Vice May Risk Losing Cool Cachet With Brands Over Sexism Concerns

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(From l.) Vice's Mike Germano, Shane Smith, Andrew Creighton
(From l.) Vice's Mike Germano, Shane Smith, Andrew Creighton Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen/Ad Age, Composite images Getty, Youtube

Vice could be at risk of going from cool to creepy for brands concerned with the alleged sexist culture at the gonzo publisher's offices.

This month, at least one major marketer, Ally Financial, is meeting with the Brooklyn-based media outlet to discuss concerns over allegations of sexism and sexual misconduct at Vice, first reported in a New York Times story published in late December. The article detailed multiple complaints and settlements with women over sexual misconduct by executives, along with a widespread culture of sexism within Vice's "boys' club" borders.

Other brands are paying close attention to the company's response to the allegations—particularly an internal investigation announced Jan. 2—before deciding if they will continue to work with Vice, according to several brands and ad executives.

"Our brands are starting to wonder whether they want to work with a company like Vice," says one digital ad agency executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity because clients did not give authorization to speak on the subject. "Vice has that millennial audience and a little attitude that brands wanted to associate with, but running a boys' club culture is pretty counter to the values [our brands] are supposed to represent."

Earlier this month, Vice suspended Chief Digital Officer Mike Germano and President Andrew Creighton took a voluntary leave as the company looks into the specific allegations of sexual harassment against them. Both were named in the Times story.

Vice, along with its creative agency Virtue, has become a $5 billion new media powerhouse and often works with legacy media and mainstream brands on digital marketing projects, lending its hip credibility to companies like Unilever, Delta Air Lines, Lululemon and others.

Ally Financial, which has been working with Vice for about a year on several millennial- and Gen Z-focused content series, says it's closely monitoring the issue. Chief Marketing and Public Relations Officer Andrea Brimmer is coming to New York this week to meet with Vice executives.

"We are absolutely going to take a look at what the outcomes of their internal investigations are and where things land, and make a decision based upon what we learn," says Brimmer, noting that the meeting will help her understand more of what went on and what Vice is doing about it. "We saw the news as everyone else did, and it led me to reach out to talk it through and understand how they're handling it."

Brimmer notes that her strategy with Vice is no different than with other companies, like Facebook, which has had its share of issues as well.

Delta partnered with Vice last year on an events offering, but has nothing planned with the company for 2018, according to a Delta spokeswoman. She notes that those plans were made mid-2017 and that the Vice activation was one of many such partnerships Delta had with other companies.

Lululemon, which worked with Virtue in 2017, declined to comment for this story. Another client, Under Armour, didn't return calls requesting comment about their relationship with the agency.

Vice has lent its journalistic and digital publishing expertise to brands, with projects like a female-empowerment-themed website called Broadly for Unilever. The motto of the site is meant to be ironic: For women who know their place. The articles and videos are mostly focused on frank discussions of sex, lifestyles and culture from a female perspective.

Last week, Unilever, which works with Carrot, an agency under the Virtue umbrella, told Ad Age: "We typically do not discuss the status of our agency relationships or partnerships. However, we take these matters very seriously, and we are following the situation closely." Carrot didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

A Vice spokesman says the company has been engaged and transparent with its partners and clients. He outlined the steps the company is taking to prevent future workplace problems, noting that many initiatives were already underway this past summer. Vice recently began mandatory anti-harassment training, has clarified its employee handbook, and expanded its human resources department, according to the spokesman.

Vice is also promising pay parity among male and female staffers, and has set a goal for 50/50 representation of women and men among all levels of employment, he says. In addition, Vice has signed muliple new clients since the Times story first ran, says the spokesman.

Bill Koenigsberg, CEO, president and founder of Horizon Media, said in an email that he is not recommending his clients "pause or pull advertising on Vice or other media networks including CBS and NBC." While he said is monitoring all situations, he added, "We acknowledge the steps and commitments that Vice has taken to improve their workplace culture and be a leader in an industry grappling with this very serious issue." (Koenigsberg's son, John Koenigsberg, is VP of media at Vice.)

Of course, Vice is hardly the only media company to find itself in the crosshairs of the #metoo movement. The wave of feminist solidarity has taken down big-name media stars like Matt Lauer at NBC and Charlie Rose at CBS, and it's touched publishers like The New York Times and The Atlantic.

"The most important thing for Vice is how they handle themselves going forward. They've admitted that they've had an unhealthy environment and they're going to do their best to change that," says Susan Bidel, a Forrester analyst. "As long as they can actually act on that, and if they continue to come up with great ideas for advertisers that are interested in reaching their audience, they're going to weather the storm."

Contributing: Jack Neff

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CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article said Vice had suspended President Andrew Creighton. He took a voluntary leave, the company says.

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