At one point during Thursday’s press conference announcing the new $100 million joint venture between their respective companies, Vice Media co-founder and CEO Shane Smith grinned broadly and affectionately slapped the leg of Rogers Communications president and CEO Guy Laurence.
Laurence turned and smiled, and the two men engaged in a whispered conversation. It was a brief moment that underscored the deep roots of a business collaboration conceived not in a boardroom, but over pints in a Dublin bar.
The high regard in which the two men hold each other was made apparent several times during the 30-minute press conference in downtown Toronto. Laurence introduced Smith as “my buddy,” and several times referred to Vice Media as a global leader in the content space, while Smith glowingly described Laurence as a “visionary” and “one of the good ones.”
Rogers and Vice will each invest $50 million over the next three years to create a new state-of-the-art production facility in Toronto that will develop “Canadian-focused” news and information content to be distributed via multiple platforms.
The content will be created by the “next wave” of producers, journalists and writers, and distributed via Rogers’ vast mobile, internet and TV pipeline, said Smith.
The two men vigorously agreed with one reporter’s assessment that it is essentially a $100 million R&D fund into the future of content and content distribution.
While the deal is initially for three years, Laurence said the two companies are “absolutely” in it for the long-term. “You don’t [do] this kind of thing for the short-term,” he said. “When we sat down in a pub and discussed this, we said ‘It has to be big and we have to really go for it.’”
He described the partnership as the third and “coolest” initiative undertaken as part of the “Rogers 3.0” strategy, which sees the company attempting to differentiate itself via content and innovation. Previous endeavours have included the NHL rights deal and the impending launch of the subscription video-on-demand service shomi.
The Vice partnership is tightly focused on the 18-34 year-old market said Laurence, noting that this demographic will comprise half of the Canadian population within seven years.
“The question for me was not whether we should be in news and entertainment for this market, it was how do we do it,” said Laurence. “We’ve created some great content internally and there’s some great content out there, but at the end of the day we wanted to partner with the best company in the world, the guys that do this the best, and do it on a worldwide basis.”
Laurence dismissed the notion that 18-34 year-olds are not interested in news and current affairs. “They love the kind of stuff that Shane and his team produce, and the key thing is that we think mobile first,” he said. “We’re going to deliver this content through a mobile lens…and it will be on our TV channels as well, but we wanted to start with a fundamentally different approach.”
He said the first thing young Canadians reach for in the morning is their mobile device, usually before they’re even out of bed. “What they’re going to look at is the type of content that Shane and his team are going to produce.”
Laurence said the styles and content would vary, with a portion of the mobile content exclusive to Rogers and Fido customers. He dismissed suggestions that it is a play designed to steal market share from rivals such as Bell.
“It’s not about chasing customers, it’s about rewarding customers I’ve already got,” he said. “This whole discussion in the industry about selling data and megabytes is so boring; what we’re doing is providing content to customers and you want to give them the best content, whether it’s in sports, news or entertainment.”
Both men stressed that they would limit their involvement to their respective areas of expertise. “I won’t be in the editing suite, I promise you,” said Laurence with a laugh.
“The thing we’re bringing is technology and distribution. At the end of the day we’re a pipeline, and we need to fill it with quality content that people want to watch,” he added. “[Smith] will do his thing and we’ll do our thing, but we’ll do it together.”
Smith and Laurence first met when the latter was CEO of the UK telecommunications firm Vodafone, embarking on a mobile content partnership that ultimately fizzled. “We just had a tremendous relationship,” said Smith. “He’s ahead of the game, we’re ahead of the game, [but] we got there too quick.”
The two men remained in touch after Laurence arrived in Canada last year, and ultimately conceived the partnership over drinks.
While describing the deal as “mobile focused,” Laurence said the two companies also plan to create a new TV channel that is expected to debut in the latter part of 2015.
Established 20 years ago this month as a free magazine that was by turns irascible and irritating, Vice has emerged as a major player in the modern media landscape. The past decade has seen it make a major move into video content, which is distributed both via YouTube and legacy media entities such as CNN and HBO.
In typical colourful Vice language, Smith said the latter partnerships had awoken the company to the value of legacy media. “Now we look at television, we look at online, we look at mobile…fuck, we’ll look at holograms,” he said. “I’m platform agnostic – I just want my content to get out to as many people as I possibly can, because I believe my content is better than everybody else’s.”