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BROOKLYN, NEW YORK - VICE Magazine's sleek, sprawling offices in a series of reclaimed buildings are as massive and seemingly meandering as the ambition of the world-beating, Canadian-born multimedia business itself.
The company has channelled outrage and being outrageous into a business that's yo-yoed from highs to lows but is very much on a high right now, with 34 offices worldwide, an Emmy-winning HBO TV series, an insanely popular website, a successful record label and, most of all, a brand that other brands are desperate to consort with. The punk magazine that started it all in 1994 is still cooler than cool and packed with ads.
The Canadian success story little told in this country started on a back-to-work grant for people on welfare. And it's coming home in a big way, talking to Canadian networks about potential TV shows.
VICE will have a big presence at NXNE next Thursday, June 19, when it takes over a chunk of the Toronto Islands to populate VICE Island with characteristically cool acts like Pusha T and Future Islands. Toronto-born, McGill-educated VICE co-founder Suroosh Alvi will also speak at NXNE's Interactive conference on Friday, June 20.
"We're excited to come back to Canada," says hardcore Habs fan Alvi in a boardroom steps from a stuffed grizzly bear shot by a trapper when it almost killed a VICE reporter in Alaska during a video shoot. "For so long we've been focused on the rest of the world," he says, retracing the trail that took the upstart magazine from Montreal to NYC, only to suffer an almost catastrophic crash during the dot-com boom and bust.
As NYC had its heart broken by 9/11, the company stumbled and then scrambled to its new perch in Brooklyn, and from there it's borne witness to the transformation of the city that never sleeps from uptight, money-chasing town back to a cultural capital of the world.
"Everything went insane in this city. It got very decadent, and then there was a cultural renaissance. We were all in our late 20s, early 30s, the perfect time to be here for us."
As a 20-year-old enterprise, VICE has been remarkably successful at staying cool, even as it's grown as big as media companies the founders scorned. The magazine consorts intimately with corporate brands in a way that could smash the cred of less savvy operators, getting big brands to underwrite VICE stories.
"The model we love most is the 1950s TV model ‘Brought to you by Mutual of Omaha' or news ‘made possible by Gillette.' We're trying to bring that back.
"The audience is so smart and so sophisticated. They've been advertised to for their entire lives, and they'll get it if you explain this is how it has to happen for this content to exist," says Alvi.
Video has been at the heart of VICE's content since 2006, when Alvi filmed a feature report about gun markets in Pakistan. A subsequent film, Heavy Metal In Baghdad, screened at TIFF and generated millions of views on VICE's YouTube channel. Now big corporations will come up with the cash to send VICE reporters to cover stories around the world, including, most famously, a controversial trip to North Korea with cross-dressing former NBA star Dennis Rodman.
The video side of the operation generates most of the company's revenue, but Alvi's heart is still in print journalism, though admittedly a new model.
"I'm happy the magazine is still going and is profitable. That's really important to us, because we are print guys; ultimately that's where we come from. But after printing the magazine for so many years, we were ready for something new and to tell stories in a different way. You can't interview rappers forever."
And then there was the controversial decision to sell 5 per cent of the company to Rupert Murdoch's notorious News Corp, owner of Fox News.
"We're kind of in the centre of the conversation as far as big media goes, and everyone is either being threatened by us or wanting to partner with us."
Alvi claims the News Corp deal came with no strings attached.
"We made a deal that gave them zero control and zero say for a tiny stake, but we got money to do news our way."
It was pretty simple for self-taught businessman Alvi.
"We wanted to expand into India, and they [News Corp] own Sky there. Going into India is a tricky thing. [News Corp is] also incredibly strong in Latin America. People define it by Fox News, but it's a global media company. They've really attended to our needs but not tried to boss us around."
VICE was recently raked by Rob Ford's favourite website, Gawker, for exploiting staff while its principals thrive.
"We knew something was coming. They talked with people who worked here five or six years ago - a time when we didn't have the resources to pay people a lot of money."
Alvi says staff now enjoy stock options and health benefits.
"As Canadians, we believe people should have health care, especially our employees, and it is above and beyond what most places have. Today morale is very high around here."
The energized staffers huddled over laptops and rushing into editing suites would seem to agree.