When it was founded with $4million seedfunding in September 2016, Freeda Media (the brainchild of Italian media executive Andrea Scotti Calderini and investment banker Gianluigi Casole) was pitched as a ‘media company for a new generation’, with the long-term objective of becoming “the most relevant female media brand worldwide.” So far, so every media startup of the last decade.
But scroll forward a year to autumn 2017 and it became clear that Calderini and Casole were not bluffing. Freeda – their first venture in their native Italy – was aimed squarely at a young millennial and Gen-Z audience, and was not a site at all. Nor was it a publication. Nor an app. No, the Italian iteration of Freeda was born on Facebook, and swiftly moved to Instagram, Youtube and LinkedIn. Its website was – and still is – fundamentally a landing page that directs users to news in instant articles posted on different social networks.
Freeda Media is proudly a media company with a different approach, one that few legacy media bosses might recognize; more a communications initiative with content creation – predominantly video and illustration – and distribution at its heart. By adopting what at first looked like an incredibly risky ‘social media first’ strategy – in fact, more accurately, a social media only strategy – Calderini and his team took the content to the audience, prioritizing community and audience interaction over everything else. They also, somewhat cannily, dodged the human and financial cost associated with building, maintaining and upgrading not just one site but the many iterations that necessarily go with international expansion.
Four years and a further $26million and two funding rounds later, Freeda expanded into Spain (2018), Latin America and (in a pre-pandemic early 2020) the UK, the latter two typically a testing ground for a media brand with its sights really set on the US. Of course. Using a model of global guidelines with local stories in the local language to create around five Facebook videos and 8-10 posts for Instagram per day.
By 2019 Freeda could boast a global community of some seven million women aged 18-34 (not telephone numbers but significant) and claimed to be the first women’s media brand to clear 100m audience interactions on Instagram beating Vogue (73M), Teen Vogue (20M), cosmo (17.5m) and Elle (10m). In Italy, its Instagram reach is second only to Sky. [Stats for the UK are hard to come by, which might well imply that Freeda Media is finding the English speaking market harder to crack.]
But the figures are difficult to ignore. In the young millennial/Gen Z space – one which legacy media owners have struggled to access – Freeda is doing something right, and it’s bringing advertisers (who previously spent their budgets with Cosmopolitan, Elle, Vogue, Grazia, Stylist et al) along for the ride. Brands ranging from Dior and Gucci to Netflix and Nike to KFC have all invested in brand campaigns with Freeda. According to Calderini, the pre-pandemic retention rate for repeat bookings was 70%. Although he won’t disclose the figures, it is believed the company has revenue of some $10-15m with profits from Italy helping to fund the expansion.
“Quality pays off; we have been very focused on our community,” he told Digiday. “A lot of people are saying that media is in crisis. That might be true if you are very focused on programmatic or print revenues. It’s about the approach. If you’re consumer-driven and focused on qualitative content, you can leverage Google and Facebook to make a sustainable business model.”
That focus on community and audience interaction may well also be the key to relieving the dependence on branded content partnerships. When Freeda Media completed its series B funding round of $16M in 2019, it was hardly surprising that retail products informed by all that audience interaction were on the agenda. Not exactly revolutionary, of course. Who can forget the Cosmo yoghurt? Or, more lucratively, Country Living’s UK bedding, homewares and furniture collaborations. In the vein of magazine brand extensions of old, was a Freeda hoodie on the cards? Or A Freeda version of Urban Outfitters?
Far from it.
At the end of June, a new player emerged at the internet-friendly end of women’s beauty products. Called Superfluid, it was a photogenic range of beauty products (think internet sensation Glossier with less girly but equally Instagram-able packaging). It champions diverse bodies and skin types in its imagery, including models with rosacea, psoriasis and wrinkles. And it is sold and marketed on social media. Beauty products right in tune with the times.
Within a few weeks of its UK launch, Superfluid could boast an Instagram following of more than 50k and was dubbed “the new Glossier” by Refinery 29. But look at the small print and you’ll see that Superfluid is not the output of an edgy indie, nor is it launched by one of the established players – it’s part of the Freeda Media family, created using data from the Freeda audience and launched (like Freeda itself) as an inclusive social media community that eschews perfection, promotes self-acceptance and positive physical and mental health. In short, Superfluid shares all the brand values of Freeda but – unlike the FMCG brand extensions that have gone before – it stands alone. It’s early days for Superfluid, but so far all the evidence is its Gen Z target audience is lapping it up and the beauty industry is on alert.
Shouldn’t you be too?
If this agile low-cost company is able to make waves not just in the media sector but in beauty products too – by harnessing, serving and selling to that same audience – what does that mean for the future of lifestyle media and all those magazine brands searching for a future? Freeda could change not just the context but the shape and, more excitingly, the scale. Think about the impact of Grazia back in 2005 – and that was just in the print space.
Whether Freeda Media will have the same impact in the UK as in Southern Europe remains to be seen, of course. But its model for a 360 lifestyle media brand that goes beyond the mobile phone and into the bathroom and makeup bags of its followers is compelling. If I were Hearst or Condé Nast, I would be thinking of buying Freeda before it gets out of reach.