It’s retained that aura even as digital media fortunes rose and fell — and appear to be rising again. Internet content players’ new phase is emboldened by an army of so-called special purpose acquisition companies run by combinations of investor-backers and executives that buy businesses and take them public.
IPOs bring in cash needed to expand, including acquiring smaller competitors. BuzzFeed bought Complex Networks as part of its SPAC deal and CEO Jonah Peretti was clear at a press conference that its still on the prowl. Digital Publisher Group Nine Media, owner of PopSugar, TheDodo and Thrillist, has launched its own SPAC to roll up other properties.
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Barry Lowenthal, CEO of The Media Kitchen, a media planning and buying agency, said a SPAC deal would be a positive for Vice. “SPACs are a way for a lot of these companies to take advantage of the capital markets,” he said. “Content is not cheap. All these companies need a war chest.”
Vice’s position – private or public – in the evolving landscape has yet to be officially defined. It’s talked with several SPACs and the most recent reports – now dating back to May – had it possibly combining with one called 7GC & Co. Holdings with a valuation said to be about $3 billion. Vice projects revenue this year of about $680 million, from $600 million last year. An insider told Deadline: “Our financing process is still ongoing and we have had positive conversations with a range of investors.”
In a recent interview with Deadline, Vice Media Group CEO Nancy Dubuc not surprisingly focused on the company’s strengths, including an ongoing push to diversify and an award-winning news division that remains true to its mission of a brand tackling topics that in some cases won’t be found anywhere else, or covering them with an unusual take. Among the recent headlines: “AOC’s Sick Grandma Isn’t Off-Limits for MTG and Lauren Boebert” and “Haunting Photos of the Canadian Village That Burned Down After Record Heat.”
Vice just nabbed a Peabody Award, for Vice on Showtime: Losing Ground, which looks at a questionable legal mechanism by which African Americans have lost their property to developers, while it has continued to make a name with unusual reporting including from war zones like Gaza and the Central African Republic. Vice’s 2017 Charlottesville: Race and Terror, an account of the white nationalists supporters occupying Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park to protest the removal of Confederate monuments, also won a Peabody.
Vice News has had its share of detractors. In 2011, late NYT media writer David Carr famously got into it with Vice’s dynamic but outspoken co-founder and former CEO Shane Smith. “Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and looked at some poop, doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do,” Carr snapped on video, referring to The Vice Guide to Liberia on CNN. Carr actually liked the doc but not Smith’s jabs at the NYT’s own coverage. Carr later wrote a column praising the network’s commitment to hard news.
In 2019, Vice streamlined many of its digital brands, including Vice News and Motherboard, into Vice.com. That same year, in its own bit of consolidation, it acquired female focused Refinery29. The year earlier, it bought a Brooklyn-based events production company. Vice is based in a converted warehouse space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The company differentiates itself from BuzzFeed and others in the digital sphere. Vice also operates Vice Studios and, says Dubuc, is “very much a player in the arms race for SVOD” content. It drew headlines when a deal with HBO ended a few years ago, resulting in the disappearance of Vice News Tonight (which now airs on Vice TV, formerly Viceland), but currently has deals with Hulu and Showtime, the latter of which runs the Vice documentary series.
Vice also owns creative agency Virtue, which has been a reliable cash generator over the years via branded content deals with a range of advertisers.
Dubuc says she doesn’t think it’s generally appreciated how diversified Vice is, noting that advertising currently accounts for less than a third of total revenue. She said the company was profitable in the fourth quarter of 2020 after a year that was tough on media in general.
Advertising Holding Up
Covid exacerbated an already tough digital ad environment resulting in layoffs at Vice (and elsewhere in the industry). In a widely reported memo to employees in May, 2020, at the time of the layoffs of 155 employees, Dubuc in part blamed big tech media platforms, for sucking up digital ads, saying their “squeeze is becoming a choke hold. Platforms are not just taking a larger slice of the pie, but almost the whole pie.”
Still, she told Deadline that, all things considered, she thinks advertising held up relatively well last year. She still insists Vice Media is not getting its fair share of the pie but said that, even with Google, Facebook et al taking a reported 85 cents of every ad digital ad dollar, the remaining piece of the pie is still “quite big.”
Brian Wieser, global president of business intelligence for Group M, said that “in the medium to long term, publishers who produce enough content at scale can have a viable business.” He also agrees that the remaining share of the digital advertising pie is not nothing, noting that big tech platforms account for such a large share of marketers’ budgets that “they want to find a way to diversify their spending.”
Vice was founded in Canada in 1994 as a print magazine by Smith, Suroosh Alvi and Gavin McInnes (who, ironically given the brand’s progressive image, founded the Proud Boys in 2016. His affiliation with the company had previously ended when he left in 2008). Vice Media emerged as one of the stars of the digital era in the early 2000s with its moves into video.
Dubuc, who declined to comment on a possible deal or IPO, believes the company has recovered from a rough patch it hit after the #MeToo movement exploded in 2017. Among a spate of negative publicity about its workplace culture and pay disparities was a New York Times expose of sexual harassment settlements that cast Vice as fostering a “bro culture.” Dubuc, a highly respected television executive became CEO in 2018 after a lauded career at A+E Networks eventually rising to the top job there. Shane Smith became executive chairman.
“It was pretty rough seas. We needed to do a lot of work around our organizational structure,” including moving from global, divisional silos to a more centralized management, Dubuc said. She said she has wanted everyone at the company “to know that my door was always open, and that what happened before was not the culture moving forward.”
Vice has a number of women in leadership positions including Vice Studios President Kate Ward; Subrata De, Vice News executive vice president and global head of programming and development; chief marketing officer Nadja Bellan-White; and chief digital officer Cory Haik.
Bellan-White, who joined last year from Ogilvy, where she was executive partner, says that the brand is rooted in being “on the leading edge of culture,” something she sees as especially important now when the country seems to be at an inflection point — particularly when it comes to race and diversity.
She notes a Schoen Consulting “trust index” survey showing that 8 out of 10 people under 35 who are familiar with Vice Media trust the brand, along with similar marks for the news division. That coincides with Vice’s branding as a place that “gives light to stories that have been hidden.” Bellan-White notes that Vice on TV’s Dark Side of the Ring, has now been expanded into a franchise with Dark Side of Football and Dark Side of the 90s.
In News, De said Vice has expanded its international reporting highlighted by the launch of Vice World News last year and said the service has large audiences online. A report last month from Gaza Inside the Battle for Jerusalem drew more than 6 million views versus its average of 300,000-400,000 views.
Vice Media Group’s news operation has 433 employees worldwide. “We are very consistent about going where a story is happening and immersing ourselves in that story,” De said.
That push into social media content has been a growth area, Dubuc said, while the company is on the lookout for opportunities in gaming and e-commerce. Vice Media recently launched Waypoint+, a $5-per-month premium subscription service that grew out of its gaming coverage site.
She said “early numbers are really encouraging” for Vice’s presence on Roku and on Pluto TV, with recent deals for content to be shown on free ad supported channels and on demand.
Lowenthal of The Media Kitchen says that as Vice diversifies and faces more potential financial scrutiny as a public company, one of its biggest challenges could be to remain “on the cusp of culture.”
“It’s hard to stay on the edge,” he said.
Dade Hayes contributed to this report.
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