Is Shane Smith the next Rupert Murdoch?
- 17 March 2014
- From the section Business
Shane Smith looks like the type of man who enjoys getting into fights in rough bars.
With his beard and tattoos, the big bear of a 44-year-old Canadian can appear rather intimidating. You wouldn't want to spill his pint.
Looks can be deceptive, however, as through brains rather than brawn Mr Smith has built up a personal fortune of $400m (£240m).
The founder and boss of New York-based Vice Media, he could very well be the next Rupert Murdoch, such is his ambition for global domination.
Mr Murdoch himself seems to think it is possible, as last year the media mogul's News Corporation group spent $70m buying a 5% stake in Vice.
The two men toasted the deal by going for a beer in a Brooklyn bar.
But for those of us above a certain age, or who aren't very fashionable, what exactly is Vice?
It is a multimedia business that includes an eponymous website and a growing number of sister sites, its own channel on YouTube, and an advertising agency.
It also has a TV show on US cable station HBO, a print magazine, a record label and a book publishing division.
The core of the business is its website, a digital magazine that includes video documentaries and text features, covering everything from fashion to music, travel to technology - and increasingly, news stories.
Aimed at teenagers and young adults, Vice specialises in "immersion journalism" - instead of its writers simply reporting on events, they try to all but get involved in them.
A good example of this is the recent video reports from one of Vice's reporters in Crimea. Rather than doing simple pieces to camera, he unofficially embedded himself with pro-Russian militias.
Other Vice features are irreverent or offbeat, some are pretentious, and then there are those of an outright sexual nature.
For Vice it is a winning formula that has created a monthly global audience of 129 million fashionable, young people across its outlets.
And that is a number - and demographic - that means the world's biggest companies are falling over themselves to advertise with it.
Lower East Side hipsters
For Mr Smith and Vice, the story started in the Canadian city of Montreal 20 years ago, where the native of Ottawa co-founded a community magazine after leaving university.
Together with two friends, he set up a monthly print publication called Voice of Montreal.
Within two years and under Mr Smith's leadership they had bought out the original publisher and expanded their coverage beyond writing about Montreal's arts scene, changing the name to Vice in the process.
Then in 1999, in search of higher advertising revenues, they relocated to New York.
An online presence soon followed, together with an increasing amount of video clips and documentaries - often made by and starring Mr Smith himself - as the spread of broadband meant more and more people could watch them without interruption.
Mr Smith, who averages about one swear word every third sentence and does not appear to have any self-doubt, says he was "definitely ambitious from the beginning".
He says: "I didn't think anything would stand in the way. From the beginning it was about reaching global domination."
After the move to New York, Mr Smith said Vice had some financial woes, but he knew that ultimately all would be fine from "the response of the hipsters from the Lower East Side".
He says: "We had all these people coming in, saying, 'I'll do whatever you want for free'. That was when we realised we were onto something."
North Korean ban
Vice now has 1,500 staff around the world, and 5,000 other contributors.
Mr Smith says that for a long time he was "100% hands on", being the editor of all the content so as to maintain the house style and standards.
But in recent years he says he has been able to take a step back because "there are now enough people who have the brand in their DNA".
With Vice this year forecast to make $125m in profits from $500m of revenues, you might imagine that Mr Smith spends all his time looking after the business and financial side of things.
And while this undoubtedly takes up a chunk of his time, he still makes and presents documentaries for Vice, often from dangerous places.
He has reported from Libya during the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, and from the troubled Darfur region of Sudan.
Mr Smith has also travelled to Mexico to report on drug gangs, and to Pakistan to cover violence in Karachi, its largest city.
And he is banned from North Korea after he made a somewhat mocking travel programme on the country.
Mr Smith says that while Vice board members might prefer him not to put himself in harm's way, such work trips help him run the business to the best of his ability.
Or as he puts it using an automotive analogy: "What I say to them is that if you are going to make great cars, you had better love making cars from the bottom up."
He says that it also shows he "wouldn't send any journalist anywhere I wouldn't go myself".
Yet for all the popularity of Vice's output, the clever stuff is its approach to advertising.
Helped no doubt by expertise from advertising giant WPP, which is a minority investor, Vice has been at the forefront of developing and maximising new ways of online advertising.
To name but two deals, microchip company Intel sponsors one of its sub-websites, and BMW provided some of its Mini cars and funding for a Vice travel programme.
Mr Smiths says: "Vice will be 10 times the size of someone like CNN.
"Even if I don't do it, the chance is there. If people roll their eyes, then great. It means I'm the only one going for it.
"Why can Vice be bigger? Because of the internet. The internet is global, and we aren't limited by anything."