Vice Throws Boozy Upfront With WPP, Leaks Bloomberg Talks

Investor Tom Freston Touts Quality Video at Scale With Web Economics

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This is what all-grown-up Vice looks like: founder Shane Smith, with 10-gallon hat and cocktail in hand, hamming it up onstage with former MTV CEO Tom Freston and WPP royalty, including CEO Martin Sorrell.

"I have been to Brooklyn," Mr. Sorrell proclaimed. "But it was a long time ago."

Vice founder Shane Smith, WPP CEO Martin Sorrell and Vice investor Tom Freston.
Vice founder Shane Smith, WPP CEO Martin Sorrell and Vice investor Tom Freston.

WPP took a stake in Vice last year, and this year turned out in force to help the Brooklyn-based media company throw a big party for advertisers -- its version of TV's annual ritual known as an "upfront" -- just a block from Wall Street .

Vice showed off its array of its 2012 web programming lineup, including Vice Style, Vice Comedy, and food show Munchies (60 web shows in all), as well as its deepening ties to old media.

For example: Vice announced a coming news channel, and told the audience it would be produced in partnership with Bloomberg. Asked for details of this, a Vice spokesman walked it back a bit -- this was a boozy affair, after all. It's not a partnership just yet but talks, which probably explains why Bloomberg Media Networks CEO Andy Lack was briefly in the audience. Vice has distribution agreements with CNN and other news outlets.

But there were other media deals. Vice will produce a show with the Ultimate Fighting Championship dedicated to the culture of ultimate fighting and other pugilistic pursuits around the globe. It's also producing an upcoming series with Bill Maher for HBO and a feature-length documentary with Snoop Dog, "Reincarnated," set for a fall release.

Lots of shows and, thanks to WPP, lots of partnerships with advertisers like GE, Intel, Nike , Red Bull and Heineken. Mr. Sorrell said WPP had $250 million in content deals in the pipeline, all with marketers that want to create content with Vice, much like it did with Intel for "The Creators Project" series. "Vice is the way to access youth markets around the globe and that is of vital importance to all our clients," the WPP chief said.

Adviser Mr. Freston said the company's revenue is doubling this year and that it's "very profitable today."

In case you're wondering, Vice has become quite a big media company, with 800 employees and well over $100 million in revenue, according to an excellent profile in Forbes. Vice magazine received its first nomination for a National Magazine Award this year, although it lost to Bloomberg Businessweek at a ceremony held at the same time as the Vice upfront on Thursday night.

Unlike Viacom's empire, built on equal parts advertising and cable subscription fees, Vice is almost all ad-supported, a model that 's workable for the company. "There is nobody producing this much video of good quality with web economics," Mr. Freston, an investor, said. "TV is still going to be a strong player but it is going to get nibbled around the edges."

Maintaining its edge while making content palatable for the big global brands that pay its bills is a bit of a tightrope walk for Vice. Brands are also walking a tightrope: how to connect with a generation increasingly hard to reach through TV.

"Their audience is quite large [and] it is very elusive so there is a huge market for it," said Group M CEO Irwin Gotlieb. "That's fundamentally what they have working for them."

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