Shane Smith’s dance card has been pretty full this past year. His Instagram account shows him hanging with Bono and Mike Tyson. He sent Dennis Rodman to North Korea to watch basketball games with Kim Jong-un for Vice’s HBO newsmagazine series (which, incidentally, earned three Primetime Emmy nominations this year). And he’s taking lunches with Rupert Murdoch, MTV co-founder Tom Freston and Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes. The first two are already investors in Vice, the most sought-after media brand in the world. The latter is hungry to become one.
Smith is uncharacteristically modest about his relationships with his new mogul pals: “There aren’t many people who’ve built global media companies,” he says over the phone from Vice headquarters in Brooklyn. “I like to hang out with them and get their advice, because at a certain point, who else are you going to talk to?” But Smith is no naive protege. He’s the mentor.
The proud Ottawa punk rocker who built his empire by plying anti-establishment fodder is being wined and dined by the world’s media elite because they’re desperate to get a piece, any piece, of his preternatural ability to identify and profitably exploit the interests of Millennials. Last summer, when Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox bought a 5% stake of Vice, the company’s value was pegged at $1.4 billion. Less than a year later, it’s closing in on $2.2 billion, if reports from buyout talks with Fox and Time Warner are to be believed. Other rumours abound; some say Viacom is keen; others suggest—intriguingly—that Disney might have been interested. Others still think an IPO is imminent.
It’s been 20 years since Smith and his pals started Vice as an alt zine in Montreal. In that time, the Vice formula—distilled to its most simple form, it’s about talking to young people in a way they want to be spoken to—has led wildly successful expansions into online, film, music, television and advertising. At this point, he’s right to bristle when people say young people don’t care about current affairs: “I said to Rupert, ‘You can have the 65-plus demographic,’” Smith recounts. “It’s a demo I don’t want, nor do I give a shit about. I’ll take 18-34. We’ll see who wins in the long run.”