There’s a kind of harried, yet familiar energy at the downtown Manhattan offices of Refinery29.
Young people — some sporting small tattoos, piercings, hats or a combination of all three — stream past the neon-green lighted sign at the entryway that bears the company’s name, and into the open-plan office that’s too small for the growing staff that inhabits it.
Decorated in the motif of a start-up — purposefully disjointed with quirky flourishes such as oversized, mismatched furniture and brightly colored, often custom LED, wall art — the New York office of Refinery29 has a cool factor that is a totem of a digital media publisher today.
And like most digital publishers, Refinery29 also carries the reputation of a fail-fast, work-hard, play-hard (some would say “burnout”) culture that embodies new media as it strives to carve out its brand in the disruptive, crowded landscape.
It’s an ongoing process — one that is seeing yet another restructuring of its editorial operations as Refinery29 attempts to find its niche.
According to cofounder and chief executive officer Philippe von Borries, the company is evolving into a “media entertainment business.” This entails a reorganization to cover trending news, service journalism and features, as well as video and branded content.
As a result, there has been a handful of layoffs plus some new hires. They include the addition of senior features writer Ashley Ford; Judith Ohikuare, who will develop Work & Money stories; managing editor Jessica Blankenship; beauty reporter Khalea Underwood, and Sophie Saint Thomas, a sex writer.
There naturally is a data-driven reason for the changes: Refinery29’s U.S. site has struggled to consistently break the 20 million monthly unique visitor threshold over the last two years, according to ComScore.
Launched in 2005, the company quickly grew into a fashion, beauty and wellness-focused destination. With a mandate to expand, the site tweaked its initial strategy and made a push two years ago to add hard news and politics coverage under the stewardship of former editorial director Mikki Halpin. It hired Kaelyn Ford, an executive editor for news.
But Refinery29 shifted direction again and let Ford go. The company brought on Marie Claire executive editor Lea Goldman as editorial director to reorganize the newsroom last year. (But after only a few months, Goldman left for a job at A+E ).
Nonetheless, Amy Emmerich, who was promoted to chief content officer, worked with Goldman to reorganize editorial and grow its video and branded content efforts.
“The ambition for us is not to be CNN for women, but to have a slant around information we find important,” explained von Borries, who added that Refinery29 hasn’t abandoned hard news, per se. Instead, the company takes an “entertainment slant” or it might have a “second day” angle.
Still, there is a somewhat disjointed tune to Refinery29’s mix of world news and click bait. Stories titled “Stop What You’re Doing & Witness the Suffering in Aleppo” are a little jarring sitting on the same site as “Wrap Up Your Bad Hair Days With a Bow.”
“Refinery is in the throes of an identity crisis,” a former employee told WWD. “It’s a fast-paced organization that is at a crossroads in its evolution.”
Another source noted that Refinery29’s quick growth has in some sense put it at odds with its DNA, which is a “small, renegade brand.”
The company has raised $125.4 million in six rounds of funding since 2010 with a recent funding round in August of $45 million led by Turner Broadcasting. That puts Refinery29’s valuation at $500 million. It also launched a buzzy partnership with Getty Images based on its “The 67% Project,” which is an initiative to highlight plus-sized women. It has made a push into virtual reality and scripted video.
In order to show the size of the company, a representative said Refinery29 has more than 450 employees globally, 423 of which are in New York, and has a cross-platform aggregate reach of more than 518 million. She claimed that the company has a nine-figure revenue business, the bulk of which comes from sponsorship or custom advertising it creates for other brands.
But in addition to a high burnout rate and long hours, there’s an unorganized feeling to the place, complained an insider, who added: “A lot is asked of the staff, but a lot of resources aren’t given.”
Von Borries offered that structural shifts are part of the environment today and by extension part of Refinery29’s culture.
“You rethink how you do business every year,” he said. “It’s an insane period of transition. It’s no easy task to completely transform a space and bring the culture along the way we have and the content.”