Vice’s Adult in the Room: Nancy Dubuc’s Plan to Fix a Media Pioneer (And Keep Its Youth Cred)

By: 
The Hollywood Reporter
Published on:
November 1st, 2018
Photo: Meredith Jenks

Hype, sex appeal and the promise of young audiences turned Shane Smith's wild brainchild into one of the hottest digital brands on the planet. Then came scandal and skepticism. Now it’s up to the new CEO to clean up the $5.7 billion media company’s culture and balance sheet as she prepares to launch a nightly live show on Viceland and as Vice's weekly HBO show is expected to end.

It's a blustery October afternoon in Brooklyn, the kind of day that sends people digging into the back of their closet for a winter jacket, and Nancy Dubuc is anxious. We're seated in the corner office at Vice Media's Williamsburg headquarters, which Dubuc has called home since the end of May, when she replaced the company's bearded, bearish and controversial founder, Shane Smith, as CEO. Gone are the dark leather couch and hunting-lodge-style furnishings that the once hard-partying Smith preferred; in their place, a pair of pink velvet chairs and a neon sign hanging on the wall that declares, boldly, "Who dares, wins."

I've just asked the former A+E Networks CEO if Smith should have sold Vice before the market for new-media businesses had cooled and a series of sexual harassment allegations swept the company into the #MeToo moment. She brushes off the question in her signature no-bullshit style. "It's sort of irrelevant to me," she says. More pressing is the gathering she has scheduled with her senior management team. "I really don't want to be late to this," she says, clearly on edge. "It's a rattling one for me."

Dubuc has good reason to be tense. The first outside CEO in Vice's 24-year history, the 49-year-old former television programmer was hand-selected by Smith to help transform his company from a skyrocketing startup into an enterprise that can live up to its eye-popping $5.7 billion valuation. Smith had lured investors like Disney ($400 million), Fox ($70 million) and private equity firm TPG ($450 million) by touting his Svengali-like ability to deliver millennial eyeballs and "become the biggest fucking media company in the world."

Now Dubuc has to deliver on those promises amid widespread skepticism. To do so, she needs to rally troops that have been largely without a leader since Smith relocated to Los Angeles in 2016 and clean up a corporate culture that many have painted as tolerant — if not outright encouraging — of sexual misconduct. Moreover, she has to do this during an industrywide digital downturn: Vice laid off several dozen employees in mid-2017, months before it missed its revenue target for the year, and Dubuc says she's "not going to rule out more" layoffs in the near future.

After five months on the job listening, learning and assuring people that she has a plan, it's time for her to put one in place. "Of course, there's pressure," she says. "Like any good Hollywood story, people look for the Caped Crusader. The reality is never as simple."

Primary among her tasks is taming a culture shaped by a leader who once told the Financial Times that his lifestyle priorities were to "get wasted, take coke and have sex with girls in the bathroom." Dubuc must simultaneously rein in an unwieldy business, one that has expanded from a niche print magazine founded in Montreal in 1994 to 3,000 employees in 39 offices around the world, with units devoted to cable TV, film, news, music and branded content. So far, a lot her of energy has been spent on the unseen (and unsexy) challenge of bringing structure and order to an organization that was built chaotically.

In terms of actual content, her first major swing will be a two-hour nightly live show that will air four nights a week on the Viceland cable network. She also plans to bolster Vice Studios, which finances and produces films and television shows for third-party buyers (including a feature drama called The Torture Report, starring Adam Driver and Jon Hamm, set to make a festival debut in 2019) and marketing agency Virtue (behind Google's recent "Don't Be a Browser" campaign). And while Vice Digital — a collection of web verticals like Noisey (music), Munchies (food) and Broadly (women's issues) that hovers around 27 million monthly visitors — remains central to her plan, she calls Smith prescient for diversifying when he did, arguing that Vice no longer can be called a "digital media business."

Dubuc is making all of these moves with the blessing of Smith, who since kicking himself upstairs to the role of executive chairman has cut off involvement with day-to-day operations — except, of course, when Dubuc chooses to loop him in. "We're rabid texters," she confides. "If I'm telling the board stuff, I want him to know. Plus, it's the right thing to do. So far he's been like, 'Your call.' "

An uncharacteristically toned-down Smith, who since announcing the transition in March has largely retreated from public view, concurs: "It's her ship."

***

Given her success at A+E, Dubuc's decision to abscond to Vice may have shocked many in Hollywood, but Smith long had considered her his lifeline. The pair first forged a bond when A+E invested $250 million in Vice in 2014, paving the way for A+E to later turn its low-rated H2 network into the millennial male-focused Viceland, which airs shows with names like Most Expensivest, Bong Appetit and Fuck, That's Delicious. As part of the deal, Dubuc became Vice's first female board member.

As early as 2015, Smith began to speak publicly about his plans to one day step down as CEO. The following year he even relocated his wife and two daughters (they later had a third) to a $23 million Santa Monica mansion, a move many employees learned about in the press. By 2017, with a New York Times exposé on the company's toxic bro culture looming, Smith began to suggest to Dubuc that she take his place. Dubuc, a married mother of two, shared his ambition, his confidence and his brazen approach to management.

"We've never been less of a digital media company than we are today," says Dubuc.

Photographed By Meredith Jenks

"We've never been less of a digital media company than we are today," says Dubuc.


After Vice's #MeToo issues were exposed — the Times story, which landed in December, and a preceding Daily Beast piece resulted in the firing of several top executives — it became clear that the company needed to make a change or risk a brand crisis that not even Smith could talk his way out of. At the same time, Dubuc's contract at A+E, a joint venture of Disney and Hearst, was nearing its end, and she had become restless at the company to which she'd given 20 years (starting at History Channel, where she greenlighted the network-defining Ice Road Truckers). Though she was leading a 1,100-person business with about $1.75 billion in annual profits, her keen eye for content, including megahit Duck Dynasty, hadn't helped her stanch subscriber losses as viewers cut the cord. And while she had been in the running for the top role at Amazon Studios, also in need of a culture fix following the departure of Roy Price over a sexual harassment allegation, that job went to NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke. Dubuc needed a bit of a lifeline, too.

Despite the growing seriousness of her conversations with Smith and the Vice board, Dubuc organized a series of town halls with her employees at A+E in which she told them she was staying. It was only after a reporter called A+E board members in March that they learned she was going. "It was a shock," Dubuc reflects now, adding: "I know a lot of people were not pleased with me."

But she didn't have much time to dwell on the decision. Almost immediately, eyebrows raised at the metaphor Smith used to describe his relationship with Dubuc: "We are a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde, and we are going to take all your money." After all, everyone knows how that story ends. "I didn't approve the quote," Dubuc says with something between a laugh and a sigh. "Maybe that's the punchline, right? I'm really literal. And I know he's not. It's not like he's not smart enough to know how the movie ended. But I didn't mind it. I much prefer that than the canned corporate speak. I'm over that."

So far, Smith seems to be enjoying his time away from the spotlight. It takes me weeks to get him on the phone due, I'm told, to his travel schedule. And when he does finally appear, it's with Dubuc on the line. "How's the mountain, Shane?" she asks him once he patches in from the undisclosed remote location where he's filming his next Vice news segment. (It's a policy of his never to reveal where he's shooting before it airs.) "It's high up," he responds.

Asked why he was willing to hand his company over to Dubuc, Smith says: "You have to have content in your blood, and Nancy does. Also, she's a hell of an operator." When I wonder aloud whether Dubuc being a woman had anything to do with the decision, he pushes back: "There was nobody else, no other candidate. It had to be her."

Smith says he's spending time overseas as the company prepares to invest more in countries like India, Singapore, Vietnam and throughout the Middle East. He's also working on new reporting and, he teases, a few content deals. Smith declines to provide specifics, but he can't resist drumming up a little hype: "It's going to make some noise."

***

Dubuc's journey at Vice officially began at 9 a.m. May 29, when she sent a companywide email that she hoped would set the tone for her tenure. Unfortunately, employees focused more on the fact that the note was written in Comic Sans. It took her a month to realize that Vice's hip employee base, one that averages 30 in age, had been snickering behind her back about the older-skewing font choice. It was her assistant who finally broke the news. "Nick was brave enough to go, 'They're laughing at you 'cause of the font,' " she says. "I was like, 'Oh God.' "

Vice may have needed "a mature grown-up" to lead the company, as one senior television executive puts it, but that brings risk. Dubuc's greatest challenge will be striking the right balance between building a sustainable business and retaining the edge that is Vice's calling card. She knows this and has become fond of saying that she can't "un-Vice Vice."

Smith, with his penchant for F-bombs and a take-no-prisoners style of reporting the news, was a galvanizing force for the scores of young creatives who went to work for him long before the big media investments and sky-high expectations, when hard work was rewarded with drug-fueled parties and, maybe, one of the coveted gold Vice rings handed out to Smith's top lieutenants (Dubuc now wears one). "A huge amount of their mojo was around this cultlike workforce. People go to work at Vice for $25,000 for sweat equity and the rings," says a prominent executive at one of Vice's rivals. "That culture obviously metastasized into something really unhealthy. Now you have an army that you have to kill and rebuild."

On June 10, not even two weeks after Dubuc's arrival, New York magazine published an eviscerating piece asserting that Vice was built on a "bluff" by Smith. Dubuc quickly fired off a note to staff (this time not in Comic Sans): "We have a lot to be proud of and let's just let this one roll off our back." By her estimation, it worked: "Just physically being there was really important."

Vice's top executives still find themselves countering the piece's thesis that the company is all pretense. "People don't imagine the scale of Vice," says chief revenue officer Dominique Delport, whose hiring was announced just days after Dubuc's. "It's a big-revenue company with very strong assets all over the world." A Wall Street Journal story from February reported that Vice missed its 2017 revenue goal of $805 million by more than $100 million and suggested that the board — which includes TPG partner David Trujillo, Disney's Kevin Mayer and former MTV CEO Judy McGrath — was getting restless for the company to turn a profit.

"They're still finding their footing. Vice has to define what it wants to be when it grows up," says BTIG media analyst Rich Greenfield. "The hopes of a massive takeout by legacy media seems increasingly unlikely. They have to be prepared to go it alone."

Dubuc, with Shane Smith in 2015, joined Vice's board after A+E made a $250 million investment.

Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Dubuc, with Shane Smith in 2015, joined Vice's board after A+E made a $250 million investment.


Dubuc insists the picture isn't nearly so dreary. "The question isn't if we're going to be profitable but how soon," she says, "and it's sooner than most people think." She also still believes that "a strategic sale" is the most likely result for the company. "You never really know when that call is going to come or who it's going to come from," she says, "But I'd like to see a good couple of years of continued growth under our belts first."

In addition to solving the financial puzzle, Dubuc must simultaneously tackle Vice's culture problem. Among her first tasks was a listening tour that took her to outposts in Los Angeles, Toronto and London to see for herself what kind of a company she had inherited. What she found, she says, was a young, diverse, enthusiastic workforce that had been in desperate need of a hands-on leader.

To that end, she quickly made her presence known. The blinds that hung in Smith's office were removed. "The first couple of weeks people would come in the office and then leave and shut the door. And I would get up and I'd open the door. And then people would shut the door, and I would open it," Dubuc says.