Richelieu Dennis and Bonin Bough are two of the three founders behind Group Black, a barely one-year-old media empire that already counts more than 150 Black-owned media brands including Essence, Afropunk, Holler and more under its umbrella. The company’s mission, according to Bough, its co-founder and chief strategy officer, is “to dramatically transform the face of media ownership and investment.”
The company is re-shaping the way media is purchased and created, linking creators with platforms, influencers with brands, finding ways to not only tell new stories — but control the way those stories are told and shared. To Dennis, Group Black’s co-founder and Chairman, people need to stop thinking of Black media as relegated to one aisle, but instead as a key pillar in today’s media ecosystem. To that end, the company is has garnered pledges of $500 million in media commitments to help build and grow Black-owned businesses.
You can hear more from both Dennis and Bough during their conversation with The Recount’s John Battelle as he spoke with them on stage during Signal 2022 about their innovative plans for today’s media ecosystem, and the disruption they’re betting on ahead.
I’m very excited. You can see that we’ve got the setup here for two speakers. I like to call this a trialogue as opposed to a dialogue. Because we’d like to do one on one conversations a lot but in this case, we thought it was absolutely worth adding a chair because the folks who I’m about to bring up, I want to tell you a little bit about before I do.
We are going to meet Group Black and the two folks who are coming are Bonin Bough and Richelieu Dennis. Bonin is a co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer. Rich is the co-founder and Chairman and they have an extraordinary background. Bonin is one of the foremost awarded marketing executives in the industry, youngest C-suite executive at a Fortune 500 company, worked at billion dollar CPG brands Mondelez and Pepsi come to mind. I worked with him while he was at those companies. He’s been inducted into the Advertising Hall of Achievement and many lists like Fortune’s 40 under 40. Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business, Ebony’s Power 100, and so on.
Rich Dennis is a Liberian refugee who moved to the U.S. in 1980 before making his fortune creating the hugely popular beauty company Shea Moisture, Sundial and other consumer products. He later founded Essence Ventures, acquired Essence magazine and the Essence Festival, which attracts close to half a million attendees each year. He’s an active social investor, having launched the New Voices Fund, a $100 million fund to invest in businesses owned by Black women. So I’m going to bring them on Bonin is going to give a brief presentation to introduce you to Group Black and then we’re going to have a conversation. So please join me in welcoming both Bonin and Rich to the Signal stage.
How are you P&G are you good? I’m so excited to be here with you guys today. Yes, my name is Bonin Bough, co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Group Black. Really, the one thing to think about when you think about Group Black is that we’re bringing superior economics to inclusion. I’m gonna go through some of that, I only have five minutes. I’m gonna be really quick.. A little bit of my background for those that don’t know me, many do, but I’ve sat in your shoes. I was 10 years on the agency side. I left the agency side because I thought clients were too dumb to buy good work. So became a dumb client. And I became the first Chief Digital Officer of PepsiCo. Now it’s called digital transformation. Then it was called, ‘Oh my god with Facebook!” Then I became Chief Media and eCommerce Officer for Mondelez. In both of those journeys, it was about driving change. I know change is very difficult. But it’s in those opportunities that you create a lot of value.
We moved Mondelez from 3% spending and digital to 32%. We added $2 billion of top line net revenue $300 million to the bottom line, but it took a lot of work to get there. I’m going to share a little quick journey before I explain specifically some of the details around Group Black. In 1827 the first Black newspaper was founded in New York City and it was launched by recently free Black men, Samuel Cornish and John Rushworth. They started what would soon be known as the “Freedom Journal.” This was started 30 years before civil rights and directly into slavery. Now what it did was it helped to change the narrative around discrimination and marginalization in America. But what’s interesting is that, by best accounts there were about 500 Black news organizations and publications that were started in the 35 years from 1865 to the 20th Century today. You can probably count them on one hand. But these papers serve to tell stories, and the new narrative, not just of Black America, but America at large.They gave voice to those that didn’t have a voice. Things like social justice, Montgomery 1965, and they created value. This was the number selling number one selling magazine for that month. But this for the first time the world could now march with King.
You move on to Jet, who allowed Muhammad Ali to tell his truth about how he was taking his winnings and reinvesting in the community, and helping grow the community and create value, a story that no other publication would tell. Or you look at amazing magazines like Essence, they talked about creators of culture, music, fashion and sports. Be a rich, Black woman. But that resonated not just with Black women, but with women at large across the world. But at the same time, when we look today, we realize that there is still the same inequities and misconceptions the misconception is that Black-owned means Black-targeted. Or even more that Black voices don’t drive, they just talk to Black people. But the reality is, is they have impact across the world. The number one Tiktoker, Khaby Lame, still is not even on the Forbes’ Top 50 list in terms of those that are the highest compensated. So we still have this inequity of investment in Black-owned media and Black voices.
Step in Group Black. We saw real opportunity to really create a model that you guys could invest at scale, and we could begin to grow and re-support and build the pipeline of Black-owned media. Our vision is simple, the inclusion age. We believe that we no longer want to live in a world where we no longer have to have this conversation. Our mission is simple to dramatically transform the face of media ownership and investment. We’ll talk about why ownership is crucial and important. Our solution is to become the largest ecosystem of best in class media, not just Black-owned media, but best in class media to compete against the world’s largest media companies in the world. We believe we’re building the NBC, a Black-owned generation. Today, we are a collective of 200 media companies that span everything from experiences to creators and everything in between. We offer media solutions, content, experience solutions, all at scale. I have a 30-second video, which will just show you how we work and then I’m going to shut up.
We started Group Black with a very simple mission, to dramatically transform the face of media ownership and investment.
Diversity creates understanding and compassion and all the pieces that we need to move forward.
Black and brown communities in the U.S. have been largely disadvantaged, especially in terms of narratives and the stories that were behind that. We’ve never owned a narrative power, we’ve never been able to tell our own stories, because of who owned these media companies and who owned the way that they were portrayed.
That was our investment at Cannes to really bring and make sure that Black voices were seen, heard. We were able to share kind of what the platforms that we offer. So welcome to the next generation black media, Group Black. I’m gonna sit down thank you so much.
Thank you Bonin. Also a signal alum. I remember you bring in the energy, like eight years ago, that was awesome.
I really want to clarify what you’re doing. When someone at a cocktail party says what is Group Black doing. I understand that you are addressing a fundamental and structural change in media ownership. Can you unpack that for me?
The way to think about Group Black is there’s a fundamental problem with how you get to buy Black media today or how you used to before Group Black, right? And because of the lack of investment in Black media companies, they have become A) very few of them, but also very small, right? So if I have a $10 million budget, and I want to invest it in Black media, whether it’s broad audience or targeted audience, I have a very hard time making one call to get that $10 million spent right because these companies are so small. And they’re focused in on different areas, so you don’t have one place that you can go to, and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to buy print here, I’m gonna buy digital here, I’m gonna buy experience here.’ So what ends up happening is to go spend that $10 million, I’ve got to go to 30 Different companies, highly inefficient. Each one doesn’t provide you the scale. If you think about it, what we’ve really done is said, ‘Okay, we’re going to bring scale to this marketplace, we’re going to bring opportunities to companies that haven’t had them traditionally. And we’re going to put them together in ways that they can now build, and plan their inventories, to be able to absorb those dollars.’ That’s really the way to think about it in an operation.
Like a meta platform on top of it. So there’s one call, one relationship, and then you can manage to hundreds.
And it’s not just traditional media, it’s digital, it’s influencer.
It’s the entire ecosystem. So now what we get to do we get to put technology under that. So that you can make those purchases, and so that those companies now have access to be able to do business with P&G.
I’ve also read and I’m very interested in a goal of investing half a billion dollars by the end of the year. What does that mean exactly?
If you take a look at how much has been how much is spent, just in media in general, and then how much is driven by the communities that these media companies represent and the audiences that they that they serve, what has happened, as I alluded to earlier, there’s been no infrastructure to allow them to absorb large dollars. The model that we’ve put in, as I said earlier, allows them to do that. But you take it one step further, there’s a real business proposition to brands to be able to reach these very hard to reach very high-value audiences, but very hard to reach to reach them at scale. So our goal is half a billion dollars, over 12 months, into these businesses, helping them be able to absorb them, helping them be able to drive the distributions, to access new distributions. That is fundamentally changing the entire ecosystem. Now a creator can create something for Essence. And Afropunk can sit on that same creative or take that same creative and distributed there, and they can go to The Shade Room and The Shade Room can create a program that can now be played at Essence Festival. What we’re now starting to do is to see how an ecosystem can create real value, and how brands can actually start to get to these hard to reach audiences with some efficiency and with high-value targets.
The one thing on this journey was, having been on the other side and having to buy at scale, we know that I love our agencies, but they’re not really incentivized to go to 300 people either. We put pressure on their pricing, and all those kinds of things. So you have to create singular ways to spend. But the other piece is you’re dealing with media companies that aren’t monolithic. They have a lot of value in all different types of assets, whether it’s festival, whatever it is. So how do you create a system, which allows you to spend at scale, get media scale, but also take advantage of these non-monolithic products. But the one piece, I would say is that, more than anything, the journey that I went on with mobility, and you know, we got to 10%, spending on mobile in four years, it took a lot of focus on doing things differently inside the organization. It was one thing to commit, right? It’s another thing to be committed, because you have to roll up your sleeves and think different. Like when I walked into the Upfronts for the first time, and I was an idiot and I came from digital, I had never bought TV in my life. So I was too stupid to know what was right or wrong. But I said I want to buy mobile in the upfront. My agency said you’re crazy. Nobody does that. Now everybody does it. Right? So I went to every single head of network and said, ‘You’re gonna get my money only if you let me buy mobile at the Upfront.’And guess what, we got it done. But I’m just saying it’s going to require thinking different, not just from us creating the system but from other organizations that are partnering with us thinking different about how to make sure that we reach these goals.
There’s a question I talked to you about dinner last night, Rich, I want to unpack if I screw up the asking of it, just fix it for me, please. But in your opening, you said it’s not just Black-owned for Black audiences. I think there’s something really important in that. But I want to unpack particularly if you look at the influence of Black creators, like you mentioned, and you mentioned the number one Tiktoker. That’s not just a Black audience.
Not at all
Help us understand how to think about that. Because I do feel like maybe there’s been a little bit of a silo going on with thinking about Black-owned media, or reaching Black audiences.
I’ll try to say it without somebody else having to clean it up for me. But I mean therein lies the problem, right? It’s said mildly, it’s the inherent bias. Said properly, it’s the inherent racism. Because I’m a Black person that owns a media company and I walk into your door, it doesn’t mean that I can only sell media to Black people. I can reach everybody, and I should have the opportunity to reach everybody. But if I’m siloed into your multicultural budget, and I’m stuck in a quarter percent of the pie, I can’t build a real business, I can’t build real scale. I experienced the same thing in the beauty space. We were relegated to the Black aisle, and that’s where you, if you were Black and you walked in, that’s the only opportunity you had, which cuts you off from the rest of the rest of the marketplace. We have to, as Bonin was saying, that’s the work that has to be done. It’s not just hey, we’ve made these commitments, we have to be committed. Part of being committed means we have to change the way we think about it. If a company walks into your door, they should have the same opportunities of everybody. They have to bring the product, they have to bring the scale, but it shouldn’t be that you’re relegated to only this conversation in this bucket.
First of all, I think that that, Mark said it best, which is this is going to be one of the largest growth drivers over the next 10 years, whether you look at census data, no matter what. Culture, in general tends to be the largest driver of growth. We know a lot of cultures created from, you know, from Black voices. But I always say to Rich’s point, I watched it, I watched as Growth Officer of Sundial, I watched it. I’ve never seen anything like it. But my point is if Viacom can own BET, then we should be able to own MTV. What we’re trying to do is bring Black voices into general market, because even when you look at general market, there’s not a lot of representation there. We know Black voices draw, and so that’s where there has become a silo. I think part of it has been driven by good intentions. Yeah, but not necessarily spending time to understand what the true landscape needs to look like.
I want to ask you about those good intentions. There’s been a lot of pledges made over the last two years since the terrible events of two years ago, May, with the Floyd murder. How are you tracking that? Do you feel like those commitments have turned into committed action?
When I said we were gonna get to 10%, spending in digital and mobile, I didn’t want to have to go tell my boss. ‘Oh, we tried.’ Plus, I wanted to be the first to get there in the industry to say, ‘Here’s the roadmap, guys go, we won. Good luck.’ What I love about this industry is that when we are committed, we get it done. I think that we still need a little bit more openness and action to to get that done. But what I what concerns me is that if we don’t accomplish it, will we blame the ecosystem? Or where we actually realize that we didn’t get there?
I think historically, that’s what’s happened, right? When these initiatives have been put forward, and they didn’t get done, the ecosystem gets blamed. I couldn’t find Black employees. I couldn’t find this. I couldn’t find Black media agencies. So the idea behind Group Black is to take those excuses away. The second part of that is to get in and actually do the work that says, ‘Okay, thinking differently about this means we have to do this, we have to do that.’ But at the end of the day, these commitments are just the tip of the iceberg. They’re just the starting point. In order to get there, we have to realize that it’s not about the commitment, it’s about the value that you unlock for your shareholders, it’s about the value that you unlock for your employees, it’s about the value that falls to the bottom line, it’s about your margins, because that’s where the growth is. That growth isn’t going away. Those Black and brown consumers are going to continue to grow. That’s where the growth is in the marketplace. So being able to engage them, being able to talk to them, being able to have them build trust with your brand, is where it’s at. So we have an obligation all of us in here to make sure that these commitments actually get executed, that we can actually build sustainable businesses and products and organizations that allow that. Because the flip side of that is people start to really fragment and go rogue. That’s really where it becomes a problem, because then you can’t really reach them.
So you’ve been around for a year, that right about a year? So you’ve had one year, you state the problem a year ago, you start to operate, what does it look like a year or two from now? Like, literally, how large is Group Black? How large will it become?
I’m gonna let you answer that one. You’re the chairman.
I like building big businesses. I think that this is an opportunity to build what will become a top five if not bigger media company, but one that is very different in that it benefits the entire ecosystem. It’s not about one company. It’s about how do we take this collective? How do we get all of these creatives? How do we provide them with the tools and the resources so that they’re able to scale and able to build the types of businesses and the types of products that is a benefit to mankind? Because what’s happened is, we bring a lot of culture to the to the marketplace, we haven’t been able to monetize that. When we monetize that, we can invest deeper into culture, we can invest deeper into driving the changes in the marketplace that we’re looking for. That’s what we intend to do. So we certainly intend to become a top five media player.
Top five media player. As a guy who started seven media companies go with God. I mean, it’s hard to do. I’m really impressed by the desire to go after that.
But you know what I mean? The fact is that it’s when we looked at the landscape, it’s abysmal, what the real ownership structure looks like, .2% Black-owned media. I mean, that’s crazy. It doesn’t get much better, whether it’s women, whether it’s Asian, LG, I mean, the numbers are still in that range. There’s that adage that says, it’s one thing to be in front of the camera, one thing to be behind the camera. It’s another thing to own the camera, because you greenlight what gets shown to the world. So there’s a whole perspective that’s really missing at scale. So that’s where we see a real opportunity to kind of change the landscape to his point to change the world for a much different cause.
We can keep going, but unfortunately, we got all the zeros there. So we’re out of time. But thank you so much for coming and sharing your vision with us and I wish you the best of luck. Please join me in thanking Rich and Bonin.