Nancy Dubuc made her first mistake as the new CEO of Vice Media before she even moved her Emmy Awards and “Ice Road Truckers” paraphernalia into her office in the company’s Williamsburg, Brooklyn, headquarters.
Dubuc—who greenlit megahits like “Pawn Stars” and “Duck Dynasty” during her nearly two decades at A&E Networks—made an appearance on stage at Vice’s spring pitch to advertisers about two weeks before she officially took the reins from Vice’s co-founder and CEO Shane Smith last May.
“In hindsight, I shouldn’t have shown up at those NewFronts,” Dubuc says. “I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ I didn’t have any perspective. ... I couldn’t even figure out what businesses we were in.”
Dubuc has spent the months since getting up to speed on the privately held company’s sprawling collection of business units, which include a cable TV channel, studio, news division, ad agency and the dozen or so content verticals that make up its digital arm. At the same time she has been attempting to bring some semblance of order to what she describes as an “unwieldy” organization.
“I have a newfound appreciation for the basics,” says Dubuc. “The people that set up the T&E policy, the things you take for granted. Who orders the toner?”
It’s certainly not sexy stuff, as Dubuc puts it, but there’s something to be said for focusing on the organizational basics at a company like Vice, which has been trying to distance itself, in the #MeToo era, from the unruly bad-boy image on which it was built.
Dubuc joined the company just six months after The New York Times published an exposé detailing allegations of sexual misconduct and a history of mistreatment of women at Vice that led to the firing of several top executives. A 50-year-old mother of two, Dubuc is an emblem for this evolution. She’s strategically portrayed as the mother hen, the grown-up meant to shepherd the grungy, skateboard-toting Vicers who previously had little adult supervision.
Not even a year in, Dubuc’s tenure is being lauded internally as a success, which either speaks to her prowess as a leader or underscores just how disorganized and disjointed the company was under the prior leadership. Vice staffers offered up by the company’s public relations team to be interviewed—anonymously—described a drastic change in the company’s operations and culture. They describe Vice pre-Dubuc as “chaotic.” One female employee, who has been at Vice for five years, refers to her early days as the “Wild West,” adding that the company at the time seemed held “together by duct tape.” These days, there’s a sense of “calmness,” as another employee puts it. And the overarching sentiment of these staffers is that Dubuc has brought order and clarity to the organization of 2,500 staffers in 35 countries.
But while Vice is positioning Dubuc as a turnaround virtuoso, there are still glaring obstacles facing the company, including its financial positioning and the health of its flailing cable network, Viceland.
Dubuc doesn’t make bold statements in the way Smith did; he once declared that Vice’s goal was to become “the biggest fucking media company in the world.” And while Smith’s priorities were to “get wasted, take coke and have sex with girls in the bathroom,” as he told the Financial Times in 2012, Dubuc sticks to discussions about diversifying Vice’s revenue streams.
At the same time, it seems Dubuc is also eager to fit in with her younger charges, sporting cutoff frayed jeans, a leather jacket and 1970s-inspired Chuck Taylors during a recent photo shoot at Vice headquarters. As Dubuc sees it, she was “a little bit Vice before Vice was Vice.”
Describing herself as a “builder,” Dubuc has an entrepreneurial spirit at heart. She tried to bring that verve to her five-year tenure as CEO of A&E Networks, investing in things like the digital studio 45th & Dean and the National Women’s Soccer League.
But those endeavors didn’t pan out. A&E is shuttering 45th & Dean and renting out its office in Brooklyn, according to a person familiar with the situation. (An A&E spokesman declined to comment.) It also pulled its 25 percent stake in the NWSL and ended its deal with the league a year earlier than planned after it dragged down Lifetime’s ratings.
While Vicers may see Dubuc as a savior of sorts, others question her track record at A&E Networks.
“There are a host of things she invested in that never panned out,” a person familiar with her tenure says. “She took her eye off the core business and thought she was the next investment genius.”
But there were successes, like building out A&E Studios so the company could own its own content rather than license everything from other studios.
Dubuc doesn’t talk much about the culture that preceded her arrival at Vice. But she acknowledges the pressure she felt joining the company at a time of such flux. “It was just six months of pent-up waiting for answers” about what was really going on at Vice, she says, referring to the time from when The New York Times story broke to her arrival. And on day one, she says, “you don’t necessarily have the answers.”
That Dubuc, who is Vice’s first CEO after Smith in the company’s 24-year history, also happens to be a woman, is no coincidence. “Everyone understands having a woman at the head of the company at this point in time sends a tremendous message,” says Roberta Kaplan, who was brought in to sit on Vice’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board (which also includes Gloria Steinem and Tina Tchen, Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff).
Kaplan says the changes have been “dramatic” and “radical.” Last month Vice agreed to pay roughly $1.9 million to about 675 former staffers to settle a class-action lawsuit that alleged the company paid women less than male colleagues in similar roles with similar work experience. One female staffer says that in the past, when she approached management about a raise, she was “given a pat on the head,” so to speak. But recently, she says, “I was listened to.”
She credits this change to her bosses being predominantly female. “Five years ago there were no women in positions of power, now more than half” of the people she reports to are female, she says.
Dubuc, who attended an all-girls Quaker high school in Rhode Island, has often been the only woman in the room during much of her career, and is currently one of the only female CEOs in big media.
Following the allegations against Harvey Weinstein (with whom Dubuc had a close working relationship, thanks to the Weinstein Co.’s “Project Runway,” which had aired on A&E’s Lifetime), Dubuc gave several speeches condemning his actions. In The Hollywood Reporter in October 2017, Dubuc wrote that she has made it a priority to champion initiatives and programs designed to foster inclusion and respect. At Vice, this has meant hiring women executives, including Lucinda Treat, chief legal officer; elevating Susan Tohyama to chief human resources officer; and bringing in Katie Drummond as head of digital content.
The biggest change, say employees, has been Dubuc’s “visibility” and “transparency,” a stark contrast to Smith’s absentee-style management. Dubuc says Smith, who moved to an executive chairman role after relinquishing the CEO title, is still very involved in big-picture decisions, such as growth and new content opportunities, but not so much “in the day-to-day decisions of the not-sexy stuff.” (A Vice spokeswoman said Smith was unavailable for comment.)
But don’t mistake Dubuc’s “transparency” with softness. Those who have worked closely with her, both at Vice and at A&E Networks, describe her leadership style as “tough.” “Nancy is no-bullshit,” says Cameron Farrelly, chief creative officer at Vice’s in-house agency Virtue.
And her openness comes with some rules. At the first company-wide town hall Dubuc hosted, she told staffers she would be candid, but warned she would stop being so if anyone recorded her or spoke to the press about what had been discussed. It seems staffers have been taking these words to heart; no employees contacted separately by Ad Age for comment responded on the record.
Dubuc has certainly been taking some very tangible actions. For instance, this spring she’s cleaning up the digital business, eliminating sites like Waypoint and Tonic, and bringing standalone coverage of food, music and women’s issues, among others, back into Vice.com. “We had all of these separate brands, but no one knew they were a Vice brand,” Dubuc says.
While some of the editorial brands, such as Munchies, Noisey and Motherboard, will retain a presence on Vice.com, others will evolve into other types of businesses, like podcasts or newsletters.
Dubuc has also streamlined the global organization, and in November announced Vice would narrow its focus to five areas: Vice News, Vice Digital, Vice Studios, Virtue and cable network Viceland. This reorganization resulted in 10 percent of staffers, or 250 people, receiving pink slips earlier this year.
“We were going to clients or buyers or sometimes even creatives a half-dozen different ways versus one way with one message,” Dubuc says.
But while there may be more clarity inside Vice’s walls these days, financially the company is still on rocky footing. It’s looking to raise a new round of financing, according to people familiar with the situation, as it attempts to turn a profit. But finding additional investors will be tricky.
Late last year, Walt Disney disclosed a $157 million write-down of its investment in Vice, an approximately 40 percent decrease from its original $400 million investment. Disney added to its 11 percent stake in the company with the acquisition of 21st Century Fox, which held a 5 percent stake in Vice. A&E Networks (which Disney also owns half of, along with Hearst), has a 20 percent stake in Vice. A Walt Disney spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Dubuc says Vice is on track to be profitable in the last quarter of this year or the first quarter of next year. Asked if she would consider a sale of the company, Dubuc says she’s committed to the path of profitability this year.
One of Dubuc’s biggest challenges has been saving Vice’s fledgling cable channel, Viceland, which it jointly owns with A&E Networks. Dubuc helped build the channel, rebranding A&E’s H2, a History Channel spinoff, as Viceland in 2015, when she was CEO of A&E.
It was always an iffy proposition to try to entice the Vice audience, which was flocking to non-traditional platforms like Netflix or Snapchat, to watch TV. Viceland is in 70 million households and averaged just 88,000 prime-time viewers in 2018, down from 96,000 the year prior, making it one of the least-watched English-language entertainment networks on TV. That’s a significant drop from the audience that watched H2 in its final year on the air. In 2015, the network, which was dedicated to the documentary programming that had been replaced by reality fare at its sibling History Channel, averaged 342,000 viewers in prime time.
Viceland has struggled to find a hit, and Dubuc’s first major swing at content, “Viceland Live,” was canned after less than two months on the air. “I’m pleased with the experimentation and the iteration,” says Dubuc, “and frankly one of the things that we uncovered was maybe digital wasn’t doing enough live themselves, but maybe we had the live thing wrong.”
While Dubuc admits that if Vice was only in the TV business, the health of Viceland would be a more glaring problem, she says the network, like all of its businesses, needs to be viewed as a piece of the whole.
“It is not as cut-and-dried as, ‘Is the channel rating or not?’ or ‘Is distribution growing or not?’ because it opened different doors for business,” she says, including allowing the company to not be entirely beholden to Facebook and YouTube for ad revenue or bound to selling shows on one platform.
And while Viceland has a small audience, for some brands such as Cadillac, it’s a demographic that’s hard to find elsewhere.
This season Cadillac sponsored the series “Hustle,” starring business wunderkind John Henry, who guides budding entrepreneurs. The partnership started in the upfronts last year, says Melissa Grady, head of media and performance marketing at Cadillac, as a way for the automaker to “show up differently.” Grady says the partnership worked well, delivering high engagement and brand lift.
Softening the edges
These types of sponsorships are important to Vice, which over the last two years has lost some cachet thanks to its controversial public perception, as well as its aggressive business practices.
Vice was also notoriously difficult to work with. “In their heyday their attitude was, ‘We’re Vice; we’re not negotiating; take it or leave it,’” an agency executive says.
Dom Delport, who joined Vice as chief revenue officer just four days before last year’s NewFronts, says Vice “had a lot of confidence” under its prior sales leadership. “It’s true we were probably a style that was more aggressive,” he says, adding that for some brands Vice over-promised and under-delivered.
But it seems Vice will now “play the game,” as the agency executive says. “They [negotiate] and are more collaborative. They’ve become kinder and gentler, so to speak. They’ve softened their message. They’re a little less brash in their approach.”
Delport says Vice has a more “buttoned-down approach. ... There’s an adult in the room.”
But there’s still plenty of course-correcting and education that needs to be done in the marketplace. Vice has struggled to build long-term relationships with clients. Dubuc says the company has historically been more focused on winning clients and not enough on continuing client relationships.
Dubuc also sees brand safety as one of Vice’s biggest challenges in the marketplace this year. “I think we are misunderstood,” she says, adding that news is often “unrightfully” labeled not brand-safe. She points to Vice’s coverage of the LGBTQ community and identity politics as being taboo for some brands. Anything with the words “identity” or “sexuality” in the headline is being blacklisted, she says, which has resulted in an inability to monetize a large swath of Vice’s content. Combating that advertiser sensitivity will be a meaningful part of Vice’s NewFronts presentation this week.
While Vice is certainly attractive to marketers that want to reach the 18-to-34 demographic, “it’s not for the faint of heart,” a second agency executive says, pointing to a Vice.com story detailing how to make a bong out of ice water in a blizzard.
Farrelly, who was promoted to chief creative officer in January, says Virtue recently lost a piece of business because “we scared them; we pushed them out of their comfort zone too much.”
Still, Farrelly contends not everything Virtue makes is “badass and controversial.”
“The work we are doing isn’t skateboarding, rap music, swearing. It’s thoughtful and philosophical in parts,” he says.
Virtue, which Dubuc sees as one of the company’s biggest growth areas, has spent the last two years distancing itself from the parent company. It moved out of the Williamsburg office and into its own space in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn and has been working to diversify its client base and prove it can do more than create short Vice-style documentaries on behalf of brands.
Last year Virtue brought in 20 new clients, including Google Chrome, Bushmills and Marriott Rewards. It also opened offices in Sydney, Singapore and Seoul.
Farrelly says Virtue’s separation from Vice is essential to growing the business. “If a client goes to Vice.com and reads about teenage werewolves in Romania that eat chickens, we don’t want them [thinking] that is what we’re going to bring to their personal-care brand,” he says.
It’s an interesting moment for Vice, as some staffers work to downplay some of its, well, vices, even as Dubuc plays up her viceness. She says she isn’t afraid to take risks and admits, “I’ve never looked that far out. I’ve always followed my intuition and have done what feels right at the time.”
Of course, what’s right at this time—for a 24-year-old company that’s finally being coaxed out of its adolescent-rebellion phase and into corporate adulthood by a new CEO—remains to be seen.