When I worked at Dazed Media a few years back in its former (and less glamorous) offices in Old Street, a giant TV adorned the back wall.
On it was the dashboard of an app called Chartbeat. It luminated the entire room, with staff regularly glancing up and gawping at it, beholden to live analytics from Dazed websites.
Like a woke version of Wall Street, Chartbeat gave us pie charts, graphs and lists. You could see which articles and videos were trending. Nowhere to hide. The numbers did not lie.
And what was constantly in that top five articles?
It wasn’t advertorials from brands (they never made it, come to think of it…).
It wasn’t the latest from fashion week.
It wasn’t even the latest single from Rihanna (I told you it was a while back!).
But it was always something to do with sex, drugs or politics:
"The highs and lows of working as a porn star"
"The film industry will stay racist and sexist until we drop period dramas"
"Exploring the changing relationship between sex and drugs"
Through a mix of data and taste, the brilliant Dazed team managed to cultivate a very special "editorial instinct". They balanced the credible with the crass. It was amazing to witness and learn from – a daily walk across a terrifying tightrope.
Like in many publications, the editorial team sat apart (physically and culturally) from the sales teams. For them, it wasn’t the bottom line that kept them up at night, but the stats. It was a deep obsession with not only making something that was well-crafted, but that also made the biggest noise in the black hole that is the internet.
Speaking to friends still full-time in the publishing game, the tightrope is even more precarious to walk as we enter the 2020s. Higher pressure for numbers has seen a push to be more extreme and more controversial, soliciting topics from the darkest corners of the web.
None of this is rocket science. It’s about appealing to our basic instincts – the NSFW button.
But the button that gets pushed on an hourly basis at publishers is, in marketing terms, more like a nuclear button.
And I think with good reason.
The world’s most successful editorial brands are lenses that reflect everything in the world around us – warts and all.
So for a brand to really make that long-term editorial breakthrough, where it is genuinely competing with everyone from LadBible to The New York Times, it has to talk about… well, everything.
And here’s the thing. Should every brand talk about everything? Should ketchup brands really talk about vibrators? Should a tech brand really talk about genocide? Does a cosmetics brand really need to talk about government spying? (Looking at you, Lush.)
On the surface, the answer is almost certainly no.
But I think that’s too simplistic and reductive.
There are brands and agencies genuinely excited by the possibilities editorial offers to connect with audiences emotionally.
And to those brave and committed enough to do so, the results could be revolutionary.
But if you go there, you need a darn good reason to do so. You will need a truly editorial team who can go deep to make sure you really understand and are immersed in messy and difficult topics. The types of people I mentioned before – who care about the stats, not the bottom line.
If you have a clear set of genuine editorial values that help you navigate murky waters, perhaps a brand can really provide a platform for cultural movements. That’s what makes publishing electric, after all.
I’ve yet to see it come to fruition.
Instead, a lot of half-baked "nice" editorial exists. And as that hole in the ground begins to get filled up, most likely marketing executives will gravitate around this safe brand editorial area: a no-fire zone.
Ultimately, over time, everyone will run out of things to say within it. A sea of sameness.
In other words, for long-term brand editorial platforms that last, you need to get off the fence and on to the tightrope.
The rewards will be great, but only if you pull off the balancing act.
Ravi Amaratunga Hitchcock is co-founder at Soursop
Picture: Getty Images