Justin Killion: Complex Networks Masters the Art of the Pivot to Diversify Revenue

Digital media is in a state of flux and these changes created a fragmented ecosystem. With the impending disappearance of third party cookies and the possibility of an upcoming recession, publishers are worried they won’t be able to identify audiences or earn revenue. 

Inspired by the innovation of Complex co-founders Marc Ecko and Rich Antoniello, Justin Killion, President at Complex Networks, will discuss the “Justification of Revenue Diversification” for the Publisher Forum opening keynote. Complex Networks boasts a twenty-year long legacy of adapting from print to web to streaming in order to maintain and grow a diversified audience that produces revenue. Tactics that will help the ad tech industry adjust and flourish through the new privacy regulations. 

“I was on the phone with Marc Ecko early this morning and it made me reflect on the company’s continued innovation,” says Killion. “They were always ahead of the curve.” 

Started From the Bottom 

Any avid Hip-Hop fan, such as Killion, will recognize the context behind Drake’s emblematic song “Started From the Bottom.” The hit single that speaks to the significance of working hard to make your way to the top, functions as the perfect backing track for Killion’s career trajectory which started off in the mailroom of a talent agency. 

“A lot of people in the entertainment business come to LA and want to get a job working in one of the big talent agencies,” says Killion. “Working in the mailroom is kind of  where everybody starts and it’s a competitive role to get that job.”  

Killion worked at Endeavor as a runner for a period of time delivering packages such as scripts to A-List actors. Each hiring pool into the mailroom took about twenty people and the goal was to get out of the mailroom as fast as possible. The typical time in the mailroom is anywhere from 6-months to a year, but Killion made it out within two weeks. Subsequently, he was able to work in different departments in the company to gain a well-rounded understanding of the entire entertainment business. 

He worked a Motion Picture literary desk, a non-scripted reality desk and a scripted television desk where he assisted in deal-making for the agency’s clients including representing talent & projects, himself. Through his experience at Endeavor, Killion was hired as a Literary Talent Manager at Kaplan/Perrone Entertainment where he specialized in representing writers & directors for film & television selling screenplays to all the major networks & studios. 

“All the Way Up” to Complex

From there, Killion went on to work as Head of Development & Programming for creative powerhouse, Original Productions where he is credited with creating numerous hit shows including the Storage Wars franchise. While he loved the experiences gained from each role, Killion craved a position outside of the traditional entertainment landscape noting that he, ‘wanted to get diversified executive experience in a large-scale media entity.’ 

Fortuitously, Hearst, the soon-to-be parent company of Complex Networks, was looking for someone to lead its studios business. Killion, having ideated & executive produced well over 1,000 hours of both scripted & non-scripted premium content made for a great fit. 

“I came to Complex through Hearst because I was looking for a media specific business that had all the ancillary opportunities to drive revenue in a myriad of ways,” says Killion. “I looked at the different companies, such as Buzzfeed and Complex, that were creating their own IP. They had many opportunities for diversified revenue streams, but they had not yet cracked it entirely. They had these dot coms that were almost incubators and could tell them exactly what their audience was looking for with regards to varying products such as video or ecommerce.” 

Complex Networks excited Killion the most because the brand represented American mainstream culture through the lens of Hip-Hop, a genre he always felt connected to. Of course, the brand has expanded along with the audience to include categories such as sports, food, fashion, sneakers and others. The constant evolution into new mediums is one of the main cruxs of the brand’s success. 

“Money Longer”: Diversified Revenue Streams

Looking back to the origins of Complex, Killion references how co-founders Marc Ecko and Rich Antoniello were able to innovatively build an audience. 

“When Complex, the magazine, was first conceived, Marc, who at the time was running the clothing brand Ecko Untld. would send out the clothing orders, with these little hang tags that led to a subscription to Complex,” says Killion. “It was such an inventive way of creating an audience and a community from the start.” 

Now Complex Networks has expanded far beyond a magazine subscription. As many organizations did, Complex adapted to the digital space and created an online publication which has progressed far beyond its original fruition. Killion also alludes to Antoniello’s keen decision to start pivoting to video much earlier than most brands at the time. With the Rise of YouTube, Antoniello understood video as an opportunity to possibly gain a new audience and a new stream of income. Today, Complex Networks now has hit shows that traverse a wide array of audience such as Hot Ones and Sneaker Shopping. 

“The idea was, if we created a best in class piece of content that we can self distribute, then we can monetize from a pre roll point of view,” says Killion “We can sell sponsorships against it. We can own the content, we can then license the content internationally or even domestically to linear networks, which we’ve been successful at doing. We can then also use that IP to create derivatives for original premium productions for outfits like Netflix, Amazon, HBOMax, or Linear TV… or even Premium Podcasters like Spotify & Audible.” 

It’s clear that Killion has in-depth knowledge about engaging consumers as a publisher on a wide array of platforms and that he’s succeeded in his goal of becoming a diversified media executive at a large-scale entity. For further elaboration, you can catch Justin Killion detailing the rest of his insight and experience at Publisher Forum in Montreal. He will give his Keynote address on Monday, August 15 at 9:15.