Credit: Image by zoovroo on Flickr. Some rights reserved

Vice's success in going from a print magazine to a global media firm valued at $2.5 billion is due to more than just smart business ownership.

Before any thoughts of platform or format Vice focusses on authentic storytelling, according to Michael
Derkits, head of news business at Vice Media. And to connect with their key audience – the millennials most media outlets are seeking out – Vice aims to shape and contribute to culture. 

"Just creating content is not going to do the job for us," said Derkits told delegatesto the Monetising Media conference today.

Media organisations need to understand how this audience behaves, he said, and some young people set their own agenda – not trusting experts, media, or brands after growing up in a recession.

"The power of media now has shifted from the ivory towers of media companies into the hands of these young people," he said.

Derkits said established media is "really waving a white flag", saying young people have a short attention span and are disengaged, but these ideas do not represent the whole picture. The rule that videos should be under three minutes long was a "bullshit rule for bullshit content", he said, and the videos Vice puts on YouTube average around 20 minutes in length.

Vice's success as a media organisation is linked to being authentic and telling real stories,
Derkits said.

"We need to be authentic, we need to be genuine, we need to be real," he said. For Vice, authentic storytelling opens the doors to this younger audience that wants "something that actually has value", and that is honest, brave, and offers "some sort of fundamental truth".

"We always use Rocky Balboa as such a dull but great example for the whole approach to storytelling," he said. "The truth is it's not about five minutes of fighting, it's an hour and a half long storytelling around this person... to eventually end up at that point."

He said there was a "sophistication in the marketplace" among young people, "they live and breathe stories," and this was an opportunity for media outlets to set themselves apart from the competition.

Edgy doesn't mean niche

Derkits said the best way to appeal to this savvy generation was to offer stories they could not get elsewhere, and to provide a different perspective. While some people are under the impression that being 'edgy' – an epithet often ascribed to Vice –  implies being niche, he said, “edgy just means having a slightly different take on how you want to tell the story”.

At Vice, projects never start with a specific platform in mind, but with a story. "We try to be platform agnostic," he said. "Let's not build ivory towers, let's create content and allow that content to go wherever it needs to go."

Before thinking about a platform, Derkits said Vice needed to make sure it had a great story, the right amount of content for an audience that's "totally connected" 24/7, and listened and paid attention to the audience. "If our product, aka stories, isn't great, then it's not going to fly and no one is going to be interested."

Audiences, not customers.

Another way Vice is hitting the right notes with the millennial generation is "turning a customer into an audience". Derkits said it might be a question of semantics but, when thinking of consumers, brands want to push a product. With audiences, however, they should want to tell a story.

Once the idea of customers has been left aside, "building an audience and reaching an audience are two different things," he said. Building an audience is all about long term engagement, while reaching is simply about getting content out to people, and "anyone can buy eyeballs".

Vice's advice is "certainly not a blueprint to work across multiple demographics," he said, but more organisations should have the ambition or the goal to actively contribute to culture.

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).