Mic adds $6.5M from WPP to build out its news brand for millennials

Millennials remain a hot target for digital marketing and advertising, and so perhaps unsurprisingly, a startup building news and other publishing services targeted specifically at that demographic has raised some money from one of the world’s biggest ad agencies.

Mic, the New York-based site and publisher of “branded content” aimed at 20- and early 30-somethings with an audience of 65 million unique users each month across its properties, has raised $6.5 million from WPP — a strategic investment that expands Mic’s Series C — announced originally in April — to $28.4 million.

Previous investors in that round included Lightspeed Venture Partners, Time Warner Investments, kyu Collective and You & Mr. Jones. Mic has now raised over $60 million, a spokesperson confirmed.

The deal comes in the same week as Cannes Lions, the ad industry’s big confab, and speaks to the evolving relationship between marketing and journalism. Traditionally, some have described the two as a “church and state” — meaning the business that gets done in selling ads runs independently from how and what news organizations choose to pursue editorially. And yes, you can definitely argue that this was never as clear cut as some wanted or made it out to be.

In any case, these days, there are significantly more out-in-the-open grey areas. News publications rely on income from large content efforts sponsored by companies — variously called “branded content”, “sponsored content” or “native advertising” among other things — to replace a decline in more traditional advertising.

And audiences are changing. Millennial consumers are flocking to brands that speak to them and their positions on things, and Mic does this with at attempt at providing a little edge at the same time. Its special-focus coverage has titles like Navigating Trump’s America (politics), The Movement (social justice), Payoff (personal finance), Slay (feminism) Hype (entertainment), The Future is Now (technology), Strut (beauty), Out of Office (food and travel) and Multiplayer (gaming). It also prides itself on being a bit on the “edgy” side and flouting some journalistic conventions (witness Mic publishing a letter Apple sent it “off the record”).

And there is also Facebook. Companies like Mic both represent an opportunity for WPP to spread its bet between platforms where media is being consumed, and to gain some leverage in one that represents a competitive threat to Facebook, which, in turn, also presents a competitive threat to WPP in terms of building advertising relationships with clients. (Which is in keeping with the old saying, “An enemy of my enemy is a friend to me.”)

The connection between what Mic is doing and what social networks are doing (and would like to do) and the common target audience between them is not coincidental: recall that at one point Twitter apparently was interested in acquiring Mic.

Strategic relationships like this one between WPP and Mic speak to the shift on how advertising is financing news publishing, and to what end.

WPP has been making a pretty significant effort over the last several years to acquire digital assets, and also invest in interesting startups that align with its bigger strategy to move more of its business to digital platforms as consumers continue to make the shift away from more traditional forms of media like print and broadcast television.

Today the company says that some 39 percent of its $19.4 billion in revenues in 2016 came from digital (working out to $17.5 billion). It wants to be making 40-45 percent of all revenues from digital in the next four to five years and appears to be nearly there already.

Recent investments have included leading a $15 million round just today in mobile ad tech firm Celtra; stakes in Russell Simmons’ All Def Digital, fashion media company Refinery29, Uproxx Media Group, Latino-focused Mitú, Fullscreen, Indigenous Media, and Vice. Other notable moves have included buying agencies like AKQA; and investing in ComScore, AppNexus, MySupermarket and more.

The two already have a lot of existing, compatible interests. Mic said that its advertisers and “branded-content” clients include Alphabet Inc., Discover, Goldman Sachs, Marriott International, Netflix Company, Chanel S. A. and the Microsoft Corporation. (Recall, that Martin Sorrell, WPP’s founder and chairman and CEO, once noted that Google would become the company’s most important investment when it comes to buying media placements.)