Sorrell invests in 'unholy alliance' with Vice

Sir Martin Sorrell's WPP invests in Vice Media. He may soon learn the do's and don'ts of hipster marketing...

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 24 Aug 2011
WPP is one of several parties to have invested in Vice, the New York publishing group behind the offbeat style mag of the same name (others include Raine Group, a boutique bank, and Tom Freston, who started MTV and used to run Viacom). The deal, described by Vice co-founder Shane Smith as an ‘unholy alliance that will ensure no other media company will ever stand a chance against Vice’s relentless onslaught’, is said to be worth in the tens of millions of dollars.

Apparently, the deal's been driven by the strength of Vice’s content. But said content might not seem a natural fit with WPP, the world’s largest marketing group. Vice runs a monthly style mag, an ad agency, an online video site and even a traditional East London boozer, the Old Blue Last pub in Shoreditch, which plays host to bands like (and apologies in advance to readers of a sensitive disposition) Sh*tting Fists. It’s made its own documentary on the underground Iraq music scene – Heavy Metal Baghdad - and published its a guide to North Korea. Then there’s the infamous do’s and don’ts section of the mag, which essentially involves photographing fashion victims at parties and tearing their style choices to pieces. Every month, for years.

It may sound a bit alternative and flimsy, but it works. The magazine started out as a free punk magazine in Montreal, and now operates in more than 30 countries; it aims to use this investment to move into India, China, Brazil and South Korea too. Last year, it boasted gross assets of $34.3m. So now it becomes clear why a canny chap like Sorrell might want a piece of the action. ‘WPP is investing in Vice to further develop our content capabilities, particularly in new media and amongst the youth consumer segments,’ he says. WPP is getting down with the kids, in other words.

Indeed, Vice has been one of the few publishing successes to really expand beyond its initial mag roots; these days, it's bringing in far more of its loot from other activities. And it’s all been built on a smart business model. By distributing the mag for free in trendy skate shops, record stores and pubs, it got straight to the kind of clientele advertisers like – those who’d happily throw away several hundred quid on the right pair of jeans.

All of which could be an interesting cultural meld for WPP. Indeed, not many of its corporate partners will a have co-founder who describes its heavyweight backing as ‘like having a rocket strapped to your skateboard – when they turn on the jets you’re in for a hell of a ride.’

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