Updated Feb 9, 2023, 11:15am EST
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Media company Ozy is attempting a comeback

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The News

Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Ozy, the youth-focused media company that imploded in 2021 over a misleading pitch to potential investors, is raising money again — pitching itself as a “fresh,” “hip,” media brand for a younger generation.

In a 30-minute-long presentation to potential advertisers and investors at the MAGNA Equity Upfronts in Manhattan on Wednesday, Ozy founder Carlos Watson and his team implored brands to invest in the digital media company “if you want the opportunity to spread love.”

After walking out to Rick Ross’ “Every Day I’m Hustlin,” the CEO didn’t touch on the federal investigation into his company or extremely public implosion.

Instead, he hosted a live version of his YouTube program the Carlson Watson Show, holding an onstage discussion about race, entrepreneurship, and the value of pursuing your dreams with a comic from the Daily Show and two Black college students who won Ozy’s genius award. The company also played a sizzle reel of Ozy’s greatest hits in which the narrator implored the audience to “join the generation of millions of fans” of Ozy by purchasing ads and sponsorships.

The question of whether Ozy indeed has millions of fans was the subject of extreme public scrutiny in recent years. Wednesday’s appearance by Watson was one of the first times that the embattled founder has appeared at a major advertiser or media conference since then-New York Times media columnist (now Semafor editor-in-chief) Ben Smith revealed that an Ozy executive had posed as a Google representative during a meeting with Goldman Sachs. The fallout from the revelation was swift: Watson’s other false pronouncements were publicized, advertisers cut ties with the company, and Ozy staff quit or were laid off.

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None of this was mentioned during Tuesday’s presentation, which was light on specifics about the digital media company’s current business (though Watson did announce to the audience that Ozy Fest, a music and ideas festival, would return this year in Miami). Watson boasted about Ozy’s numerous podcasts, festivals, and shows, though a brief look through its website shows little in the way of new content beyond a few newsletters and Watson’s show.

Instead, the CEO left most of the pitch duties to Carmen Yulin Cruz, the former mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico who recently launched a podcast with Ozy called “Sheroics.” Cruz cloaked Ozy’s mission in the language of representation and social justice, saying that partnering with Ozy was a way to push back against traditional media.

“In the morning you turn on the news and it’s crap, crap, crap. What you have here is the opportunity to see the world from a different perspective, from a new perspective, from a hip perspective,” she said.

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Max’s view

Ozy’s positioning as a brand-safe media company aimed at nonwhite audiences isn’t a bad one, but it requires glazing over a huge pile of inconvenient details. During the presentation, the company’s promo video showed clips of famous celebrities like Alex Rodgrieuz, Dwayne Wade, John Legend, and Priyanka Chopra appearing at Ozy events or being interviewed on Ozy shows.

What the video didn’t mention is the fact that A-List celebrities aren’t lining up to appear on the network’s YouTube channel since the company imploded. And Watson’s declaration that Ozy Fest was returning this year in Miami is dubious given the fact that the organization never publicly acknowledged that the last one was canceled.

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Room for Disagreement

Watson never acknowledged that the elements of Ozy’s business that raised eyebrows — in particular, the lack of organic traffic — was out of the ordinary.

“Like all innovative companies (Netflix, Spotify, Tesla and more), we definitely invested smartly in marketing to make sure that our top tier journalism and storytelling was put in front of the right audience,” he told the Times. “We did not want to simply be subject to the vagaries of the algorithms, which is one of the many reasons Ozy is appealing to advertisers.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Yulín as mayor of Puerto Rico, rather than mayor of San Juan.

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Notable

  • Wednesday’s panel showcased Watson’s greatest strength: Presenting a charismatic public face that left employees feeling “energized, eager to carry out whatever preposterous task he had assigned” when they worked with him.
  • The specter of a federal investigation led by prosecutors with the Eastern District of New York looms over Ozy’s attempt at a relaunch.
  • After Ozy’s implosion in 2021, some Black digital media leaders pointed out that advertisers claim they want to support Black-run media, but many topics covered by Black-run media companies scare off potential advertisers. To them, Ozy’s story showed that “many of the people responsible for doling out the dollars that keep the industry afloat would prefer to give money to a company like Ozy, with an Ivy League-educated pitch man selling a shiny, controversy-free vision of news and opinion, with none of the real-world stuff.”
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