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This storyappeared originally on Business Insider.

  • The digital ad startup TheMaven, led by former Yahoo media exec Jim Heckman, is acquiring the publishing platform HubPages.
  • The deal will bring the stealth company's network of niche websites to 40 million collective monthly visitors.
  • Heckman believes the new entity will appeal to marketers that have been burned by having their ads end up in dicey corners of the web.

Big brands are increasingly wary of having their ads end up in the shadier corners of the internet. A group of digital ad veterans believe they've got a solution.

James Heckman, who founded in the late 1990s and eventually landed a top media and advertising role at Yahoo, has recently launched TheMaven network, which aspires to become a brand-friendly collection of narrowly-focused web publications.

TheMaven's leadership team also includes executive co-chairman Josh Jacobs, who was previously the global CEO of the digital ad buying agency Accuen. In addition, one-time interim Yahoo CEO Ross Levinsohn, co-founded the venture and served as operational board member prior to recently taking over the Los Angeles Times.

Currently, TheMaven includes a few dozen publications such as Chess Daily News, Marijuana Maven, Blue Lives Matter and Transgender Universe. The plan is to add more sites over the coming months.

According to Heckman, these sites – some of which are essentially one-man-operations – have amassed 5 million unique monthly visitors without spending any marketing dollars to promote them.

Now Heckman is looking to take things up a notch with an acquisition of HubPages, a digital publishing platform geared for niche creators covering subjects ranging from aviation to education to "Famous Witches in History"

That deal, terms or which have not been disclosed, will bring TheMaven's user base to roughly 40 million monthly visitors, Heckman said. The hope is that that scale will make TheMaven compelling to mainstream brands, as the company moves to sell its first large scale ad packages in 2018.

That won't be an easy task, as Facebook and Google continue to soak up the vast majority of advertisers digital media budgets. Even high profile, venture-backed digital publishers like BuzzFeed and Vice have been struggling to hit their numbers, reported the Wall Street Journal.

Jacobs sees that as an opportunity. "It's becoming harder and harder for agencies to justify themselves," he said.

"They need to find other places that matter besides Facebook and Google. One thing that's happening is those platforms is that they're about this stream of what's happening now, rather than deep engagement. And there's a huge demand for real engagement and authenticity."

Perhaps. But at the same time, some big marketershave become more wary of spending ad budgets on lesser known websites. Naturally, Heckman thinks it's just a matter of time before the ad world gets to know theMaven's brands, and that the timing for TheMaven is perfect.

"These sites are clean and well lit, and we've spent zero dollars marketing them," he told Business Insider. "Their audiences are totally organic, and the content is strong. This is what advertisers are looking for."

The differentiator with TheMaven, in Heckman's mind, is that unlike an old fashioned digital ad network, where a company might sell ads for hundreds if not thousands of different sites, TheMaven is all built using a single technology platform, allowing for a seamless content and ad experience. That means advertisers can run the same kinds of ads on different sites using a common data set, for example.

Plus, TheMaven's publishers actually own equity in the company, Heckman said. The startup is actually a public company that was established through a reverse capitalization via a shell company, reported AdExchanger (at the time, the company's stock was priced around 16 cents – on Thursday evening it was priced at roughly $1.82). That manuever allowed Maven to avoid having to raise money from venture capitalists or private equity, Heckman said.

Heckman said he's been contemplating some sort of well-vetted digital ad coalition for a while. At one point, he and Levinsohn had attempted to build something along these lines via an alliance of the web portals AOL, Yahoo, and Microsoft's MSN back in 2011. Today all three sites sell ads under the Verizon subsidiary Oath.

"This has been in my head for a while," Heckman said.

This storyappeared originally on Business Insider.