When Ciel Hunter first walked into Vice’s Williamsburg office nine years ago, it was as an intern for the company’s record label, Vice Music. Back then, before online video was much more than a glimmer in co-founder Shane Smith’s eye, there was just a magazine, its companion website and the music label.
Since then Hunter has played a handful of roles, her career taking what she calls “a very Vice trajectory,” moving from music intern to production, then on to event production. She now serves as the creative director of The Creators Project, Vice’s longstanding content partnership with Intel. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn office has ballooned around her, from fewer than 50 employees to about 400. VIce has already committed $20 million to a new Brooklyn head office that will include post-production facilities with full broadcast capability, edit suites, screening rooms, and that will see the addition of 525 more people. A move is planned for next year. The growth in headcount parallels that of Vice’s online video network, which spawned the high-profile Vice HBO show (which recently completed its second season and was renewed for two more). And now, the company has announced a deal with A&E, which acquired a 10% stake that valued Vice Media at more than $2.5 billion (WPP and 21st Century Fox had previously invested in the company).
In other words, the last two years have seen Vice’s growth go into hyperdrive. Such rapid expansion is a strain on any company’s culture, and when your brand has been so inextricably tied to the young, cool and dangerous, flirting with Rupert Murdoch could put a serious cramp in your style. But after 20 years catering to the tastes of youth culture, Vice has arguably held on to its brand and identity, something it sees as its most valuable asset. In fact, in many ways, the edges have been sharpened--see projects like its recent, much-discussed five-part documentary providing an unprecedented look inside terrorist group ISIS. As chief creative officer Eddy Moretti has said, despite its sizable audience and ability to monetize, “the only thing we really have at the end of the day is our brand, if we screw that up we have nothing.”
Part of what's kept Vice's culture intact through its growth so far, and perhaps one of the factors that has contributed to that growth, is the company's collaborative culture, and its osmotic sort of approach to grooming and keeping talent. Talking to employees across several of the company’s departments and divisions, as we recently did, a pattern emerges that through steps both strategic and organic, Vice has built and maintains an internal culture that revolves around an open flow of ideas and encourages the creative growth of its talent.
If you had any expectations concerning what the inside of Vice's head office looks like, the reality probably wouldn't confound them. Young, stylish media worker bees moving amid communal desks and modern glassed-in meeting rooms, surrounded by post-industrial brick, wood and steel beams. Oh, and there’s that room with the stuffed bear. The company first moved into a section of this converted foundry in 2003 and has since taken over 35,000 square feet, some parts so recently that Japanese tourists still show up looking for vintage clothes at Beacon’s Closet. That space is now full of more desks housing editors, production staff, advertising sales, you name it. Near one of the kitchens there’s a leather couched communal space next to a hundred-year-old (fully stocked) bar the company brought up from Philly.
One might also expect what Hunter called the Vice career trajectory to include being kicked out the back door once you hit 30. But a surprising number of senior employees have been with the company for more than five years and, more importantly, have come up through the ranks across disciplines. Grooming leaders from within the company--people who have done everything from shoot video to answer phones--helps fortify a company culture against the disruptive influence of rapid growth. It gives the place a conscience. Like Hunter, former interns include executive design director Matthew Schoen and HBO show correspondent Thomas Morton.
“In many positive ways, it still feels like the same place it was when I joined,” says Hunter. “The energy and DIY mentality--there’s still no one in this company who won’t get their hands dirty, from Shane on down, to contribute and execute an idea. It’s very much a company of doers and always has been. We have titles and tasks, but that doesn’t mean you won’t work the door at an event at some point. Everyone here knows what we do and how we do it. What’s been most exciting is that we’ve gotten bigger in all the right ways. Our production facilities, for example--when we started it was just an iMac and one guy. Now that guy [Vice Media’s director of photography Jake Burghart] is nominated for an Emmy.”
Expanding from just a magazine, to a magazine and an online video site with 12 shows, to a multi-channel, multi-platform content network with more than 80 different shows and formats has in some ways fundamentally changed Vice’s creative process and approach. Video projects are now planned well in advance and there are more meetings between an increasing number of content stakeholders, from the magazine to Vice News to internal ad agency Virtue. The weekly production meeting is where editors and executive producers of each channel and platform talk about what’s coming up and how they might cross-pollinate and promote across their respective verticals.
One thing that hasn’t changed from the brand’s upstart days is the practice of encouraging people to contribute to any project that interests them. “This is a special place in that everyone has a specific job, but if that work is getting done and you want to raise your hand to get involved with something else you can,” says Jamie Farkas, GM of Vice Music and 11-year Vice vet. “There’s so much happening in this building that it’s a place where you can experiment creatively.”
Lauren Cynamon started at Vice as a video editor straight out of film school and is now the executive producer of Munchies. She says when they started the food channel, they solicited ideas from all over the company. “If someone came up to me and asked to be Camera B on a shoot...sure! We had an IT guy host a video once,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of creative walls here.”
Both Cynamon and Hunter said that while there is a structure that encourages and enables creative collaboration, like the weekly production meetings, it doesn’t stop with those formal set-ups. “A lot of collaboration happens naturally,” says Hunter. “I can have a conversation with Trevor who runs Noisey about a current project and start talking about how best to co-promote a new music doc that both channels want to work on. So a lot of it will happen in a very loose, natural way. I think it’s great to have that hybrid, combining proven processes that many organizations use with our own Vice way of casual, conversational interaction.”
“A lot of it is people just hitting other people up randomly,” says Cynamon. “We had something go up about a sumo wrestler and thought it might also be a good fit for sports, so shared it with them. Noisey just talked to us about them going to a crayfish boil with a metal band and talked to us about how we could both use it. There are just a lot of conversations that happen so we can make the most of each idea.”
Wander through Vice’s maze of twists, turns, and video editing suites and you might end up at CEO and co-founder Shane Smith’s office. Crowded but comfortable, it’s also almost exactly what you’d expect. The giant screen TV, the leather couch, the bar, the coat rack holding three cowboy hats. Smith isn’t home but chief creative officer Eddy Moretti has ducked in to talk about how the company’s growth has impacted its overall creative process.
Despite millions of viewers online, the HBO show has kicked Vice’s content output up to ludicrous speed. Vice's ambitions for its news and entertainment future have grown at a commensurate clip--the company has been working toward its own TV channel, something the A&E deal brings closer to reality.
“The size and scale are what’s changed the most,” says Moretti. “Starting last summer I got to start really thinking about 30-minute formats that work across episodes and seasons and it’s been a lot of fun. Now I have more people in the creative conversation than ever before and the scale of production for our TV channel is going to be bigger than our digital channels, so there’s just going to be much more creative opportunity.”
A couple of years ago, Moretti says the Holy Grail was launching a vertical and having a good web show. “Now it’s one of these channels having a show, partnering with YouTube, blowing that show up, maybe these shows becoming a format for a linear channel, and what does that mean? How do they stay online but also go to TV, in an interesting way?”
Despite the number of projects and an ever-growing roster of properties, the process for ideas to become shows and for all of it to still look and sound like the Vice remains pretty simple. Once a channel’s name and branding is established, there is a creative director or executive producer and editorial director to oversee it. It’s their job to make sure the writers or shows are in the voice of Vice, so an article on Munchies doesn’t read like it could just as easily appear on Martha Stewart.
The written word, by its sheer volume, is much more difficult to monitor than video, but Moretti says the executives still dip in regularly. “I saw something yesterday on Noisey that I didn’t like so I sent the editor-in-chief a note,” he says. “Shane’s the same. And there are a lot of other people in the company, the director of Motherboard will be reading Vice News, might see something that doesn’t fit and say something, that kind of thing. It self-regulates a bit.”
Picking new content can be a quick and streamlined process as well. “Things can happen pretty fast,” says Moretti. “Like someone comes in and wants to do a Jim Norton Show, okay, I helped pick the logo and design the set, I picked the theme song, a few tweaks up front and then say, ‘Now go and make four of them.’ And off it goes.”
Overall, Moretti says the goal in all this growth is to maintain the quality on Vice’s existing channels and platforms while expanding its creative reach. That includes the TV channel, as well as more feature films and documentaries. Upcoming releases include a Somali pirates doc called Fishing Without Nets, the tragic skateboarding doc All This Mayhem, as well as a doc on Silk Road with BBC.
Moretti excitedly plays a new, yet-to-be-published trailer for Ana Lily Amirpour's film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, an Arabic black and white vampire western set in a dystopian Iranian ghost-town that the Vice braintrust saw at Sundance. In the wake of the festival, they mobilized to help with the film's distribution and marketing. As the trailer ends, Moretti’s eyes are wide. “She’s the next Tarantino, man. Count on it.”