Gary Vaynerchuk’s advertising empire, VaynerX, (or even Gary for that matter) isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
But I’ll tell you who’s supping up that brew and asking for refills: The CEOs and CMOs of major global brands who have tried and tested his "volume model" -- a formula which enables quick-fire content and culture creation at scale by collapsing creative, strategy, media and production -- and are seeing the sexy business results.
"I do think we’re built for this [time] because -- and this is just very honest -- I think we’re a better value than the alternative media and creative out there because I don’t think we’re running at the same margins," Vaynerchuk told Campaign US.
"A lot of great shops outside of Wieden+Kennedy are publicly-traded shops, and they need to hit certain numbers and I have empathy for that -- I don’t think that makes them bad, I just think it doesn’t allow them to invest as much as I do.
"When my creative and media department are running at no profit, that would get me fired if I was the CEO of one of these companies. I’m building it for myself, so I’m able to invest, and clients get the benefit of that."
It’s very black and white: This global pandemic has underscored an imperative for brands to create at speed as they deal with a cultural window that closes in a matter of days. Wait too long in COVID-19’s lightning-pace world, and your content is irrelevant.
While some of adland’s most popular agencies wasted the first month of isolation scrambling to collapse unnecessary siloes to move with the agility they should have had years ago, VaynerMedia (the beating heart of VaynerX’s network) was already set to attack. In short, that meant more content, quicker, for less money straight out the gate to his roster of clients which include Budwieser, Kraft Heinz and Scott's Miracle Gro.
Vaynerchuk continued: "The classic CMO who’s thinking right now, ‘okay, my creative shop is just okay, my business is in trouble,’ and they have $6.3 million in fee, here’s Vayner who could be $3.9 million in fee and do a much better job and put out a lot more output. That’s going to work right now."
In fact, the agency’s price points are apparently so competitive that some brand procurement folk simply don’t believe it can deliver on what’s required. Vaynerchuk said the company lost a triple bid for production in December "because we came in too low," adding: "Me and the procurement guy at this very large Fortune 500 company had a nice laugh about it. You don’t need to throw 22 people at a production when it only requires 12."
Around 39 percent of VaynerMedia’s clients are using the volume model, while the remaining run with a traditional creative or digital/social AOR "because they haven’t hit the financial requirements" to use the former. The entrepreneur stressed there is a "significant delta" between the two in terms of business results, explaining that 80 percent of those using the volume formula have already re-upped for next year.
The model is obviously working. But don’t just take Vaynerchuk’s word for it.
Tom Murray, EVP and CMO at Tempur-Sealy, said: "At its core, VaynerMedia’s team structure and operating model is built to be agile and to help marketers understand and address the diverse needs of distinct audiences, to adapt quickly to changing circumstances, and to test and learn quickly so that you can ensure that your messaging is both relevant and resonant."
Vital tools which were needed to help the brand rapidly pivot when we all went into lockdown.
He explained: "While driving growth is typically top-of-mind for marketers and anyone involved in running a business, we also recognized that – since isolation took hold – people have been understandably-focused on their safety, the safety and well-being of their families and loved ones, social distancing, perhaps trying to manage working and schooling children from home, and just trying to cope with the situation and the uncertainty we have all been experiencing.
"Viewed through that lens, we understood that it was very important to think and act with empathy and to focus first and foremost about what we could do to actually provide help to people, whether they be current or potential ‘consumers,’ or simply the people in our communities. Like many companies, Tempur-Sealy has been focused on identifying areas where we can help, and -- consistent with our core values of doing the right thing -- has ramped up our production and delivery of hospital beds and PPE to support the acute health care needs in places (like NYC)."
But as well as answering real world problems, it has perfected the one-two punch of building brand equity with consumers through cleverly curated social architecture masterminded by VaynerMedia. The below Instagram post, for example, enjoyed so much traction that just days later the agency crafted a video to amplify the message of unity and staying at home with a clear stamp from Tempur-Sealy. (Just think about how many "thank you" montage ads you’ve seen, unaware of which brand made them.)
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Vaynerchuk has always lived in scrappy. It’s where he thrives. Anyone who’s familiar with his personal online brand presence knows that his world is garage sale flipping and supporting the OG turning-lemons-into-lemonade hustle. Now, amid a global pandemic, the world has never looked more like a messy garage sale as agency folk empty their tool shed and see what they can sell to marketers.
When production took a sucker punch, VaynerMedia exploded in post-production -- immediately setting up makeshift studios from homes and sending iPhones to clients so they could film their own content, like Kraft Heinz did for a spot celebrating the workers keeping shelves stocked.
It’s nothing new for an agency which made its first $5 million in revenue with work all shot on smartphones.
"This is the best time to be dirty dirty. If you’re fancy right now, you’re crippled. iPhones, Zooms -- this is a wheelhouse for us," said Vaynerchuk. "We’re very comfortable in this world and we think a lot of people underestimate the technology."
This year, his team has been deep in the weeds with Scotts Miracle-Gro -- an all-things gardening business whose marketing efforts were nothing to write home about until recently.
The brand’s entire spring portfolio had to be gutted and remade to land relevant amid coronavirus. And it did. Scotts became a top trending dance challenge on TikTok with "#DoTheScotts," pulling in celebrities and dancers including Jason Derulo. Only in 2020 does a gardening company become the focus of attention on a social media channel governed chiefly by a young generation. VaynerMedia’s work is morphing the category from older homeowners who like to buy shrubs on a Sunday to a more youthful place. I know where I’m going to get my sod (when I have a garden).
This execution meant a rare appearance from Vaynerchuk during the creative process to lend his cyber prowess following years of success redefining the wine business online before his entrance into adland.
He explained: "Scotts had a great team on it and before it was presented I said I wanted 30 minutes on it. That’s rare. It doesn’t happen. But I know when there’s a new moment, and I wasn’t sure if my team was where I needed them to be. And sure enough, to be very frank it wasn’t. And I spent an hour meeting and made some significant changes to the name of the trending topic, the concept, the launch strategy and the timing. My team ran with it and came back with something even stronger than what I created the framework for, and it was a monster hit.
"I interject when I think my personal expertise can bring disproportionate value -- which is quite rare -- normally around things like this, when something new is coming out and I’ve spent an ungodly amount of time and the ad world hasn’t yet. And even though we have a culture and we’re 50 to 100 percent ahead of the big 15 creative shops, I'm usually 100 to 200 percent ahead of my own firm, and that’s when I can bring value and that’s why I think we’re becoming the dominant TikTok storyteller."
John Sass, vice president advertising at Scotts Miracle-Gro, seems delighted with the work. He said: "What’s great about the way our team and the VaynerMedia team work together is our ability to pivot. This was especially critical this past Spring when we had to rebuild our entire creative approach in just days. Our speed in transitioning was incredible, and we are now cranking out new creative faster than we ever have."
But all the scrappiest in the world doesn’t make you immune from the current economic climate.
VaynerMedia has had some staff reductions over the past month; less than seven percent of the global agency was affected as a result of both an internal restructure and adjusting to clients’ needs due to the impact COVID-19.
The CEO is focused now more than ever on ensuring his team feels safe. Not just from fear of job loss at this time but also from fear of judgement of creativity.
"If our creatives go with a crazy pitch that ends with us getting fired, they know that their jobs are not in jeopardy," he said. "I’m making my team feel safe, to be creative. The industry has become very conservative over the past 15 to 20 years which is why I think you’ve seen more mundane work in comparison to some of the things you’ve seen in the past. I’m hoping that we bring back some of that energy and people more talented than me build their own creative shops around it.
"I feel bad for all the creatives out there right now who have so many good ideas but have to pick one to present because we live in an historic, TVC-top-down, one-video-represents-it, push-down-matching-luggage-on-digital world."
The kind of creative he’s pushing for is work that centers around humility. Vaynerchuk noted that so many people level up in this industry carrying frustration with how they were treated as a junior and it causes them to replicate the very behavior they hated. He argued that his volume model leads to less politics and more making.
Vaynerchuk added: "I always thought I’d be demonized for my volume thesis by my creative class, only later to be looked upon differently, much like when I innovated with Wine Library TV -- the wine world hated it, I was ‘not being respectful to wine,’ but in reality I created a new generation of open-minded sommeliers. A decade later that is showed as a good thing in the wine world, that is my great ambition and dream with the ad world.
"A lot of people thought Netflix was a joke. A lot of people thought Kim Kardashian was a joke. Then the market takes over. So I have a lot of compassion for people thinking that I suck and we suck -- it makes sense to me. I just have a very strong conviction of how it plays out."