Dany Levy, the founder of DailyCandy, the addictive and once wildly successful shopping e-newsletter and website, was boarding a plane to Mexico when she heard her creation was being shut down by its current owner, NBCUniversal, along with Television Without Pity (the beloved site that launched a thousand TV recappers). Levy admits to mixed feelings. “I kind of thought it’s a long time coming. It’s sad just to see it disappear into the ether.”
While squadrons of service magazines and shopping websites saturation-bombed you with options, the beauty of DailyCandy was its brevity: one thing a day, highlighted briefly. What made it work even better was its voice — savvy, terse, the second person making it all about “you.” It’s tempting to read this as a sign of the times — once-great brands now passed by, Web 1.0 companies superseded — and NBCUniversal would like to frame it that way. But the truth may be less pretty: a tale of mismanagement and misplaced vision that could have been avoided.
Dany Levy, who had been an intern and then the managing editor’s assistant at New York Magazine before leaving in 1998, wrote and sent out the first DailyCandy in March 2000 as an e-newsletter to about 700 people, names she pulled from her own Rolodex. By 2003, she had 285,000 subscribers, and Bob Pittman, the old AOL Svengali, bought a controlling interest for $3 million. By 2005, the Times was calling DailyCandy “the undisputed grande dame of style sites.”
While the company grew larger, with an audience of 1.2 million in eight cities, its mission stayed narrow. Levy resisted launching a Daily Candy for men because that concept, as she said at the time, “unfairly implies that men don’t read us, which they do.” Some viewed DailyCandy’s narrow focus as limiting: It wasn’t a website, it didn’t have page views, it contained no forums or comment boards, no opportunities for user-generated content. But this was an era of high-stakes new-media gambles by mega-corporations (as opposed to our current era of high-stakes new-media gambles by venture capitalists). In 2006 — after MySpace sold to News Corp for $580 million, NBC bought iVillage for $600 million, and the Times bought About.com for $410 million — Levy and Pittman explored a possible sale. They didn’t follow through until 2008, when Comcast paid a reported $120 million (a source says it was more like $138 million). By then, the gold rush seemed to be waning — Mediabistro sold for $23 million, PaidContent for $30 million. Comcast ended up paying what many considered an inflated price, perhaps because of Pittman’s imprimatur, or perhaps because of the list of devoted subscribers that DailyCandy held, which could be deployed for so many other uses.
When the deal closed in September 2008, the plan seemed pretty straightforward: Keep beefing up the newsletters, expand the website, add mobile services. That lasted until the following week, when Lehman Bros. shut down. After the market crashed, some at Comcast looked over what they’d bought and felt like they’d been sold a bill of goods, according to one source, who couldn’t believe how quickly Levy got marginalized. “They kept Dany as sort of a figurehead. But they never listened to her, they never asked her anything, she didn’t have a role.”
Fandango’s Chuck Davis and a former Hearst executive named Beth Ellard were brought in to run DailyCandy. Under them, the brand, once so focused and so authoritative, became like a magpie, drawn to whatever trend glittered the most and tempted to remake the whole concept, over and over again, all in the name of expansion. Wanting to replicate the success of the private-sale space dominated by Gilt and RueLaLa, they launched Swirl. That went under. Wanting to create the next Groupon, they started DailyCandy Deals. That went under, too. According to one source close to the sale, Comcast never really cared much for the sort of advertising DailyCandy attracted in the first place. “All they knew was commodity CPM advertising,” the source says (referring to the “cost per mile,” or the advertising cost per thousand views). “And DailyCandy was never like that.”
In 2009, Comcast merged with NBCUniversal and renewed Levy’s contract, but on a part-time basis. Alison Moore, an accomplished digital executive, replaced Ellard in 2011. She had worked on the launch of HBO Go, and seemed to understand the value of a targeted, dedicated audience as envisioned by Levy. But there was no changing how a niche business got stuck at a big company with big company politics and big company economics. Whatever profit DailyCandy was making (traffic had doubled in the last year, one source says) wasn’t enough for NBC.
The official statement yesterday from NBC positioned what happened as a sign of changing times and changing tastes — “DailyCandy and Television Without Pity were groundbreaking businesses when they launched more than a decade ago,” the announcement reads. It’s certainly true, as some have said, that Facebook and Twitter have made the e-newsletter business model look passé. But it’s still working, only elsewhere, at sites like Thrillist, which has spun off the successful JackThreads shopping site, and TastingTable (partly controlled by, yes, Bob Pittman, and rumored to go on the market soon).
“There was a lot of competition,” says one source who was part of management. “We had Racked and Refinery29, and Refinery29 was just killing it as a daily fashion and style email. And being at a large corporation, there wasn’t a lot of ability for swift reinvention. It was like going through molasses, with these murky expectations. The staff was pissed off. They felt misunderstood.”
As Levy, who had drifted away entirely by 2011, puts it: “I just think large corporations don’t understand the value of holding on to something that may not be making a lot of money but aren’t losing a lot of money. It was something that was special to a lot of people. It had a good life.”