How multimedia powerhouse built its brand on boobs, butts, investigative journalism, and effective marketing.
Vice CEO and co-founder Shane Smith begins client pitches by explaining, “Every company is now a media company.”
That’s true, of course. These days, if you don’t advertise your better mousetrap—and build it a website, establish a social media presence, and create a blog—no one is going to beat a path to your door. Vice has built one of the best media brands out there on great content, counterculture cool, and an army of bright young creatives.
Chances are you’ve heard of Vice, because your bearded friend share videos on social media, you’ve caught their Emmy Award-winning news program on HBO, or you’ve seen financial news show hosts gasping in shock, because A&E, FOX, Hearst, Disney, and other Old Media stalwarts have valued the amorphous, mostly online company at US$2.5 billion.
Or, maybe you’ve been into Vice since before it was cool.
The original magazine now has editions in 36 countries, and is essentially a free flier for their massive Internet presence, up for 17 Webby awards, including Best News and Politics Series and Best Viral Video, which you should probably just watch right now.
How Did Vice Even Happen?
In the beginning, Shane Smith, a feral Canadian who had just returned from hanging out in Eastern Europe doing stuff, met Suroosh Alvi, a Pakistani-Canadian who had just gotten out of rehab. They were 24. Both were on welfare, and Shane was on acid.
In 1994, they began working with Gavin McInnes (the guy who left Vice in 2007 due to “creative differences”) at the Voice of Montreal, a “make-work project for Haitians.” Ahem. It eventually lost funding and couldn’t afford to pay their salaries, so they offered to take the magazine as payment instead.
The drug-addled threesome got rid of the “o” and rebranded as “Vice.”
Vice became a semi-successful Montreal ’zine (for all you youngsters, ’zines were the treeware precursor to blogs), with punk rock aesthetic and mostly “made-up National Inquirer shocking stories.”
One of their more spectacular made-up stories was a publicity stunt, pretending that Larry Flynt of Hustler fame was going to buy them. Shortly afterward, they got a call from the “richest man in Montreal,” Canadian software millionaire Richard Szalwinski, who had totally fallen for it. He made a counteroffer, to buy Vice for US$4 million.
“We were running around in circles screaming,” remembers Smith, “because none of us had ever had any money.”
Szalwinski moved Vice to New York City in 1998, just months before before the Dot-Com Bust totally bankrupted him. The editors bought Vice back “for pennies on the dollar.” They knew it would be a success.
“Ignorance was our greatest strength,” says Smith. “We were too stupid to fail.”
They chose an unusual trope, dedicating each magazine to a single topic. By 2002, they were successful enough to publish their first foreign edition in London, covering “Things We’re Meant to Be Ashamed Of,” such as farts and bukkake. It was a hit.
Then and now. (Of course, there’s still plenty of T&A sandwiched between all that hard-hitting journalism.)
Fast forward fourteen years and they’re covering cutting-edge cancer research and South Sudan alongside their bread and butter: sex, drugs, and music that you’ve probably never heard of.
In this brave new online world where content is king, they’re creating new platforms every day, with a record label, a magazine for foodies, and ever more long-form documentaries. They’ve also formed partnerships with some of the biggest corporations in the world and still manage to keep their brand cool.
If you’ve worked with us, you know that Chainsaw Communication’s favorite buzzword is “Story.” VICE uses a different term: Immersion Journalism.
Basically, VICE gives a smart, attractive, and often astonishingly brave young hipster a camera, and sends them into, say, Peruvian cocaine-producing regions or Kentucky Cabbage-Patch-Kid country. Then they just let the story flow.
“We’re going to do a more documentary film-making standpoint, turn on the camera and let the story evolve,” Smith explains in this interview with CBS News. “Rather than ‘There’s a fire at City Hall—get me two pictures [and] we’ll shoehorn in the story.’”
Old Journalism interviews New Journalism
Some criticize Immersionism as being too subjective, but Smith counters that it’s impossible for journalists to be truly objective. Instead, he has his Immersionist reporters tell the story, often as a long-form documentary, then lets the audience try to figure out what the hell is going on.
“The new authority is authenticity,” says Maker Studio’s Chief Content Officer Erin McPherson. As mainstream news becomes more gimmicky, misleading, and unironically sexualized, there’s a segment of the market willing to click around in search of news sources that keep it real.
And that was the way it was.
The book Made to Stick calls it credibility. Authorities, like renowned journalists like those on 60 Minutes, who are respected for their education, experience, and stature. But audience that value authenticity can find it elsewhere: “It can be the honesty and trustworthiness of our sources,” write the Heath Brothers, “not their status, that allows them to act as authorities. Sometimes antiauthorities are even better than authorities.”
Vice magazine, which according to Ad Age “was launched under the shadiest possible circumstances,” has authenticity to spare. When multimillionaire VICE co-founder Suroosh Alvi covered the heroin epidemic in Iran, he shared his own addiction story with an 18-year-old junkie.
And, well, it’s worth eleven minutes of your life to watch Spike Jonze interview Shane Smith in Socotra, an island off the coast of Yemen.
“So, Shane, why did you start Vice? “Because I couldn’t get a job.”
It isn’t Columbia J-school, but it’s credible because the CEOs are relatable. Or, if you can’t relate to a couple of Gen X multimillionaires, you have something in common with a former Golden Coral worker.
Sure, Vice can be as salacious and sensationalistic as a light beer commercial, but Smith insists that he’s highlighting “the absurdity of the human condition,” not milking a mysterious plane crash for all the ad space it can generate. We tend to believe him. Which is the point.
Grizzled old media gazillionaire Rupert Murdoch took to Twitter in 2013 to ask, “Who’s heard of VICE media? Wild, interesting effort to interest millenials who don’t read or watch established media. Global success.”
Shortly afterward, Murdoch dropped US$70 million for a 5% stake in Vice, officially valuing all those dick picks and Taliban documentaries at a cool US$1.4 billion.
Why? Because it’s so damned difficult to get Millennials to watch news, even programming that’s been deliberately tailored to their tastes, such as celebrity news and listicles.
Apparently, that’s because the focus groups were a lie. Vice had managed to get millions of people from the coveted 18-34 age group to do exactly what the experts said they wouldn’t: watch hour-long investigative pieces about the Alaskan wilderness, North Korea, and post-war Afghanistan.
Millennials “are tremendously interested in foreign news,” explains Smith. Just not the way it has been presented.
But, when the New York Times asked Smith how they would cover monetary policy, he replied, “We’re not going to cover monetary policy. For us, we embed with Occupy Wall Street, the communists, the young people.”
While the senior management is straight-up Gen X, they’ve hired hundreds of young people to run the show. Sure, Vice gets criticism (looking at you, Gawker) for paying low wages, to which they responded, “Fuck You and Fuck Your Garbage Click-Bait ‘Journalism’.”
When HBO programming executive Nina Rosenstein first saw their editorial offices, she asked, “What happens to these people when they turn 30? Do they get fired?”
Well, Smith says that Vice plans to “mature” with the Millennials, and therefore the brand’s next big focus will be mobile. “The over-all aim, the over-all goal,” said Smith, “is to be the largest network for young people in the world.”
As we’ve discussed in a previous blog, video is the most effective way to reach an online audience, particularly Millennials. Vice started early, creating travel videos (“a sort of R-rated National Geographic”) and distributing them as DVDs with their free magazine.
The problem was that by the time their customers got them, the information was irrelevant.
So, in 2006—just months after a tiny online startup called YouTube was getting off the ground—they formed a partnership with Viacom called VBS.tv and began posting videos online.
It was an immediate success, and Vice soon bought out Viacom’s share, started their own YouTube channel, and dedicated an entire section of their growing website to video. Today, videos are embedded in almost all of their content, and brands like 7-Up, North Face, Warner Brothers, and Microsoft are embedded in many of their videos.
Today, as competitors from Buzzfeed to the New York Times struggle to catch up, Vice is leveraging its corporate partnership network into more content and eventually, a 24hr network.
One of the best ways to make your brand memorable is to indulge in the unexpected. If you’re familiar with Vice, you already know that’s their specialty. If not, we’re just going to leave this right here.
That time when Vice sent Dennis Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters to North Korea to hang out with Kim Jong Un.