For most magazine companies, 2014 was a difficult year. Backs against the wall, publishers looked beyond print for growth -- to digital media, live events, consumer products and TV deals.
Vice magazine is way ahead of them.
The free magazine founded in 1994 as Voice of Montreal has grown into one of the hottest media properties across multiple platforms, making it the magazine brand that can back up what so many publishers claim: We're not just a magazine company anymore. Thanks to a pair of investments in September from A&E Networks and Technology Crossover Ventures worth a combined $500 million, Vice is now valued north of $2.5 billion.
Shane Smith, Vice CEO and co-founder, can recall his 3 a.m. calls to fellow co-founder Suroosh Alvi -- made from a pay phone -- shortly after the magazine rolled out. "I'd be like, we are going to be so huge," he said. "Meanwhile, we were 16 pages of newsprint where the ink came off on your hand."
"Ignorance was our greatest strength," he added. "We were too stupid to fail."
Today, Vice is so much more than a magazine, and 2014 was its most explosive year. In addition to the half-billion-dollar investment, Vice won an Emmy for the second season of its HBO show, which has been renewed through 2016. It introduced three digital sections -- News, Sports, and Munchies, which is Vice's version of a food section -- and rolled out more than 50 digital video series.
With the latest capital infusion, it plans to create more linear TV programming in the U.S. and in October announced plans for a Vice TV network in Canada. In November, it partnered with Live Nation Entertainment for an upcoming digital platform around live music. Vice also struck agreements to produce and distribute movies; continued to develop brand campaigns through its in-house agency Virtue; and got into a media feud with Gawker.
Perhaps the surest sign of Vice's impact is its influence on culture: It is perceived by many (including marketers at top agencies and brands) as the arbiter of cool. Its 20th anniversary party in December drew thousands of partygoers through pouring rain to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to see performers including Lil Wayne, Scarlett Johansson, Andrew W.K., Ghostface Killah and the Black Lips, as other celebrities mingled in the V.I.P. area. And young people are turning down jobs at established media companies (where they can likely earn more money) to work at Vice's headquarters in Brooklyn.
But it's a deadly serious business, too. VIce recently hired former Obama administration official Alyssa Mastromonaco to serve as chief operating officer and veteran deal-maker James H. Schwab as co-president.
With all this growth, however, the print magazine remains the soul of the company. "Everything came from the magazine," Mr. Smith said. "It's the flier for the brand."
The magazine, under Editor-in-Chief Rocco Castoro and Publisher John Martin, is still growing, he added. And it will likely be around another 20 years from now -- no matter how large the company grows. "People like the magazine, and as long as people want it, we'll still print it," Mr. Smith said.