Vice has come to Cannes with a point to prove. It went from being the darling of the media industry to a black mark on the books of investors. But its president international has returned to familiar stomping ground in the hopes of proving to advertisers that it’s a “professional” company to be entrusted with serious marketing budgets.
Dominque Delport is no stranger to the Cannes Croisette. Though, in his time as managing director of French advertising giant Havas, his role here was considerably easier than the one he has at this year’s festival – convincing brands that Vice is still a smart bet.
No mean feat when headlines leading up to his arrival highlighted a global cull of staff and the $350m write-off Disney made on its investment in the company. Founder Shane Smith stepped back while former A+E Networks exec Nancy Dubuc stepped up as chief executive amid a number of sexual harassment scandals plaguing the company. She hired Delport, along with several other high-profile figures, as part of a masterplan to refocus the business.
At the global advertising event, where Vice’s wild Thursday night parties have been replaced with low key dinners, Delport tells The Drum the turnaround has been “phenomenal”.
“We’ve aligned the company values with the content we're producing. We’ve rebooted the brand to make our different business lines much more visible and easier to understand for our partners and our audiences,” he said.
“We had such a fast start and growing expansion that you have 3,000 people in 35 countries and all of them doing a little bit of everything. But we’re in a much more professional world where the platforms are key decision makers. And brands are incredibly demanding – they don't want a one-stop-shop, they want to pick and choose. So, we had to be much more structured and be clear about what's Vice is – a modern media company that is dedicated to global youth, that wants to enlighten their lives, empower them and entertain them.”
A restructuring process began in earnest in February and saw the company focus on five key pillars – Vice Digital, Vice News, Vice Studios, Viceland (its TV offer), and Virtue, its ad agency. All contribute to the company’s bottom line, but it’s Studios and Virtue that are delivering the greatest growth.
The former signed a deal with Channel 4 to supply shows and Netflix and Amazon picked up content like the Fyre Festival documentary and Adam Driver’s film ‘The Report’. A new and improved “global” partnership that will be announced as a replacement following HBO cancelling its nightly news partnership is also on the way. Virtue, meanwhile, has landed 35 global clients since it launched two years ago and is pulling in better briefs – Vice is up for several at the Cannes Lions awards.
With Dubuc’s plan in place, what Delport is now trying to show the cohort of advertisers in the south of France is that it can deliver across all business units. That objective has seen it target the top, with the thinking being: prove to a handful of multi-million dollar advertisers that its platform can help them engage with the increasingly difficult to reach “Gen Z” demographic and more brands will follow.
“We created a Global Partnership Team six months ago, led by Erik Lavoie who is a Vice veteran. Based in the US and in Europe, it's really [a department] dedicated to our top 14 global brands,” Delport explained.
“All the big brands – Unilever, ABInBev, Samsung and Pernod Ricard, luxury brands – are who we really want to focus on. It’s about how can we deliver a consistent service for that VIP club, where they know they are listened to, they know that will be the first to get the insight from Vice, to get the new offers and the new opportunities. But also, a kind of community where we can debate and keep reinventing.”
This group of ad bosses, he claimed, are spending more across its five business though he stressed that its approach is more “agnostic”. It has a “bespoke” service whereby it can work on everything from the strategy through Virtue, the production on Studios and then the distribution across its TV and digital channels, or just one element of that mix.
“The time of bundle is over. We need to understand every brand’s business issues and design a bespoken answer. I do feel that we are able now to do that. Vice also has unique access to talent. We need to be ubiquitous, to be everywhere, but also to know where to add value,” he said.
“The one-stop-shop wold is over and clients that more and more demanding and know exactly what they need. But every brand has its global partners, every brand works with an agency and we just want to fit in and be the connector with that positive mindset.”
It’s an imperative that Delport and Dubuc begin to generate serious revenue through these advertisers. According to The Wall Street Journal, the company – which has raised $1.4bn in capital – generated revenues of between $600m and $650m, missing its target by $50m.
Other publishing giants facing the same pressures have experimented with paywalls and subscription services, but Delport is adamant that's not the answer for Vice’s financial woes.
“We're not in the subscription business. It would be hard to explain that we want to empower the young generation and ask them to pay for it. The free, advertising-based model is great because you provide information and quality content to masses. Advertising is starting to become the tax for the poor, it’s true, and a little bit worrying. But I do feel that we need free media. Free in terms of freedom of speech, but also in terms of availability. And we can't educate masses within walls. We're in the bridge business, not in the wall business.”
Growing under the guidance of Dubuc has also meant placing greater demands on the tech giants to give something back for the content that Vice is putting on their platforms. Delport claims that 83% of Vice’s 300 million readers a month trust its news.
“Our information is critical, there's no fake news. It's untold stories, stuff you can't find anywhere else. And you can build a business on that,” he said.
“We're very clear [with Facebook] that we are monetisation obsessed. Part of the reengineering of the company was prioritising profitability and to be sure that we can reach profitability before the end of the year or beginning of next year.”
Delport – who has sat on Facebook’s client council for seven years – says it and others have “cracked” their own profitability models with advertisers, so the time has come for frank conversations on finding a way to pay for the “quality content” they need in an era of fake news proliferating on their sites.
“The way of these platforms is to put more legitimate content on their platforms from trusted sources. It's a journey and we probably weren't ready in the way we are now [to talk to Facebook] because we know now exactly what we produce, how much, globally line by line. So, for these platforms, we're having a very new discussion with them,” he said.
Leading that discussion is a new chief digital officer, Cory Haik, who recently arrived having spent her career at The Washington Post and Mic, and a new global president for news and entertainment, Jesse Angelo.
“With that management team, we will have even deeper discussion with these platforms and they will feel like we're one Vice and we can help them and, and of course they can keep building out brand. It's a nice deal.”