an unrealised potential in the media brand.

"You’re going where?" My move to LadBible to build its marketing and original content division was met with sniggers and divisive opinions from industry peers. 

At the time, LadBible was struggling to be taken seriously and it needed to do something drastic to show it was a mass-market media brand driving genuine engagement with a generation. The industry and many consumers still saw it as a clickbait-driven lads’ mag aligned with sexism. 

People thought I was insane to move from a premium luxury culture brand like i-D to an established ecommerce brand like Asos, and then abandon that to go to an unproven start-up with negative karma attached. But what people saw as obstacles, I saw as opportunities. 

There were three things that were clear to me: it had a massive audience – and one that was diverse, with a decent male/female split – and it was bringing on good talent. This made me think it was serious about evolving. There was enough to be able to drive an impactful transformation. 

It’s not the size, it’s what you do with it 

Audience size was impressive. I had worked for some iconic brands such as MTV, Vice and Asos, which have big audiences, but none had the engagement or scale I’d seen at LadBible. It had mastered how to grow numbers through clickbait, but had yet to do anything beyond that.

At Vice, I had spent years looking at insights across a diverse number of verticals. Even in 2014, it had become clear that there were specific trends across consumption habits of young people that the industry didn’t want to believe. 

They still read – long reads were driving the biggest traction across all verticals – and they cared about social issues. With the sheer size of the LadBible audience and with my understanding of youth consumption habits, I was confident that we could make positive disruption and drive social impact while repositioning LadBible as the voice of a social generation. 

Minimising risk 

There was a massive risk involved with going to LadBible, because no-one supported my decision to move into this space. I decided the only way to set myself up for success was to get a co-sign to my approach before accepting the role.   

Do the opposite of what people would anticipate. We would change the meaning of the word "lad", and use our influence and distribution channels to do it. Through this transformation, the audience would become credible, sophisticated and brand-safe. I would demonstrate that every preconceived notion about the LadBible audience was incorrect.

Redefining ‘lad’

To create consumer and commercial impact, there needed to be a massive shift in brand perception. But what do you do when the name of the brand is aligned with negative connotations? You redefine what it means to be a lad, through campaigns, content and visual identity that constantly surprise people about who a lad is and how powerful they could be.

We turned "lad" into an everyday hero. A socially conscious person (male or female), relatable, ordinary but also powerful. Anyone who consumes LadBible content becomes a lad. After all, you can’t stereotype a billion people. 

I wanted to demonstrate that LadBible could be a catalyst for social change. While on the surface it might seem like a consumer strategy, it was in fact largely designed to drive credibility in the commercial/business-to-business space. We wanted to demonstrate that we could nail premium video content and credible editorial, that we had a mass and credible audience, and that we were a powerful community.  

We would use content, marketing campaigns and design to drive social change, creating impactful campaigns like "Uokm8?", "Trash isles" and "Knowing me, knowing EU". We would drive pop culture and disrupt broadcast, using social in a way that challenges the norm to demonstrate that it could drive bigger views than TV and move beyond a promotional tool. 

A rebrand would shake off the previous image by upgrading the visual aesthetic, creating a new logo, introducing a modern font, leveraging premium photography and driving visual consistency across every touchpoint.

Each of these elements would elevate the brand and be proof points that LadBible could be a premium, credible publisher and unlock content revenues that would drive and future-proof the business. I got a co-sign from founders and accepted the job. 

Breaking with expectations 

There was excitement about the strategy, but also serious hesitation. There had been a lot of people who were proud of what LadBible had achieved and didn’t feel like it needed changing.

There also had to be a massive re-education for the entire business to understand the difference between performance and brand. Content that drove the brand forward would always perform well, but it was less likely to go viral compared with the clickbait that the channel was known for.

Everyone in the business was measured on ridiculously huge numbers, whereas I was measured on driving brand equity. This tension would persist throughout my tenure there, with the shackles getting looser as time went on. 

Essentially, I had gone in and done the opposite of what most people thought made sense. Also, at the time, purpose-based marketing aligned with social change wasn’t the thing it is now. I had to win a lot of people over with that idea and needed to show results fast. 

Driving social change

We worked quickly and within a month we launched "Knowing me, knowing EU" – a campaign designed to drive voter registrations for the referendum. The mix of using marketing and content made it an effective campaign. It turned heads and also drove 75,000 voter registrations.

Next up, we really wanted to shake up the perception of masculinity and tap into an issue we’ve seen some traction on. "Uokm8?" was born out of a desire to challenge the notion of lad through creating positive impact around mental-health discussion and driving a narrative that it’s OK to talk. The industry took notice, not only because it was an impactful campaign that got tens of millions talking but because it was the last thing people expected from a brand called LadBible.

We continued with campaigns such as "Climate change" with National Geographic and eventually we launched "Trash isles", which became everything the new LadBible stood for: impactful social change, relatable inspirational stories, A-list talent and humour-led content that drove engagement, reach and conversation. It was among the most-awarded campaigns of 2018. 

Haters gonna hate 

One of the biggest challenges I faced was scepticism around the ambition of changing the meaning and identity of a word as loaded as "lad". The cynicism was exhausting, but I had become well-equipped at selling the vision, because I could back any objections with strategic or creative reasoning. Ironically, the campaign that received the most scepticism, "Trash isles", also went on to be the one that had the biggest impact on culture within the business.

I remember the first brainstorm for "Trash isles" left me deflated, because nobody thought it could work. I was constantly battling objections and one-note ideas, because people had a narrow view on how it could be executed. For me, it needed to be a movement, it needed to demonstrate the power of the LadBible community and it needed to be credible and unexpected. It couldn’t be a PR stunt or an ad; it needed nuance and it had to have lasting impact.

The biggest objection came from a senior marketer from an iconic brand I spoke to at Cannes Lions. He said it was a nice idea but it was never going to work: "Why would anyone care about plastic in the oceans?" To me, he had demonstrated a lack of understanding of young people and an inability to conceive how effective content could be in shifting mindsets.  

The payoff 

The success from our campaigns from a numbers, engagement, consumer sentiment and prestige point of view was overwhelming. We went on to win more than 70 awards and nominations, including multiple Cannes Lions Grands Prix. We did things our own way and it worked. Clients started referring to our brand campaigns in commercial briefs and wanted to replicate our marketing approach for their own campaigns.  

At the time, I was made to feel like it was a risky approach, but as we demonstrated success, things became less challenging to get off the ground. It was hard work, not only because the brilliant team I had built was a small one, but because we were constantly underestimated by the industry – and sometimes internally too.

Stephen Mai is global director of content and marketing at Potato Head Family. He was previously chief content officer and chief marketing officer at Boiler Room and from 2016 to 2018 was head of marketing, brand, design and artist relations, at LadBible. He is a member of Campaign’s Power 100