Vice CEO Punches Back at Critics of North Korea Trip

Shane Smith discusses new HBO show


Who Shane Smith

Age 43

New gig Host of new HBO newsmagazine, Vice

Continuing gig Co-founder, CEO, Vice Media

Vice got a lot of criticism when your new HBO show went to North Korea with Dennis Rodman last month and Kim Jong-un showed up. Any response?

People are saying, “Well isn’t this just a stunt for your TV show?” And I say, look, if I could pull off a stunt where the most hermetic leader of the most hermetic fucking country in the world works with me to do a stunt to promote my TV show, then every TV fucking company in the world should hire me to work for them. It was not set up as a stunt; it was set up to gain unparalleled access to the hardest place in the world to shoot, and it worked. It’s an absurdist country. Dennis Rodman is an absurd guy. The whole situation is absurd. We went in to try to get a window into a place that people generally don’t see. People can criticize me until the cows come home.

How did the idea come about?

We had actually done a documentary on North Korean slave labor camps in Russia, and we were talking at that time about the North Korean hatred of America but fervent love of basketball, especially the Chicago Bulls. So we came up with an idea to go over to North Korea and sort of practice basketball diplomacy, echoing the Ping-Pong diplomacy of Chinese-American relations. It was a long shot, but North Korea is always very interesting to us. It’s almost impossible to get any footage out of. So we figured we might flank the traditional ways of doing things and get in through the basketball angle.

What’s the new Vice show going to cover, generally, and how?

The tagline is “The absurdity of the modern condition.” In more of a documentary format rather than a news format. Telling stories that are interesting and sometimes tragic and sometimes crazy and hopefully entertaining. Child suicide bombers of the Taliban. The Philippines, where kids are making guns by hand and using them to assassinate politicians. North Korea’s defectors.

You’re a youth brand and you’re making money online. Why bother with TV at all?

We make premium video content. HBO is the gold standard of TV today. If we can be a success on HBO, that’s just another step in our evolution.

How should other brands be trying to reach millennials?

These kids have been marketed to since they were babies. They’ve developed the most sophisticated bullshit detectors in history. And because we speak a different language, people say, “Well, you’re not professional, or North Korea’s a stunt.” Well, if 60 Minutes had done it, it wouldn’t have been a fucking stunt. For anybody who wants to speak that language to millennials, you can’t bullshit. And hand over your company to the interns, because there’s no way you can reverse-engineer it.

How do you convince global marketers to buy ads against stories about sex, cocaine and gambling?

It’s a hell of a lot easier than it was before because we have scale. Advertisers realize that Gen Y is the largest purchasing cohort. Also, that you’re going to have to accept some different modes of thinking if you’re going to get to them.

Why focus on sponsored content as opposed to selling ads?

CPM, banner ads, pre-roll—everybody knows it doesn’t work. If you take out all the noise and have sponsors of programs, they get all the lift from that program. And kids are smart. You don’t have to beat them over the head. They’re like, “Oh, I like Spike Jonze. You brought me a film by Spike Jonze. I get it.”