Most people have heard of Gary Vaynerchuck. Many haven’t heard of his company, VaynerX. Yet this full-service digital agency stands out.
It’s global, has about 900 employees, serves huge brands, and is “built for the now.” That is, they were already super adept at the kind of swift pivoting and on-point messaging that our current world has been demanding of us since 2020 started bringing us all its challenges.
Andrea Sullivan is the CMO of this exciting company. In today’s episode, she has plenty to share both about agile marketing and the kind of culture-building that goes on at the VaynerX agency.
- [1:15] Andrea’s background.
- [4:28] The need for speed.
- [7:46] Navigating around cancel culture.
- [9:51] Practical processes for facilitating speed.
- [13:54] Nurturing trust.
- [15:57] The relationship between creative and KPIs.
- [17:39] Nurturing fun, successful, creative relationships in an agency.
- [20:18] Adjusting to the pandemic.
- [23:00] Andrea’s causes.
Andrea has been with VaynerX for 2 and a half years.
“It’s a very exciting culture,” she says. “It’s highly entrepreneurial, giving birth to new companies, new ideas all the time.”
VaynerX has continued to grow. For example, they’re about to open new offices in Singapore.
“This was a big shift for me, and an important one. I really wanted to celebrate everything I had learned on the agency side with Omnicom, but really loved the culture of Vayner to be honest, and Gary Vaynerchuck as our fearless leader. He’s created something that is quite incredible, in terms of building a culture that’s grounded in empathy and something we call ‘honey,’ in the sense that everyone has a tremendous amount of trust, a tremendous amount of happiness and joy in what they’re doing.”
She says the people at Vayner have a great gift for being able to innovate and try new things and are encouraged to do so without fear of failure.
“This has created a culture of speed. We are very much an organization that celebrates marketing for the now, and ironically I run a content series that’s called Marketing For the Now.“
She notes that companies who come to them are looking to make changes, and looking for an agency that will be a catalyst for that change.
The need for speed
“The need for speed is a function of trying to really make sure we’re relevant to all the audiences we serve,” Andrea says. “The global pandemic has required all of us to rethink ways of working, and certainly with not only the health dynamics but what has gone on in terms of the protests around Black Lives Matter and the role brands can play in making sure they’re walking the talk.”She says that VaynerX has had to play an increasing role in helping clients understand the importance of speed.
“Stepping back and thinking too much, not engaging in conversation, means you’re stepping out of culture rather than leaning into it.”She says Vayner embraces a methodology they call “the volume model,” where they come up with a number of different hypotheses and ideas and ways to connect with a myriad of different audiences, and what they call cohorts. She speaks of the importance of putting ego aside.
“We have to put aside believing that we could somehow be the ones that are coming with the right idea, the right single idea, the right single message to go into the world, but rather we have to find right, and we have to find right for each of the audiences we’re serving.”She says they accomplish this by staying close to culture.
“We bring our clients in terms of the ideation, we have tech threads with them where we’re on Slack, where we’re constantly coming up with things. We’re putting it out in the world to see what resonates and what doesn’t.”She says when they get that kind of input they can double down on what is and isn’t working.
Navigating around cancel culture
“If we don’t know who we are, we don’t know what our purpose is, then it does make it more difficult to be able to connect in ways that are authentic.”Everyone’s trying to both connect and manage risk, but VaynerX underscores this key thought:
“You should be walking the talk already, and you should know who you are. We can help in unlocking that and supercharging that.”
Practical processes and facilitating speed
“A lot of it comes down to trust,” Andrea says. “Sometimes that means engaging with the naysayers within the client organization.”
There are plenty of people who can be more cautious within an organization, like legal, or people who are just more hesitant by nature.
“We bring them on as early in the process as possible and make sure they’re rounding out the marketing ideas.”
This can get these individuals more comfortable with stretching their limits over time and getting feedback so they’re understanding the combination of risk and reward.
The other part?
“Setting the right kinds of metrics and KPIs. We’ve really tried to help organizations in drawing the link between what we’re doing and the relationship back to sales. As an industry, we’ve done a good job of coming up with a lot of different marketing metrics that don’t matter as much and disguising things a little bit.
Corporations have become addicted to them because that is the model that’s in place, and so people are afraid to debunk what has gone on for some time, and they’re probably afraid to look at something like sales and have that be the primary metric.”
She says they handle that by being in tune with the ways in which their partners are being measured inside their organizations, and to help be a catalyst for change if necessary.
“I think some of the other things that are just as fundamental is being really good at using our time with our clients. Having them on these text threads that may be going into the evenings and early mornings because we’re really excited about the ideas.”
VaynerX works in a highly integrated fashion between the insights and strategy teams, between their creatives, their media people, everyone coming together to ideate, building on each other. “That creates so many ideas, a volume of ideas, and I think that’s the most important thing in terms of the work that we do. We’re able to determine which are the ones that are really going to work for our clients.”
“We’re fortunate in that a lot of our clients are allowed to feel like their whole selves when they come to us. More so than perhaps they’ve felt with others. And I say that only because I saw some of the same exact clients who had walked into an Omnicom agency, and they had to dress and behave and act in one way, or in their own organization, but for some reason with us they’re different.”She says she hopes this is something that the pandemic itself has taught people.
“Humanity is incredibly important. Over time we’ve somehow built layers and bureaucracy and all of these things that are disguising us So what can we do to shed those things so we can actually do our best work?”Of course, doing that best work and getting results builds trust too.
The relationship between creative and KPIs
“Our whole sense is that creative is the variable of success, so you have to look at what is the context in the channel in which you’re serving up the content.”
Andrea describes a campaign they did on TikTok.
“Would we have produced the same thing on another channel? Probably not, but I think the ad model that I think the whole industry had subscribed to for so long was TV first, and so it was come up with your big idea and then chop it into bits and push it out across these different channels, and we work in the opposite way. So we wanna make sure we’re understanding who it is we’re talking about, what is the context in which we’re serving up the creative.”
Nurturing fun, successful, creative relationships in an agency
“One of the things you’ll find,” she says, “is if someone has been at Vayner for six years, and we’ve been around going on 11 years…if someone has been here for six years they may, in fact, have had six different roles during that tenure. Which is fantastic.”She says it really creates a different atmosphere.
“I think having the permission to be able to constantly contribute, but also to dream and see where the white space is going, and to be able to raise your hand…there’s nothing more exciting than that.”She says that openness has not existed in previous organizations she’s been a part of.
“Most people feel a little hesitant to say: hey, I’m bored. Or: I wanna do something else. Often times the response could be: great, there’s the door if you don’t wanna keep doing this job. At Vayner, it’s very much celebrated.”She also discusses the fact that Vayner invests in its employees.
“We just engaged with a career and life coaching group called the Handel Group, and we’re offering every single one of our 900 employees the opportunity to learn more about how they can become happier both in their personal lives in addition to their professional lives. And so we are just at the moment learning a whole new vocabulary inside our organization to address things like our ‘inner chicken.’ Gary’s doing this too, and he’s confessed, as strong as he is, a chicken at a couple of things. I’m a chicken at some other things. And the more we can have this sort of honest vocabulary that builds personal integrity as well as company-wide integrity, that gets to the trust we talked about earlier with or organization that we can then share with our clients as well.”
Adjusting to the Pandemic
“A lot of it was just staying really close to our employees. Everyone was impacted differently. I think we were surprised we were able to stand up all the technology and the rest pretty immediately, but we are a culture that really thrives on adrenaline and energy. We love almost sitting on one another’s laps. That’s how close everybody is. I think all of us were questioning: how do we create that environment where we can still get our fix of energy and be able to be as creative as we wanna be in a world where we can’t go out and produce things in the same way as we did before?”The key for their team was to be able to check in with themselves and one another. She also mentions that when the Black Lives Matter protests erupted they held a Town Hall.
“It included every single person in the company. We allowed everyone to jump in and ask questions. Some wanted to do it live. Some wanted to do it anonymously. Gary, the team, everyone answered on the fly, as they came. Nothing was rehearsed. It was raw and hard, but beautiful, and something that really helped to grow the culture.”Finally, they’re letting everyone determine their own comfort level with taking risks during the pandemic.
“We’ll be giving everyone the opportunity to work from home for quite some time. There are many people who wanna get back up and running, and others who don’t feel like it’s safe quite yet, so allowing people to make those decisions, putting in all the safeguards whenever we can, but allowing the flexibility reduces a little bit of the anxiety as well.”
What's your right now cause?
“He was previously imprisoned as a drug dealer, and as he served his time, I believe it was seven years, he became increasingly unhealthy. He wasn’t eating the right things. He didn’t have as much movement as he should. He didn’t like to exercises. But he started first to walk, then he started to run, and he started to get in shape just doing things in his prison cell, then he started training other people when he was in jail. When he got out he started CONBODY.”It’s an organization that’s especially salient as it focuses on fitness that can be done with things that are immediately accessible, like towels or other very simple things, and all the classes were done in areas the size of a prison cell. He’s turned it into a virtual business and he only hires cons.
“The classes are inexpensive, and it gives these ex-prisoners, none of whom have gone to jail again, lifeblood and an incredible community to tap into. I think there’s a lot of questions around the criminal justice system and things like that. To me it’s a way of giving people another chance.”The other cause she wants to call out is the Boys and Girls Club.
“They’re serving a community right now that’s very underserved. The statistics are pretty alarming on the suffering of kids in marginalized communities and the impact of online schooling is great if you have the technology. If you don’t have the technology it strictly doesn’t happen. Those who are behind are going to be left even more behind, so I’d love to encourage people to give back to Boys and Girls Club or any of their community sort of offerings that can help the children that deserve to have the best lives and best chances they can.” When you have those faces and personalities reflective and representative of who you want to be in the room, who gets to show up in the room, that changes dramatically.”President & CEO of the Milwaukee Boys and Girls club, Kathy Thornton-Bias, was recently on an episode of Marketing For the Now.