The weird, Willy Wonka content factory: Behind the scenes at Vice

International media outfit Vice has thrived on providing edgy content for its hipster audience, and it makes a healthy profit too. MT heads for Shoreditch to see how it's done.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 10 Mar 2016

I'm sitting in the Old Blue Last pub in Shoreditch, watching a tattooed bloke in a vest lifting himself up and down on the bar. He's working his upper body. 'I'm so fucked up,' he says to the barmaid. 'What, right now?' 'No, I'm fucked up mentally. Generally. How much do you weigh?'

Beyond reminding me why I don't tend to frequent trendy east London boozers these days, I'm worried this conversation is just the beginning: MT is sending me behind the scenes at the company that not only counts this pub among its sprawling assets, but wrote the manual for that guy's entire shtick.

Vice is the irreverent youth media company that has been turning heads in the past couple of years with its middle-finger duly aloft and a fiercely expansive arsenal of digital, print, TV and cinema output (and a pub) - all built on the international success of its eponymous free magazine, a countercultural, cool-peddling rag known as the 'hipster bible'.

'How tight will my jeans need to be?' I'd asked MT's editor when he called with the brief. A lazy gag, I admit, but one that I thought would appeal to his sense of the sartorial. 'I want you suited and booted,' came the deadpan reply. 'You're not one of them, Dave, you're one of us.'

As I sit watching those triceps work themselves on the bar, I recall the conversation, and the distinction couldn't seem any clearer, or more reassuring.

Vice is, however, a confusing beast, and one that loves to defy simple categorisation. It launched as a 'punk zine' in Montreal in 1994, when its co-founders, Shane Smith, Suroosh Alvi and Gavin McInnes received government funding to create a community project.

A couple of years later, the trio were buying out the original publisher and changing the name to Vice, before moving to New York in 1999 in search of greater advertising revenue.

Over the next 10 years, the mag expanded overseas, boosted by an explosion in independent publishing. Its early adoption of online video was also a factor in its rapid growth.

Smith's idea was always to build Vice into the 'next CNN', which must have seemed like the vision of a madman at the time. Smith himself has since changed his tune. He's now calling it the 'Time Warner of the street'.

Smith is still CEO, with Alvi beside him on the board, while McInnes became the only visible casualty of Vice's march towards the mainstream, leaving mysteriously in 2008, citing 'creative differences'. (McInnes responded by promising new projects 'as they blossom into fruition like a hundred humid vaginas in the presence of God's boner'.)

As a private company, published financial data is limited, but a person close to the company reckons Vice is expected to generate a hefty $500m in revenue this year, at a profit margin of between 25% and 30%. Vice Media now runs 36 offices around the world, employing some 1,100 full-timers and 3,500 other contributors. It boasts a monthly global audience of 129m across all its channels, and one billion video views a year across all its platforms.

What makes its success more incredible is that its target is twentysomethings - a market that the mainstream media are having a famously hard time reaching. Print and TV's loss is clearly Vice's gain.

As for its content, Smith has described Vice as a 'weird, Willy Wonka, fucking content factory'. It's not a bad description: the slacker-friendly group is probably the only international media company that sends its correspondents to file reports from the field while tripping on acid. There's also the 'cooler than thou' tone.

Vice Is Hip, a popular spoof Twitter account, nails the parody by declaring: 'We're cool because you're shit.'

Yet there's also the laudable DIY investigative side, sending wide-eyed (LSD-free) reporters into slums, strip joints and war zones to present the sensitive alongside the sensational: magazine features such as 'The glue-sniffing kids of Somaliland are despised and abused by just about everyone they meet', or its recent documentary film Young and Gay in Putin's Russia. The message to Generation Y: Vice gets in there, gonzo-style, giving you bullshit-free stories that your average media doesn't.

For anyone the wrong side of 30, that message may not sit so easily. In some ways, Vice does for coolness, cannibalism and kids what the Daily Mail does for fear, immigration and retired folk.

There's a clip on YouTube of David Carr, the New York Times veteran, cussing Smith by saying Vice's reporting style is essentially 'putting on a safari hat and looking at some poop'.

Fast-forward two years, however, and Carr is now blogging about the potential for Vice News, the heavily resourced platform it launched in March, to succeed where other news outlets are struggling.

Indeed, it's no surprise that while many media companies have been scratching their heads working out how to emulate the model, others have rushed to get a Vice tattoo. Last year, Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox stumped up $70m for a 5% share (giving the company a handlebar moustache-curling value of $1.4bn).

That followed WPP's investment two years previously, news that Smith described at the time as an 'unholy alliance that will ensure no other media company will ever stand a chance against Vice's relentless onslaught'.

Typical tongue-in-cheek bluster, perhaps, but he may be right: mainstream giants such as CNN and HBO have both signed up Vice's content. The latter aired the VICE on HBO series, a famous episode of which ended with US sports star Dennis Rodman hitting North Korea to watch basketball with Kim Jong-un.

Perhaps the most refined expression yet of Vice's unlikely cocktail, it averaged 2.8 million viewers in gross audience, and was nominated for an Emmy.

I'm waiting in the lobby of Vice's HQ. I've been briefed to 'get a good long look at these odd people', which sounds strangely like the kind of thing Vice has done for years with its style-baiting 'dos or don'ts' column.

The place certainly looks very smart. I'm met there by Matt Elek and Matt O'Mara, MD of the EMEA and UK regions respectively. The thirtysomething pair have gone for what I'd consider to be the optimum business look: smart cardigans and sweaters with shirts, jeans and trimmed beards. I'm in a borrowed suit. Having read previous interviews with Smith, I was expecting the fog of a hangover parted by a barrage of swearing. Instead, we talk about how hard it is to find a free meeting room.

Elek was one of the three tasked with co-founding Vice's UK presence in 2002, 'in a shitty office around the corner', a time when the US office only had '10 or 20' staff. I ask Elek how Vice managed to get from there to where it is today.

'We make, distribute and monetise content,' comes the matter-of-fact reply. 'There's a perception that Vice has solved a problem that everyone would love to crack: how to target millennials, and how to do it at scale. In reality, there is no secret sauce. You can't just go: "Hey we're going to do exactly what they did." If it was that simple, there'd be 500 Vice Medias around the world. It's not easy. It's really, really difficult. But we spent 20 years figuring this out, getting our tone right, hiring the right staff and building the right infrastructure - so we think we're better at it than everyone else.'

Elek reckons that Vice the magazine (which is still free) will contribute only 1% of revenue this year. The London office alone now has 35 video-editing suites, where teams are cranking out everything from short web clips to those cinema-quality documentaries.

As well as the main Vice site, there are sister channels such as Noisey, specialising in music, and tech news site Motherboard. Vice also acquired fashion rag i-D in 2012 and relaunched its digital presence and its online DJ channel, Boiler Room. The launch of Vice News has been followed by another. Called Munchies, it's a platform about food. All run on video content that is given away free.

'Among the big media companies, there'll be a certain amount of head-scratching if not envy over how we've managed to get over the hard economics of monetising video content creation,' says Elek. 'It's not particularly cheap to do, at least not well. If you think of the way that people traditionally monetise video: you take a standard CPM rate - maybe £20 for 1,000 views. The fundamental economics of video content creation don't stand up based on that. Luckily, we found ways to circumvent it. It feels like the world is our oyster right now, whereas large swathes of media are shitting their pants and wondering where their business model is going.'

With that, Elek has to dash off to another meeting. I'm invited to a sofa in the lobby, under a framed portrait of a topless boy peering round a shower curtain, to join a pitching session. I'm told not to reveal any of the ideas that emerge, but I'm happy to share some key words: monk, shotgun, clitoris. All are from separate stories, I should add.

Leading the meeting is Vice head of video Al Brown, a warm and, again, sensible-looking thirtysomething, whose CV includes CNN and the Discovery Channel. Ideas are batted away with the same rigour you'd expect from any media organisation: 'not interesting', 'too much' and, my favourite, 'don't hate the monks till you know where the money's going'.

Brown cuts a relaxed and paternal figure next to his Gen Y charges. 'When you're making content for a young audience, it helps that all our hosts are young, and we have young people behind the cameras,' he says. 'We have an amazing collection of young, brave and very experienced journalists. Aris Roussinos is 30 years old and has already reported in six wars. He's worked for ITN and the BBC. Young viewers like that we're opinionated, and that we get right in the middle of a story.'

Dave Waller [second right] sits in a pitching session.

Indeed, while the likes of David Carr have knocked Vice's sensationalist DIY tone, it has been uniquely successful in reaching this young market with current affairs. Correspondents for Vice News use iPhones to live stream the action from the world's troublespots; one has already used Google Glass to bring a special perspective to the Turkish uprisings. They're even tackling business news. How long before we see Jeremy Paxman smoking crack with Haiti's gangster rappers?

Whatever the format, Vice knows what young people like, which means the world's most mainstream brands will be all over it too. This is the key ingredient in the whole Vice sauce. Vice has its own branding agency, Virtue, which partners with mainstream corporations to tailor content for this elusive youth market, which, as we've established, happens to be sitting nicely in Vice's pocket.

A good example of this 'native advertising' is the Creators Project, an arts and culture platform created in partnership with Intel. To the punter, it'll look just like any Vice editorial content; as an ad for Intel, it's an indirect one.

But, thanks to Vice, the tech brand becomes associated with 'cool' in millions of young minds. Whether you consider that a vice or a virtue, there's a ton of money in peddling countercultural cool to big brands, and the company has pulled the same trick with countless others, from Nike to Red Bull.

'Shane (Smith) always says that young people today have the most developed bullshit detectors of anyone on the planet,' says Brown. 'Our audience is a generation of people that has been sold to since day one, and if you try to sell to it in a conventional manner, that doesn't work. What we do really well is tell stories, and we get them to come and experience those stories, for free. We don't make branded content per se, but we do a lot of sponsored content. It's not like we've completely reinvented the wheel: we've just got a strong, authentic editorial voice and an audience that keeps coming back for that.'

My day ends back in the Old Blue Last, huddled in the deserted back room, sheltering from that very audience. Alex Miller, UK editor-in-chief, makes short work of his Guinnesses - not through any kind of reckless hedonism; more as someone who's the wrong side of 30 and has had a crap day at the office.

I can't help wondering where all this is going. Having started out as a genuine expression of creativity by a bunch of youngsters seeing how far they could push the envelope, it seems that envelope has now come back to them, stuffed full of corporate cash.

While its message is 'aren't we all on acid?' to the kids, behind the scenes, things are far straighter. Which is nothing new, but it becomes tricky when your selling point is your authenticity. Are the likes of Mr Push-Up at the bar aware they're becoming the product in this equation, where Vice and the brands profit together? Perhaps their bullshit detectors aren't as well developed as Brown says.

I put my concerns to Miller, who denies any tension in the Vice equation. He responds like someone who understands what his audience wants, and who cares about what he's making, in a world where many media companies manage to profit from simply aggregating content, rather than making anything.

'Rather than being chancers or whatever, we're a bunch of young people who've been given the opportunity to do what an awful lot of young journalists have wanted to do for a long time - "If only the morons at the top would give us a shot". We're really passionate about it, and it's doing well. And that's a triumph of giving people a bit of free rein.

'If most other companies saw the amount of dollars and pounds rolling back in that we do, they would dig a hole in the ground and chuck it in there. But it's being pumped back into us. If you give a talented 24-year-old several grand to make a documentary, they will work their fucking balls off. We want beauty in our magazines, we want cutting-edge journalism and we want the most exciting documentaries in the world, and we're delivering this at the moment. The ambition is to be the biggest youth media company in the world and I don't think we're far off achieving that.'

While other media companies are worried about navigating the shifting sands of technology, Vice is pulling tricks in its 4x4, even with Rupert Murdoch in the back. It's a baffling world and maybe that befits a more baffling organisation.

As for me, the day ends in suitably Vice style, coming face to face with the horrors of mankind. In the toilets at Liverpool Street station, I remove the brogues I'd borrowed to fulfil my brief and slip back into to a pair of Velcro shoes with a large hole in the sole. MT's editor would regard this as a definite 'don't'. Would Vice agree? I genuinely have no idea.


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