Shane Smith co-founded punk magazine Voice of Montreal in 1994. The Vice Media empire is now valued at around $4 billion and includes a film and TV production studio, an in-house creative agency, a record label and a news channel on YouTube with almost two million subscribers. In March this year, Vice launched its first cable TV channel, Viceland, which is due to launch in the UK in September.
The brand is still known for its irreverent tone of voice and immersive, Gonzo-style reporting (recent Vice UK features include ‘I got high at Jimi Hendrix’s house to see if his spirit would possess me’ and ‘I bartered my way through a night out’) but it has also become a respected source of investigative news journalism. Last year, Vice won two Peabody Awards for the Islamic State, a compelling long-form film about Medyan Dairieh’s experience of spending three weeks with IS in Syria and Last Chance High, an eight-part series about a school for at-risk youth in Chicago.
Smith says news is now Vice’s fastest growing division – “because there was a big white space there,” he says. “Definitely in America, and a little bit in Europe, there was a perception that Gen Y didn’t really care about news which is obviously not true, so that will continue to grow.”
With news in particular, Vice’s unconventional approach has been key to its success (something CR’s Eliza Williams covered in depth last year – you can read her feature here). Its informal videos are the antithesis of traditional TV reporting with reporters in suits and ties and Smith believes this has been an important factor in its popularity among millennials.
“Mainstream media used to make fun of us”
“When we first started doing news, all mainstream media made fun of us not because of our stories or because they weren’t correct but because we didn’t dress like them – we had tattoos, we didn’t talk like them,” says Smith. “I was like, ‘well, if they’re just making fun of how we look, then that’s OK’. If they had caught us out on stories not being true or what have you then we’d be in trouble but they were just like, ‘You’re not doing it like us therefore it cant be good’. I think that’s why we had such success with news from the get go, because people would watch it and think, ‘This could be me. I could be the person on screen’.”
Vice News journalists demonstrate subjectivity and, often, a point of view. Smith is critical of the idea of objective reporting and believes it’s impossible for journalists to remain truly impartial and detached when faced with extreme situations.
“If you go to a war zone like Afghanistan and you’re from America, no matter how objective you try to be, you’re subjective, because you’re going to report that differently from an Afghani, an Italian, a Pakistani or someone from Saudi,” he says. “There was a sort of hypocrisy around objectivity, and we said, ‘Well, if you go somewhere and you see kids get killed you get affected. Why wouldn’t we be human beings and say we’re affected?’ You still have to tell both sides of the story, but my point of view is that we’re all subjective, and I have no problem saying when I’m affected by something – and that turned out to be a language that people like,” he adds.
“We don’t want programming to be vapid and vacuous”
With Viceland, Smith says he is keen to make programming that explores issues young people are passionate about, from LGBTQ rights to environmental issues and social injustice. The cable channel has received an Emmy nomination for Gaycation, a reality series in which Ellen Page visits LGBTQ communities around the world, while eight-part series woman, presented by activist Gloria Steinem, investigated abuses and violence against women in countries from the US to Zambia.
“I think for us, we don’t want programming to be sort of vapid, vacuous entertainment – Britain’s Got Talent or The Voice or American Idol, or all those sorts of derivative things,” says Smith. “That’s our programming strategy, to not just do vapid entertainment but to have some impact.”
Of course, Viceland’s programming also includes less hard-hitting shows focused on food, booze, drugs and unusual subcultures. In Weediquette, for example, correspondent Krishna Andavolu spends a great deal of time getting high in the name of exploring marijuana culture and its legalisation. The overarching plan, says Smith, is to follow what millennials are up to, into and passionate about and launch new content wherever he sees “big white spaces.”
“For example, we do a lot of research and the number one cohort that goes and spends money on food and booze is Gen Y, yet there’s no Gen Y food and booze media, so that’s another big white space. We have Fuck, That’s Delicious and Huang’s World [both food shows on Viceland] and we’re going to be doing a lot more European and international food programming.” The company also bought a majority stake in art and fashion magazine Garage earlier this month.
“We’re not going to be niche anymore”
Traditionally, Vice has always been viewed as an outsider brand – Smith has spoken in the past about its appeal among a demographic that feels disenfranchised and ignored by mainstream media. The company has maintained its irreverent voice but as it expands, and its audience grows up, Smith sees wants to see Vice lose its niche status and become a major force in the media.
“In a way, we were niche because Gen Y was niche and as Gen Y transitions into being the main power, the main media cohort, so will we,” he says. “People are always asking, ‘how do you keep your niche-ness?’ and I’m like, ‘we don’t – we’re not going to be niche anymore because Gen Y is going to move up and we’re going to move up with them. You can already see this happening: Fox News has been the number one news network in America for I don’t know, 47 seasons, and all of a sudden it’s imploding and we’re on the ascent,” he says.
“The BBC isn’t going to give $10 million to a kid straight out of college – but we are”
Vice’s rapid expansion and current success is something of an anomaly in publishing and news media, where many companies are struggling with dwindling audiences and ad revenues. If media organisations want to succeed in future, and engage with younger generations, Smith believes they need to start handing more control over to younger staff and rethinking their business and publishing models.
“We say, ‘you should be getting millennials to make your TV programming’ and everyone goes ‘yeah, of course’ but really, the BBC isn’t going to give a 23-year-old kid straight out of college $10 million to make a TV show – but we are,” he says. “It’s about taking risks. Sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t, but you have to not be afraid,” he says.
“I’m also super surprised at how regimented thinking is [in the media]. I don’t know why, but mainstream media seems to be like music was or has been … [companies are saying], ‘we’re going to hold on to what little we have and just keep the scraps and keep the bleed to a bearable minimum. They’re not saying, ‘we need to change, we need to do new things’,” he says.
Speaking at this year’s Cannes Lions festival, Smith predicted a huge change in the way TV and media companies are funded. Viceland has announced that it wants half of its advertising to be native by next year, with creative teams behind shows also making TV spots, such as the ad for Mailchimp shown below. Vice has also expanded its in-house creative services agency Virtue Worldwide (which has made content for Bose, Vodafone and Bud Light) by acquiring a majority stake in production company Pulse Films, allowing to control more of the content it produces for brands.
“It’s early days but we like it, and brands like it”
“Ad blocking on mobile is now 58, 60% – TVR and Netflix and consumption on demand is really knocking the shit out the traditional ad model,” says Smith. “If you watch Fuck, That’s Delicious, and the same team makes a thing that is sponsored by Absolut vodka or what have you, we view this as much more sustainable than a 30-second spot that everyone’s blocking. One of the things we’re most proud of with our nascent TV networks is that we have some of the stickiest promos, meaning people actually watch them – it’s definitely early days but the brands like it, we like it and it seems to be sticky,” says Smith.
“We’ve made this super agency [with Virtue, Carrot and Pulse] because I think going forward, you have to have those in-house capabilities,” Smith continues. “We have to make everything, so everything we do – from content creation to sound, picture, talent and monetisation, is all in-house. Generally people outsource it because it’s a headache, which it is, but unless you own that process, you’re fucked. You’re giving your business to somebody.”
Shane Smith was speaking to CR ahead of his London College of Communication, UAL graduation ceremony, where he received an honorary doctorate for his services to media.