Vice bolsters its New Zealand operation

Vice is now producing around five times as much local content than it previously did. So, Damien Venuto sits down with its New Zealand head of marketing and business development David Benge to find out why the company is sending more of its journalists across the nation.

There’s an interview from 2000 in which Bill O’Reilly questions Marilyn Manson on the impact he’s having on youth. With Manson clad in his gothic garb and O’Reilly in his conservative grey suit, the pair cut a striking contrast on screen and provide an almost symbolic representation of what new media looks like sitting alongside old media.

As the interview rolls on, with Manson neatly sidestepping each of O’Reilly’s attacks, Manson comments that he views himself as a journalist because he sees things and reports them back to people in his fashion through songs or interviews. O’Reilly brushes past this comment and simply returns to the usual narrative of criticising Manson for “dressing strangely and acting bizarre”.

O’Reilly would’ve been smart to pay attention to Manson’s comment, because around the same time, a fringe Canadian magazine run by misfits, outcasts and rebels—easily comparable to Manson—was establishing a foothold in the United States by telling stories that resonated with youths that felt disenfranchised from mainstream media.

From then, the publication spread quickly, moving to the UK and later to Australia. And each time the publication moved to a new destination, it found an audience desperate for something different. And when the brand extended its activities to digital, the international conquest expanded, now giving the brand a presence across 39 different countries.

New Zealand has been one of those countries for quite some time, but it has largely been tacked onto the Australian site.

However, since the latter half of last year, Vice has been paying more attention to New Zealand—something clearly indicated by the appointment of David Benge as the local head of marketing and business development in September.

David Benge

A man of Vice

Benge isn’t the usual marketing cardboard cutout. In lieu of the carefully ironed dress shirt and perfectly gelled hair, he has tattoos across his forearms and wears a baseball cap. It looks as though he has been freshly plucked directly from a Vice documentary. And this isn’t far from the truth. One of the earliest jobs he had for the company was developing video stories.

“When Vice kickstarted filming stuff, Andrew WK learned how to throw boomerangs with an indigenous Aboriginal instructor, and then I also did a piece here in New Zealand on the misappropriation of culture with Inia Taylor, who designed all the Moko for Once Were Warriors,” Benge says.

Mid-sentence Benge points to a tattoo on his arm, saying the piece is the result of his long conversations with Taylor on whether it’s okay for Pākehā to get an indigenous Māori tattoo.

Moments like this happen a lot during my interview with Benge. He consistently interjects personal bits and pieces into the discussion, sharing anecdotes about himself, friends and family.

But, when asked what’s different about Vice in New Zealand now, he stays on point and puts on his business face.

“The fundamental difference is that we’ve dramatically expanded our local editorial team. We’ve hired award-winning journalist Frances Morton who was the arts editor over at Metro magazine. We’ve also hired staff writers and we’ve expanded our sales team as well. We’re four or five times larger than when we started.”

Frances Morton

While Vice New Zealand still doesn’t have a discrete site, Benge says the ultimate aim is to extricate the local brand from its Australian counterpart—and if the increase in content output is anything to go by, then this isn’t a far-fetched ambition.

“We’ve increased five-fold in the last two months the amount of content we create,” he says. 

“There was a comment on the Vice Facebook page the other day from a New Zealander in Tauranga, who said ‘I feel like every second story I read on Vice at the moment is from New Zealand’.”

No competitors

Benge says that Vice Media’s increased interest in New Zealand comes down to the fact that millennials remain under serviced in the market.

“The beauty of Vice is that when we see a blank space or a gap, we move in and create something there,” he says.

There are of course publications such as The Spinoff and The Wireless creating fantastic content on a weekly basis, but Benge says that none of the publications in the market do what Vice does.  

“I’ve spoken to people who work at different outlets who say they’re talking to the millennial audience, and what that tends to be is through one particular passion point, be it fashion, music or whatever it is,” he explains. “Our survey results show that our audience aren’t interested in singular things. They’re interested in multiple passions that cross-pollinate. It bleeds across things.”

He says that aligning a brand along clearly defined verticals that are regularly filled with content isn’t necessarily the best way to engage with a millennials, because their interests often bounce all over the place.

“Our audience isn’t only interested in one specific thing,” he says. “They can’t tell you the catalogue numbers on the spines of the 45 records for every Detroit garage rock band released between 1966 and 1969. Instead, it’s more like ‘I’m into photography, I write for a food blog, I’m interested in American politics and what’s happening in Syria, and I’m going to write a record in my bedroom.’ People have multiple passions, and the great thing about Vice is that you get there and you read the story that you got there for initially and then you get lost.”

This point is reflected not only in the varied content listed on the site, but also in theVice clips Benge lists as some of his favourites:

Benge says what viewers and readers see on Vice is simply a reflection of what staff find interesting.

“The overwhelming majority of our staff mirror our audience. They join us, because they were fans. They’re the ones that are leading the process. There are very few rules at Vice. If someone has a good idea, we’ll back it and run it.”

In fact, this is the exact reason why Morton joined the site in the first place. There was no formal interview or prolonged recruitment process.

“It was just a conversation over a glass of wine at a dinner party,” he says. “I was talking about what I was doing, and I mentioned that I wanted to expand the company here. And she went, ‘I would love to be involved in that process when and if it becomes a thing, so we made it a thing.’”

Avoiding the drivel

The fact that it’s a hip media company certainly gives Vice pulling power when it comes to attracting talent, but Benge believes the company’s approach to news is also an important factor.

“We have an extraordinarily large group of very passionate people that don’t want to settle for mediocrity. They don’t want to settle for the overwhelming majority of stuff that’s just so easily accessible.”

This point is particularly relevant at a time when mainstream media is feeding a seemingly endless stream of hot takes and clickbait onto Facebook newsfeeds—an approach, which is in turn leaving many journalists unsettled.

“We don’t need to do things in this bite-sized, slapstick, lowest common denominator way,” Benge argues. “I’ve said it a million times, kittens on treadmills are great and they have their place, but people do care about what’s happening in Syria, they do care about the fact that even if they’re earning well they might not ever be able to afford a house in the Auckland market, and they do care about farm to table renewable resources.”

One of the reasons why mainstream media relies on softer stories is because they drive clicks, which in turn drives revenue. And in this regard, Vice has something of an advantage over local news publishers that are restricted to providing content to local audiences.

Vice doesn’t only consider the local market when it produces a video or a story. Boundaries have been broken down by the internet, and Vice also keeps its eye on global audiences.

“Within New Zealand, we’re not just trying to talk to a New Zealand audience,” Benge says. “There’s this thing called worldwide web. We’re in 39 countries, and if we write a story or shoot a documentary that’s interesting enough, that goes cross-cultural.”

If international audiences are interested in a rock musician who injects snake venom, an Icelandic bodybuilder or a polyamorous unicorn from the UK, then there’s no reason why they can’t be drawn to an interesting human story in New Zealand.

“It might be a uniquely New Zealand story, but that doesn’t mean it’s only of interest to a New Zealand population. It can go anywhere. It’s all about your approach.”

Benge also doesn’t buy into the argument that New Zealand is too small to facilitate a continuous stream of stories necessary for yet another news publication.    

“Were there enough banks robbed yesterday for us to do a story on? Maybe not. But were there a million other things that were relevant and were of interest? Fuck yes.”

Content to cash

While Vice trumpets its editorial point of difference, the company’s revenue model isn’t all that different from other major media companies.

“We sell advertising,” says Benge.

Vice runs the display advertising and pre-rolls on all its owned and operated channels, as well as site takeovers and so forth. However, in the online media landscape, theVice brand also has a few privileges.

“We’re one of very few publishers that control their own inventory on YouTube. So, we sell pre-rolls on that,” says Benge. “And we’re on Snapchat Discover, making us one of the few, if not the only, New Zealand publishers to be on that channel.”

Despite being fanatically protective of the Vice brand, Benge says the media company is willing to work with the vast majority of organisations.

“There are examples of brands that we would not work with. I won’t name them, but there are brands that just don’t fit. However, for the most part, every brand has the potential to have a good, unique story and it’s about digging that out and then telling it to our audience in a relevant way. If you do that in the right way, it has the potential to move culture forward.”

He says that clients often come to Vice because they know the messaging delivered through the channel is going to resonate with the millennial audience.   

“An ad doesn’t have to bash over the head with a four-by-two with the brand’s name on it. What this audience and this generation, and millennials, are attracted to is content.”

Going mainstream

As it turns out, millennials aren’t the only ones attracted to the content Vice produces. The company is receiving an increasing number of requests from mainstream television companies that want to run Vice documentaries as part of their programming cycles. Kiwis who subscribe to either Sky or Neon would already be familiar with this, given they have access to the Vice HBO series.

“We syndicate content left right and centre,” says Benge. “It’s part of what has grown our audience so significantly and what continues to grow our audience.”

Benge tells me that Vice is currently working on a local documentary series (he wouldn’t divulge any further details), and it wouldn’t be far-fetched to see a few of the local mainstream players clamouring to get their hands on the linear broadcasting rights for that show.

Asked whether he thinks such deals could potentially dilute the Vice brand in the local context, Benge said this wasn't a concern.

“The Vice voice and lens is so strong in terms of identity and uniqueness that even if you see something without the logo on it, you can still recognise that it’s a piece of content from Vice.”

This uniqueness is largely derived from the fact that Vice ditched the teleprompter and the extended to-camera pieces, in favour of a more immersive storytelling experience.

“It’s very rare that you see a Vice host turn around and talk to the camera. They’re talking to the other people.”

And Benge says the approach continues to drive audience numbers. 

“Across all territories, March was the largest month we’ve had across mobile, desktop and linear television. Each month, we have hundreds of millions of people tuning in to our content.”

The scale is so significant that it even convinced media magnate Rupert Murdoch to buy a five percent stake in the company in 2013. And herein lies a delightful piece of irony, in that Bill O’Reilly now shares something in common with the strange and bizarre journalists that increasingly occupy the media. 

This story originally appeared on StopPress