Vice Media and the art of the deal

Reeves Wiedeman in New York Magazine on the Trojan horse that is Vice Media. Completely worth it for the salacious details.

Missing from the scene was Shane Smith, Vice’s co-founder, who shocked his employees and the media world in March by announcing that he was stepping aside as the company’s longtime CEO. Smith’s beard and Canadian drawl had become an avatar of the company, both on-camera, in Vice documentaries about drug gangs and warlords, and in front of corporate audiences, where he persistently declared the inevitability of his company’s global domination and landed deals with an aggressive sales pitch: Pay Vice to join its youth revolution or get left behind.

The pitch had worked to the point that Vice had grown from a free magazine to a company with 3,000 employees spread across a cable network, more than a dozen websites, two shows on HBO, an ad agency, a film studio, a record label, and a bar in London. Vice had become the tenth-highest-valued private company in America, according to CB Insights, at a valuation of $5.7 billion, and as recently as 2016, Smith had told The Wall Street Journal that by the end of the decade, Vice could be worth $50 billion.

The years since, however, have tested Smith’s long run of predicting extraordinary success and then realizing it. This past December, the New York Times published an investigation into sexual misconduct across the company, and two months later, the Journal reported that Vice had missed its annual revenue target by $100 million. With traffic to its sites growing modestly, and Viceland, its two-year-old cable channel, still struggling to deliver on Smith’s promise to bring millennials back to television, it was not unreasonable to wonder whether Vice truly did have a better hold on the attention of young people than any other company — and, if not, how it could possibly be worth so much money. Smith, who had expected to sell the company in 2016, entered this year with no obvious buyers in sight, and future investment rounds more difficult to come by; even some of its advocates were unwilling to bet Vice was worth what it had been just a year prior. “How do you scale the essence of a punk-rock magazine into a multibillion-dollar media company? There is no real answer,” a former Vice executive who remains fond of the brand told me. “At some point, what got you there isn’t what you are.”