Sara* was in Las Vegas with her Unilad coworkers when it all started going down.
It was June of 2018, and former colleague Simon Swales had set up an anonymous blog, Unilad Exposed, threatening to release damaging material about the company's senior staff members. He'd even started a countdown, on LinkedIn.
Sara, now 27, thought it was funny. They all did. Still, speculation reached fever pitch when someone trailed the announcement by taping a T-shirt to the front door of Unilad's London office out of hours, with the words UNILAD EXPOSED printed on it.
When the site went live, it was a damp squib – so when Sara and her team returned from their Vegas trip they were stunned to be pulled into an all-office meeting. Managing Director John Quinlan and CEO Liam Harrington announced that co-founder Sam Bentley was out. The circumstances of Bentley's exit were murky: at the time, The Drum reported that an email had been sent by Unilad management referencing "allegations of historic misconduct", which also noted they had "found particular claims to be substantiated".
Under Bentley, Harrington and Quinlan's leadership, Unilad had grown from an obscure Facebook page into a new media success story. By 2016, Unilad had 11.5 million likes on Facebook and was one of the platform's most engaged-with pages, rivalled only by its nemesis, LADbible. A video Unilad uploaded of a man playing Pie Face with his son had 183 million views (four years on, it's up to 205 million views).
It looked like the Unilad bubble might never burst. Here was a website that had overcome highly misogynistic origins to become a globally influential youth media brand, with 25 billion video views and nearly 1 billion likes. But burst it would. Just four months after Sara's Las Vegas trip, Unilad would collapse into administration, before being bought by arch-rival LadBible at a knockdown price.
Where did it all go so wrong for the millennial news publishers? And what can we learn from Unilad's crazy rise and fall?
After Estelle Hart got the first incarnation of Unilad shut down, her friends made her an apron. Printed on it were the words, "Thanks for shutting Unilad down, you bitch" – one of the abusive tweets directed at her after she led a public campaign against the site in January of 2012.
It's something she can laugh about now, but at the time it didn't feel so funny: Hart had found herself at the centre of a misogynistic backlash thanks to her criticism of Unilad, then an online student publication with a Facebook page of around 70,000 followers.
The former National Union of Students Women's Officer had first come across Unilad after being sent the page early on in her NUS tenure. "I remember thinking, 'Oh, for fuck's sake,'" Hart, now aged 33 and living in Swansea, remembers.
One article, titled "Sexual Mathematics", read: "If the girl you've taken for a drink… won't 'spread for your head', think about this mathematical statistic: 85% of rape cases go unreported." Reading through the site, Hart felt white-hot rage. "I read it and felt gross," she says. With the anger came a clarifying sense of purpose. "I thought, 'I'm going to go to town on these fuckers.'"
The site where "Sexual Mathematics" appeared was founded in 2010 by Alex Partridge, a former private school pupil and student at Oxford Brookes University. A self-described website "for when you are bored in the library", Patridge uploaded much of the content to Unilad 1.0 himself (Partridge did not respond to multiple interview requests).
"I had an inkling of the kind of person who was behind this, and I was right," says Hart. "It was always quite arrogant middle class boys who don't face consequences for their actions, and are able to brush things off."
Back then, Andy* – now aged 29 – was a third-year student at Plymouth University when Unilad posted on Facebook, looking for writers. He reached out, and Unilad republished two articles he'd written for his student newspaper. "There was nothing I would class as misogynistic," Andy says anxiously (he's fearful about the impact on his career if his involvement with the site's early days became public, so we have changed his name).
He is adamant that he wasn't aware of Unilad's highly toxic brand of misogyny when he submitted his articles. "I thought it was a way to get my name out there as a writer," he says. "Obviously, retrospectively it was an awful decision." Did he really not see any of Unilad's other content at the time? "I hadn't really read over a lot of the content there," Andy stammers. "All I'd seen is some Facebook posts about football."
A few weeks before the furore around the "Sexual Mathematics" article, Andy was tipped off by an administrator at his university about the impending media storm. He emailed Unilad and had his content pulled from the site. "When everything hit and exploded in terms of the scandal, I was quick to distance myself from it… I was quick to jump in and say, 'This isn't my thing, I don't want any part of this.'"
Not all of Unilad's early content was misogynistic. But enough of it was to cause a national stink. Public condemnation was swift, and intense. Radio 4's Woman's Hour, The Guardian, BBC, Huffington Post and the Independent covered the story, situating it within the bubbling ferment of "lad culture" on university campuses. The NUS called for the site to be taken down.
At first, Unilad came out swinging, but eventually the outcry proved too deafening. Partridge issued a rambling apology, in which he apologised while denying culpability: "I only deal with the technical aspect of the website and am not responsible for writing or checking the content that gets published… I am however appalled myself that Unilad went this far."
The website was shut down in 2012, and in 2013 Partridge gave 66 percent of the brand to entrepreneurs Liam Harrington and Sam Bentley. (Partridge later sued Harrington and Bentley for his one-third share of Unilad in a High Court battle, claiming then-management had breached their agreement with him. The judge ruled in his favour.)
Unilad relaunched in 2014, under Harrington and Bentley's leadership. At the time, they made it clear they'd be moving away from Unilad's misogynistic origins.
"Ways had to be parted and we had to become a serious publisher," said Harrington of the relaunch, in a 2016 piece in the Manchester Evening News. In the same interview, Bentley talked about their altruistic ambitions for the site: "We are both quite charitable and didn't get into what we are doing for the money – it was because we saw the opportunity to create a platform where we could make a change."
But despite management attempts to rebrand Unilad away from its origins, lad culture prevailed. "It was saturated with toxic masculinity," remembers 29-year-old writer Harry*, hired in the company's Manchester office (the company's headquarters were in London) in 2015. He remembers having a stand-up row with a transphobic colleague. "A celebrity had just transitioned – quite a high-profile one – and this guy said, 'Yeah, but it is still a man.' I said, 'Don't you mean she?' He was going, 'Would you fuck him them?'" After the fight, Harry felt like people treated him differently: "They were funny about how they spoke in front of me."
Back then, arch-nemesis LADbible cast a blimp-like shadow over the Unilad offices. "They were obsessed with LADbible," says Emily Murray, 25, who joined as a writer in 2017. "I mean, obsessed. Every time we did a story, it was like, 'How is LADbible doing? Are we beating LADbible?"
LADBible had long loomed large over their rival's offices. Despite being founded by Leeds University student Alexander "Solly" Solomou in 2012 – two years after Unilad – it wasn't long before LADbible caught up to its big brother. Both publishers competed to corner the banter-industrial complex of the mid-2010s, which usually meant seeing who could be first to publish viral articles about Game of Thrones and chicken nugget festivals.
For the most part, it was a close-fought rivalry: although Unilad branched out into serious, documentary-style videos in late 2015 in an attempt to differentiate themselves from their main competitor, LADBible overtook Unilad on YouTube views in 2017.
To make matter worse, because salaries at Unilad were low it was easy for LADbible to poach staff – but woe betide anyone looking to make the jump to their competitor. "It was like the Montagues and Capulets – that level of hatred," says Harry.
On £17,000 a year, Harry was ripe for poaching – and when LADbible made their move, offering him a £24,000 salary, things got ugly. He handed in his notice and was invited to a meeting at a Manchester coffee shop. Sitting in a corner booth, flanked by Quinlan and a Unilad lawyer, Harry was intimidated: "They threatened to sue me… they said I would be telling LADbible trade secrets. But I didn't know any trade secrets!"
After seeking legal advice, Harry took the LADbible job, but he still had to work his notice period. "I wasn't allowed in the office, but they made me write really long articles that weren't read or published," he says. "They'd literally disappear into a black hole." Unilad switched all the bylines on Harry's stories to the pseudonym "Christopher Blunt", effectively erasing his entire body of work.
He wasn't the only person to get reamed out for jumping ship to LADbible. When Marko Randelovic, now 28, was poached, Quinlan and Harrington got angry. "There was a lot of animosity towards me," says the filmmaker. "They didn't want anything to do with me if I went to LADbible."
Coming up against these scenarios was difficult in an office where some employees felt they couldn't trust HR. When Murray complained about her line manager, he found out. "He sent me a message on Facebook saying, 'Come to me directly, instead of slagging me off,' even though I'd actually put a formal complaint in," she tells me.
She remembers her first Christmas party, in 2018. "The way some staffers behaved on the dance floor was disgusting. Touching and trying to grind on girls – it was horrible to see." One of Murray's friends left the party early because a senior staffer grabbed her thigh.
What Murray witnessed that night shouldn't have happened: as Harrington had told the Manchester Evening News, Unilad was supposed to have grown up.
Back in June of 2018, few people had any idea of Unilad's looming catastrophe. Although many of the former staffers I spoke to had gripes about Unilad management and pay, these were also the glory days.
At the time, the company was doing significant work. "At the start it was funny, weird stories," remembers Emily Murray. "My first story was about a guy who photobombed a Parklife picture. But it increasingly became more woke." Marko Randelovic joined Unilad after he came across a documentary the company had made about homelessness in London. "I thought, 'Why are these guys who do crass memes and fails and subpar content doing a film about homelessness?'" he says.
Unilad's young, talented workforce worked hard and partied harder. If you were on the inside, it felt like a family. Employees in the London office would gather for Friday night drinks at the built-in bar, which inevitably devolved into debauchery: dancing to "Come on Eileen" on the office desks, or card games soundtracked by Cardi B. "It was always so much fun," remembers Sara. "People would dance or fuck about."
One time, someone in the video team dragged a confetti cannon onto the first floor balcony, which looked out over reception, and set it off. "It scared the shit out of the receptionist," Sara laughs. She misses it. "It didn't ever feel like I was going to work. It was always fun. There were times where projects would get you stressed or you'd argue with someone, but 90 percent of the time I absolutely loved it."
Mind you, it wasn't all fun and larks: after an office refurb moved Sara's entire team into a windowless basement, she says, one guy got a vitamin D deficiency.
When things started to unravel for Unilad, they unravelled fast. The finance team was the first tell: freelancers began muttering about invoices going unpaid. In June of 2018, the Unilad Exposed website came out. By then, Facebook had changed its newsfeed algorithm, limiting the visibility of publisher content. More cost-cutting: Friday night drinks at the London office stopped in August. In September, more pain: the Guardian revealed that HMRC was pursuing Unilad for an unpaid tax bill, later reported to be for £1.5 million.
Still, as yet, there was no cause for mass panic. At this point, according to Newswhip, in August of 2018 Unilad was still Facebook's fourth biggest publisher, bigger even than MailOnline or the New York Times.
Sam Walker, 28, is a freelance video director who worked for Unilad on projects involving clients like Red Bull and Aldi. When his unpaid invoices started mounting in the summer of 2018, at first he didn't see any cause for alarm. "I stupidly brushed them off and thought I'd chase them up on invoicing day," he says. But when he did start chasing payment, he was ignored.
"The people I'm pissed off at were in the finance department," he says. Actually, that's not strictly true: "I'm annoyed at the people running Unilad. They were knobs as well. They seemed not to have any regard for their employees… they were like schoolboys."
Other people began to notice Unilad's financial situation. One supplier turned up at reception, refusing to leave until he'd been paid. "The finance team would look at the invoice at 28 days," says former video producer, Gio Forino. The finance department didn't have a telephone and wouldn't reply to emails, so freelancers would call the staffers who'd commissioned them, demanding to know when they were getting paid. "We didn't have any answers for them," Forino sighs.
Like in many media organisations, there was a disconnect between the editorial and production teams, who were responsible for commissioning and producing original content, and the people in finance responsible for paying them. This meant that as the situation worsened, in August and September of 2018, it was business as usual. "We were still hiring freelancers," says Forino. Eventually he stopped, because he worried the freelance staff would never be paid.
On a shoot in Cornwall in August of 2018, management asked Sara to put expenses on her personal card and said they'd repay her. She refused. It was the right call. When the September, 2018 payday came around, her Unilad WhatsApp group lit up. "People kept saying, 'It's really weird, I haven't been paid – but it's payday.'"
When she got into work, there was an all-office meeting. Staff were told they'd be paid that month's salary in instalments. "Quinlan was standing at the front saying, 'It's not our fault, we've had tons of business. The problem is that bigger companies haven't paid us on time, and that obviously affects us.' He made a snide comment about how Unilad were the little guys, and it was unfair for big companies to damage the business."
Sara interrupted him. "I said, 'Do you not feel like this is karma? There are people with genuinely small businesses… turning up at the office. This is what you do all the time. You are getting what you deserve right now." Quinlan seemed surprised. "I think he was taken aback that someone had finally told him he was a dickhead."
After the meeting, members of the London office sat in the office drinking tequila. Ironically, that day is one of Sara's fondest memories of her time at Unilad: "People were in tears. They were so worried, they couldn't pay their rent. But we all banded together and it was really great."
In October of 2018, the final death knell. Unilad collapsed; the administrators were being called in. Sam Walker got wind of the news and turned up at the London offices – he was owed around £9,000 in unpaid invoices. By the time he arrived, the accounts team had left. The head of video met Walker and apologised, but there wasn't anything he could do.
Meanwhile, in the Manchester office, uncertainty prevailed. Emily Murray turned up for work as usual during the administration period. "Liam [Harrington] walked in and said, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'I work here.' He said, 'You're not getting paid, why are you here? It's not my fault, it's LADbible's fault. You're going to get fired by the end of the week, you should all go home.'"
Murray started crying. Harrington gave her a hug.
During this period, as administrators sought a buyer for Unilad – before longtime rivals LADbible eventually swooped in – the rumour mill went into overdrive. Quinlan sent an email to staff, asking them to share statements online in support of Unilad. "John [Quinlan] was saying that the administrators were corrupt and he was trying to get everyone to share this email he'd written on LinkedIn," says Sara. Some staff acquiesced.
When it became apparent that LADbible was going to purchase Unilad, Quinlan sent out another email. "He said, '[LADbible] is going to mothball the whole company and make you redundant if you don't stop it,'" says Sara. "He made the whole situation more stressful than it was already.'"
After the administrator was appointed, LADbible bought up £5 million of Unilad's £10 million debt, making them their rivals' largest creditor. The full figure paid by LADbible for the takeover was not disclosed, but they clearly felt they got what they paid for, saying at the time that the deal "makes us the largest social video publisher ever".
After LADbible took over, morale bottomed out: "The atmosphere got hostile," says Sara. "People were leaving in droves – like four or five people a day."
What was it that did it for Unilad? Facebook's changes to the newsfeed algorithm – which would have significantly decreased the number of people seeing their content – certainly didn't help. Neither did their huge unpaid tax bill.
But why did LADbible survive where Unilad failed? "LADbible was better at diversifying away from Facebook than Unilad," explains independent media analyst Alex DeGroote. Besides expanding their reach on other social platforms, LADbible also launched a creative agency, Joyride, in 2016, and a lucrative, long-term branded partnership with Smirnoff in 2018. Unilad did neither.
LADbible took over their former rivals in October of 2018; Sara had found a new job by then. She last saw John Quinlan at her leaving drinks, at the Shoreditch bar Flight Club. She was pretty drunk by then, so can't remember exactly what happened, but does recall asking him to leave: "It was the last time I ever saw him."
Walker managed to claw back about £5,500 of what he was owed by Unilad, after taking a hard drive containing client material hostage, but he's still owed around £3,500 in unpaid invoices. He doesn't think he'll ever see the money.
Since Unilad shuttered, Bentley, Harrington and Quinlan have maintained a low profile. Harrington and Quinlan launched a new media and technology business called Iconic Labs, affiliated to Manchester stem cell research company WideCells. Bentley's LinkedIn has not been updated since he ran Unilad. Bentley, Harrington and Quinlan all declined interview requests for this story.
These days, the website itself looks much the same as it ever did, with Unilad pumping out viral news and videos. In a 2019 report in The Drum, LADbible cofounder and COO Arian Kalantari is quoted as saying the two companies have joined together "incredibly well". But according to a former Unilad employee, there's still some lingering animosity between staff, with each side of the lad army "working separately on different floors".
In scarcely six years, Unilad went from a national pariah to a new media success story, before drowning in a wash of creditors' invoices and unpaid tax bills. If there's one positive to come out of this sorry tale, it's that the website helped to kick-start the fourth wave of feminism here in the UK, galvanising activists to begin organising on university campuses. Thanks to the website's early content, the petri dish of rape culture received a massive antibiotic dose in 2012.
As for Estelle Hart, she still has her apron. "I should probably get rid of it," she laughs.