He’s building a triple-X media juggernaut with a Safe-For-Work marketing strategy

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During an appearance last week on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”, Kanye West was asked if his attitudes toward women have changed since becoming the father of two daughters. With a smirk, he admitted to Kimmel that he still watches pornography online. “Blacked is my favorite,” he said.

Watching the exchange was Greg Lansky, the 35-year-old porn director and producer, and he couldn’t have been happier. Talk about earned media: Lansky is the CEO and founder of Strike 3 Holdings, the high-end porn production company that owns the adult website Blacked, as well as three other sites—Vixen, Tushy and Blacked Raw. The next day, he issued a formal invitation to the rap superstar to direct an adult video for Blacked, “with full artistic control on your end,” Lansky assured him.

West hasn’t officially responded, other than to retweet Lansky’s offer to his 28 million followers.

“You can’t buy that kind of free advertising,” Lansky laughs. “For me, it’s proof that some of the most influential people in the world look at our brands.”

That might be overstating things, but it was a big win for Lansky’s relatively young porn empire. Launched in the summer of 2014—first with Blacked, and then shortly after by his other sites—his company entered an already-oversaturated market for online adult entertainment.

Today, Lansky claims that business has been booming, even before the Kanye shout-out. His for-pay websites—subscribers pay around $29.95 a month—get a combined 30 million uniques visitors every month. People like Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist (and former visiting scholar at the University of Southern California) who studies and writes about the adult entertainment industry, suspect that Lansky may be porn’s last best hope.

“While some production companies are being acquired, Lansky seems to be independent,” says. “While some companies are outright closing, Lansky is expanding. While some companies are squeezing more and more work out of directors and crew for lower rates, Lansky’s high scene rates are widely discussed amongst the community.”

One of the main reasons Lansky has stood apart from industry juggernauts like Brazzers and Bang Bros, the Ford and General Motors of the porn world, isn’t just his content. It’s the way he promotes that content.

“We market everything on Instagram,” Lansky says. “We almost solely use Instagram. We use Twitter as well, but Twitter is a lot less image focused. For us, we’re in the image business. And Instagram is like the perfect platform.”

Earlier this year, Lansky posted a series of photos on Vixen’s Instagram page of adult actress Tori Black, leaning precariously out of the open door of a helicopter as it hovered dizzyingly high over downtown Los Angeles. The photo was viewed and liked thousands of times, but what exactly it was promoting, if anything, was a mystery. The photo’s comments made no mention of a website or movie or alluded that this was a “coming soon” teaser. In fact, there was no indication that Vixen was trying to sell anything at all.

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All of Lansky’s Instagram pages take similar approaches. The production values are high—the photos feature stunning locations and expensive toys (more than a few Rolls Royces), with budgets that can balloon as high as $30,000 per shoot, according to Lansky. And the models are posed often in bikinis and never more scandalously than any magazine perfume ad. It might seem like a counterintuitive way to promote a business in the adult industry, where the competition is fierce and plentiful, but Lansky says it’s all part of his master plan.

“I use the restrictions of Instagram as an asset,” he says in a thick French accent. “Who cares if we can’t show adult content on social media? There’s already too much porn online. You can just Google porn and spend two lifetimes trying to watch just a fraction of it. What’s the point? What I figured out is, we can get more attention by playing to our strengths. We’re in the image business. We’re better at it than most ad agencies at it. We don’t need adult content to sell adult content.”

Making people find you
Lansky declines to share exact metrics, but he says traffic on his respective Instagram pages has been steadily growing, up 240 percent since last year on the Vixen page alone, and that followers now exceed two million across all brands. He has no way of knowing if his social media promotions are feeding into his paid sites. If customers want to find him, they have to leave Instagram and do the legwork themselves. And that, Lansky claims, works in his favor.

“People aren’t dumb,” he says. “If they want to find you, they will. And if it’s harder to find you, if they have to make an effort to track you down, they’ll want you even more.”

He isn’t targeting the average porn consumer, who knows exactly where to find porn for free and in infinite quantities. He’s tailoring his adult content, and the Instagram feed he uses to (indirectly) promote it, for what he considers to be a mostly ignored and underrepresented (at least in recent decades) segment of the porn market.

Lansky’s favorite explanation as to why he spends so much money to promote his adult sites on Instagram, a social media platform that allows neither nudity nor content links, is to compare what he does to the landmark “1984” TV commercial for Apple Macintosh personal computers.

“It didn’t show the product,” he says of the classic Ridley Scott-directed ad, which featured a runner throwing a hammer in an Orwellian factory. “It didn’t show a dude next to a computer, explaining what everything does. It was just some super-powerful imagery that kind of made sense but not really. What did any of that have to do with computers? I have no idea, but I remember that commercial, and it made a lot of people buy computers.”

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There’s a place in France…
Lansky has been making porn since his early 20s, after running into a childhood friend in his hometown of Paris, France. Reminiscing about their years flipping through old Playboy and Penthouse magazines, they decided to give pornography a shot. Lansky had been producing reality shows in France, and he yearned for a way to build an empire out of fantasy. His first adult film was the essence of hustling; it was financed with a loan from his friend’s parents (they thought it had something to do with real estate), starred a middle-aged German actor and the distribution rights were eventually bought by a German producer. The movie “sucked,” according to Lansky, but it whet his appetite for what else he could create with just a little ingenuity.

Lansky’s vision from the beginning was to make films evocative of the Boogie Nights golden age of adult cinema, when porn was shot on film and the actors were treated like superstars and not just hired meat. As a director and producer, he’s had phenomenal success within the industry, commercially and artistically. Or at least the porn world’s version of artistically. He’s won the coveted Director of the Year title at the AVN Awards (the adult industry’s Oscars) for the past three years running, the only second person to do so.

But as much as he’s been praised by the industry, they’re also unsure what to make of him. “For years I couldn’t get anyone to finance me,” Lansky says. “I told people that my business model was to do extremely expensive and high-end movies at a time when piracy was at its worst. Everybody thought I was fucking crazy.”

They were just as wary of his unconventional approach to marketing. Instead of building an audience for his paid content by being the biggest and loudest voice in an already overcrowded market for online porn, Lansky wanted to do just the opposite: promote his sites not with a screech but a whisper.

If the rest of the Internet was a sleaze-saturated 70s-era New York Times Square, hawking their content with gaudy neon signs that flashed “Live Nude Girls,” Lansky would be the small billboard on the Upper East side, with a mostly-clothed woman posing elegantly on a yacht, seemingly selling nothing.

Lansky argues that the problem with modern porn—and with all mainstream Internet marketing—is that they treat consumers like a mark. “The whole aggressive mentality of ‘click here’ with a giant flashy banner is worthless,” he says. “People don’t respond to that. They don’t want to be interrupted.” In a recent survey by Kantar Millward Brown, 71 percent of respondents felt like online ads had become too intrusive. “It’s 2018 and we all have so little time,” Lansky continues. “I’m busy, I don’t want to get tricked into looking at whatever you’re selling.”

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Once more, with feeling
If his competitors were critical before, it’s hard to find someone in the industry now willing to question his marketing tactics. Pete Housley, the CEO of adult PR firm Naughty Business, thinks Lansky is breaking the mold of an industry “that still thinks pop-unders and spam works.” Lansky is unique, he says, “because he started with a real plan and stayed true to that plan. $200 Digital DSLR cameras and $8,95 domain names are often the whole business plan for adult entertainment entrepreneurs; these people look at Greg Lansky and think exactly what you said that his genres aren’t that unusual, and he’s not really doing anything special —he is he’s built a brand that connects with consumers.”

But some critics aren’t that impressed. Gary Schirr, Ph.D, a marketing professor at Radford University in Virginia, isn’t so sure that Lansky “is executing his strategy well. Even in my limited Instagram use, I have seen what I think are better softcore posts. I don’t find his pics and videos too compelling, but then I’m far from what I assume to be his target 18-to-29 audience.”

But Tibbals, the sociologist, thinks it’s less about the images than how those images make the viewer feel. That philosophy isn’t just true in his Instagram marketing but the movies he makes. Lansky doesn’t present his brand as explicit sex, she says (even though it is), but rather a lifestyle, an attitude and worldview—the cars, the houses, the choppers, the infinity pools. Lansky promotes his sites in a way that refuses to think of what he does as smut.

This approach allows people “who may be squeamish or outright discriminatory about porn to consume the content with less personal anxiety,” Tibbals says. “It has also really served to facilitate a corner store of pride amongst performers, as well as other members of the community. This language has been adopted by countless performers and has even been taken up by producers.”

It’s not the size that matters
At least by the numbers, Lansky isn’t winning the Instagram popularity contest. Even after the Kanye West call-out, the Blacked Instagram has only 963,000 followers, the biggest of Lansky’s brands. (Vixen and Tushy have a few hundred thousand less.) The industry leaders still have a sizable lead; Brazzers and Bang Bros have 4.8 million and 3.8 million followers, respectively. But Lansky still feels like he’s in the lead. In his mind, he’s the David to their Goliath.

“I’m not aiming for the middle of the curve,” Lansky says. “That’s everybody who’s ever watched porn. It’s just millions and millions of people. You’re never going to lure them away from the free stuff. I want the attention of the crazy motherfuckers who want limited edition stuff. The ones who will wait in line for something if it’s hard to get, and don’t have anything against paying as long as it’s worth paying for.”

Once again, he uses Apple as his North Star. “I’m making porn for the guys that wait two days in front of an Apple store to get a new iPhone,” he says. “They’re out there. If you make something sleek and beautiful and remarkable, and not everybody can have it or even knows it exists, they will come.”

Will one of his upcoming sleek and beautiful films include an over-the-title directing credit by Kanye West? “We’ll see,” Lansky laughs. If and when that happens, he promises that audiences will learn about it on Instagram first.

[This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Ad Age.]