Back in 1994, a “punk zine” called Vice was launched in Montreal. 20 years later it has offices in over 30 countries and it has expanded into a global youth-focused media company that runs a range of magazines and websites, a music label, a film-making arm, a TV show, a news outfit and an ad agency. And, because it has been able to attract the tough to reach millennial market, brands are increasingly looking for some of its magic dust. We chat with Melbourne-based director Myki Slonim about Vice Media's strategy, how brands can get past young people's sophisticated bullshit detectors and how the company is faring in this part of the world.
With their rapid uptake of new technology, their changing media consumption habits and their aversion to the traditional, the millenial market has always been a fairly slippery target for advertisers. But Vice Media claims to have gained that group's attention. And advertisers—and traditional media companies looking to the future—are looking to the company for a piece of the action.
Melbourne-based director Myki Slonim, who launched the Australian arm of the company in 2003, says its audience across Australia and New Zealand has doubled since the start of the year, with growth in its existing platforms and through the addition of new verticals (we've asked for exact audience figures but have yet to hear back and Nielsen doesn't have them either). The free magazine that started the ball rolling is still being distributed widely, and Slonim says there’s still a lot of love for the title. But because the 18-34 market is increasingly consuming media digitally, that’s where it’s focusing a lot of its energy (it purchased digital agency Carrot, which creates apps, websites and games for media companies and brands, late last year) and like all big digital publishers, it offers a range of advertising solutions through its AdVice network, which reaches an audience of over 200 million across over 500 sites).
But as banner blindness increases and ad-blocking becomes more common, with a recent study showing 41 percent of 18-29 year olds in the US claiming to have adblock software installed, it’s increasingly moving in the direction of brand-funded, typically audio-visual content that’s of genuine interest to its audience.
“As a media company we’ve got the attention of millenials. The stories that we’re telling through video or photography are hitting the spot. And the internet is quite a democratic platform, so good content rises to the top. We see brands as having a really important role to play in making content. We see marketing managers and brand managers as the new studio execs because they get to make the decisions on what gets made.”
As Vice co-founder and chief executive Shane Smith said, you can either game the system or you can create good content. And Vice is clearly in the latter camp.
"Young people have reasonably sophisticated bullshit detectors. They’ve grown up with it," Slonim says. "So the best way is to not bullshit them. Young people want to be entertained by brands.”
And around the world, that's what brands are increasingly trying to do. The social web series, 'The Beauty Inside' for Intel and Toshiba took things to another level and won an Emmy for Outstanding New Approach to Original Daytime Program or Series (Vice also won an Emmy for its Vice on HBO show). And Cannes Lions chief executive Terry Savage wondered aloud at a presentation in Auckland last year how long it would be before an ad wins an Oscar.
“The way we approach content is not the traditional branded content approach. We start with the audience and what they’re into. And right now we’ve got a vertical for most of those passions.”
Then he says it’s about matching a brand with those audiences based on what it wants to achieve. He points to The Creator’s Project with Intel, which “celebrates visionary artists across multiple disciplines who are using technology in innovative ways to push the boundaries of creative expression”, as a hugely successful example of that approach in action.
He also points to some work its music vertical Noisey did with Adidas as part of its #uniteoriginals campaign. As many have written, and many in this industry will know, creativity often comes from collisions. So, in a similar fashion to Nick Dwyer’s cover segment on Making Tracks, it put bands from different genres into a recording studio to see what they came out with. And Adidas helped fund a documentary on it (local acts Surf City and The Doqument got together for the project).
Recently, Vice launched a campaign called Wanderful for Visit California that featured Aussies road-tripping with the locals, it ran an in-stream campaign for Samsung with Aussie designer Kym Ellery on its fashion vertical i-D, which has recently launched in this part of the world, and it created a clip for Diesel called the A to Z of Dance that clocked up millions of views. There don't seem to be too many New Zealand examples yet, which isn't surprising given Slonim says Vice has 30 staff in Australia and just five here, but it did film the video content for Shine and Lion's award-winning Beck’s Edison Bottle.
The Australia/New Zealand sites in the Vice Media network, which also include Motherboard, food-focused Munchies (he believes food is one of the most untapped passions among millenials and so far this vertical has been a huge success), Vice Sports, Thump and Fightland, feature a lot of global content with “a good mix of local stories” (for example, Vice has recently run stories on topics like the election, Kim Dotcom, gays giving blood and Edward Snowden). But Slonim says millenials "see themselves as global citizens first and locals second" and they care about the same things as other young people from around the world.
Like many modern media companies, events and experiences are also an increasingly important part of its business because it's focused on "what people love and care about". But it always ensures those events are able to be amplified online with some different content, as evidenced by the work it did on Mini’s interactive dancefloor project in Australia.
"That was about letting go on the dancefloor so we linked that back to the brand. But it needs to live outside the event as well," he says.
Back in 2010, New York Times media writer David Carr critiqued Vice co-founder Shane Smith's take on the Grey Lady's reporting in Liberia in a clip that featured in Andrew Rossi's great documentary Page One. At the time, he didn't think Smith's goal of building the next MTV or the next CNN was realistic, but he saw the network's potential allure to advertisers and media companies with ageing audiences looking for an injection of youth and chutzpah. However, in a recent column, he said Vice's "guerilla aesthetic" had worked. Vice News is being read and watched and its work in Syria, Ukraine and North Korea has been followed—and often criticised—by plenty of other mainstream media outlets.
The perception of new media companies like Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post often seems to be that they're full of inane lists, cat pictures and other clickbait. But the Huffington Post has won a Pulitzer Prize and Buzzfeed has hired staff with Pulitzers on their mantelpiece, so there is also plenty of 'proper' reporting going on too, and, in a way, the fluff is helping fund it. Slonim says Vice News came about because of its expertise in the video and documentary space, and even though everyone told them not to do it because young people weren't into news, it’s done it in its own unique, non-traditional, irreverent and immersive way and he says it’s been hugely successful. Everyone also told them young people wouldn’t watch long-form documentaries. Wrong again, he says (a 42 minute clip on ISIS has been watched almost three million times).
"Young people do care about news. But we’re making news in a way they get. We're going out there with a point of view. ”
As it has grown into a global media success story and proven that it can connect to the youth, he says it has become increasingly appealing to big, so-called traditional brands "that can see the importance of the millenial audience to their business", and it has worked alongside large companies like GE, Intel, Budweiser and Schweppes. It's also just gained around US$500 million after selling 20 percent of the company to A&E Networks and Technology Crossover Ventures, which values the company at US $2.5 billion.
Punk starting dying out out when it was appropriated by commerce. So as Vice grows and continues to sell its skills to brands, can it maintain the counter-culture vibe that gained it prominence in the first place?
“As long as we’re true to what our brand is all about and keep telling stories in an honest, entertaining way, then it’s not a problem. It’s all about the audience and making sure we’re doing right by them.”