Vice shakeup continues with departure of creative chief

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Credit: Tom Punch via LinkedIn

Vice's chief creative officer Thomas Punch has left the company, marking the latest high-level departure from the floundering digital media brand.

Punch, who officially departed earlier this month, had been at Vice Media for nearly seven years, serving as chief creative officer since 2016. In the role, Punch was essentially the guardian of the company's graffiti-inspired aesthetic as it made its biggest push into the advertising world.

On Sunday, reached by phone, Punch said that he resigned from Vice, and was set to join production studio Spring Studios this week, where he will serve as global president and chief creative officer. The move comes days after Walt Disney Co., revealed that it wrote off $157 million from its 10 percent stake in the company and amid reports that Vice is planning to shrink its workforce by 15 percent.

"You don't always control timing, and this opportunity is here and now," Punch said, when asked about starting his new gig so quickly. Punch said he wants to help Spring Studios evolve into a powerhouse in media, advertising, content and commerce, like a mix of Disney, Droga 5, WeWork and SoHo House, the exclusive worldwide membership club.

"The through line of the work I've been doing is figuring out this intersection between culture and commerce," Punch said. "Spring provides this platform and space, this physical space, where those two actually collide."

Spring, which has studios in London and New York, caters to a community of creative professionals.

Punch left Vice at a time of flux for the media brand, which installed a new CEO in May, following allegations of a troubled work environment, which dented its image among advertisers. Punch declined to comment on Vice and its future, referring any questions to the company. Vice did not return a request for comment on his departure.

In an email to Ad Age, Vice stated that its TV channel Viceland added 150 new clients this year and that Vice's internal agency, Virtue, "has brought on new business every single month this year."

Punch plans to build on the work he had been doing at Vice, where he developed projects like i-D, a fashion and art publication that worked with brands like Marc Jacobs.

As much as Vice exposed the flaws in old media, leading the way to a new style of socially conscious current affairs storytelling, its business model is now threatened by powerful forces in digital and mobile media. Facebook and Google, the so-called digital advertising duopoly, are a threat to everyone.

"On one hand there has been explosive growth of a lot of different media," Punch said. "And I think Vice was leading the pack. Of late, obviously there have been some structural challenges, not least of which is the duopoly eating the lion's share of the monetization."

Punch joined Vice in 2012 just as it was graduating from a cult magazine into a digital media darling, cashing in on the fame of co-founder Shane Smith, who started the company in Montreal in 1994. Vice earned a reputation for edgy journalism, going to places most reporters don't go, like North Korea.

Punch concurrently served as the chief creative officer of Virtue, which has worked with brands like Netflix, Lululemon, L'Oréal, Budweiser and McDonald's. He also started Vice+ Productions, a studio for filming commercials, documentaries and other digital works for brands.

Now based in Brooklyn, Vice has helped define new media, creating fast-paced videos and penetrating articles about niche communities. It has shined a light on youth culture around the world and catered to brands that wanted to be part of that youth culture.

But earlier this year, several brands distanced themselves from Vice and its creative agency following a New York Times report of a boys' club culture that perpetuated sexual misconduct. Ally Financial, which had worked with Vice for more than a year on a content series for millennials and Gen Z, paused the relationship in February and never returned.

Another former client, Under Armour, is also no longer working with Vice. Lululemon, which tapped Virtue for the activewear brand's first global campaign, did not respond to a request for comment about the state of its relationship.

Vice operates websites like Motherboard, Broadly and Munchies. It also creates news shows for HBO and its own TV channel Viceland.

Vice's chief digital officer Mike Germano left the company earlier this year after becoming the focus of the sexual harassment allegations reported by The New York Times. Andrew Creighton, Vice's president, was also swept up in an allegation of sexual wrongdoing. Vice reportedly cleared Creighton of any impropriety, but he left anyway in October.

In March, Smith stepped down as CEO paving the way for Nancy Dubuc, formerly CEO of A&E Networks, to take the top spot at Vice. Dubuc has presided over an overhaul of the ad sales team, bringing in industry veterans like Doug Jossem, who handled advertising at Twitter and is now chief revenue officer at Vice.

"Nancy is going to clean up," says one marketing executive at a brand that has worked closely with Vice, speaking on a condition of anonymity. The brand stopped advertising because Vice's ad sales team was not producing what was expected, the executive says.

"They were very cavalier," the marketer says. "We gave them objectives, spent time with them, and then they sort of did what they wanted."

Vice has been attempting to show it is cleaning up its act. The company held a much more subdued presentation for advertisers this spring during the NewFronts, skipping some of the controversial elements of past presentations, like when Smith lay down drunk on stage.

On Thursday, Walt Disney Co., which has invested $400 million in Vice since 2015, revealed a $157 million write-down on its stake in the company. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Vice was getting ready to shrink its workforce of 3,000 employees by up to 15 percent.

The Journal reported that Vice expected to lose money this year, with ad sales of $650 million remaining flat compared to 2017.

Punch said he would be looking backward at Vice in one regard, by continuing to draw creative inspiration from one of the visionaries at his old company, the auteur Spike Jonze.

"That's one of the things I am looking forward to with the Spring team is identifying someone of that stature," Punch said. "Who can be the North Star, aesthetically and creatively for us."

Contributing: Adrianne Pasquarelli

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Update: This story has been updated to include a comment from Vice about new clients at Viceland and Virtue. The original version of the story said that Disney wrote down a $160 million stake in the company. That number is actually $157 million.

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