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Vice’s Folly & Defy’s Demise Make You Wonder if Anyone in Media Has a Clue

You may have noticed that Vice Media, after a year of controversy, massive upheaval and leadership changes, has been on a bit a of a press tour. A big feature on CEO Nancy Dubcic in the Hollywood Reporter was soon followed by this week’s bombshell that’s hardly a bombshell in the Wall Street Journal — Vice is bleeding money, and going to lay off 15% of staff through attrition.

This is going to really put a damper on Vice’s annual blowout Friday night NewFront party in New York.

Gosh, this is shocking, considering that the company had virtually guaranteed to bring millennials back to TV in big numbers. It almost makes you wonder if former CEO and all around bad ass was being disingenuous when he said in 2014 that Vice would soon be “10 times CNN.”

At this point they’d settle for being in the neighborhood of Headline News.

It’s enough to make you wonder, does anyone in media actually know what they’re doing?

Back in 2014, Smith told Bloomberg that he was hoping to be at $1 billion in revenue at a 50% profit margin in “12 to 18 months” (while comparing Vice to Twitter, a tech platform).

WSJ says Vice will be lucky to pull in $650 million this year. That’s not nothing. But it makes a $5.7 billion valuation awfully tough to swallow.

Yet there was everybody in the media industry lining up just a few years ago (from Disney to A&E to 21st Century Fox) ready to put money into, and maybe buy Vice. Why exactly?

Was it because they had decided to launch a linear cable network aimed at millennials at nearly the exact moment that the core Vice demo was summarily rejecting the medium? You’ve seen the recent terrifying cord cutting stats (Axios reported that 2018 will see a record for pay TV losses).

Those trends were just as apparent a few years ago, when established players like ESPN started rapidly losing subs.

Why would putting Viceland on 632 or wherever on most cable services work to get young people to tune into live TV? Because they had some shows about pot? You know what marijuana enthusiasts love, is watching other people talk about smoking up.

To be fair, Vice’s office was in Brooklyn, and there were a lot of cool looking hipsters working there. So they must have had some magic media knowledge – or so panicked media executives surely thought. Smith was so cool that he laid on the floor and started drinking during a big presentation to advertisers a few years ago.

Though as New York Magazine recently pointed out, Vice, and Smith are known for maybe hyping up their own capabilities. It kind of reminds you of someone, doesn’t it.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the digital spectrum is Defy Media, which quite shockingly, shut its doors earlier this week.

It’s not as though there weren’t signs that that Web video centric company was having problems (it had stopped paying some partners).

But just two years ago, Defy raised $70 million in series B financing.

It supposedly had interest from Viacom. And while Vice was criticized for papering over the fact that it had a modest digital audience, Defy — which managed huge YouTube brands like Smosh (23 million subscribers) — had multiple monster YouTube channels. It had shows like Honest Trailers and Screen Junkies that drew consistent million-view-plus-each-video audiences. And it had a long string of brand deals.

Ok, but at the same time, Defy faced the same challenges as everybody else in digital media. They were building their business on someone else’s platform. In their case that was primarily YouTube, which takes 45% of its channels pre-roll ad revenue.

That meant that Defy had to either sell its shows to other platforms (like the now defunct go90) or ink custom, potentially cumbersome brand integrations deals. For years, everyone in media would point out how tough that business was to scale. Just ask Vice, which has its own in house agency and is struggling. You can only Defy reality for so long.

So maybe everyone could see this coming, That is, except the ones doing the selling.


Image: Shane Smith and Suroosh Alvi, May 2015  by Peabody Awards