Ozy Media’s chief executive said Monday the company is not shutting down, contrary to explicit statements Friday.
The chief executive of the eight-year-old media and entertainment company, Carlos Watson, said in an interview Monday morning that the company has life left in it.
It has been a wild few days for Ozy. The multimedia company offers a website, a podcast branch, newsletters, and an annual concert and festival, the Ozy Fest.
On Sept. 26, The New York Times published the explosive results of an investigation into the company. Samir Rao, the co-founder and chief operating officer, had sought to scam Goldman Sachs by impersonating Alex Piper, the head of unscripted programming for the YouTube Originals team.
The point of the impersonation was to have “Piper,” in a Zoom video-conference with Goldman’s asset management division, praise Ozy’s success in its use of the YouTube platform, as part of a broader effort to have Goldman invest $40 million. The phony Piper also praised Carlos Watson’s leadership skills.
Goldman execs thought from the start that something was off. Piper’s voice sounded like it might have been digitally altered. Somebody on the Goldman Sachs contacted the real Mr. Piper, said he knew nothing of such a meeting.
Once they figured it out, Watson told Goldman and later The New York Times‘ reporter Ben Smith, that Rao’s behavior was due to a mental health crisis, adding that the COO had subsequently taken time off work and was now back at Ozy.
A Toxic Work Environment
That story was a serious hit to Ozy Media’s reputation. Google, YouTube’s parent company, looked into the incident and decided that a crime may have been committed. So it contacted the FBI. But this in itself may not have been enough to shutter the company.
The Times’ story, though, was followed by other revelations, including employees’ complaints that made the workplace seem a toxic environment.
Employees expecting a raise, for example, were pressured to accept stock options instead, and then were kept in the dark about how much those options were actually worth.
Marc Lasry, the co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team who had only recently been named chairman of the board of Ozy, stepped down from that post and the board on Sept. 29. He said: “I believe that going forward Ozy requires experience in areas like crisis management and investigations, where I do not have particular expertise. For that reason, I have stepped down from the company’s board. I remain an investor in the company and wish it the best going forward.”
Lasry’s departure raised confusion as to how much of an investor Lasry had been. Carlos Watson referred to Lasry as “lead investor” in what he said was a $35 million funding round in 2019, but there were reports that Lasry had only invested $1 million in that deal and never put in subsequent money. This and other similar revelations about Axel Springer, increasingly suggested there was a “Potemkin Village” aspect to Ozy’s finances, confirming the impression already created by the Goldman Sachs story.
Where Does Ozy Media Stand Today?
Ozy announced on October 1, 2021, that it would shutter operations. That announcement was not by that point unexpected.
On Monday, Oct. 4, though, came the latest twist. Carlos Watson announced, in an interview with CNBC’s Squawk Box, that Ozy would remain active.
“We were premature,” Watson said, referring to the board and himself in their announcement Friday.
Watson also said that the company had “good conversations” with investors and advertisers.
“We have lots of things we have to do to improve, but I very genuinely feel like we have a meaningful, transformational voice,” he added. He mixed admissions of wrong-doing with complaints that the financial press has been overly interested in the “salacious.” But what was clear throughout is that Ozy is not shutting down.
It is not clear what this means to Ozy’s 75 full-time employees, or former employees. Have they been laid off or have they not? Is Watson planning on recreating the company with the branding in place but with a new crop of employees?
That remains to be seen.