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Gary Vaynerchuk: ‘Stop blaming platforms for your own bad behaviour’

In a wide-ranging fireside chat, the outspoken agency leader and influencer speaks of rising consumer awareness around the negative effects of social media coming at the detriment of personal accountability, which he describes as 'the greatest virus in society'.

By Jessica Goodfellow

Gary Vaynerchuk is often asked by his friends about the ethics and safety of the social-media platforms he has dedicated his life towards, as both the chief executive of a social media-focused digital advertising agency, and as GaryVee, the influencer.

“You can imagine every friend of mine that is in this industry always wants to talk to me about this, especially those with kids,” he said during a fireside chat with Campaign Asia-Pacific at Advertising Week Asia on Thursday (May 27).

“They say ‘Look, Gary, this is ruining our kids’.”

His response is always the same: If you are worried about a platform, leave.

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“I’m like, ‘You’re their parent. Don’t let them be on the platform’,” he said. “I am so happy in my life because my mother created an ecosystem that didn’t make me succumb to peer pressure, and allowed me to independently think, and to not have my self-esteem wrapped up in other people’s validation. You as a parent are making a decision that you actually don’t care about this as much as you claim you do, because you’re letting your child live on it, and you yourself are living on it.”

Vaynerchuk is concerned that rising consumer awareness of the influence of social-media platforms, brought on by greater media attention and documentaries such as The Social Dilemma, is leading to “more blame and less accountability”.

“What I’m seeing is that people are blaming platforms for their own bad behaviour,” he explained. “Things like The Social Dilemma continue to build momentum on the greatest virus in society, which is lack of accountability. It’s a lot more fun to blame an algorithm than to blame yourself. And what I’ve seen, personally, is that the added awareness has now made people decide to point at something else.

“I genuinely believe accountability is an incredible key to happiness. And I think we’ve lived through—man, at this point—a generation of avoidance around accountability,” he added.

The “if you don’t like it, leave” mentality fails to take into account that many, including Vaynerchuk himself, have become so reliant on social media platforms for their income that they likely don’t have the choice to leave. But it’s part of Vaynerchuk’s ambition to encourage individuals, including his own employees, to make empowered decisions based on what their moral compass and their belief system is, rather than simply pointing their fingers.

“What I don’t admire is people being keyboard warriors or pontificating, but then not acting on it,” he said.

“For example, there are many clients that we don’t take on, there are many decisions I make, that are completely based on how I see the world. And I try to live my life in a way that makes me feel good about it.”

As a leader, Vaynerchuk said, he is petrified to look back at a decision with regret through the eyes of his children or grandchildren, “and that is always how I decide what to do”.

When he was working on his NFT (non-fungible token) project, launched in May, for example, he said he spent a lot of time weighing up the environmental impact of the digital assets.

“I’ve never picked financial, short-term decision-making over long-term brand vulnerability. Who wants to be who just wants to be on the wrong side of history?” he said.

But he equally recognises that what he considers “the wrong side of history” may differ from another agency leader.

“I’m sure there’s agencies, for example, that won’t take on Pepsi and Coca-Cola, because they have sugar beverages and plastic,” he said.

“Others are OK with that, but not OK with a gun manufacturer, or oil and fossil, or NFTs. If BBDO or Wieden & Kennedy or AKQA decide this, and we decide the other way, I don’t think I’m a better person, I don’t think I’m a worse person. I’m genuinely waking up every day trying to do good things to the best of my ability.”

‘Doing things that won’t get you fired’

Vaynerchuk has never shied away from taking a contrarian point of view and calling the industry out for its “silly” practices. But his tone has changed over the past year. No longer does he want to “poke at” his competitors. Instead he regularly mentions having “compassion” and “empathy” for their positions.

In his view, many agencies in the industry continue to approach marketing by “doing things that won’t get you fired”, rather than focusing on how to deliver real business results and value to consumers. But he also recognises he has the freedom to make decisions based on his beliefs and his moral compass because he isn’t at the behest of shareholders.

Vaynerchuk is the chairman of his own holding company, VaynerX, which houses ad agency VaynerMedia, plus VaynerProductions, The Sasha Group, Gallery Media Group, VaynerCommerce, Tracer and VaynerSpeakers. Where many marketers make decisions based on a 90-day reporting cycle, Vaynerchuk pushes his staff to follow consumer behaviour, which shifts day to day.

Day trading on consumer attention

The main topic of the fireside chat revolved around how brands can seek to capture attention as consumers hop between the latest platform or trend – from TikTok to Clubhouse to NFTs. He compares VaynerMedia’s approach to capturing consumer attention to day trading in the cryptocurrency market.

“I recently got very active in the NFT landscape,” he said. In Vaynerchuk’s NFT project, his fans can collect “VeeFriends” tokens and exchange them for real-world experiences.

“One of the wild things about that world is the price of Ethereum and Bitcoin is always alive, it is a constant anxiety roller coaster at all times. But ironically, it makes me think to this question [about how you approach on which platforms to capture user attention]. For me, whether it’s WeChat or Line, Facebook or Instagram, TikTok or Netflix, network TV, direct mail – I do all of this like day trading,” he said.

“So much more of what I’m looking for sits in the current state of consumer behaviour, more so in the historic way that it was measured through other mediums,” he added.

This “day trading” approach is one that many agencies or marketers in the industry are unable to adopt because responses are “slow” and measurement mechanisms are yet to catch up, Vaynerchuk believes.

The agency leader often talks about how he is “on an island by myself” when it comes to his approach to marketing.

“The thing I always talk to customers about is… does your organisation internally even measure new things like a TikTok or a Spotify ad or a new feature in Line or WeChat? Because the reality is, many of the marketers are not tone deaf or checked out, they just can’t spend dollars in those areas because the measurement mechanism hasn’t taken into account these new places. And the lag is extraordinary. Most organisations today do not measure TikTok properly, or even begin to think about how to, and it’s been a force for years,” he said.

In addition, many agencies pursue the high-profit margins of channels like programmatic, regardless of whether those channels are converting to actual business results, Vaynerchuk believes.

He has had “hundreds of conversations” with brand leaders who joke about impressions and GRPs not being real, “yet that’s still where they spend their money”.

“One could argue that it’s hard for the media buying agencies and the creative shops that dominate the industry to be incentivised to market in these new channels, because the profitability and the margin sits in old channels,” he said.

“If you’re a traditional digital media shop, it’s much more fun to do blackbox programmatic ad buying on the digital exchange from a margin standpoint, than it is to properly plan a day-in day-out comms plan for Facebook and TikTok. So if the brands are not holding the agencies accountable, the agencies are not accountable to the brands, they’re accountable to their stockholders.”

‘People do not want commercials’

Despite running an advertising agency, Vaynerchuk believes that most people will do everything they can to avoid watching commercials or seeing pop-up banner ads.

While social-media advertising “is so much less disruptive”, he has been “pushing harder” in the past six months for VaynerMedia to produce work that brings value to consumers.

“How do I not make an ad? Why can’t it be something informational or something deeply entertaining? Not a spoof of a music video, but an actual music video? That’s the game that I spend a lot of time on,” he said.

“Are we really in this audacious place that we think the world is sitting with bated breath to see our ads so they can buy our thing?”

According to Vaynerchuk, 98% of the work in the world is “stuff that people don’t want”, and that includes output produced by his own agency.

“That is not a dig at my own shop,” he said. “But we put out plenty of things that I don’t believe customers want. I have to be empathetic, there’s only so much dictatorship I can drive through my company. But I’ve been pushing harder the last six months, and we’ve started to really move the needle in that direction, and we’ve felt the effects of that.”

A version of this article originally appeared on Campaign Asia