Gary Vaynerchuk on expanding to Toronto

To spend 30 minutes chatting with Gary Vaynerchuk is to experience just a hint of the whirlwind personality that has made him a media darling over the past two decades. He is a veritable quote machine, effortlessly reeling off pronouncements on the state of modern media with the conviction of a true zealot.

Wearing a New York Knicks cap and a grey hoodie, the co-founder and CEO of VaynerMedia, a man Vice once memorably described as “Don Draper meets Tony Robbins meets Ritalin,” comes largely as advertised: self-assured, spirited, and opinionated.

Our conversation is ostensibly about his 14-year-old social-first agency officially planting its flag in Canada with the opening of a new Toronto office led by vice-president and country manager Jeanny Ponce (pictured right), but there are a few detours along the way.

VaynerMedia has spent the past five years in Canada servicing the Mondelēz Canada business. Last year, it was named the food giant’s lead agency in Canada and the U.S.—where it oversees communications planning and digital buying—following a sweeping global review (Publicis Groupe picked up the bulk of its business).

“I think we’re ready,” says Vaynerchuk of the decision to expand his namesake agency’s Canadian operation into a full-service entity that adds creative and strategy to the mix.

In some ways, VaynerMedia has evolved from its 2009 beginnings as a social shop to become a global creative and media powerhouse that has developed Super Bowl spots including this year’s “Great Acting or Great Taste” work for Pepsi, and “The Roast of Mr. Peanut” for Planter’s, while picking up media AOR remits for clients including Alaska Airlines, Tinder, and American Eagle.

But VaynerMedia remains proudly social first. His agency, he says boldly, is a “preview of what all agencies will look like” in the future: media and creative together, creating content that is contextually relevant to the different channels. Vaynerchuk is famous in marketing circles for his oft-stated belief that contemporary marketing must put social media at its centre, and believes that Canada’s leading marketers, “grossly underestimate” the fact that contemporary brand-building happens in social.

VaynerMedia’s new downtown Toronto office currently has 20 staffers, mostly comprised of account and media personnel. However, Vaynerchuk said that planned additions to its strategy and creative departments could push that headcount to between 75 and 100 within a year.

“Our anticipation is that social creative AOR is going to be a dominant product,” he says. “I say this with incredible humility and respect—there’s a lot of room for better social work [among] the biggest brands in Canada. They’re going to realize that pretty quickly as we have the luxury of getting in front of them and explaining.”

Many brands, he continues, are simply “mailing it in” when it comes to social media marketing. “We’re able to get a pretty quick sense of [if brands] understand the creative opportunities on these platforms: the form factors, what actually works, the copy, the hashtags—we can do a very quick sense of if it’s being taken seriously, and the reality is that less than 10% of the Fortune 500 is taking it seriously. It’s very clear that there’s a lot of opportunity.”

Canada, meanwhile, becomes the 11th country to house a VaynerMedia office, following its expansion into Asia Pacific in 2019 (it now has five offices in the region), followed by Mexico in 2021, and The Netherlands in 2022.

“We’ve been here for a while under the guise of a more North American scope with Mondelēz , but the agency has proven to me, with what we’ve done in Latin America and Asia-Pacific, that we are very capable of entering new markets [with our] skillset of media, creative and social strategy,” says Vaynerchuk.

VaynerMedia bills itself as “a truly consumer-centric storytelling engine” that pays equal respect to a tweet and a Super Bowl spot. While Vaynerchuk is generally skeptical of  TV’s continued reputation as a prestige brand-building media, he says the Super Bowl remains a worthwhile creative playground.

There’s a bigger need, he says, for “modern comms planning” because most of the country’s top 200 international and domestic clients are still reliant on reach/frequency, making the market ripe for growth for VaynerMedia.

“The gap between what they’re doing and what we do best in the world is so substantial that we feel that when we go on our roadshow, inevitably there’ll be three to five brands ready to go because they’ve realized it in the last two to three years, and the other 190 will be very aware of how much they need to get going after they have real conversations with us,” says Vaynerchuk.

His outspoken pronouncements on marketing have made Vaynerchuk a popular figure among the business press (AdAge put VaynerMedia fifth on its 2022 Agency A-List), while his videos espousing “hustle culture”—once described bv The Verge as an “unyielding stream of in-your-face, motivational content that promises the secrets to a better life”—have also earned him a fanbase among a particular subset of consumers.

His admirers, I discovered only recently, include my 21-year-old son. It turns out that Vaynerchuk had made something of an impression on him when he was going through what he called a “self-improvement guru phase” as a teenager.

The conversation with the man who calls himself Gary Vee was supposed to happen in person, and my son had wondered if he could tag along. I’m personally disappointed it didn’t happen, because I would have loved to simply observe my son, a history and literature buff, in conversation with a larger-than-life figure like Vaynerchuk.

Vaynerchuk’s social-first philosophy has also earned him a few high-profile detractors among marketers, however. Mark Ritson, another popularly outspoken ad critic, said in a 2018 column for MarketingWeek that Vaynerchuk is “wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong,” about media, while others have been even less generous in their assessment of the man himself.

Vaynerchuk, however, insists that when it comes to marketing, fewer people are disagreeing with him these days. “If nothing else, they definitely think [social media] is at least ‘and,’ not ‘or,'” he says. “There are very few marketers that aren’t aware they’re losing on relevance. [They say] ‘We have 96% unaided awareness and we continue to not grow. Why?’ Maybe it’s because you’re not winning on relevance.’ How do you win on relevance? By not spending all of your money on one video.”

TV, he insists, is predicated on potential reach rather than actual reach, and broadcasters are still charging for commercial inventory like it’s 1983. “I would buy television ads across every single network if they were 80% less than cost,” he says.

He’s not about to change his tune, he says, and clients are increasingly willing to listen. He insists that he’s channel agnostic, but passionate about common sense. “It’s very hard to argue [against the claim] that reach and frequency work. I agree,” he says. “I think the problem is that people are making assumptions about the reach being consumed. I’m talking about actualized consumption versus potential consumption, and the cost of creative.”

Vaynerchuk said he’s also confident in the ability of Ponce to lead the agency after five years with the company. “I always knew that we were doing something so unique, it was hard to have someone from the outside [set up] an office,” he said. “For all the admiration I had for all the agencies out there, it’s almost unfair to bring in a holding company GM of [for example] a Vancouver office and ask them to do VaynerMedia well, because we genuinely do do it differently.

“It’s a classic scenario of the market being ready for us, they believe in what we do, and we’re mature enough and ready to take on the task,” he said.

Ponce, whose career prior to VaynerMedia included stops at Starcom MediaVest Group, Cossette Media and Carat, said that VaynerMedia has continued to build its understanding of the Canadian market since its arrival. “Everything came together in the perfect way where we’re ready to hit the ground running,” she says.

For now, there are no clients beyond Mondelēz Canada, with Vaynerchuk saying they’re ostensibly launching the agency on spec. “We’re making the investment because of our belief in ourselves, our product, and Jeanny,” he says. “I’m empathetic to my holding company contemporaries because they have to hit numbers every quarter. I as an independent can decide ‘It’s time to invest.'”

Asked about the vision for VaynerMedia, Ponce says the goal is to eventually become one of the country’s largest independents, with Quebec a real target somewhere down the road. “We want to be meaningful contributors to the market,” he says. “We’ve been able to do that everywhere we go. We want to inspire healthy dialogue around marketing. I’m really genuinely excited to finally be here.”

And while Vaynerchuk has earned a reputation for his forthright and outspoken views on what contemporary marketing should be, he nsists that he respects other people’s opinions. “Real talk, I respect other people’s point of view,” he says. “I don’t ever walk around thinking I’m right. I walk around thinking ‘This is what we believe.’

“We’re grounded in business results more than reports and awards,” he continues. “I know that in the past 13 years, we’ve built one of the largest global independent agencies of all time, not just of this era (VaynerMedia currently employs more than 1,300 people worldwide).

“That’s not happening because people think I’m funny or I’m a character,” he says. We’re not holding onto clients for seven, 10, 12 years because of sizzle, we’re holding onto them because of steak.”

Chris Powell