Vice Media debuted in 1994, as a Montreal magazine best known for its handy guides on topics such as shagging Muslims and the art of bukkake, hand-delivered by three friends in their parents’ vans. Today, it’s a branding empire—including record and book labels, a film division, and the in-house creative services agency Virtue—that operates across 34 countries. (In April, it raised more than $50 million from investors, including MTV founder Tom Freston and ad giant WPP.) The man behind most of that expansion: executive creative director Eddy Moretti, who recently chatted with Fast Company about, as he puts it, “taking my obsessions and building new parts of the business around them.” Excerpts below.
FAST COMPANY: Vice has launched a number of new media channels in the past few years, from tech-news site Motherboard to music-video site Noisey, and you’re the point man who oversees all of them. What’s that like?
EDDY MORETTI: It’s almost like I have four or five different creative careers that run parallel to one another, and I really try not to let any of them go. When I joined Vice in 2000, I was brought in to launch a film division with [cofounder] Shane Smith. After the dot-com bubble burst, I became a creative that did things across the company. With each new project, I get to set the tone of a new brand from day one. I’m kind of all over the place, but that’s what makes it good and fun and interesting.
Does it get hard to keep up with all of your different projects?
The volume of content we crank out is kind of scary. But we have brilliant creatives who love coming into work, and we give them a lot of freedom. And we do a lot of in-house work, which makes the job of micromanager a lot easier. I’m always jumping into so many different things, so I get to indulge a lot of creative ambitions.
So you sort of bend the business to your creative whims rather than the other way around.
Yeah. When we launched our first new online channel, VBS.tv, I went to Baghdad in the middle of the war and made a feature film [Heavy Metal in Baghdad] out of it because I met these musicians who had the only heavy metal band in the city. I snuck into a Pakistani gun market and documented hugely destructive extraction processes in the Alberta oil sands. Launching VBS let me see a world completely separate from my work with our film division and the magazine.
Vice almost died in the dot-com bubble burst, yet you’ve rebounded considerably since then; Vice.com now has 3.2 million unique visitors a month. What did that episode teach you?
We were part of a big dot-com with an incredible burn rate and it was just, “Grow, grow, grow! We’ll figure out the business model later!” And then the bubble burst everything was ruined. We went from a staff of 75 to 20 in a month. But we were liberated for a second, creatively. Our ambitions didn’t fall apart because of the collapse. Now, we don’t want to sacrifice the spirit of anything we want to create, but we know money’s precious and we don’t blow it. There’s no indulging your creative whims unless that indulgence is paid for in a smart way.
And your business partners think the same way?
Absolutely. We worked on Karen O’s opera [Stop the Virgens] with K.K. Barrett, who does huge feature films for Spike Jonze and Sofia Coppola. And we said hey, we can create something special together, but we have to [be economical], and they were like “Fuck yeah, it’s punk rock.” We don’t have champagne and hors d’oeuvres; we have beer and crackers, and that’s cool. If everyone wants to mortgage their houses and throw everything onto the fire for one project, you’re working with the wrong people.
Some people might see partnering with CNN, which airs Vice content, and HBO, with which you’re developing a “60 Minutes for young people” weekly, as selling out. But you don’t?
We’re doing the shows we want to do. It’s a good time for us to do something different in news media and get noticed for it. So we’d cease to be meaningful as a brand if we sold out. Half of my creative existence has become about shaping nonfiction, documentary news into new formats. We’re looking at ways to make the news less about talking heads and more about experiencing issues from a really human point of view.