Is Vice Media really a unicorn?

May 5, 2015, 9:23 PM UTC Launch Party
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 15: Shane Smith, Founder of VICE speaks during the Launch Party at Skylight One Hanson on September 15, 2011 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)
Astrid Stawiarz—Getty Images

If there is a poster child for new-media success—especially when it comes to attracting a valuable millennial audience—Vice Media arguably has ­­more of a claim to that title than anyone. The company, which started as a free music-and-culture magazine in Montreal in 1994, is now a behemoth: According to remarks made by CEO Shane Smith at the so-called “NewFronts” for advertisers, Vice will have revenues of $1 billion this year, and a recent financing round valued the company at $2.5 billion.

Even BuzzFeed, the other company that often gets mentioned as a new-media success story, is a relative pipsqueak by comparison: It raised $50 million in a financing last year, one of the largest rounds in the media industry, but that values the company at just $800 million. Vice is more than three times that size and still growing rapidly.

One crucial question that Vice’s success raises for other media companies—assuming they can get past turning green with envy­—is whether the company is in some sense a “unicorn.” In the technology industry, that term has come to mean any startup that is valued at more than $1 billion—see Fortune‘s soon-to-be-updated Unicorn List—and Vice fits that description. But the traditional meaning of the term is more important here. Can Vice’s success be duplicated by others, or is it somehow as rare as a mythical creature with a horn on its head?

As my colleague Erin Griffith described in her recent feature story on the rise of Internet video companies, much of Vice’s growth and revenue comes from its investment in video, both through gritty news features on subjects like the Islamic State as well as its lighter coverage of youth culture. Although the company has a number of websites devoted to technology news and other topics, the real engine for growth has been its command of video—and particularly the kind that appeals to millennials and the advertisers who want to reach them.

Smith often compares his company to CNN, and in many ways Vice has become the equivalent for many younger viewers who no longer watch traditional television, especially when it uses stale old formats like panels of aging white men debating politics. Not only do Vice videos take a different approach­—one of the most famous being its embedding of a reporter inside an ISIS terrorist cell—but they are shared over a host of different platforms, including YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram.

Vice’s grip on its millennial audience, and its power with major advertisers, are seen as so valuable that A&E Networks, the TV network co-owned by Hearst and Disney, is reportedly going to turn over control of an entire channel—H2, a spin-off from the History Channel—to Vice. That deal was supposed to have been announced already but some cable partners haven’t signed off yet, according to a report in the New York Times.

So, back to the crucial question. Can Vice’s success be duplicated? Clearly at least some of it can. BuzzFeed has built a sizeable video operation of its own, a unit it somewhat ambitiously calls BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, and seems to have convinced major brands that it has as much pull with millennials as Vice does, if not more. And what’s even more interesting for existing media companies, a traditional title like National Geographic has been able to build a relatively huge following with millennials through social media, using many of the same techniques BuzzFeed and Vice employ.

One of the most disruptive aspects of the social web—and the Internet in general—is that it has leveled the playing field between established media entities and upstarts like BuzzFeed and Vice in an unprecedented way. Content that was once shackled to existing distribution platforms like TV and newspapers has been set free to roam the Internet at will, and that in turn has transferred the power from existing media companies (that controlled those platforms) to anyone who understands how content works in this new landscape. And that means BuzzFeed and Vice, among others.

The other thing that the Internet and the social web tend to create, however, is “network effects.” In a nutshell, these effects allow companies that are early to a market—particularly a social one—to build up a presence that makes it harder for others to break through or reach a similar size. The theory is often used to describe why Amazon, Google, and Facebook are so dominant. It could just as easily be used to explain the rise of Vice.

Vice may not control a platform in the sense that Google and Facebook do, but in some ways its reputation for being the go-to source for millennials creates its own network effects, to the point where it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more advertisers and other media companies see it as the best way to reach that audience, the more money and value it can generate. That money then gets poured back into creating video content, which in turn cements Vice’s hold on the market.

In time, of course, this kind of dominance inevitably fails, just as MySpace failed and was replaced by Facebook. If Vice loses touch with its audience, or is seen as becoming more of a traditional CNN-style entity, with all the baggage that brings with it, then it could become easy prey for the next digital challenger. But until then, its unicorn status on the media landscape seems fairly secure.

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