With its recent fashion issue, adorned by a striking Ryan McGinley-shot swine, Vice magazine marks its biggest edition ever. Nice for them, and a rare bit of good news in magazine land. But Vice, chronicler of youth culture, purveyor of the profane, is also one of the more unlikely yet most convincing cases of a media brand (a real media brand, and that's an important distinction) turned brand partner.
Vice magazine, which was launched under the shadiest possible circumstances in Montreal in 1996, has since became a global media operation with offices in 22 countries, encompassing a website; music and retail concerns; and, since 2007, an online content channel, VBS.tv, for which the company partners with MTV. As noted here previously, the channel offers some genuinely interesting -- dare one say important -- content, (such as last year's deeply depressing "Garbage Island" and feature film "Heavy Metal in Baghdad") while still bringing the vice (For example, "Shot by Kern" is essentially one long masturbation-assist highlight reel for straight males).
The company has worked with advertisers of a certain music/sneaker/lifestyle type before. But marketing efforts were coordinated in earnest two and a half years ago with the creation of brand-strategy/creative arm Virtue. The shop was born when Spencer Baim, a former strategist at Fallon, approached current Vice principals Shane Smith, Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti, and pointed out, "If these massive brands (like Nike) are coming to you to do small things, they will come to you to do big things, too."
Virtue's inaugural project was Virtual Lower East Side, an online music experience for client MTV. More recently, Virtue has undertaken a range of brand projects (and, yes, even advertising) for the likes of Rock Band (brand ID and packaging-design work), Edun (a VBS series on mountain gorillas), Dell (a tech series called "Motherboard"), Red Bull (a reality show called "School of Surf") and action-sports enterprise Alli, for which Virtue undertook a complete rebranding, and created ads and an online content hub. The shop just completed its first project with energy drink Guru and announced a partnership with Kanye West, who has signed on to create new Guru products.
The success with youth-targeted brands and the ability to create and execute a range of projects are where the real-media-brand part comes in handy. Virtue takes Vice's core genius -- its winning way of interpreting the world of and for urban youth and those who wish they were urban youth -- and applies it to for-hire work for brands. Those brands also benefit from the sensibility of Vice's contingent of writers, photographers and artists. Not all media outlets have the kind of unmistakable voice and hard-won authenticity that works in Vice/Virtue's favor.
Will too much Virtue be bad for Vice? Simon says "we're careful" about keeping Vice Vice but also notes that its demographic is more concerned about quality of content and transparency than with the fact of brand involvement. "Vice has always been free," Baim notes. "It's existed because brands have bought media within the magazine. We're just pushing that further and looking for smart creative ways to drive clients' businesses forward as we drive our own forward. It all comes down to openness, transparency and great content. When it's done right, it's embraced and accepted."
And for all the detached hipsterism of Vice, there's an earnestness, too, that has informed Vice content and will likely steer the company's brand efforts. "We want to make young people's lives better," says Simon. "We want to make amazing brand communications that affect people."
~ ~ ~
Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Creativity magazine and Creativity-Online.com.