When a trio of self-proclaimed drug addicts and welfare cheats
from Montreal launched a free newsprint tabloid called Vice in
1996, they wanted nothing less than to change the way media
portrayed and spoke to youth culture. Over the last decade, that
tabloid has spawned a burgeoning media empire in Vice Books, Vice
Films, Vice Music and Vice retail stores. In 2007, the founders of
Vice launched VBS.tv with the humble goal of exploiting
"every utopian vision the internet has thus far failed to live up
to." Then they turned their attention to advertising.
Virtue, Vice's advertising and brand strategy arm, began in 2006 when Spencer Baim, a creative strategist from the recently closed Fallon, New York, picked up the phone and called his favorite magazine.
"I had lunch with the guys at Vice and pointed out that brands, like Nike for example, have been coming to them for the last 10 years for small projects," says Baim, who founded Virtue with Vice heads Shane Smith, Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti. "And if these massive brands are coming to you to do small things, they will come to you to do big things, too. And they agreed."
Virtue's first client was MTV for which the shop created an online project called the Virtual Lower East Side, a virtual (natch) environment that allowed users to digitally wander the streets of lower Manhattan, meeting other avatars and watching bands like Arcade Fire and Fucked Up in club show videos shot by Virtue. The project went live last year but has since been put on hold for further technical development. Next up was the branding and packaging for MTV's answer to Guitar Hero, the multi-instrumented game Rock Band.
"(Virtue) had a huge impact on Rock Band and how we captured the energy of the game in the branding," says Jeff Yapp, MTV's EVP of program enterprises MTV music and logo group. "I think their work helped differentiate the brand, gave it a more authentic feel, and in a very short period of time, established the game as the clear leader."
The Rock Band work included creating the site and web films for Rock Band TV online, which leads us to perhaps the central tenet of the Virtue philosophy. "Every brand today has to think and act like a media company," says Baim. "Rather than pushing stuff out there, to instead aim to pull an audience in. With our audience, word is spread like wildfire and it's much more cost effective for the client."
"They've had a significant impact on what we've been doing," says Wade Martin, president/CEO of Alli. "They're a unique company in large part because they're an agency born out of their own media company, in the trenches themselves, building their own brands and creative so it provides a different perspective, in a lot of ways, than a lot of agencies can."
The major client selling point of Virtue, in terms of creating custom content for brands, is that it already has a standing army of writers, photographers, artists and producers making cool stuff of their own, why not use them to tell your brand's story?
"We've been marketed to our whole lives, making our bullshit detectors very sophisticated," says Vice co-founder Smith. "So our whole modus operandi was not to bullshit. We decided to set up this separate wing that could leverage our talent but also be a separate company to help brands reach this demographic."
Ah, the old sell-out question. The Vice empire was built on the back of an unwavering sneer aimed at what it viewed as the mediocrity of mainstream culture. So what happens when the inmates are charged with re-branding the asylum? Given that most media companies are in the painful throes of find-a-profit model freak-out, Baim offers up a pretty even-keeled assessment. "Vice has always been free," he says. "It's always existed because brands have bought media within the magazine. We're just pushing that a little further and looking for smart, creative ways to drive clients' business 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. It is a thin line and definitely part of the challenge, but it's exciting."