Holy Moly: how a £4 website became an internet phenomenon
Holy Moly's straight-talking founder, Jamie East, has sold half of the celebrity gossip website to Big Brother producer Endemol. Now he wants to use the partnership to conquer TV. Andrew McCormick reports.
Mr Holy Moly aka Jamie East
Jamie East is enjoying the high life. The 37-year-old Holy Moly founder is just back from an all-expenses-paid trip to the US courtesy of Harley Davidson. He is not quite sure why they took him, but not for the first time in his life, an opportunity came up and East took advantage.
It was a similar situation with Endemol in March, when the Big Brother producer made East a considerably rich man by buying a 50 per cent stake in the celebrity gossip website.
"Holymoly.co.uk cost me £4 in 2002; Holymoly.com, in 2008, cost £37,000. I could have bought the dotcom one in 2002 for £30, but I didn't have £30," East reveals. "I had about a tenner and the wife would have asked why I was spending nappy money on a website. I reminded her of that when I had to shell out thirty-seven grand for it. It was a while before I thought I had to make money, though. Sending the newsletter to 50,000 people, rather than 500, is actually quite expensive."
Popbitch had blazed a trail with its gossipy email newsletters and forum, but East, at the time working for BSkyB, thought he could do better. "I thought Popbitch was missing a trick in what a digital brand can become," he says. "Everyone had heard of Popbitch and it frustrated me that the owners weren't doing great things with it."
When Holy Moly launched, the public's obsession with celebrities, spurred on by reality TV shows, was at its peak. It was a captive audience, but East certainly knew how to make his website stand out - he credits 'C**t's Corner' with transforming Holy Moly from a niche site to an internet phenomenon. Times have changed, though, and East recognises that scandalous tittle-tattle is now much harder to come by. "There are fewer gobshites who aren't media-trained and surrounded by PRs, so it's more difficult to find things to write about. And the 'pap' agencies aren't getting the pictures they used to."
East is therefore planning to make Holy Moly less reliant on celebrity gossip by turning to film reviews and more sober entertainment news. This will be reflected in the site's redesign, which is currently being tested. What will the redesign involve? "It's about creating more places on the site to put more stuff," he says matter-of-factly.
East's straight-talking tone is reflected in his website - and it is arguably this, rather than the subject matter, that attracts around one million unique users to Holy Moly every month. "We don't search out scoops, we don't doorstep, we don't go for them because it's expensive and risky. The amount the tabloids must have spent investigating in the last month alone, while not being able to publish a lot of it, is mental. We write about what's popular and topical in a tone that isn't patronising and reads as people really talk," he says.
The irreverence is palpable on meeting East, a big Midlands lad with rock hair and tattoos to match. He gets a buzz out of the attention and one feels that the Endemol deal was very much driven by his desire for Holy Moly to eventually reach the TV screens. "There isn't a decent celebrity show on telly any more. It hasn't been done properly since Liquid News," he asserts.
So, what of the entrepreneur's new mothership? East and his head of PR are desperate to get across the message that Holy Moly won't lose its independence following the Endemol deal. Surely, though, this is a given - for the production company has a history of courting controversy, and anyone can see that Holy Moly would be nothing without its rogue element.
Whether or not it will work on TV is a tricky question. Several TV executives have turned it down in the past, but East is still determined to convince them. When I last interviewed him several years ago, when he was the anonymous 'Mr Holy Moly', he said the same of video. But he has since changed his mind. "Video's an interesting one because you can spend a hell of a lot of time, money, effort and thought in creating video and it just doesn't work sometimes. Marketers and agencies scream at me that they want video - 'It's £28 CPA,' they say. But the problem with video is that you need volume. We don't treat YouTube the way we should treat YouTube because it's a job in itself," he argues.
Having worked at Sky and helped Channel 4 and Chelsea FC, among others, with their websites, East is well aware of how essential marketing and the media are to the realisation of his ambitions. International expansion is also on the cards, but East is not looking at the usual path. Germany and India would not be many people's first ports of call, but the obvious candidate market, the US, is saturated with purveyors of celebrity gossip.
East will certainly be relying on advertising to put his plans into action, but he has always had a beneficial relationship with sponsors. Carling, for instance, jumped on board in the early days of the site: "Carling gave me two grand to get pissed with my mates. So of course I spent £500 and pocketed the rest. That was the first time I thought, 'Ah, people are going to pay me money to do stuff and I can get pissed as well'."
Yet this was not always the case, at least with some of the websites and media owners East courted. "Lots of brands didn't want to be associated with Holy Moly, but they were trying to rip us off. So we said to them, 'We'll create content for you if you pay us'," he explains.
Having been anonymous for the best part of a decade, East is enjoying his newfound limelight. His next challenge is to turn Holy Moly into a mainstream media operator, and one that will attract more than just online advertisers. If past performance is anything to go by, this should not present too much of a challenge. "Holy Moly's always gone to plan. Through luck or graft every stepping stone has worked out," East says.
Holy Moly TV is next up. It could be the most treacherous stepping stone yet.
Lives: West London
Family: Wife and four kids
Favourite websites: PopJustice and UltraCulture
Rides: A Ducatti motorbike
2011: Sells 50 per cent share of Holy Moly to Endemol UK
2008: Sells stake in Holy Moly to digital media company Perform - later
buys it back
2002: Launches Holy Moly
1999: Joins Sky
1993: Lead singer with the Beekeepers, signed to Beggars Banquet Records
1990: DJ at various venues in Derby
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk
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