New York, when they see it for the first time, can have a profound effect on people. That was certainly the case for Spencer Baim, who says it was the start of a love affair. He adds: “I arrived here at the age of 22 and never left.”
Now chief strategic officer of Vice Media, Spencer has spent most of his career in the city, starting with the agency Mad Dogs And Englishmen – appropriately enough, given his nationality – where he did an internship after university. “It was unpaid, so not difficult to get,” he jokes. “I literally started at the bottom.”
He later became assistant to the president, eventually rising to account planner: “I discovered brand strategy at Mad Dogs.” When it was time to move on, he was “lucky enough” to get an interview at Fallon, “which was the best agency in the States at the time.” He got the job, but it involved moving to Minneapolis.
“I once rather stupidly asked Pat Fallon why he started his agency there, and he said ‘Because this is where I live!’. It just goes to show that if you have a great creative output, people will come to you.”
He also describes Fallon (who sadly died in 2015) as “a genuinely nice guy”, something that also appears true of Spencer. So how does he retain an aura of English good humour in the tough world of US media? “I learned a lot from Mad Dogs and Fallon. I think the common threads that ran through those two agencies were humility, listening to people and helping people do great things. I like to think I’ve taken those with me.”
After returning to Fallon’s New York office – he admits a yearning to return to the city – he got to know Vice through its close collaboration with one of his clients, Virgin Mobile. When Fallon closed its New York shop, he approached Vice with the idea of starting an internal creative agency, Virtue.
“At the time it was a rare and somewhat provocative idea that a media company could have – or should have – an agency within it. Vice were intrigued by the idea, and they’d also been doing innovative stuff with brands for years, but on a smaller scale.”
Spencer’s argument was that with the right thinkers and talent, Vice could do much bigger things. “That was basically the blueprint. At the same time, online video was just beginning to take off, and brands were beginning to think a bit more like media companies. The industry was shifting to a place where it made sense that a media company would do branded content.”
Although he seems perfectly at home there, it’s difficult to reconcile Spencer’s somewhat laid-back approach with the edgy, streetwise image of the Vice brand.
“Vice from the outside has a sharp edge – and you need that competitive spirit to succeed,” he says. “But I don’t think we’d have got to where we are without also being empathetic and open. You can see that in our journalism. We call it ‘immersionism’. We spend a lot of time with our subjects. If you look at the ‘Charlottesville: Race and Terror’ video, Elle Reeve and her team spent 18 months embedded there, building trust.”
I wonder aloud how he feels about the gradual blurring of the “church and state” border between advertising and editorial. These days it’s sometimes hard to tell where journalism ends and branded content begins.
“We’re believe strongly in church and state,” he replies. “But we also believe that we need to make money in order to pay our staff to create the kind of journalism they create.”
At the same time, he adds, traditional advertising is increasingly being tuned out. “So creating strong content for brands would seem to be the way to go. It can also get to the heart of what a brand should be.”
He says Vice takes care to draw the line between editorial and branded content on its channels. “We also do that with our staff. We have separate teams.”
These days Virtue is a standalone “millennial content brand agency”, although it’s part of the Vice group. Vice also has its own branded content team, which has recently been working with Airbnb. “It’s almost the ideal partnership for us. Airbnb is moving beyond accommodation into experiences. In other words, rather than just booking a room in Paris, you can also book a wine-tasting tour.”
To illustrate this idea, Vice has transformed some of its most popular content into experiences. “We’re taking 100 Vice fans on trips of a lifetime around the world.”
Meanwhile, Virtue has been busy helping to transform yoga retailer Lululemon into a lifestyle brand.
It seems the disruptive Vice touch works across a variety of domains. “We’re a little like Virgin,” says Spencer, “with the difference that we have a singular focus on media. But within that we’re constantly looking at things and seeing how we can make them better for millennials.”
Since Spencer is the jury president of the Epica Awards this year, it seems appropriate to ask him what he thinks of a creative prize judged purely by journalists.
“I have the point of view that if a journalist isn't writing about the work you make, it wasn't worth making.”
A somewhat eyebrow-raising statement, but Spencer expands on it. “If you’re not saying something interesting enough, or if you’re not culturally relevant, you’re going to be ignored. If you get it right, what you do is shared, and it’s liked – and it’s also written about. Now, more than ever, a journalist’s desire to write or comment about what you’re doing should be an integral KPI for a campaign.”
He’s clearly committed to the idea of press coverage as a metric of effectiveness. Certainly committed enough to leave New York for a few days in November and join the Epica jury in Berlin.
By Mark Tungate, editorial director
Epica is open for entries until September 30.