‘No plan, apart from not going bankrupt’
SHANE Smith grew up in Ottowa in a house that had no TV. He was therefore totally dependent on the local theatre for his regular dose of cinema and advertising. “They used to show a compilation of all the best adverts from each year’s Cannes Lions there, and I loved seeing so many different ad spots from around the world. It gave me insight into countries I’d never been to and offered tantalising glimpses of what seemed at the time to be some kind of different dimension.”
Today he gets his fix with regular visits to Cannes. “We’ve been attending Lions for the last 10 years and we regard it as a great place to do business,” says Smith. “We also see it as a good place to have a party and we’ll be doing the same again this year.” Smith also has a number of speaking engagements, including in Wednesday’s session Making Content We Care About with Spike Jonze.
Smith did not expect the award, or indeed any kind of recognition from the advertising industry, and says that being named Media Person of the Year is “simultaneously humbling and immensely pleasurable. A measure of what it means to me is that I’m bringing my Mum over,” he said.
So how does it feel for a company that has always regarded itself, and been regarded by mainstream media, as an outlier, now to be mainstream? “Well, for sure people can’t ignore us anymore,” he laughs.
As for the now global presence of Vice, through the Vice news series on HBO and cable channel Viceland, which launched two months ago, Smith happily admits that he had no idea he’d end up as the CEO of a global media empire. “When we started out in 1994 we had no plan apart from not going bankrupt. We were just happy to have jobs and, in Vice magazine, something that we were passionate about,” he said. “And over the years, our doom has been prophesised many times because cool is inherently small and niches don’t last.”
Smith’s remedy was to focus on creating great shows and finding the stories that others do not: “Our major challenge has always been to make more and better content, and even though we’re no longer a niche organisation, that is still our main focus,” he said. “But what has changed over the last few years is that our audience is coming of age. Generation Y is moving into adulthood and in the process Vice, which is their preferred source of news and entertainment, has become a general media company.”
Smith recently predicted ‘a blood bath’ as old media realigns itself: “We’re going to see a lot of mergers and acquisitions as cash-rich companies seek to consolidate their position by buying online sites that have been running on slim budgets, like Microsoft buying LinkedIn last week,” he said. “And on the TV side we have all the old guard trying to create super-companies to survive. But the underlying truth is that the content they create is funded by brands, and brands are now very aware of the value of great content, which everyone knows is more effective than straightforward advertising. So I see brands taking over the creation of content and leaving the traditional industry behind. And in doing so, they also save money on media buying.”