The Vice and Refinery29 deal is about embracing activists
Tracey Follows argues the $4bn merger is not just a move towards further reach - but deeper engagement with an entire generation who want to use media to change the world
‘Vice buys Refinery29 to create $4bn digital publishing group’ the Financial Times told us at the end of last week.
On the face of it, it makes perfect sense. Vice has a male-dominated audience and an edgy culture that some have described as ‘laddish’, not helped by some widely reported sexual harassment accusations. Refinery29 has a predominantly female audience and whilst it is an online publisher, its roots are in independent fashion retail.
It is therefore not difficult to make the argument that such a ‘merger’ brings together a popular male-orientated media proposition with a popular female-orientated media proposition, the offspring of which is something with more scale and reach in a rapidly consolidating media landscape.
And this consolidation will create more scale. Sam Baker, ex-editor-in-chief of RED magazine and co-founder of The Pool, explained: “The digital world is obsessed with scale and reach and this gives Refinery29 that instantly. It also gives them a more substantial audience outside the States at speed rather than slogging through growth themselves.
"From Vice’s point of view it gives the business instant access to a vastly more lucrative female audience and, probably more importantly, potentially solves a huge image problem. A business that couldn’t keep female staff for love nor money has bought in a female focused, female driven culture."
But what also struck me was that Nancy Dubuc (pictured below), who replaced the Vice co-founder Shane Smith as chief executive last year, said, “We will not allow a rapidly consolidating media ecosystem to constrict young people’s choices."
This is an interesting statement and could suggest future possibilities that go beyond just two digital publishing brands joining forces to create greater reach.
It creates the possibility of something more multi-media, more activist and even more shop-able.
Let’s remember that Vice was always sold to advertisers as the brand which best understood and represented the ‘Millennial’. But Millennials grow up, and their interests and attitudes change over time. Is Vice still aiming for that youth audience? If so, it is no longer that much millennial and much more Gen Z.
Millennials’ interest in values and their pursuance of purpose is legendary, but the generation coming up behind them is more activist. Whether you look at Greta Thunberg or what is happening in Hong Kong, there is a generation who are not content to sign-up and align to values, they want to urge and agitate for ‘action’ to change the system.
The activist is more interested in doing than talking, so expect more protests than conference platforms; expect more direct action than documentaries. And expect this generation to make commercial choices that not only send a signal but make an actual change. And the pioneering media brands will have to follow this trend too.
Refinery29 is not just about content, because it grew out of fashion and beauty it has a link to physical product. As such there is more of a link between content (online) and physical stores and merchandise (offline). This is the other key trend we’re seeing right now; the integration of those two worlds.
Whether it is through augmented reality where consumers can try-on clothing virtually, or receive advertising personally; or whether it is through connected clothing that permits consumers to manage their media via a gesture or a tap on their shirt sleeve, media content and retail commerce are coming together.
In the Gen Z world, audiences aren’t demarcated as ‘female’ and ‘male’ so it makes no sense to have separate media brands appealing to those groups"
The retail model of ‘the drop’ has now become a media model too. What street-wear brands like Supreme have shown is that fashion retail is as much now about content dropping as product dropping, so expect more fashion retail brands to turn into publishers.
Similarly, platforms like Depop - hugely popular amongst Gen Z specifically because of that blurring - drop media content that is product and product content that is media. Is Depop a retail platform, or a media platform? It doesn’t really matter because it is now effectively the same thing, and what really matters is the community that surrounds it.
In the Gen Z world, it is no longer gender that matters, it is issues - around sustainability, climate change, democratic representation, social justice, and economic fairness.
In that world, audiences aren’t demarcated as ‘female’ and ‘male’ so it makes no sense to have separate media brands appealing to those groups. A Vice/Refinery29 proposition will not appeal to a specific gender but will take on and amplify generational issues like these.
And it will need to do so across many platforms that go beyond digital publishing and into streaming, e-commerce, and product licensing. I would suggest that, in time, we will expect it to extend into political lobbying and think-tanks and social experimentation. This merger is not just a move towards more reach but more engagement with a whole generation who want to use media to change the world.
Brands like Vice and Refinery29 are no longer selling to audiences, they are enabling activists. And activists aren’t always the biggest fans of advertising, so new frontiers will have to be opened up to drive revenue.
Perhaps the FT’s headline should have said; ‘Vice buys Refinery29 to create $4bn activist, e-commerce, merchandising, streaming and content group’. Because that’s where they should be heading.
Tracey Follows is the founder of futures consultancy Futuremade