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Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

MediaAugust 9, 2022

Government ‘shoulder taps’ Vice NZ, which shut in 2019, to make new ads about break-ups

Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

Last week Vice Australia advertised for its first NZ-based roles since it laid off all its local staff three years ago. The positions are intended to work on a planned project funded by the Ministry of Social Development about healthy relationships.

The Ministry of Social Development (MSD) has “proposed using” an Australian publisher which shut its New Zealand office more than three years ago to lead a new campaign targeting young New Zealanders. The work is focused on teaching rangatahi how to handle issues around consent and love, with the first tranche focused on relationship break-ups.

While the budget has not been revealed, Vice is seeking two full-time roles for 12 months, and MSD pointed to a budget allocation of $1.8m a year relating in part to “a new campaign focused on safe relationships for young people”. While Vice still operates a New Zealand section, subsequent to the Auckland office’s closure the homepage surfaced by a Vice NZ search is dominated by stories about Australian politics, Australian house prices, and Australian economic issues.

MSD is charged with providing social services and policy to the government, and commissioned agencies Clemenger BBDO and OMD to create a campaign around healthy relationships. Those agencies have proposed Vice, part of the wholly Australian-owned Nine group, as the lead publishing partner on the campaign. This led to Vice Australia last week advertising for its first NZ-based roles since 2019, with both ads explicitly mentioning New Zealand’s Ministry of Social Development in the copy.

When approached for comment, MSD sent a statement attributed to Mark Henderson, in his capacity as General Manager – Safe, Strong Families and Communities. Henderson explained that “MSD is funding an online information campaign aimed at a youth audience. The overall campaign aims to promote healthy, safe and consensual relationships, love and sex… They in turn will be contracting a range of local and international content providers, which specialise in reaching youth audiences.”

The heading of one of the new job ads

Clemenger BBDO and OMD are both part of Omnicom, a New York-headquartered conglomerate which works extensively on New Zealand government ad accounts, including the acclaimed Unite Against Covid-19 campaign. MSD says Clemenger and OMD will be contracting a range of local and international providers to reach young New Zealanders.

When approached for comment Clemenger BBDO and OMD said its response would be delivered through MSD, which later supplied a statement pointing to a previous Vice campaign for Waka Kotahi. The campaign featured survivors of car crashes saved by seatbelts, and Clemenger BBDO quotes Ladbible as saying of it that “the seatbelt just turned badass”. The campaign originated in 2019, though, and was run by Vice’s NZ-based staff prior to their redundancies.

Henderson did point out that NZ-based publisher Shit You Should Care About, which has an entirely NZ-based staff, would also be involved in the campaign. But it added that “a further overseas-based supporting partner is expected to be confirmed, extending the campaign into their established audience of young New Zealanders.” (A spokesperson for Nine refused to comment on the roles, nor to make anyone from Vice available for an interview).

How the original Vice NZ office see the jobs

Former staff of Vice NZ reached were shocked to see the roles advertised, given Vice’s history here. “When I realised that the contracts and the work are quite explicitly tied to a 12-month commercial partnership with an NZ government department, it felt like a bit of a gut punch,” said a former staffer who asked not to be named. “Is Vice NZ only a going concern as long as MSD is paying the bill?”

Another ex-staffer expressed similar puzzlement at the choice of Vice. “I’m surprised if government departments are dedicating substantial funding to an overseas organisation that has demonstrated no real commitment or track record for supporting long-term journalism in New Zealand – and in recent years laid off their entire team of dedicated NZ writers, editors and documentary makers.

“It’s also a bit of a shock to see job ads implying the Ministry of Social Development might be bankrolling this in its entirety. Sponcon’s part of the mix for most outlets nowadays, sure, but the prospect of a country office funded by a single ministry – especially if they have some level of editorial sign-off – is depressing.”

A collage of images from feature stories on Vice NZ, which closed in 2019

Vice NZ was known for a distinctive and highly original stream of content for some years before abruptly laying off its staff in February of 2019, most notably the Zealandia documentary series. While operational it employed a clutch of the most vibrant young media talent in Aotearoa, including Tess McClure, who has gone on to run the Guardian’s New Zealand coverage, and Frances Morton, who went on to lead TVNZ’s Re: and just started as the new editor of Sunday magazine, along with David Benge, Charlotte Hill and Matthew McAuley, who went on to senior positions at Red Bull, Sky and The Spinoff respectively.

Vice NZ’s office closed during a major round of global redundancies in 2019, and its Australian operations were eventually sold to Pedestrian, itself wholly owned by media conglomerate Nine, the former owners of Stuff. At the time of the redundancies, a Vice spokesperson claimed that the outlet “will continue to report on the issues young people in NZ care about”, though refused to explain how it would do this without any New Zealand-based staff.

What does Vice NZ look like at the moment?

A survey of its New Zealand content offering suggests covering Aotearoa from Australia has proven impossible. Currently its ‘New Zealand’ page is dominated by content focused squarely on Australia. On the first page of the section, the only mention of New Zealand is in relation to our anti-smoking legislation, and for the sole purpose of asking whether Australia might follow suit. Its Instagram page has just three posts in 2022, all paid content in partnership with Samsung, while its Facebook page has recently posted sparsely-engaged content covering a murder in Italy and new legislation regarding US rental properties. It presents as the defunct editorial brand it has been since 2019, at least until MSD arrived.

What Vice Australia’s ‘New Zealand’ section currently looks like (Screengrab)

This aspect of MSD’s work falls under the remit of associate minister for social development, Priyanca Radhakrishnan. She provided a statement to The Spinoff saying that the campaign falls under operational decisions made within her ministry, but added that “when I meet with them this week I will be asking questions around outsourcing of work, and will ensure that due diligence has been done and the projected results impactful.”

Update: 12pm 9 August – MSD has requested that we update our story to reflect that it says Vice has simply been proposed as the media partner, not selected. We note their position here, but cannot independently verify this as neither Vice nor OMD/Clemenger BBDO have commented directly – both expressly turned down the opportunity to do so prior to publication.

Update: 10am 10 August – This story and headline has been further updated to reflect MSD’s position that while Vice has advertised the roles the contract with them has not actually been signed.

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