After feasting on hype, will reality make for a bland meal?
Here is Shane Smith, a 43-year-old Canadian-born media executive whose name is never far from the term “bad boy,” ensconced at a corner table of a hip Brooklyn diner, and you’re wondering whether bacchanalian excesses will ensue. The co-founder and chief executive officer of Vice Media, Mr. Smith has a Hefnerian reputation for embodying his company’s reckless, anti-authority brand. When you last saw him, a couple of years ago at a marketing conference in Toronto, he gleefully swore his way through a panel discussion on Generation Y; he turned off roughly as many attendees as he turned on. And he has a reputation for liking the drink.
But on the 15-minute stroll over here from Vice HQ, across the north side of the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Williamsburg, he admitted that indulgence has lost much of its attraction. “The thought of going to a bar till 4 in the morning doesn’t really interest me any more. I mean, I’ve already been to the best party I’m ever gonna go to, I’ve already seen the best band I’m gonna see. When you’re young, you give a shit about that sort of stuff.”
By way of explanation, he mentions the filmmaker Spike Jonze, (Where the Wild Things Are, Being John Malkovich) who became Vice’s creative director in 2006. “I spent my 30s partying, Spike spent his 30s making stuff, and at the end of 10 years, Spike had pretty much won every video award there was to win, won at Cannes for every commercial he did, made two Academy Award-[nominated] films, [was a writer on] Jackass, a cultural phenomenon – and I had a hangover. So it was kind of a wake-up call: All right, maybe we should get to work here.”
Mr. Smith certainly has gotten to work. In the past few years, he has built Vice, which started as a free magazine distributed on the streets of Montreal, into a globe-straddling media brand with operations in 34 countries.
Two years ago, Vice sold a minority share to the London-based marketing firm WPP estimated at $50-million (U.S.) and struck a representation deal with the William Morris Agency’s Ari Emanuel. Last December, it bought i-D magazine, which it is currently transforming into a multiplatform fashion brand. And on Friday night, it wrapped up its first 10-week season of Vice, a raucous TV news magazine for HBO, which attracted harsh words from the U.S. State Department after its crew, including Mr. Smith, travelled to North Korea with Dennis Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters last February and wound up partying with Kim Jong-Un; the show, which earned about 2.5 million viewers an episode, received an order for a second season this week.
If you stop in at Vice HQ, in a converted collection of warehouses nestled in a corner of Williamsburg that is quickly morphing from an immigrant enclave into a land of shiny new condos, you will find a humming digital sweatshop: rows of young workers wearing headphones while coding, or otherwise creating; suites of editors slamming out video for the company’s various channels and platforms. Vice says it now has more than 1,100 employees across the globe.
As both the company’s CEO and an on-air correspondent for the HBO show, Mr. Smith is frequently on the road, but he is a creature of this neighbourhood (even if he now lives in Tribeca), and was greeted warmly when we walked into this diner called Diner a few minutes ago. The waitress comes over, pulls up a chair and proceeds to reel off the daily specials, a list studded with artisanal ingredients of the sort that have made Brooklyn simultaneously a haven for foodies and an eminently mockable burg: frittata with smoked trout and nettle purée topped with crème fraîche and watercress; house-cured Irish bacon served with caraway yogurt, kumquat, blood orange and toasted oats. As she recites, she writes the items on the paper tablecloth – a touch of authorized graffiti calculated to confer grit.
Mr. Smith orders the trout fillet (served with a salad of dandelion greens and radish topped with a bacon vinaigrette, finished with breadcrumbs and a pickled soft-boiled egg) and a bottle of rosé for the table. “I have to keep my image up in Canada. Drink rosé – they’re gonna be, like, ‘Who is this guy?’ I love rosé, it’s got a bad rap, but I love it. We do a lot of trade shows – at MIPTV in Cannes, or the advertising festival – it’s on tap! Whenever I’m there, I’m, like, I should drink more of this, I love it!”
Fourteen years after decamping Montreal for New York with co-founders Suroosh Alvi and Gavin McInnes, he is still sensitive about how he is perceived by Canadians – though less so than before. “I used to have a big chip on my shoulder about Canada – because we started in Canada, we were one of the only – if not the only – Canadian magazines to go on the international stage and do well.”
He left, he says, because, “I love Montreal, I’m the biggest advocate of Montreal around, but I don’t think I’d be far off the mark if I said Montreal is not necessarily the most capitalist of cities.” He adds: “The thing is, if you’re big in Montreal, you’re big in Montreal; if you’re big in Toronto, you’re big in Canada. But if you’re big in New York, you’re big in the world.”
And so he is. Vice finds itself at the sweet spot of the media world’s transformation from traditional TV to online distribution. The New Yorker reported that the company’s revenue was about $175-million (U.S.) in 2012. “We happen to be in the right place at the right time,” Mr. Smith says. “Why? Because, although we started as a Gen-X magazine, we ended up becoming a Gen-Y brand when we went online. Everyone wants Gen-Y, everyone wants online, everyone wants engagement, everyone wants social – and, sort of by happenstance, those are our four strongest categories.”
Marketers who pair up with Vice need to know what they’re getting into: The content is, as Mr. Smith says, “salty”: a ribald, aggressive, misogynistic, often nihilistic view of the world. In a recent issue of the magazine – still printed and distributed around the world – a feature on civilians in Guerrero, Mexico arming themselves against the drug cartels nuzzled a photo spread with topless models. Advertiser American Apparel loves that kind of stuff. Intel also signed on a few years ago to support Vice’s coverage of arts and music.
But if it sometimes seems as if the company has jumped the shark – after a visit to Vice HQ last fall, 82-year-old Rupert Murdoch tweeted approvingly about the company, which might seem to be a kiss of death – and fans grouse about the company selling out, it continues to attract more viewers and readers, pulling an estimated 50 million video views a month.
And it is navigating the way to adulthood. The CNN pundit Fareed Zakaria was brought in as a consultant for the HBO show. “They want this stuff to be serious, they don’t just want this to be just attitude and shock journalism,” he said. “They certainly want that as part of the appeal and part of what makes it great television, but they want to then draw you in so you think to yourself: ‘Gosh, I didn’t know that about what was going on in Egypt.’ So they’re very receptive to improving the intellectual content of the segments.”
But adulthood might some day mean passing Vice along to someone else. At Diner, Mr. Smith acknowledged that the pace of travel is beginning to wear on him. “I want someone to challenge me for the gig,” he said. He has dreams of building his own modern-day agora in some remote corner of Greece, a kind of commune dedicated to artistic pursuits.
“There’s a time I can see where I won’t want to be on a plane every two days. You know, l love my kids and I love my wife and I’d like to take a boat around the world at some point, and I love travelling still but I don’t necessarily want to travel exclusively to war zones,” he says, chuckling. “So, you know, I can see a time. But, you know, I also hang out a lot with old people, old CEOs in particular, and they always say the same thing, which is: ‘The saddest day in my life was when I sold my company.’ So – I’m cognizant of that as well. I want to go out with some style.”