Vice Media’s origin story as an underground Montreal cultural tastemaker and media maverick aren’t all that different from those of the company’s partner Erik Lavoie, BComm (marketing) 02: Both had humble beginnings in a grungier Montreal of the mid-1990s and both were grounded in a passion for skateboard and snowboard culture.
“That was part of my delinquency and anti-establishment behaviour, which revolved around skateboarding as much as possible,” Lavoie remembers, saying that it was also what drew him to advertising.
“You’d pick up skate and snowboard magazines and the ads were almost as — if not more — interesting than the content itself,” Lavoie says, pointing out that it was the ads that readers would pull out and tape to their walls.
“Ever since I was young, I had a fascination with the world of advertising and what it meant to board culture.”
Board culture not only drew Lavoie to his undergraduate studies in marketing at Concordia, but also to a part-time job at a skate shop around the corner from his classes. That, in turn, led him to Vice Magazine: Its founders would come into the shop monthly to drop off copies of Voice of Montreal — the precursor to Vice Magazine — in exchange for store credit, and Lavoie would advise them on how to spend it.
“The piece that I found fascinating about Vice Magazine at that time is that it had a foot in skate culture, but it was also very focused on youth culture, music and a bit of politics,” says Lavoie. “I got it because, from an advertising perspective, it was talking to all the same brands, but from a content perspective, that was more interesting than just another interview with a skateboarder who was saying the same thing as everyone else.”
A nudge from Concordia
Coming up on his third year at Concordia, Lavoie says that professors like Harold J. Simpkins pushed for pursuing real-world experience to add his advertising track, so Lavoie sought out Vice Media founder Shane Smith and asked to be a part of the company’s operations.
That would take turning full-time studies into night school, quitting the skate shop and having Smith himself convince Lavoie’s mother that joining Vice Media would be the smartest decision for her son. Lavoie jumped into a self-fashioned two-year practicum head-on.
Vice Media became a testing ground for Lavoie’s experience in sales and studies in marketing.
“It allowed me to appreciate the material a little bit more; it felt like I was learning something and it was up to me whether or not I was going to use it,” Lavoie recalls. “It took a lot of pressure off of the material, started a dialogue around how to do things, and gave me more confidence in the work I was doing.”
‘It’s about falling on your face’
For all the cultural currency Vice Media and its creative agency Virtue have amassed, Lavoie and Vice Media’s founders didn’t start out expecting their companies to be the omni-channel touchstone for branding and youth culture that they’ve become today.
Lavoie’s personal journey, and that of Vice Media, have not been without instructive missteps and failures.
“It’s like how it is with board sports: It’s about falling on your face — over and over again — and then sticking it, feeling great and moving on to the next thing,” Lavoie says. “Business is the same thing, where you don’t know if it’s going to work or if you’re capable. The only way of figuring it out is by doing it.”
For Lavoie, successful entrepreneurship and marketing comes with the confidence to fumble and make mistakes. The ability — financially, culturally and emotionally — to embrace failure is paramount.
“I think we have a culture that focuses too much on today’s achievements and doesn’t spend enough time looking at the backstory of mixed results that led to those achievements,” he says.
“If we took more time to look at the failures along with the successes, we’d probably know a bit more about what makes someone a great entrepreneur.”