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How Deb Schwartz Helped Propel BDG Into a Media Empire

Bustle Digital Group’s CFO recently spoke with Worth about leading a high-profile acquisition during a pandemic.

Photo by Cleo Vermij via Unsplash

With 84 million readers, 42 million social media followers and nine leading content brands under its umbrella, Bustle Digital Group (BDG) is one of the fastest growing publishers in modern media. And despite 2020’s pandemic-fueled economic crisis, the company hasn’t slowed down; in fact, last month, BDG acquired revered fashion publication W Magazine—now to be known as W Media—in a buyout led by a group of investors, including supermodel Karlie Kloss, movie producer Jason Blum and racecar driver Lewis Hamilton.

“That’s one of those things that I would point to as a really interesting and exciting business opportunity that we wouldn’t have done if not for COVID,” BDG’s chief financial officer Deb Schwartz (pictured right) explained, noting how dislocation in the market at the beginning of the pandemic allowed BDG to revisit its M&A framework and look for opportunities to accelerate its pace of acquisitions.

Schwartz has been a key figure in the media brand’s explosive growth since taking the reins as CFO in November 2017, leading BDG in the acquisition of six brands in less than three years. By leveraging her Wall Street background and previous experience in Big Tech, she has helped marry BDG’s homegrown technology infrastructure with the traditional value proposition of media to take Bustle to the next level—or, “to build the modern-day Condé Nast,” as she puts it. Worth recently spoke with Schwartz about her career path, BDG’s rise to media stardom and navigating the company through a pandemic.

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Q: First of all, how are you doing? It’s been a crazy few months.

A: It has been a crazy few months, but it’s also been a few months where, I think, we’ve learned a ton. There’s been a tremendous amount of rebuilding and innovation. Our business was impacted by COVID, but it’s also rebounding in a really exciting way in Q3. I think we’ve tried to look for new opportunity because of COVID. And I think as a company, we’ll emerge on the other side of this in a stronger place.

That’s great. And congrats on BDG’s acquisition of W. That’s exciting!

Yeah. That’s one of those things that I would point to as a really interesting and exciting business opportunity that we wouldn’t have done if not for COVID. But it was a really creative partnership with Sara Moonves, who has just such an incredible editorial talent and vision, led by a really high value investor group with Karlie Kloss and Jason Blum and a couple of others in the partnership between BDG, and those two groups—in terms of taking one of the most important brands in fashion, building upon what it’s already achieved and then creating a really exciting digital opportunity for it—it’s just a tremendous opportunity that, again, materialized, because of what we saw in the last couple of months. And I think the opportunity ahead for us to really create a 360-degree digital view of that brand is just super exciting.

I’m curious as to the print component there. Why was print important for BDG to get into?

Well, what’s great about print is, print is foundationally the core thing that W has built its brand off of. And there’s still something really exciting about print in terms of it being a medium that is just really visually stunning. And for the audience that W reaches, and the advertisers that W attracts, print is still a really central component. What’s exciting for BDG is that we’ve developed a couple of editorial and ad products that are essentially redefining how consumers interact with digital content. So, we’ve created this editorial and ad format that we’re calling “tap stories” or “card stories,” and it’s basically a really visual and really innovative way for consumers to interact with content. The engagement that we’re seeing because of tap stories is six times higher than traditional editorial formats, and they have just a really stunning visual component.

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And so, the idea that we can take this product that we built in-house, and then apply that to a brand like W, which is so heavily reliant on creating a tactile visual experience, is a way that we at BDG can add significant value to W. The other thing that’s exciting about BDG, aside from the fact that we’re using our homegrown technology infrastructure to grow and add productivity and efficiency to what W is doing from a content standpoint, is that we have a really well-developed ad sales infrastructure, where we have a full suite of ad products that give advertisers exactly what they want and enables them to reach their audience in the way that they want in a really compelling way. And so, what we’re able to do is then accelerate the digital monetization component of W by just very seamlessly integrating it within our sales infrastructure.

That’s amazing. I want to talk to you a little bit about your background. I know you were previously at Goldman, Google and Groupon. How did working on the Wall Street and Big Tech side of things lead you to where you are now?

Yeah. So, it’s a great question. For a little bit of context: I’ve been the CFO of BDG for close to three years now. It’ll be three years in November. What we’re trying to do is build modern-day media companies…to build the modern-day Condé Nast. Since I’ve been at BDG, in the first two years that I was here, we doubled revenue. And as we talked a little about earlier, we’re building out the number of brands that we have and the products that we have, that’s going to enable us to build a really scaled media company with a highly attractive financial model over time.

And so to your question about why my experience, my background, and what got me to where I am now and enabled us to achieve the results that we have had over the last couple of years, a lot of it really comes from, I’ve always had a strong desire to develop a multifaceted approach to all of the business problems that I’ve been trying to solve. And so there have been a couple of aspects within my career that has created a really rich path for me to see both sides of the spectrum. A couple of examples in that regard is, I have both Wall Street experience and corporate experience. I have had traditional media experience, as well as technology and new media experience. And then also, I’ve worked at large companies as well as emerging companies.

And so, digging into those a little bit, the intersection of having both Wall Street and corporate experience: The Wall Street experience gives me the view of thinking strategically and long-term on industry sectors and companies within the industry. And then having corporate experience—I was at Google, I was at Groupon—has enabled me to actually articulate what our company’s strategy is, and then put a financial plan and operational plan in place to execute upon it.

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And then similarly, traditional media experience and technology experience. With the traditional media experience—when I was with Credit Suisse for about seven years covering the large entertainment conglomerates, so the Disneys, NewsCorps, Viacoms of the world—I was able to see, 1) the value of content and 2) the way that large-scale media companies have built upon a portfolio approach over time had been incredibly successful. But then also complimenting that with the technology, new media experience, when I was at Google and then even at Goldman Sachs covering the internet sector, really understanding the fact that technology can make the impossible possible. And that technology can unlock new markets and being able to kind of meld the technology aspect with the traditional value proposition of media, I think is incredibly important to creating what you can think of this sort of modern-day media company.

And then as it relates to just the third point of large companies and emerging companies, having had the corporate experience in large companies, of being in the finance org of public companies. When I was at Goldman, we were working with companies that had multibillion-dollar market capitalizations that became, for me, the gold standard of how companies should scale. And it’s always been exciting to me to build things and then being able to take what I know of as being like the North Star and bringing that to Bustle Digital Group that had a really great audience reach at the time that I joined, had a clear value proposition, but was ready for that next stage of growth. To be able to come in and use that large company experience, to help define what was going to take Bustle to the next level, was really exciting to build.

That’s wonderful. I mean, you’ve really grown out such an amazing portfolio of companies. How many have you acquired since you started, five or six?

Since, I’ve been at the company, it’s six, and we have nine brands as of today.

Now, talk me through acquiring a brand during a pandemic.

I actually think during this period of time, what we’ve seen is that trends that were already in place have accelerated because of this moment in time. And so, we have had a thesis that the media industry would benefit from consolidation. The idea of having a technology platform that can be extensible to having multiple brands, and then being able to more effectively invest in each of its individual brands because it’s part of the larger corporate infrastructure has been our thesis. And so then take a pandemic, where there’s just a tremendous amount of dislocation in the market, I think that then gives companies like BDG, which has been trying to be on the offensive, the opportunity to say let’s revisit the M&A framework that we put together within the first two months of me joining the company, and see if because of this moment in time where things are changing so rapidly, is there an opportunity for us to accelerate the pace of acquisitions?

And then we were really able to easily do that with W because Sara Moonves was at a place in her career and with W that she just has a tremendous editorial vision ahead of her. And so, the partnership between her and BDG, to help realize that, just became really apparent in the April, May timeframe.

That makes sense. Have you gone through other crises before? And has that played a role in how you’ve been handling this?

It’s a great question. I was at Credit Suisse during 9/11. I was in business schools/working, starting a goal, during the financial crisis. So, I’ve seen crises before. All that said, I don’t think anybody had the foresight to properly prepare for what we saw in the March, April timeframe. Nobody, even if a playbook had been written, which they probably had, that wasn’t something that we were actively studying prior to that. And, of course, on a personal level, my heart goes out to everyone who has suffered throughout this crisis from a health standpoint, as well as an economic standpoint.

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But from a corporate standpoint, what we did was, we looked to react really quickly. We looked to craft a survival plan. Our survival plan was hard to implement, but we implemented it. We made the cost structure changes that we needed to make and the most effective way to support growth going forward. And we shored up our balance sheet. And then in doing that, we also relied on the creativity and the ingenuity of our teams to pivot to where the opportunity would be. And they’ve done that incredibly effectively. And so, I think I mentioned earlier, what we’re seeing now is really strong momentum in the business in Q3. Obviously, we’re cautiously optimistic as to what the future will bring, but we do feel pretty confident that the decisions that we made in the April, May timeframe will enable the company to end up at a stronger place once this crisis dies down.

As a digital platform, was the transition of working from home easier on you as a company? Or was that still a big obstacle to overcome?

Yeah—and this speaks to the flexibility and the nimbleness of the team that we have at BDG—we have been able to adapt pretty effectively to the work-from-home environment. And what’s actually interesting about this period of time is we’ve uncovered the opportunity to drive greater scale and expand the reach of some of the things that we had been doing, because of the work-from-home environment. So there have been a lot of learnings that we’ve had in terms of productivity, in terms of how we drive new business, in terms of how we execute editorial initiatives, as well as virtual events, as well as advertiser initiatives, that we’re going to permanently embed within our tool set going forward.

That’s awesome. Obviously, the technology part of this is huge, and you guys are leading the way. So, as someone who really has been at the forefront of the media industry, what do you think is next? What does the future hold? What’s going to be the next big thing?

I think for the media industry, I think there’s going to be continued consolidation. And I think there’s going to be a consolidation around companies that are leading the way on technology innovation. And so that’s something that we at Bustle Digital Group have always prided ourselves on. We have a homegrown, proprietary technology platform. We’re continuing to innovate on editorial products, on ad products. And then because we can roll those initiatives out quickly and at scale, it enables us to bring more and more brands into our portfolio and create value for them.

So, for example, we acquired The Zoe Report back in in 2018. And The Zoe Report was really high quality brands that was led by Rachel Zoe and her company. And then, this transaction closed within the first couple of months of me being at BDG. We rolled it into our technology platform, were able to expand the ad products brought to the table, grow its newsletter presence, and then redesign the site in a visually compelling way. And then, within the first year of us owning it, we doubled revenue. And so, I think that’s going to be something that I’m really excited to see continue in the broader media landscape.

In terms of your M&A strategy, when you’re looking at these brands, what are you looking for?

We’re looking for a couple of different things. We’re looking for audience reach that’s complimentary to what we have. We’re looking for advertising opportunities that help us expand and diversify the advertisers that we’re currently able to serve. And then three, we’re looking for new product capabilities. So, in terms of, double clicking on that second piece, the advertising opportunity, BDG, in the first couple of brands that it was building and the product suite it was building and audience that it was building, it was largely focused on the broader women’s space. And we very methodically added on unique audience segments within the women’s space. Then over the last year and a half, we’ve been building out what we’re calling our culture and innovation vertical, which helps us kind of expand into a more gender-balanced audience base. But also expand into passion categories and high-quality endemic categories, like technology, like science, like gaming, that not only help us expand the audience that we’re reaching but also expand the ad categories that we’re looking to serve.

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So, we’ve been really successful having acquired a company called Inverse, which is now doing over 20 million monthly unique visitors. We’ve now have had a lot of success in the technology ad category, in the entertainment ad category. And that not only drives value for our culture and innovation sites in and of themselves, which is Inverse and Mic and a site called Input, but it also has a halo effect on the broader Bustle Digital Group portfolio.

That’s great. So, I like to end interviews with: Is there something that you wish I had asked you, or that you wanted to talk about that I didn’t get to?

Yeah, it’s a great question. I think maybe the one thing that I’ve been thinking about over the last couple months is that we’re looking to expand diversity within our leadership team. And BDG has done a phenomenal job in terms of focusing on that, is just advice that I would give to young women leaders who are looking to break the ranks of executive leadership. It’s interesting, there’s a staff that I’d seen, and this is a staff really from early 2019, that I hope has evolved somewhat since, but it probably hasn’t really moved the needle, of the Fortune 500 companies; there’s about 15 percent of CFOs who are female.

I know. And so that’s something that I think we’ve certainly moved the needle on, but the rate of change in terms of leadership roles at the executive level I think really needs to…we need to continue to sort of accelerate the pace on. And so, I guess the piece of advice that I would give to young women leaders who have a lot of potential and are looking to really have greater business impact would be for them to be bold. For them to recognize that they’re empowered to have real business impact. That the impossible is possible. What I’ve been using as an ethos to drive me in my career over the last couple of years—and I would encourage young women leaders—is to be bold.

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