Ben Lerer

Thrillist co-founder/CEO Ben Lerer says he’s a “big believer” in podcasting. In an interview with iHeartMedia CEO Bob Pittman for his podcast “Math & Magic: Stories from the Frontiers of Marketing.” Lerer said it’s something the website known for its food, drink, travel and entertainment coverage is looking to expand into. “It’s just a super-compelling medium and it’s something that we’re investing in and looking at doing,” he said, adding they are having conversations with iHeart about a potential production deal.

“The data is overwhelmingly clear that this is a preferred format for young folks to get content and it’s a big part of their commute,” Lerer said of podcasting’s growing listener numbers. “And I think it works well with the kind of narrative storytelling that we do and the kinds of voices, personalities and brands that we have.”

The wide-ranging interview with Pittman, whose firm The Pilot Group was among the early investors in Thrillist when it was still mainly focused on a guy-focused email, touches on everything from reverting back to a clock radio alarm clock to reduce mobile screen time to the future of media. Lerer thinks the writing is on the wall and “more consolidation” is on the horizon.

“Content creators and pipe owners continue to join forces,” Lerer predicted. “If you’re a consumer it’s awesome, you’re going to have a lot of great content and you have companies that don’t even care about the media business who are going to spend billions and billions underwriting the content to get you to do things on their platform that have nothing to do with advertising.”

Yet even as Lerer thinks it’s always a good time to build a business on brands people love, he said it’s a “challenging time” for anyone who is in the media business. “Media companies are going have to be good at a lot more things simultaneously than they used to be right now,” he said. “They’re going to need to figure out ways to directly engage their audiences and sell things to them while also selling advertising.”

More than ever, Lerer said decisions are being based on spreadsheets rather than gut instinct, and that raises the question of whether media executives have gone too far and data is driving too many decisions. “The answer is often we are using too much data. If you know something is good, you know it and if the data says it’s not that good then the data has to catch up,” Lerer said. “I will go with my gut. In the advertising business data is a terrifying thing because everything in digital is right to the lowest common denomination. Almost all money being spent in digital is being spent blindly.”

Google is getting a lot of the digital budget as a byproduct of the fact media companies are living in a “last click attribution world” right now according to Lerer, which is something he thinks will be difficult to change. “If I’m a marketer, it’s hard to turn off the drug that some of these things create,” he said.

Lerer is also the CEO of Group Nine Media, the parent company to some of the most popular digital brands including NowThis and the Dodo. So what does it take to secure an investor’s interest?

“It’s a little like dating, you just feel it or you don’t,” he responded to Pittman in the Q&A. “You need to be really passionate about what you do, really knowledgeable about what you do. There a balance that we like to see about having a very strong conviction for what you want to build but not so much conviction that you seem unwilling to examine other ideas or viewpoints. Everyone one these companies needs to pivot as some point so you want to see that flexibility and malleability.”

On the podcast Lerer also credited Pittman for helping him embrace the “20-60-20” rule. “This idea that 20% of the time the things that you do or the decisions that you make in businesses are obviously right immediately. And 20% of the time you do something that is very easy to kill, it's just not working and there's not a lot of emotional baggage with it, it's easy to sort of get out of the way. And 60% of the things that you do are somewhere in between, and you can rationalize why you're going to keep doing them and you can also rationalize why they're not big hits,” Lerer said. “And the advice that you gave early was get stuff out of that 60% and into one of the 20s as fast as you can. Because the 60% is what kills you.”

Listen to the full interview between iHeartMedia CEO Bob Pittman and Thrillist co-founder/CEO Ben Lerer HERE.