For most of VaynerMedia’s decade-long existence, it’s been seen in agency circles as a social media shop or, among the more cynical, a vanity project of its outspoken CEO, Gary Vaynerchuk.
With more than 15 million followers across social platforms and an often polarizing demeanor, Vaynerchuk certainly isn’t the first influencer or serial entrepreneur to launch an agency, but he is the first to see that agency grow to 900 employees and produce three Super Bowl ads in one year—this year, specifically.
Last year, VaynerMedia made its Super Bowl debut with “Crunch Time,” a Planters spot starring Mr. Peanut, Charlie Sheen and Alex Rodriguez. Perhaps not surprisingly given the agency’s background as a social-first shop, the spot won Twitter’s #BrandBowl by generating the most mentions.
This year, VaynerMedia returns with Planters (as you might have heard from the buzz around Mr. Peanut’s supposed death and the subsequent pausing of the campaign after Kobe Bryant’s fatal accident). In addition, the agency made in-game ads for Sabra hummus and hospitality chain Hard Rock (whose Michael Bay-directed spot also had to be re-edited after Bryant’s death to avoid appearing insensitive).
Adweek sat down with Vaynerchuk this week to discuss his agency’s evolution and rapid rise to prominence over the past two years. You can listen to the full interview on our podcast via Apple Podcasts, Spotify or the streaming player below, which is followed by a transcript of the interview.
The following interview has been edited for length.
Adweek: Tell us a little bit about the experience of last year—of doing the Planters Super Bowl ad, the response you got and how that fueled you to go bigger.
Gary Vaynerchuk, CEO, VaynerMedia: The reality is, we’ve always been very focused on where we think the actual customer attention is. Super Bowl has been on my mind literally from Day 1 when we were a community management company just doing Twitter. And so last year was our first at bat, and the response was really strong. I wouldn’t say I was so miraculously in love with the creative. I loved A-Rod, I loved the kale, I loved the Nutmobile. But most of all, the attention, the sheer attention on a Super Bowl spot is remarkable.
And luckily for all the creatives involved and strategists and clients, the ad was received quite well in the scheme of things—not the No. 1 and definitely not in the bottom. It did extremely well in social from a response perspective. It did the objective. One thing I’m most proud of, and you’ll see it in all three spots [in this year’s Super Bowl], is we really think about business when we create.
I’m very self-aware recognizing where our creative and media shop are coming from, which is a hyper-different angle than the majority of the creative shops in the world. So, as you can imagine, I was most thrilled that on a consumer level, it was the single most talked about ad on Twitter. That’s all I really focus on, and that’s how this agency is built: End-consumer business dynamics.
However, I’d be lying if I said it’s not important and nice to get recognition or knowledge or awareness within the b-to-b realm. It felt good to see the comments online and in the Cannes and ANA circles like, “Vayner did a Super Bowl spot?” You can imagine how I feel this year coming out with three, which has really taken people aback.
Adweek: The other agencies doing this quantity of Super Bowl ads are some of the biggest and most storied names in advertising: Wieden + Kennedy and Goodby Silverstein & Partners. How would you describe the way the industry looks at VaynerMedia and whether that’s changing?
Vaynkerchuk: I think we’re a hardcore enigma. Until we hired Harriet [Flory, longtime BBDO and Proximity PR director and now global head of communications for VaynerMedia] nine months ago, we really didn’t have an extreme focus on PR’ing the shop. Sometimes I get worried that people think it’s because I’m audacious or disrespectful. That would really make me sad. We’ve been just very focused on our craft.
Obviously I, as a human, am far from scared of having PR, so that builds some levels of awareness within the industry. I understand why people don’t put us even in the conversation. I would argue there are people listening to this right now that maybe have not even heard of Vayner, or if they have, it’s fleeting because their nephew is a fan of me on Instagram or one of their former employees works here. “Isn’t that a social shop?”
I’m not worried about being disrespected or made fun of or not being in that conversation, because I respect it. I understand the framework or the perspective that conversation’s coming from. But I’m equally proud when board members and CEOs talk about Vayner versus their other agencies and we’re put in a good light because of the what happens to the business results when we’re their creative partner, versus the alternatives of the most iconic shops in the industry.
Adweek: It’s fair to say you’re a polarizing figure. This industry obviously has its share of egos and famously large personalities, but also there’s this sort of enforced humility in advertising sometimes where it’s almost looked down on to be a personality driving forward a business.
Vaynerchuk: I’m a little bit unique in the fact that I’m not just of this industry, right? I think the industry I walked into glamorized and put very, very, very senior bankers on a pedestal, whether it was Maurice Lévy or Martin Sorrell, or creative directors being put on a pedestal when you go to Cannes and their photos are there. I would argue that if you look carefully, their lack of humility far outweighs mine. The only difference is, I actually exist outside of the ad world and they didn’t. That’s not a razz. Martin Sorrell, outside of the ad world, was not a known commodity.
I came from the outside and I’m also a byproduct of a social media ecosystem that’s different than the mainstream media. If the social network world didn’t exist, I also wouldn’t be known, but I wasn’t at the mercy of the Wall Street Journal and NBC and CBS for broader awareness.
The thing I’m most proud of is when people have worked in the establishment and they come here, some of them are cautious about working for me—usually until they sit down with me and we go through the interview process. But even then, they’re still a little cautious because there is a big personality, and I get that. On the flip side, I feel great about how they feel about me and us six months later.
I think that’s the reverse of a lot of people. A lot of people I admired or who seemed like they were people that everyone was admiring, now I’m in the industry for 10 years, either they’ve been smoked out or they’re not talked about nicely by the people that know them best.
Adweek: It’s a “don’t meet your heroes” situation.
Vaynerkchuk: That’s exactly what it is. So I’m proud that I’m polarizing. I think the industry lacks innovation. I think that there’s a disconnect between client services and the clients. I don’t believe Fortune 500 companies are getting their money’s worth, and I think you’re seeing why the consultants are getting in.
When I came into it, I knew nothing about Madison Avenue. I’d never heard of any of those names. I didn’t know who was who. I still don’t know a lot of stuff. But now I’m 10 years in, and I love it. I love the industry. Even my own competitors. I mean, David Droga is one of my favorite people I’ve met in last 10 years, period, let alone in the ad world. I clearly love a lot of the clients, former employees, current employees.
Now it’s fun because now we’re dangerous. Now, 10 years later, the industry has a real problem if they don’t like us. Because now, not only are we a foregone conclusion to be a major player in it in perpetuity, my hope is that I inspire 14-year-old Carol who’s going to go to Miami Ad School to build an independent shop and keep it independent forever.
I actually think, and I mean this because I love this industry, that in 25 years I’ll be looked upon much nicer by this industry than I am now. Because I think my framework and model is actually going to lead to a lot more creativity. Almost every single creative shop that plays in our industry, outside of Wieden and the emergers, is part of a holding company conglomerate corporation that is running P&Ls and reporting to the Wall Street dynamics that force a complete lack of creativity.
Adweek: Beyond your personality, the message that you’ve been conveying through content for years, about hustle and about putting in the long hours—that might be part of the reason you’re so polarizing within advertising, because it’s an industry made up of people who’ve been forced into that that lifestyle of working insane hours with no benefit to themselves.
Vaynerchuk: Not to mention that when I started talking about “hustle”—aka hard work—that was 2008 to 2010, and people were out of jobs. And now here we are 13 years later where mental health issues and insecurities and modern day parenting have led to many more dynamics.
I knew nothing about this industry. I didn’t realize how much anxiety there was. I think that there’s a lot of anxiety and unhappiness working for publicly traded companies in a creative field that services clients. That is a very difficult thing to sign up for. If you sign up to be in client services for a company that has to hit numbers every 30 60, 90, 365 days, you’re setting up a framework to that unhappiness.
Adweek: Looking back at your 2019 Budweiser ad featuring Dwyane Wade. Was that spot—the reception to it, the process of it—in any way a turning point for your agency?
Vaynerchuk: 100%. It was the spot that led to the most senior creatives in the industry reaching out to me with either begrudging compliment, which I appreciated because that takes a lot of humility, or wink-winks like, ‘Oh crap, you really might be into it.’ Or sheer ‘I want to work for your company.’ So yeah, it was a very, very big moment for us in the establishment of the industry. It was more that the ad sold Budweiser. That was super exciting to me, that sheer amount of consumption, much like a Super Bowl spot.
I say this with humility, but it was a piece that a lot of people could’ve said, “Oh that’s a Wieden piece, right?” You would think Nike and Wieden did that, and Vayner will always get more credit than it deserves because everybody thinks we’re just social media. So it was a huge moment, no question about it.
Adweek: How would you describe what you think 2020 is going to be like in terms of changing the the nature of the way people view VaynerMedia?
Vaynerchuk: Obviously, as you can imagine, three Super Bowl spots is going to make it even bigger. And we hired a new chief strategy and new chief creative officer in November that come with significant industry gravitas or knowledge. So I think 2020 will will end up being a much bigger year than 2019.
People are flabbergasted when they find out there we’re 900 people globally [with offices] in Singapore, London. We’ve stayed quiet on our growth, but we will be less quiet about it because we feel like we’re ready to solve a lot of the problems that clients have. And it feels like the right time for us to be a little louder. So what’s ironic is I’m so loud as a human, but for all of the businesses I’ve ever been involved in, I like to wait until I think I can really deliver— like, really deliver.
I think we’ve really worked very hard to last two years to put us in a place to have a remarkable, remarkable year. And I would argue that 2020 may be the year that if you’re a nerd and like to talk about the industry in 2033, they’re gonna be like, “That was the year Vayner really got really got going.”
Adweek: After Kobe Bryant’s death, many marketers had to take stock of the messages they were putting out. Your company paused the Mr. Peanut campaign online, and you’re making changes on the Michael Bay-directed spot for Hard Rock. How did this past week affect you and your outlook on the messaging that we create as advertisers?
Vaynerchuk: When there’s a problem or when somebody is to be let go from Vayner, both those things have to cross my desk, and I have to make that decision. I like being a leader. I like to take on the toughest stuff. There have been so many things that have happened over the last 10 years where I’ve made decisions that may not seem to be the decision that everyone’s talking about because I’m really not looking at what the b-to-b world is saying. I’m looking at the end consumer. So I always am thinking about: “What do the masses feel? What does the customer feel like?” That’s what we all are in the business of. And so for me it’s just part of real life.
We had the unfortunate scenario that our creative was uncomfortably nuanced in a way that had enough similarities that are just difficult to fathom. We felt that Twitter’s timeline and the way the Twitter function works put us in a very vulnerable spot, that people might see things that might be out of context—aka Kobe and then Mr. Peanut right behind it. And so we didn’t feel that was appropriate. And every hour, we’re having a discussion of if it’s appropriate to turn it back on. We’re just being very conscious of feelings of humanity and the end consumer, not what a publication or people looking for debate would say.
I think it’s unbelievably important to not be “over-” anything: over-insensitive, over-emotional, etc. I think it is our jobs in this industry and has always been to be good at taking the temperature. And that’s how I think about this. What is the temperature of our society around what we would put in front of them when there is a dark cloud in the air versus when it’s super sunny and everyone’s just chilling?
For all the latest Super Bowl advertising news—who’s in, who’s out, teasers, full ads and more—check out Adweek’s Super Bowl 2020 Ad Tracker. And join us on the evening of Feb. 2 for the best in-game coverage of the commercials anywhere.