Tola Brennan 19th September 2016 00:01 View comments

Digital Media

Not many media properties achieve such instant recognition as Quartz has in its short four-year tenure. It’s due in no small part to the clearly articulated vision of founder Jay Lauf. He stepped in to Digital Media Strategies USA 2016 for a chat about how he turned the brand into an institution and an adjective.

Beginning with an audience in mind

Lauf saw a gap in the market. Global business professionals were moving to mobile, engaging with content largely using social and legacy outlets like FT, The Economist and WSJ weren’t responding fast enough. Enter Quartz.

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Part of the experiment was identifying an even more specific reader than the competition and zeroing in on them, and their habits. Lauf describes Quartz readers as “people who are traveling on the front half of airplanes around the world everyday.”

He explained:

“The back of the envelope business plan was that if we could take low single-digit percentages of market share from the major incumbents we would have the foundation for a really robust stable and exciting business.”

According to his research, that was about a billion in ad sales during 2012.

As a spin-off from The Atlantic, it was a matter of selling the vision to owner David Bradley. “He greenlit the project with only one instruction: at every turn, at every decision and inflection point, be bold and creative as you build this product out,” said Lauf. So with this mandate, Quartz launched on September 24th, 2012.

That Quartz started under a new banner is essential. Lauf recalls frequently being asked why they didn’t just become the international business channel for The Atlantic. The answer: it would have started out working too well. Lauf explained how The Atlantic already has a successful editorial construct, CMS, site design, engineers, sales team and that this would have kept Quartz from being inventive. “We would have just plugged this concept into that system,” he said.

Lauf is still very impressed they took the chance. “The fact that we hived it off and created a completely separate staff was a huge advantage to us,” he said. This direction avoided “innovators dilemma” while conferring the credibility of a strong parent. The Atlantic brand demonstrated that “we weren’t a bunch of non-media whiz kids in a garage with some crazy notion of what new journalism could look like,” he said. “But actually were from an institution that took very seriously the responsibility of quality journalism.”

The Quartz way

“Be relentlessly user first,” said Lauf, encapsulating the Quartz philosophy. For example, don’t build a noisy homepage. Or better, don’t build one at all. They launched without a homepage under the premise that people weren’t using them anymore and became an early trendsetter for autoloading posts.

Lauf is excited that “we have distinctly determined there’s a niche we’re trying to serve here: global business professionals.” Perhaps deceptively obvious if it seeps into everything the company does. “From the beginning 40 percent of the audience was from outside the US,“ said Lauf. “And they tend to be very very senior in their professional roles.” Catching these more affluent global readers (Lauf said currently 43 to 45 percent are outside the US) has created a positive feedback loop for advertisers looking to reach new customers.

He’s also quick to point out that the emerging world is far more likely to be using mobile devices, navigating the web through Facebook. And it doesn’t matter where it is from the UK to Africa, Hong Kong or the US, the same methodologies work, he noted. While differences from desktop sites aren’t always entirely clear, it is clear that Quartz is seriously examining how to drive mobile engagement.

And all the thinking Quartz has done to rethink their journalism in a mobile and social space seems to have worked. “Traffic growth from the beginning has been completely organic,” said Lauf. In July they hit a new high of 20 million uniques globally. Sky-high though is not the goal. Lauf doesn’t think that reaching 100 million uniques is needed for success: it’s more keeping the integrity of the brand. “It’s a defined, specific audience we trying to serve,” he said.

Quartz has certainly done well for itself but Lauf remains modest. “I don’t gloat about a lot of our success because we have the benefit of being a privately held company with an ownership that takes the long view, that actually gives a damn about the results in terms of the quality of the journalism,” he said.

Courting advertisers, from the view of a reader

“Less than 11 percent of our ads are blocked,” said Lauf.

In part this is due to mobile adblocking still being relatively nascent, but also from Lauf’s commitment to a certain standard of advertising: “Create ads that at the very worst you might be happy to tolerate, and at best might be engaging.” Like many readers, he shares a resentment for abrasive advertising. Lauf described his typical, all too familiar experience when he goes online to read: “the stuff that pops up every morning drives me crazy.”

And he’s not very sympathetic to the history that led up to this. “I think part of the problem here is we’ve created our own nightmare,” he said. “Is it really any shock that there are adblockers?” So Quartz at least is determined to stick to the principle: “Don’t interrupt them and trash the experience they came to have.”

This commitment seems to be contagious as well. “We’ve got an editorial team that wants the advertising to be as good as their own editorial content so they can be proud of the whole experience,” said Lauf.

But he sees the writing on the wall. Ad sales are falling and Quartz gets 90 percent of revenue from it. Diversifying is the next big goal in this area and the company has moved to host events and offer services. Lauf hinted at something like a hybrid of consulting and branded content: “Companies grab us by the lapels and say ‘hey can you Quartzify this thing for me?’”

Stick to essentials and stay young

Lauf first words at the talk were reflective: “We’re getting really old and wow, it just got started.” It seems an apt summary of the company’s first four. Overall Lauf seems pretty happy with how things have gone. “We’ve had a pretty magical run for four years.” he said. “I think a lot of the core decisions that we’ve made were the right ones.”

He wants to keep the startup spirit of “always being on the attack” and maintaining an openness to dealing with uncertainty. He described giving free reign to the team that eventually came up with the Quartz app with its experimental messaging-the-news design and plans to continue pushing into places like Hong Kong (where they plan to launch an office soon), Singapore, Japan and Korea.

But if anything can really sum up Quartz, perhaps it’s the “galvanizing DNA” Lauf describes of anybody who works at the company: the belief that they’re doing something meaningful for the industry. Lauf envisions staff being proud of their involvement far in the future, an ‘I was part of that!’ kind of ethos all chipping away at one simple vision Lauf articulates: “our job is to find a way to make high quality, intellectually rigorous journalism thrive in a digital age.”