Dollar Shave Club’s men’s magazine “Mel” grows up
Mel Magazine, the publication extension of the Unilever-owned Dollar Shave Club, is a website that defies definition, at least for me. It’s clearly aimed at men–its parent company has become almost a punchline of what it means to be an irreverently straight guy in America–but Mel’s editorial tone is not that of its overlord, and it doesn’t publish the usual stuff you’d imagine from a male lifestyle rag.
On the contrary, Mel’s coverage spans the map. One 2016 piece, written by a trans person, interrogated what it means to perform masculinity, and another, this one from last year, asked the uncomfortable question of what it means to cover men’s issues in the age of #MeToo. Last month, it published a hard-hitting, first-person chronicle of a man hiring a coach to help make his penis bigger, while a recent explainer dove deep into how someone can cop a “trashy yet vibrant beach dirtbag look.” It’s as much a culture destination as it is a men’s-only website.
Mel is not a sponsored content outfit, and everyone who works on the project wants to make that abundantly clear. Dollar Shave has its own separate original content program, which springboard’s off the company’s signature visual and voice aesthetic of humorous hypermasculinity masquerading as self-confidence. (Although Mel’s articles are frequently featured on DSC’s Original Content’s website.) Because Mel is an extension of this brand, which is owned by a $163 billion behemoth, questions about sustainability are out the window for the site (at least for the time being). Yet this brings up a slew of other more nebulous quandaries. I recently told a friend of mine I was writing about Mel, and they responded without a beat: “Oh, they’re spon con.” Someone else said, “it’s like The Wing, but for men.” Another had the opposite reaction, pointing to the interesting stories the site has been publishing of late, describing Mel as one of the best internet culture websites currently online.
Spon-con or not, Mel’s model relies upon being a branded publisher. Unilever, one of the top five largest consumer goods companies in the world, purchased Dollar Shave Club for $1 billion. The parent company spent over $8.5 billion in 2017 on marketing alone. Mel lives quietly as a probably rarely accounted for blip inside that; It’s supposedly brand-building for Dollar Shave Club–members are mailed a physical magazine of Mel content as part of their subscription–while maintaining independence.
How do Dollar Shave Club and Mel coexist to bring each other value? And does Mel’s innate reliance on its parent company present some bizarre new model for an endlessly troubled media industry? I recently chatted with top editors at the magazine, as well as Dollar Shave Club’s CEO, Michael Dubin, who described the publication’s future plans, as well as how it sees itself existing in the current media landscape.
Mel has been around for over three years now, and it’s now ready to expand. With the continued blessing of its parent company, Mel is growing–hitting new traffic records, building its editorial team, and abandoning Medium, the publishing platform it’s been on since it launched.
“We’re trying to do something different,” editor-in-chief Josh Schollmeyer tells me. This has paid off, he says. Over the last 10 months, traffic has grown consistently, in July hitting a record of 2.8 million unique visitors–about twice what it consistently attracted less than a year ago. “We’ve been growing at a steady increase since basically last summer.”
The reason why Mel continues is because it learned to walk before it could run. It’s a “brick-by-brick approach,” Schollmeyer says. And now Mel is ready to build out the entire mansion.
Mel first began in 2015 as a newsletter. “Twice a week we would send you an article,” explains Schollmeyer. He was hired by Dollar Shave Club CEO Michael Dubin to help build out a nebulous editorial project. Dubin had told him during their early conversations that he wanted an “Esquire meets Vice.”
Schollmeyer was coming from Playboy, where he describes himself as the “change agent.” At that men’s outfit, he tried to build out the magazine’s digital presence. One project involved putting content on Gawker’s publishing software Kinja. This was an attempt to increase audience by using third-party platforms. At the time, Playboy was considered Kinja’s biggest customer. Schollmeyer calls it “one of the most fruitful” partnerships the magazine had done. “You can reach a lot of audience,” he says. But in 2014, as soon as Schollmeyer left the magazine, Playboy decided to end its Kinja partnership in an effort to centralize all its content to its Playboy.com website.
For Schollmeyer, the idea of using someone else’s platform stuck with him. Thus, as he hired a team of writers in 2014 and figured out what Mel would ultimately become, he kept an eye out for other, similar programs to Kinja. Third-party publishing platforms, he says, “seemed like a good model if you wanted to launch something.” In Medium’s early days, “I thought there was something they could bring in terms of scale.” During this era of the Ev Williams-founded company, the plan was to try and grow a publishing engine with as many players as possible.
“It seemed like an interesting place to incubate something,” says Schollmeyer. “It was going to have built-in audiences.”
But that’s not what happened. “It just never got there,” he says. Perhaps it couldn’t get enough people to use it, or it was possibly that how people interfaced with the web changed drastically from 2015 to 2017, or maybe it was because Medium’s vision changed seemingly by the day. Whatever it was, Mel–along with pretty much every other publisher who signed on to work with it–never realized the vision they were pitched. On Kinja, Schollmeyer was able to publish a post and then use the network of other publishers to share it. On Medium, no dice. The promised built-in audience was nonexistent, and the platform’s one-size-fits-all architecture made it difficult to be both ambitious and differentiated. “The myriad editorial brands there couldn’t help each other out in the same way,” he writes to me a follow-up email.
“In a lot of ways we’ve had to actively work around Medium’s shortcomings,” says Schollmeyer. “I think we just outgrew the platform.”
Thus, for the last few months, Schollmeyer and his team have been plotting a move off the platform. It follows a years-long exodus of a bunch of websites, including The Ringer, Pacific Standard, and the now-defunct Awl. He sees this as an indication of a tectonic shift in how people find stories online. “It feels fine to be on our own,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where the content lives.” The publisher is now working with the design studio Postlight–which has helped build sites for big names like Vice and Bloomberg–to make a true Mel-only destination. The new site will launch in a few months.
With this change comes a ramping up of talent. Mel just hired a new editor to build out its east coast bureau, as well as put a call out for part-time writers. Deputy editor Alana Levinson has been put in charge of a new investigations-focused editorial unit; it just published its first bonafide investigative deep dive, which looked into attractive ISIS soldiers wooing young women.
But Schollmeyer insists that despite this new growth, the site has remained relatively the same. “The heartbeat, or north star, never changed much,” he says. Mel has always wanted to be a place that talks about stuff related to men, but not necessarily manly stuff–“a different men’s publication that was much more intellectually curious than it necessarily was consumer-based.” It wasn’t even other men’s publications that caught his eye as innovative, or what he wanted to improve upon, but the braver, smarter women’s ones. Says Schollmeyer, “I was really jealous of Jezebel, and The Hairpin, and Broadly. We really wanted to replicate that.”
Part of his plan for the last few years was to grow slowly. Given Mel was being bankrolled by a brand, it was afforded this kind of luxury. Levinson explains that the publication’s strategy has been to slowly figure things out. “Having worked at a lot of digital media startups,” she says–which include Fusion and even Medium, the very company Mel is forgoing–they’ve all “grown super quickly and thrown insane amounts of money.” Mel, in its attempt to evolve over the last year-plus, has tried to “basically not do that.”
While it’s true that it takes a lot of patience to grow, it’s also taken a lot of money. On Medium, Mel doesn’t host ads, and this new site doesn’t plan to do that either. Michael Dubin, Dollar Shave Club’s CEO, says he has always envisioned an independent content extension of his company. Before striking it big as a grooming entrepreneur, Dubin worked as a page at NBC, which turned into other roles at MSNBC.
“I have a background in the content business to some degree,” he tells me. After his lowly page days, which turned into production PA work, Dubin entered the world of media marketing, working for places like Time and Sports Illustrated. Yes, he hails from a media background, but marketing is just as ingrained in his professional DNA as journalism.
For Dubin, he sees Mel–or any content arm for a brand–as a way to “develop a deeper connection with its customer base, or member base in our case.” He also describes Mel’s contribution as not something monetary, but perhaps philosophical. “We are hoping to make a meaningful contribution to the evolution of men,” he says. That includes helping guys learn better grooming practices, say with Dollar Shave Club equipment they can buy at DollarShaveClub.com, but it also includes exposing these now-enlightened Dollar Shave Club-loving men to new ideas and concepts that make them even more open-minded and sophisticated.
“Dollar Shave Club’s mission is to help guys take care of their minds and bodies so they can be their best selves,” says Dubin, always selling. He admits that his company is on a mission to build branded content that will help sell its products, but Mel is different from that–there’s Mel and there’s Dollar Shave Club Original Content (which some Mel employees do work on, but not all). “Those two entities are different vehicles driving that mission,” Dubin explains.
But that glides over the big question of how Mel is expected to survive. Dubin proudly proclaims that Mel does not host ads, while saying in the same breath that the website is not intended to sell his products. There are other Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to judge success, he tells me. (During our conversation, Dubin brings up the KPI acronym probably a half dozen times.)
They are, as follows:
- Do Dollar Shave Club’s members value the inclusion of Mel‘s content as a part of their membership?
- Is the overall Dollar Shave Club content team able to produce sufficient content and quality for Dollar Shave Club Original Content, its branded content channel?
- Is Mel’s viewership and readership growing, and is the critical reception growing as well?
In short, as long as the sponsored content part of Dollar Shave Club is healthy–which is separate from Mel, but, yes, there’s still a bit of overlap–Dubin is happy keeping Mel along for the ride. “We are building a sustainable alternative model to supporting a strong content brand,” he concludes.
Which is to say that Mel is an independent editorial brand living under a branded content ecosystem umbrella. It’s a sebaceous cyst living inside a bigger animal that doesn’t much mind it–maybe the slight protrusion gives it character–but the object is still dependent on its host to survive.
For Dubin, one of the big things Mel help does to the overall industry is demystify branded content. While he’s quick to explain that the publication doesn’t produce it, he still bemoans the stigma associated with the word pairing. “I think that branded content has always had a little bit of a negative connotation,” he says. “It’s maybe even a dirty word for a lot of people who think of themselves as strong editors, strong writers, strong journalists.”
The editorial team agrees. “There are so many misconceptions about branded content and journalism and the way that they interact,” says Levinson. “I can tell you that the places that hardcore journalists think of as being totally separate would have [writers pursuing projects] that are going to have huge banner ads, and it’s going to say “Sponsored by X”–and they’re not going to be even told that.”
Mel, however, thinks it’s figured this out. Says the CEO, “It’s really hard to build a thriving content team–and I think what we’ve been able to achieve here is that.”
This is a revolutionary concept to Dubin. During our conversation, I try to understand how a supposedly independent media brand doesn’t have to think about, well, making money. “You use the words ‘monetization’ and ‘driving revenue,’ ” he says (it’s true! I do!), “but that’s the traditional model.” I simply need to dispel myself of this headspace–one that has dictated every job I’ve ever had in this industry.
Over the years, Mel has published longer, deeply reported pieces about myriad topics that wouldn’t necessarily make the cover GQ or Esquire, yet its ownership schema still comes with baggage. It’s been seen as one of those fly-by-night websites started by the whim of someone with deep pockets, an outlet that may be around for now but could leave at anytime–all the while secretly serving the needs of its funder.
And not without cause: Many of these branded media projects have been known to go by the wayside–Uber has launched and re-launched a few magazine projects; Casper had a sleep-focused media site for a while; Snapchat has a little-remembered (but still publishing!) blog, Real Life, that puts a liberal arts-y lit crit lens on technology questions.
Media, likely because it’s volatile and generally unprofitable, is a bizarre industry where a publication’s business posture and cultural cachet is just as important as the actual content it produces. If a site gets a bad rap, it will take a long trudge to re-earn the trust of the critics in the wings (e.g. Newsweek, which has lost all trust and seems to be be considered a lost cause in media), and it will likely involve a complete rebranding along with the hiring of someone considered an industry savior. Over drinks or on Twitter, we media folks love to talk about how stupid our decision to work in this industry is, and how the hope of a sustainable company–just one, any–is diminishing with each passing day.
And then we have Mel, which represents a media outlet suspiciously owned by an insanely large global brand. And it doesn’t seem to give a shit.
With this latest chapter, that’s what Mel intends to do: grow, take more risks, not care. For Schollmeyer, this is precisely what he’s been trying to do for the last three years. The site has a distinct voice and a deep reserve of good writers who expand upon it. Mel is ready to interrogate masculinity in new and different ways, and hopefully attract more eyeballs along the way.
Schollmeyer is thankful that Dollar Shave Club has given him this opportunity. “I have the most editorial freedom here than I’ve ever had in my life.” Mel has grown incrementally in an attempt to maintain its individuality and ability to subsist alongside the engines that keep it afloat. This model, he says, “really works for us–what that means for everyone else, I don’t know. Mike and I have been at this for four years.”
And, of course, things could change. Just like advertisers may drop off, video impressions may plummet, things always change. “I’m not saying that our model won’t evolve,” says Dubin, “It will evolve over time. Right now, those KPIs are how we’re thinking about it.” Which is to say that so long as Dollar Shave Club continues growing and selling and being viewed as a favorable Unilever acquisition, the model is fine.
After that, who knows?