Can New Vice CEO Nancy Dubuc Take It From "Puberty Into Adulthood"?
As the A+E chief steps in to succeed Shane Smith at the millennial male-focused company, she will need to help turn around the Viceland network, decide whether to go public and improve a corporate culture wracked by #MeToo turmoil.
In May 2015, Shane Smith made an eyebrow-raising admission: He told the Financial Times that he was considering stepping down as CEO of Vice Media even as the brand was in the midst of a campaign to reach near-global ubiquity through its digital brands, eponymous HBO show and forthcoming cable network. The following year, Smith and his family decamped from New York to a renovated $23 million home in Santa Monica as he took a step back from daily management of Vice.
It would take another two years, a revenue shortfall brought about by an industrywide advertising slowdown and a sexual harassment scandal that vaulted Vice into the crosshairs of the #MeToo movement before Smith finally was ready to let go. In his March 13 memo revealing that he would transition to executive chairman to make way for A+E Networks chief and Vice board member Nancy Dubuc to succeed him as CEO, he praised Dubuc as an "operator extraordinaire."
As is often the case at the beginning of a marriage, Smith, 48, and Dubuc, 49, have been profuse in their praise for each other, but what type of working relationship they will develop remains to be seen. "They won't last 18 months without killing each other," snipes one insider. Both executives are known to act swiftly, boldly and often from the hip, which can prove impactful when managing as individuals but becomes trickier when attempting to do so in tandem. Smith, in his memo to staff, characterized his pairing with Dubuc as a "modern-day Bonnie and Clyde," but, notes the insider, "everyone knows how Bonnie and Clyde ended."
Employees got a glimpse of their new future March 16, when Dubuc made the rounds at Vice's Brooklyn headquarters for a casual meet-and-greet that sources say left her soon-to-be staff, eager for a hands-on leader following Smith's move west, feeling hopeful. Internally, Dubuc is being positioned as a complement to Vice's existing leadership team, but it's not yet clear what leverage she will have to reorient the company for the long term, with Smith still involved in content production and dealmaking from across the country.
Dubuc — with her track record of picking hits, be it Duck Dynasty or Pawn Stars — is said to be enthusiastic about the possibilities for content production that Vice has established in-house, including twin HBO shows Vice, re-upped through season seven, and Vice News Tonight. "She sees it as a content machine," says a Dubuc confidant, who expects she'll push more aggressively on Vice's output of docs, TV series and branded content.
“With Nancy you get the rare breed of a CEO who is both a top-notch business operator and a creative leader," says Tom Freston, MTV founder and Vice board member. As for Smith, he notes that the executive shuffle will "free up Shane to focus single-mindedly on what he loves — making the company's calling card, Vice News, even more engaging and provocative, as well as rainmaking the kind big revenue deals that put Vice on the map." He continues: "Successful companies organize around their leader’s skills and passion points, especially founder-led ones."
One added complication is the already frayed relationship between Dubuc and the A+E board, which includes Disney and Hearst executives who maintain a stake in Vice. The board is said to have been frustrated by Dubuc's public flirtation with Amazon, where she ultimately lost out to Jennifer Salke for the top studio job. Though Dubuc then told A+E employees that she'd be staying put at a series of town hall meetings, two sources suggest Vice had for several weeks been her plan B. Smith, who was looking for a lifeline for Vice in the form of a female leader amid its #MeToo era turmoil and the resignation of several top executives, already had begun the outreach. And now, having "overplayed her hand at A+E," as one insider puts it, Dubuc found that she could use a new opportunity. Per sources, tensions between Dubuc and the A+E board rose still more when board members found out that she was exiting for a top job at Vice via a call from a reporter.
The Vice that Dubuc inherits has ballooned to 3,000 employees as it has expanded its digital and linear channels internationally, part of an effort to justify its ever-multiplying valuation ($5.7 billion after a $450 million infusion from private equity firm TPG in 2017) to its stable of media investors, including Fox, Disney and A+E. Following a year in which Vice is said to have missed its revenue projections by more than $100 million, Dubuc will need to assess whether Smith's oft-discussed plan to take the company public is viable. "This is going to be a pivotal year for them," says eMarketer analyst Paul Verna, noting that Vice's valuation has "raised expectations."
Adding to the challenge, Dubuc will be tasked with evaluating the effectiveness of early efforts to improve Vice's corporate culture, including the creation of a female-led advisory board and a commitment to achieving pay parity, following a string of sexual harassment allegations. In a February appearance at the Code Media conference, Dubuc noted that "the bro-y culture is pervasive in our business" and praised Vice for taking a stand while acknowledging that change "doesn't happen overnight."
Turning around the 2-year-old Viceland cable network that Vice launched in partnership with A+E will be a top priority for Dubuc. The low-rated network, which has focused on courting an elusive young-male audience, took a hit in January when Rogers Media abandoned a $100 million joint venture with Vice that had brought the channel to Canada, where the Vice brand was founded. And though several of Viceland's domestic carriage deals are set to run through 2021, insiders seem to think Dubuc has only another year or so to right that ship. At the Code Conference, Dubuc defended the network: "They certainly have a way to go, but they're proving to deliver the second-most-upscale audience to Bravo in cable." She then added: "What do people want? Give us a shot here."
Observers seem to agree that Dubuc, who is no stranger to Vice after three years on the board, has the chops to lead the company's next chapter. Says MediaLink CEO Michael Kassan, whose advisory firm has counted Vice and A+E as clients, "This is a company that's moving out of puberty into adulthood, and Nancy has got the ability to take that next step while at the same time capturing the je ne sais quoi of Shane."
Lacey Rose contributed to this report.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.