Updated (16:20 p.m.) Vice is better known for its (extensive) coverage of sex and cocaine than it is for its often excellent serious journalism, but lately, the original hipster rag is branching out to compete with major media empires on a global scale. Mostly thanks to the runaway success of its video strategy and the deeply successful artist spotlight series The Creators Project, Vice is on track to become one of the most valuable new media brands in the world. Vice is now now worth an estimated $1 billion, and it's continuing to grow at breakneck speed. Next stop: China.
The company that started off as a government-funded 'zine in Montreal is now being called the 21st-century MTV. Forbes's Jeff Bercovici just profiled former Viacom executive Tom Freston, who's helped the company grow and maintain existing partnerships with CNN and Google's YouTube. While Vice's original magazine and websites remain relatively modest -- its main portal Vice.com receives about 3.2 million unique visitors a month -- it provides content to some of the largest websites in the world. Since China is the largest country in the world, it's natural that the company would look east for future growth opportunities. With the help of between $50 and $100 million of investment capital. (That's a massive amount that wouldn't be out of place in Silicon Valley -- which is funny because Vice is headquartered in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.) Bercovici reports:
In terms of investment, China is now Vice’s biggest market, with a new office being constructed containing 60-plus video-editing suites. Vice’s politics are somewhat hard to pin down, but its reporters have been aggressive in depicting the moral and economic failures of repressive foreign regimes.
There's just one little problem. As Bercovici suggests, Vice's content is a little bit salacious. And for a country that doesn't even allow its own citizens to Google
important pivotal moments in its own history, China seems like a problematic choice. Bercovici continues:
Smith himself, who moonlights as an on-camera correspondent when his CEO duties permit, has reported from North Korea, Libya, Yemen and Siberia, among other places. He says his mission is to highlight "the absurdity of the modern condition" by exposing corruption and brutality. But he has no illusions about being able to do that kind of reporting from China or for a Chinese audience. "The reality is I'm not going to China to build our Vice brand," he says. "Vice is a holding company. I don’t have to go into every country with 100% of what we do."
For those that are familiar with how Vice actually makes its money, this is an extremely important distinction. Vice is hardly just a content company; it's a marketing enterprise. As Smith suggests Vice operates a number of brands beyond its magazine: The Creators Project, Motherboard (a technology site), Noisey (a music site) and ADVICE (an advertising network that includes sites like The Awl), it also operates a full-service creative agency: VIRTUE WORLDWIDE. So as Vice expands into China, its likely expecting to sell not just edgy content but a whole edgy lifestyle. Or more specifically, the kinds of marketing solutions that enable major companies to tap into Vice's understanding of the hipster youth. Vice, for one, says that they're not worried at all about the challenges of working in China. "VICE has already been successful in climbing the Great Firewall of China, partnering with Intel to launch the successful Creators Project video platform there, as well as partnering with Dell to launch the Noisey music video platform," a spokesperson told The Atlantic Wire. "In addition VICE has established video content sharing agreements with local portals and outlets."
So even if all of Viceland is blocked by the Great Firewall of China, it probably won't mean a thing for the company's commercial success there. Instead of letting American companies spend millions to sponsor a website, Vice will let Chinese companies spend millions. If Vice's shocking documentaries get firewalled, who cares. Money is money. Furthermore, Vice is well used to being banned by now.
Correction: An earlier version of this post implied that Vice had a relationship with Yahoo. It does not, so we've adjusted the language accordingly. We've also updated the traffic stats for Vice.com, which receives traffic from the now retired VBS.tv portal.