Former Unilad executives to run Joe Media for £50k a month after VC firm buys it out of administration

Men’s news, sport and lifestyle website Joe.co.uk, which is a huge Facebook video publisher, has been bought out of administration.

It will now be run by former Unilad executives who say they have “many unused plans” they can now transfer to the brand.

Some 17 different bidders were involved in the auction process after Joe Media was put into administration in May, the winners of which were venture capital firm Greencastle Capital.

Iconic Labs, which is run by Unilad founders Liam Harrington and John Quinlan, has signed a deal to manage all parts of the Joe business for a monthly management fee of £50,000 plus external costs. It will also receive 25% of profits if certain revenue and profit targets are met.

Harrington, who is chief business officer, said Iconic Labs would “transfer the skills used to build one of the world’s largest digital publishers in Unilad and use them to grow and develop in Joe Media what is already a prestigious brand with an offering that is unique and unrivalled in quality within the market”.

“We have many unused plans that can now be rolled out to help Joe Media further develop further as the market leader within the digital space in the UK and Ireland. We also intend to look at joint ventures or other opportunities with existing broadcast media…”

John Quinlan, Iconic chief executive, told Press Gazette they want to build on Joe’s news content and combine its “credible tone” with the techniques they used to make Unilad the biggest social media publisher in the world.

“The news and that credible tone of voice and the way they cover it I think is one of the main strengths of the brand. We’re going to build on that if anything,” he said.

“I think actually now more than ever people are really interested in the news so it’s something that not only is it really important from a brand point of view it actually makes a lot of sense from a business point of view to invest in that part.”

The other main focus will be on diversifying Joe Media’s revenue streams a lot more than before, with possibilities to be looked at including live events and a subscription model for the House of Rugby brand.

“The credibility of the [Joe] brands means they can be their own thing and make money in lots of different ways and that’s how it has to work these days,” Quinlan said.

Greencastle Capital is also expecting to complete its acquisition of Joe Media in Ireland, currently a separate entity from the UK brand, within the next two months. The UK business has around 50 to 60 employees.

The eventual plan is to combine the businesses into a single structure to reduce costs and create a “more disciplined focus on revenue capture” so that Joe can return to profitability by next year.

Joe Media was founded in Ireland in 2010 where it was historically profitable but made losses overall after expanding into the UK in 2015.

London-based Joe Media made a loss of £1.7m in 2018 and had net liabilities of £5.5m, per its latest UK accounts. It also incurred losses in 2019.

Iconic Labs said the UK part of the Joe Media business had grown revenue at an annual rate of 117.7% between 2016 and 2019, and that altogether the businesses made £10m of revenue last year.

The situation was worsened by the Covid-19 crisis as advertising spend reduced and all professional sport, upon which several Joe brands are based, stopped overnight.

Joe’s 11 digital brands include pages dedicated to football, rugby, politics and comedy and Iconic Labs said its combined social following now stands at more than 11m.

Joe put out the most viral video during the 2019 general election campaign with a vox pop asking people in London what they thought was the average cost of healthcare in the US.

Figures appear to show Joe.co.uk was the fourth biggest video publisher of 2020 on Favebook so far behind only the Daily Mail, BBC News and The Independent.

Iconic Labs plans to grow Joe Media’s existing channels including the “under utilised” female-focused Her and Her Family brands, expand coverage into new areas including new sports, and create “profitable links into mainstream media content providers including terrestrial broadcasters”.

Iconic Labs also saved LGBT news website Gay Star News in the past year after it closed suddenly and went into administration with the loss of 20 jobs. It bought the brand for £33,000 and relaunched it in January this year.

A judge ordered viral news website Unilad to go into administration in 2018 after being told it owed more than £6m. It was subsequently bought by rival Ladbible.

On lessons learned at Unilad, Quinlan told Press Gazette: “There’s things that Unilad did incredibly well in terms of scale. It was the biggest social media publisher in the world, so in terms of getting distribution of content we’re excellent at that.

“When you look at Joe and compare it to Unilad it was a different brand with a different audience and a different tone. We were pushing Unilad towards having a credible tone. We didn’t have a chance to finish the job but that was always the ambition.

“So now we have the credibility of Joe with the chance to get more eyeballs. Joe has great content, we just want more people to see it.”

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