Ad Age's Magazine A-List: Vice Media is Publishing Company of the Year

From Voice of Montreal to Global Reach (and Backers Like Rupert Murdoch)

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Christopher Lane for Ad Age
Publisher John Martin and co-founder and CEO Shane Smith at Vice HQ in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

When Vice first appeared on Ad Age's Magazine A-List in 2010, it raised more than few eyebrows among industry stalwarts. For one thing, it was the first free-distribution magazine Ad Age had ever honored. And another thing -- OK, the main thing -- Vice is a cheerfully irreverent, quasi-rude youth-culture magazine that wears its louche attitude on its sleeve.

But a funny thing happened between then and now. Vice continued to grow up as a business (somehow without having to grow up emotionally), and the rest of the media world started paying respect.

What had started in Canada as Voice of Montreal in 1994 has now morphed into a Brooklyn-based multimedia empire that can land a deal with HBO -- for "Vice," the Emmy-nominated documentary "news magazine" series that was renewed this summer for a second season -- while also playing with the magazine-world big boys (Vice was a 2012 National Magazine Award finalist in the General Excellence category). The print edition under Publisher John Martin continues to thrive, with a 4% year-over-year bump in ad pages in the flagship U.S. edition, and expansion to 24 international editions for global distribution of 1.1 million copies.

But it's Vice's signature video content -- which, like its HBO show, tends to affect the documentary flair of a sort of gonzo, globe-trotting "60 Minutes" -- that has earned it more than 1.1 billion views today across and other distribution channels, including the Vice channel on YouTube. That rapidly growing digital-meets-video-meets-cable content business is what fueled revenue reportedly north of $175 million last year, and prompted a $70 million August investment by 21st Century Fox that valued Vice Media at more than $1 billion.

Vice Co-Founder and CEO Shane Smith readily admits that his company sort of had to be coaxed into the digital/video space, because over the years he and his colleagues had watched overreaching video-centric companies that had lost their shirts. "We were like 'No, thank you, we'll just keep publishing the mag, that's fine,'" he said. But then various tentative video experiments, like 2007's award-winning rockumentary "Heavy Metal in Baghdad," took off, and Vice saw the digital light.

"I think it took us 10 years to get to a million copies of the mag," Mr. Smith said, "and it took us a month to get, you know, 10 million uniques. So we realized that our future was online."

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