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Is Gary Vaynerchuk 'wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong' about media?

Meet the man who gets right up the nose of the advertising establishment.

Is Gary Vaynerchuk 'wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong' about media?

"Many people think I’m a loud-mouthed American spewing a charlatan personal brand agenda. But believe it or not, for somebody who’s so combative and aggressive and has this New Jersey energy, I’m wildly non-confrontational in real life. I’m a human being and ironically in real life I’m unbelievably uncomfortable with being disliked."

It’s not surprising that for Gary Vaynerchuk, real life is a distinct state. The real-life Vaynerchuk is a pretty successful businessman who runs a reasonably successful communications company, VaynerX. His alter ego, GaryVee, is an influencer, self-help business guru, motivational speaker and hero to an army of wannabe entrepreneurs.

Together, the two Garys represent the ad industry’s most visible, voluble and controversial personality. Yeah, Gary Vaynerchuk gets right up the nose of the advertising establishment.

This is the man who took to the stage at Advertising Week in New York recently to tell delegates to talk to their normal friends more. He thinks most of the people working in advertising are failing dismally to keep up with how consumers are actually behaving. "I believe that the next decade will be difficult for the biggest brands in the world because they continue to waste money on metrics that have nothing to do with their actual business," Vaynerchuk contended. He accused agencies and brands of "selling vanilla at scale and nobody cares… we spend 16 weeks to develop a brand positioning and to come up with a tagline that means nothing to nobody – because it’s so fucking vanilla – just so we can fit all the creative in it. It doesn’t make sense. It has to stop."

It’s presentations like this one – "rants", as one rival agency chief described it – that inevitably draw the ire of his competitors, many of whom say Vaynerchuk is way better at creating explosive headlines than he is at making great advertising.

In the relative peace of his office, he expands on where he thinks much of the rest of the industry has it wrong: "I have one passionate point of view about advertising, which is this industry needs to be more consumer-centric, to focus on what the consumer is doing – not what we want them to be doing." 

"I am completely and utterly agnostic about traditional media," he insists. "If you show me a very hardcore AB test which proves that a 30-second spot, for its $5m investment, disproportionately drove your business versus a $5m spend on long-form video on the internet, I’m going to applaud that and analyse how that happened. And I’ll give the keynote in Cannes five years from now saying ‘everyone should be buying TV commercials’ if I felt the price collapsed so much that it was a good deal. I’m a very big believer in radio right now because the prices have come down and I think people are still listening enough in the middle of America. So I’m completely agnostic as to where I story-tell. I just want to be deeply consumer-centric."

Completely agnostic. Right. Got that. On the other hand: "Our biggest point of view – by far – that I do not believe is accepted at all is that we think above-the-line brand-building, brand equity, is being built on YouTube and Facebook in the form of long-form video and not on television with matching luggage on digital. And that’s something that most people are not talking about, including Facebook and YouTube.

"Yes, there are plenty of people who are spending on television and driving business, but they haven’t done an alternative test to understand that their 2% growth might have actually been 18. That’s my kind of business argument. Our point of view is that long-form video on YouTube and Facebook are the two apps that have the attention of the consumer, and those are the platforms that are most underpriced and have the most upside. We are the Pied Piper of that."

Of course, the Pied Piper led children to an uncertain, perhaps even chilling, future. And just like a piece of folklore or children’s bedtime story, Vaynerchuk’s narrative is far too simplistic. He might be channel-agnostic, but people aren’t. They love TV shows, they love their magazines, they love their radio stations, they love their podcasts, the Instagrammers they follow; they are passionate about all sorts of media when it speaks to their own interests, not just when the price is right.

OK, dig around into what VaynerMedia actually does for each of its clients and you might well find all sorts of nuance and bespoke thinking that builds into an effective tailored approach for each one. But Vaynerchuk’s table-thumping narrative about long-form video on social channels is far too binary; this clearly can’t be the right strategy for every brand and every audience, and to insist on it so relentlessly does Vaynerchuk no favours with many of advertising’s smartest thinkers. Mark Ritson wrote in Marketing Week that Vaynerchuk is "wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong about media", adding "we get the gurus we deserve and you could not invent a more suitable spokesperson for social media".

'I was an atrocious student. I was a class clown and disruptive but my teachers loved me. Now I’m like, you know, awfully successful compared to the majority of my classmates'

Vaynerchuk is not short of an opinion and you’re going to fucking listen. GaryVee’s YouTube channel has 2.3 million subscribers and hosts videos on everything from "13 core business principles to start IMMEDIATELY" and "What to do about Instagram’s declining organic reach" to "The Ultimate Advice For Every 20 Year Old" and Vaynerchuk’s "Honest Opinions on Minimalism and Happiness". On the channel you’ll also find the DailyVee vlog "where I document my life as an entrepreneur and CEO of VaynerX", the #AskGaryVee Show "where I answer your questions about marketing, social media, entrepreneurship, and everything in between" and GaryVee Censored: "curse free GaryVee" because GaryVee likes to say fuck a lot.

He’s said that when he’s speaking on stage, "I want to rip the faces off people". I think he means he wants to shake them up, jolt them out of bad habits. Typically, he taunts his audience. "The amount of people in here that have a job they hate, and they buy things they don’t care about to impress people they don’t give a fuck about, scares the shit out of me… for some reason, so many of you are living your lives based on other people’s opinions."

But it’s GaryVee up there on stage, the showman that exists inside Vaynerchuk. He leans in conspiratorially and tells me: "I’ll be honest with you, I was an unbelievably big fan of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock and I genuinely believe there’s a part of that shtick coming out when I’m onstage. I really do, if I’m being very like, you know, real with myself.

"I think on stage my job is to bring value. I feel a huge responsibility that I have an hour of this time and everyone’s looking at me. I’ve a communication style that tries to get across the points that I’m thinking benefit the people in the audience. You know I’m very aware that it creates a vulnerability, I do think that there’s 20% of people that think I’m a jackass after they see that performance.

"And I respect that. I’m not naïve to my personal energy. But I think long-term this industry is going to see that I’m not on some rogue island. I think that I share a lot of points of view with most people, I just think the perspective through which I look at the industry is slightly different. And I think mine is a little more practical to the consumer. And I think the current version of the industry is a little bit insular and audacious and self-serving. I do believe that."

All of this GaryVee stuff, the vlogs, the books, the motivational talks, Vaynerchuk sees it as an act of philanthropy. "You know I think some of the stuff where I’m selfless and sharing all my thoughts and ideas and trying to help and all the time I spend on interacting with those people versus putting them into my own selfish behaviours, that’s my way of giving back."

Inside Vaynerchuk's office (click to enlarge)

Locked up in a fire safe in one of Vaynerchuk’s houses is a small, green, knitted jumper. It’s everything. A crude copy of a New York Jets shirt, Vaynerchuk’s mom – too poor to buy the official kit – knitted it for him when he was a boy and it’s come to symbolise Vaynerchuk’s story, the one he tells himself. "It is the single thing that represents my life," he says.

As a child immigrant from Belarus, "football became my first thing that I loved about America. It became the place I was most accepted and it’s my escapism. We were poor and I wanted a Jets jersey so bad, like everybody else. We couldn’t afford it. So my mom knitted it. And I fucking live for that. It means the world to me."

He’s been a Jets fanatic ever since and if he’s got one romantic ambition in life, it’s to buy the team. "I think I’d be in a position to buy the team in 20 years, which would make me 63, which is super young. But listen, if I get it at 91 and leave this world the next day I’ll be super pumped up."

And when he buys the team, the knitted jumper will be taken carefully from its fire safe and pinned above the entrance to the Jets stadium. "I definitely have a little bit of a romantic narrative in my mind of how I want this to play out. The thought of one day people coming into the stadium and seeing that sweater. And that being an inspiration to all the fans of like ‘this guy couldn’t even afford a jersey and now he owns the team’. I think that would be super inspirational."

GaryVee exists to inspire people. He tells them to work hard and harder, "every minute has to count, every minute has to count, every minute…", to live by the hustle. "The quickest and easiest way to get to do what you want while paying your bills is to start sacrificing leisure and other things and start focusing on monetising the thing that you want to do in the future. Loving it leads to the most success."

And so Vaynerchuk stands accused of being one of the world’s perpetrators of "struggle porn" – a phrase coined in an article on Medium by writer Nat Eliason, who describes it as "a masochistic obsession with pushing yourself harder, listening to people tell you to work harder, and broadcasting how hard you’re working". The message underneath much of what GaryVee broadcasts, Eliason says, is "struggling is good"; struggle porn "has normalised sustained failure". Vaynerchuk posted a comment below Eliason’s article. "I speak about self-awareness much more than just hustling and I agree with so much of what you’re saying," Vaynerchuk wrote. "Some people just love their process, I wish that for everyone and I will try better to create the nuanced clarity. I’ve poked around your stuff, I like it. I wish you nothing but health and happiness."

'I wanted a Jets jersey so bad. We couldn’t afford it. So my mom knitted it. And I fucking live for that. It means the world to me'

When I am taken through to interview Vaynerchuk in his office – a trove of memorabilia that includes a photograph of him with Barack Obama and an old school report card ("I was an atrocious student. I was a class clown and disruptive but my teachers loved me. Now I’m like, you know, awfully successful compared to the majority of my classmates from my life but I was by far the worst student") – his film crew shuffle around outside. They look up hopefully at the chance to film something, but Vaynerchuk waves them away. I don’t know whether to be relieved or offended at not making it on to the DailyVee vlog, but Vaynerchuk says he’s making less video now "because I’ve established a lot of the topics that I’m most passionate about – like having a work ethic and the value of underpriced attention, and empathy. I’ve beat them like a dead horse, so sometimes I like taking a break from filming. Now we’re looking at YouTube more as a platform for making longer films than, let’s say, a daily blog."

It’s fair to say Vaynerchuk is a major fan of the power of social media. It’s how he made it, really. The Gary Vaynerchuk story, as he’s perfected it, goes something like this: he left Babruysk aged three with his family, arriving in the US in 1978 and settling in New Jersey. From an early age Vaynerchuk was playing entrepreneur, selling lemonade on a street stall and earning "thousands of dollars on weekends" by trading baseball cards (a business he’s just moved into again).

After graduating from college in 1998 he took on the day-to-day running of the family wine store, changing the name from Shopper’s Discount Liquors to the Wine Library. He was an early mover into online sales and in 2006 started Wine Library TV, a daily webcast covering wine. By 2003 the business was apparently worth $60m. The online brand-building experience led to the launch of VaynerMedia in 2009 and since 2011 that’s been Vaynerchuk’s main focus, building it out as a communications group, VaynerX, that now also includes consulting company Sasha and the Gallery Media Group, which owns platforms such as PureWow. He also made some shrewd early investments in Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr along the way.

VaynerX – still privately owned, the majority by Vaynerchuk with one minority investor – claims £151m in revenue in 2018 and is projecting a 16% increase this year: $131m of that revenue came from the VaynerMedia agency, whose biggest clients are Anheuser-Busch InBev, Chase, Kraft Heinz, Mondelez and PepsiCo.

"The agency is a machine that I want to build selfishly for myself to use in my creative storytelling around whatever the hell I want. It’s unbelievably being built to show people there’s an entrepreneurial other way to navigate this awesome industry that I think has been M&A’d out of its actual creativity. VaynerMedia is a fun agency to have because it’s creative, it’s media, it’s strategy and it’s production all in one place." That compass is important, he says, because the integration is necessary to move quickly and effectively for clients. "It’s actually my biggest bravado in the marketplace, that in the places where VaynerMedia is accountable for the media and the creative, the businesses are up. The brands we work on are up. And I think that’s what the industry has to do. They have to hold somebody accountable. They can’t separate media and creative. I think when the industry goes there, what the industry is going to learn is that there’s not a creative shop in the top 25 that is good at that skill."

And where holding companies have been mired in issues over transparency and trust, Vaynerchuk says he has set himself apart.

"The client service industry is ripe for disruption," he explains. "If you break the law, you should face the consequences. If there’s fake invoices and that kind of behaviour, that should be penalised. That being said, it’s a much bigger issue that comes from the fact that you have an industry that has publicly traded companies servicing publicly traded companies. I would be the least successful person on earth if I was the CEO of a holding company that had to make numbers every 90 days. That is remarkably difficult because you can’t service in that fashion, you just inherently aren’t aligned with your client. These are not bad people, they’re making numbers every 90 days and when Coca-Cola calls you and says ‘hey’, you have to make a financial decision 99% of the time.

"We’re growing, we’re interviewing senior executives and one of the most emotional parts of every interview I have is them talking about the fact that multiple times a year they have to fire a bunch of people to make the numbers. So it doesn’t surprise me that they’re trying to find alternatives to drive margin in a world where you’re held accountable by Wall Street or whatever public market you’re on. Now the holding companies are M&A financial bank machines, so I’m not going to cry for them, they’ve made a lot more money than the brands have over the last 30 years. For me, that’s great. We’ve run for seven years on full transparency. Our clients log in to their own accounts, we don’t have a black box buying platform. I never viewed those tools as things agencies would potentially use for fraud, I just viewed them as a way agencies were trying to make margin that didn’t align with the clients’ business to begin with. These are all signals as to why I’m here."

He’s also a vocal critic of client/agency contracts that lock brands in to bad relationships. Earlier this year, he elicited the closest thing to a standing ovation that delegates at the Association of National Advertisers Media Leadership Conference in Orlando could muster when he told marketers: "I’ve got a challenge for the ANA. If big holding companies are so brave and so powerful and so [meritorious] and so awesome, no more contracts that don’t allow people to be out. VaynerMedia allows you to fire us day one. No penalty. I’m a little fucking entrepreneur."

All of which makes VaynerMedia sound pretty appealing if it weren’t for the fact that the agency has lacked the calibre of creative and strategic leadership to stand alongside established agencies in a big pitch.

Vaynerchuk knows this, and is on the hunt for more talent. He’s just hired Rob Lenois, Grey New York’s deputy chief creative officer, as chief creative officer. But persuading the industry’s top players that VaynerMedia is a good move for them won’t be easy. The company is wholly shadowed by the profile of its controversial founder and in an industry where egos are often both big and fragile, VaynerMedia is not yet the sort of agency where garlanded reputations are built: its work rarely receives the awards and peer praise that can make an agency attractive to potential employees.

Vaynerchuk concurs: "I’ve done a good job of like ‘hey look at me, I’m the crazy guy’, because I thought that was an important way to get to a thousand people. But obviously now I’m a little bit more comfortable with showing what’s going on here at the company. 

"Now I think it’s important for recruitment of clients and talent and probably even at some level for retention of our own people that the industry sees this is a good company doing good work; people here are probably frustrated their friends in the industry don’t recognise that."

VaynerMedia has five offices around the world, the latest – Singapore – opened just a few months ago. "We’re approaching Singapore the same way we have opened our other offices: we’ll go scrappy for the first few years, taste it. The only difference is a lot of our clients are starting to be very, very happy with us and are starting to push us a little bit more to do more and more global work, so our leverage to open these offices with more significant P&Ls than in the past is really exciting."

In London, earlier this year VaynerMedia hired ex-Leo Burnett deputy chief executive Sarah Baumann to run the 60-strong team. "We’re really lucky to get someone of such incredible quality as Sarah," Vaynerchuk says. "And when that person also happens to be a remarkable human being, you know you’re on your way. So I’m extremely excited about what’s about to happen in Europe. We’ve established a footprint and stability over the last three years and now our ambitions are growing.

"And I’ve an enormous amount of ambition for central and south America and the Middle East within the next 24-36 months, so I think we’re going to be quite aggressive in our international expansion in the next half decade.

"In 10 years my hope is we are one of the leading communications companies in the world. And I hope that we have inspired multiple people who have worked for me, and kids that are in ad school right now, to build their own independent shops that are more aligned with clients. And I hope we’ve inspired them in a way that their ambitions aren’t to sell to a holding company. I mean that."

But if you think that Vaynerchuk is building an agency in order to make enough money to one day buy the Jets and spend his dotage in the owner’s box, you’ve got this all wrong.

Vaynerchuk says building an agency was never meant to be anything but a means to an end, facilitating the necessary learnings and expertise to reach the real goal: owning brands. "I’m building a communications holding company for the sake of buying businesses and using it as a disproportionate leverage for the reboot of nostalgic brands during the next downturn of the economy.

"When I started 10 years ago, I thought the bailout in the US was bullshit, and I thought the economy would fall back into a negative within five years. I had done really well in small-business-land with my wine business. I’ve done remarkably well in Silicon Valley with my investments in Facebook and Twitter and all those things. But the big hole in my world was Fortune 500, Fortune 5000, Madison Avenue, corporate America, B2B, B2C. So I decided to start my agency to learn it, and my thesis was that when the world melted, a lot of these nostalgic brands would be poorly marketed and decline and would get sold off and I would buy one – because I’m an immigrant and I sit on cash – and refurbish it and the people at VaynerMedia would go and run that company." For a long time, he thought he’d buy an old CPG brand, the sort of food brand you remember lovingly from childhood but that now sits gathering dust on supermarket shelves. Now he’s more interested in apparel. He’s had some success with niche sneaker brand K-Swiss, which collaborated with GaryVee on a range. And he’d love to get his hands on a brand like Lacoste.

But here’s the thing. Vaynerchuk miscalculated. The downturn he’s been waiting for still hasn’t come, those nostalgic brands still aren’t up for sale at a price he can afford. "I’m sitting here thinking Jeez I’ve been betting my whole farm on this notion of one day there’ll be carnage and I can sweep in. It’s the one thing that hasn’t gone right for VaynerMedia. Here we are 10 years later, the economy hasn’t slipped and VaynerMedia has become a very big company. So when I do go and buy something – in three years or six years – I’m not going to shut down VaynerMedia. I haven’t bought any brands because I don’t want to buy them at the prices they are now. But that’s still the plan. It’s not part of the plan, it’s the plan."

I am more interested in admiration and legacy than I am in currency. I’m just not driven by money'

"I really think he might be mad." At least one chief of a big networked agency thinks that Vaynerchuk is delusional.

I’ve only met him a couple of times, but I don’t think so. He is personable, appears honest, seems genuinely to care about his impact on people, and I think he really believes that the philosophy he espouses is helpful; I’ve certainly recommended a few of his videos to people. He might not be right on everything – and his definition of creative excellence is nowhere near mine – but Vaynerchuk’s challenges to the ad industry are healthy ones to debate and clearly chime with many, many people, including – perhaps dangerously so for the advertising status quo – many marketers. I like him.

Does he mind being such a divisive character, loved and loathed? "Yes and no. I actually really like being liked but I’m also empathetic to the fact that people are catching me in a particular context. It’s very simple. The people that know me the best as a human being like me the most, the people that don’t know me at all and compete with me in my business hate me the most and then everybody else fits somewhere in between."

What about the accusation that he’s really just a clever self-promoter, a one-man show who’s peddling hustle? "You know that the biggest vulnerability is being misunderstood for a short period of time. I think a lot of other people carefully craft an image, the industry accepts them and likes them upfront and then the awards start coming along and then the people that actually work with them – even though the press is nice to them – hate their guts. I’d rather be the other way. And I’m able to deal with the criticism and I’m also aware that you can’t cultivate a false persona in a world of the internet because everything will come out."

Does he ever have self-doubt? "No and I’ll tell you why. I don’t talk about things I don’t know. I have enormous self-doubt in healthcare and vegetable growing and macroeconomics. You know I’m very narrow and I only talk about things after I’ve lived it. All my hypotheses and things I talk about, I’m living them you know. And I’ll always try to be honest. I think what is really hurting the biggest companies in the world is that by trying to not say anything wrong, they’re not saying anything true. Which is why they’ve lost complete and utter trust, inside and outside their companies. But it’s very easy to speak truth when you don’t have bad intent and when you’re willing to be accountable if you make a mistake."

And does he actually like the advertising industry? "I’m very grateful to be in this industry. I like it. The creative nature of it and the business nature of it really lends well to me. I love business and I love being creative. I’ve made life-long friends in this industry, even while I’ve been pretty heads down and not of it, in my own little pocket."

So if you had to choose to be remembered for your philanthropic entrepreneurial advice or for building a communications company, which would you choose?

"It’s funny. I’d probably pick the practical entrepreneurial inspiration. Probably that’s 50.1 to the 49.9. But I’ve come to realise that’s me, that’s why I’m weird, that’s why I’ve been an enigma and different, successful but confusing, right? These are pretty big contradictions and the circumstances of my chemicals and my upbringing made them very, very, very close. I’m very grateful that I have these two parts of me that can coexist like that.

"I am more interested in admiration and legacy than I am in currency. I’m just not driven by money. I’ll take it. It’s part of being successful in business. I’m not against it. I don’t apologise for it. But I leave an extraordinary amount of money on the table by not being selfish with the things that I’m best at and that makes me happy with who I am, not sad."

Vaynerchuk on creativity

I’m a businessman who happens to love creativity. I believe creativity is the variable of success. I put creativity on a massive pedestal. I think my interpretation of it is slightly just looking at it from a different perspective.

Creativity is the single thing that matters the most. There’s no sales DNA in our creative. It’s micro brand creative at scale that has understanding of where it’s being targeted to drive in-store traffic. This is not two-for-one advertising. This is not direct response copy. This is branding. That’s the elephant in the room. People are so literal, they think creativity is in the form of a 30-second spot. The end. And that’s it. There’s nothing else to say. Just because you don’t do that doesn’t mean you’re not creative.

I think 30-second spots on TV are bad, and I think five-second pictures, eight-second videos on TikTok are good. And I think three-minute, 19-second little docuseries on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram are good because they’re being deployed against places where people are actually watching it. And then if you make it good, it will work. So, yeah, I actually think this is creative nirvana. I think that the industry has boxed in creativity in the form of a 30-second video and matching luggage on banner ads on digital.

It’s going to get very hard to get excited about a 30-second spot in a decade, but I think if you look at so much of the poor digital execution and programmatic and banner form advertising, I think the quality of that needs to be scrutinised.

Sonic branding is on my mind. With more and more video and audio consumption, which brands are going to be leaning in to have a unique sound like Intel or Netflix, where we know what the brand is in three seconds? I think that’s super interesting.

Ironically, I think the art of copywriting is about to be put on a pedestal. I don’t believe the world of advertising has really internalised yet the incredible barrier there is to sentences that accompany a picture or video on these social platforms, how incredibly impactful words can be to the success of that piece of content, so I’m kind of excited about the rise of copy, which seems counterintuitive to some.

What’s ironic about that is we’ve hired over the last two years at VaynerMedia many very senior creative directors from Droga and Crispin and Wieden and 72andSunny – I think a lot of them over the last year or two have come in with cautious optimism, curiosity, you know, and intrigue mixed with the fact they want to move to New York and why not try to do something good in fun and interesting ways. And it’s been fun to watch them. I do believe that over the first month or two there’s a little "this is not how I’m used to doing it, what is this", and then by month six, they’re like "wow – this is massively creatively liberating". They come from a place where they can work on something for an entire year and their stuff never sees the light of day. Here we have a world where we’re producing a lot of content every day and then we’re working on longer-form content multiple times a year.

I believe what we’re doing is going to set creativity free. And right now there may be confusion on where I sit with creativity but I actually think that there will be a really nice legacy post for me within this amazing industry for being the person that came along and actually did a lot for creativity. Because I think the way it’s done today is unbelievably confined. It’s been accepted and then put on a pedestal. And I think that is actually the polar opposite of actual creativity. I think this is the least creative time for this world because we’re at max maturity and the decline of what’s been put on the pedestal, which is the 30-second spot. And I’m excited about where it’s going to go and excited to give creatives the opportunity to make more and do different stuff.

A lot of what I’m preaching is often times viewed as negative by the most nostalgic or, kind of, romantic people in creative. But I think, when they look under the hood, it’s actually incredibly empowering for the creative community.

I’ll be very honest – I love this industry, I love being a part of it, I’m not here to do anything other than have a conversation that I think will be historically correct. I believe that I will historically be viewed in a good way by this industry because I created a different pressure that led to a better creative product. I really believe that.

VaynerMedia on their work

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