Vice CEO Shane Smith on dealing with agencies: ‘We want to make great shit but it's a war.’

Agencies have been worried about their place in a new digital economy where publishers can service clients directly. But for Vice CEO Shane Smith, who spoke at the 4A’s annual Transformation conference Tuesday, agencies need to stop being so damn scared.

Asked by moderator Susan Credle, global chief creative officer at FCB, how agencies can best work with Vice, Smith said they need to stop falling back on the same old way of doing things. “We like you, we’re your friends,” he said to a roomful of agency executives.

Smith said when Vice does brand content and talks to a CMO or a CEO at a brand, they’re usually able to collaborate on something great, something “bespoke and disruptive.” But when the media planners at agencies got involved, they’d basically say “Fuck you, shut up,” said Smith. So Vice has to go back to the brand and say: “We wanted to do something innovative and disruptive, but everyone told us to go to hell,” he said. “We want to make great shit but it’s a war to do it every day because people don’t want to get out of their standard operating procedure and what they know.”

Mark Thompson, CEO of the New York Times, who also spoke at the conference, said that Smith was right: “There’s an opportunity for agencies to be big with brands,” he said. But they don’t. He was quick to add that the process between brand and publisher has a real role for the agencies in the middle. “So instead of squabbling over programmatic and this and that, we just need to think together on how to solve challenges.”

The issue of “not rocking the boat” is a consistent charge leveled at ad agencies. Last week, a top buyer at a media agency told Digiday that agencies are often afraid of starting from scratch to solve client problems because it’s too hard. And that kind of mindset has helped fuel to the rise of innovative branded content at publishers like Vice and the New York Times. Thompson said the Times, brand content arm, T-Brand Studio, now has 70 employees and is doing $60 million in revenue.

Of course, the pressure is also on publishers: Thompson said the talk of “disruption” happening at the agency-oriented conference this week is old news to publishers and journalism organizations, which have now realized that ads and subscription-based businesses are not going to cut it. “In the digital publishing and legacy publishing business, winter is coming,” he said. “A lot of people have bet their futures on very large, wide and thin digital audiences, monetized through commoditized display advertising. I think a lot of people are going to go out of business.”