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Interview by Jason and Kelcie Papp
Gary Vaynerchuk didn’t inherit his dad’s liquor store; he built it for him.
And from the aisles of his family's liquor store to the heart of global entrepreneurship, Gary Vee’s journey is a testament to insatiable ambition, grit, and a visionary grasp of the digital age. The son of Belarusian immigrants, Gary's story began in a world far removed from the glittering skyline of Manhattan. His insights, hard-won through years of hands-on experience and keen observation, have transformed not only his life but the lives of countless followers and budding entrepreneurs — ‘normal people’ outside our industry.
But along with his admirers, he has his critics, of course. So, how does a man with such a storied past and polarising present envision the future? What are the insights and experiences that have shaped his worldview? And, perhaps most importantly, what can we learn from the man who seems to have cracked the code on digital engagement and entrepreneurial success? We sat down with Gary Vaynerchuk and his Managing Director for EMEA, Daisy Domenghini, to dig into these questions and so much more. Prepare for an eye-opening journey into the mind of a digital-era iconoclast.
We sit and wait. The room’s sumptuous armchairs inverted into a friendly circle, classic oil paintings hanging from the walls edited with VaynerMedia anecdotes. We’re not kept waiting long until Gary enters the room. Unpretentious yet purposeful, he greets us with intentional eye contact, communicating he is present and ready to talk.
“Pleasure to see you again,” he says.
Self-assured? Yes. Egotistical, no way.
We ready ourselves to dive into the mind of a man who's become a symbol of self-made success. Our mission? Dig beyond the surface and comprehend how the “disproportionately youngest agency of any kind of scale in the world [has gone on to] do hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue,” as Gary puts it. Unless none of Vayner’s clients are measuring ROI, the millions can’t just be pouring in because of his ‘appeal as an individual.’
For us, we already saw evidence of why it succeeds way before this interview began. Let me explain. You see, as journalists at a challenger title, we enjoy a rather privileged insight of agency or brand culture straight from the initial contact. Why can we say that? As a brand leader, agencies are programmed to share their best with you, whether that’s taking you for dinner or escorting you around Cannes Lions to showcase their year’s best work. For us though, it’s rather more raw.
Harriet Flory, VaynerX’s EVP Global Head of Communications, was our first introduction to Vayner. It was at Cannes Lions 2022 aboard their yacht. We weren’t from AdWeek, Campaign, but THE GOODS’ ethos resonated. In fact, Harriet ensured she secured a paper copy to show to Gary.
We left the yacht that night with a spring in our step like Dire Straits singing Sultans of Swing. Did we think Harriet would share the copy with Gary? Maybe. But imposter syndrome is real.
The next day, Kelcie sees Harriet again. This time, she’s accompanying Gary from his Meta Beach keynote. Streams of fans line up to meet him to take a selfie. It’s an odd sight seeing brand leaders queuing up for a selfie with, ultimately, an agency leader. Figuratively speaking, isn’t it usually the other way around?
Harriet catches Kelcie's eye and makes a point of introducing her to Gary. “Gary, this is Kelcie from THE GOODS, the magazine I was telling you about.”
“Hello, pleasure to meet you, Kelcie.” His genuine level of eye contact leaves an indelible impression.
So, why am I providing such intricate descriptions? What’s the point? There’s one thing an agency can’t fake for too long - their culture.
Navigating the Emotional Topography of Modern Advertising: A Candid Conversation on Toxicity, Talent, and Transformation
Over a year of interaction with Harriet, determined to make an interview with Gary happen, the agency’s culture became clear. Yes, they work hard, but without ego. That Vayner is more than Gary was proof when Harriet suggested interviewing both Daisy Domenghini and Gary together.
Commenting on agency culture, Gary states, “It's been very hard for me, and continues to be hard for me, hiring from the outside. Agency culture is really negative.” On starting Vayner, he says, “You know, the company was very awkward. The first 89 employees in my company were all kids that had zero days' experience in agency land, so we were all just like living. And then at some point, I thought it was strategic in year five or six. I'm like, you know, I should probably bring in some agency people just to like, syphon the good from it, to learn. So we did that for five years, and that was extremely challenging.”
Going deeper, Gary points to a very different energy that hiring externally brought to the agency. Four years ago he began the process of, in his words, “unbinding that by holding people from the outside dramatically more accountable to conform instead of letting them seep in bad behaviour.” The reason for this bad behaviour? Gary says, “It's because they're scared people. It has a lot to do with the way the whole industry works.” He explains, “You know, I'm in a lot of stuff. I've been in a lot of businesses. I've been in a lot of sectors. Everybody in the wine business is like, the wine business is so tough. The ad world is in a very bad place. It is one of the more unhealthy industries from a humanity standpoint. And it's really too bad. It's really too bad. And I have a lot of passion to disrupt that.”
Raw emotion apparent, Gary asserts, “I don't think the majority of people in our industry realise how much of a toxic relationship they have with their job.” He says, “It's abusive. I really do think it is. I genuinely believe the ad world is not happy, and I think it has a lot to do with the way we do work, how we celebrate and what we celebrate.” Gary expands, “I'm very into marketing and business and sales and branding. I think that marketing has to have a function, meaning I think one of the biggest weaknesses of awards ceremonies, such as Cannes Lions and the like, is that people are in an echo chamber and we are talking about things within ourselves, but if you take a step back, the reason we do marketing is to sell the thing.” Gary suggests, “Creativity is beauty. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Just because somebody gets an award, that does not mean that it affirms that it was good work. Most of the work that gets awards didn't actually move the business anyway.”
Suggesting further reasons of toxicity he says, “I think it has a lot to do with fear. I think it has a lot to do with Wall Street DNA, you know, our clients are scared too. Hurt people - hurt people. They're yelling at us because they're scared for their job.” We ask why. “Because you have to be measured every 90 days in the stock price. So people are not building meaningful things in this business. Almost every independent agency is hoping to sell their agency to a holding company. Like the whole thing's all messed up.” Driving the point home he states, “I believe that if I love my employees the most, they like me, and I can eliminate fear, then they themselves can show up in the world in a way that actually impacts our brand.”
On the topic of hiring talent Daisy, VaynerMedia’s EMEA MD, explains what she looks for “My number one thing is the person, obviously. That willingness to…” She pauses, searching for the essence. “There's a hustle to it. It's not an industry where you need to sit and wait, you need to be able to move, you need to have your eyes open, somebody who's willing to learn, and continuously evolve is super, super important to me.”
“I don't think the majority of people in our industry realise how much of a toxic relationship they have with their job...It's abusive. I really do think it is. I genuinely believe the ad world is not happy, and I think it has a lot to do with the way we do work, how we celebrate and what we celebrate....I think it has a lot to do with fear. I think it has a lot to do with Wall Street DNA, you know, our clients are scared too. Hurt people - hurt people. They're yelling at us because they're scared for their job.” We ask why. “Because you have to be measured every 90 days in the stock price.” - Gary Vaynerchuk
Gary adds, “On the creative side, the biggest issue our creatives have is lack of self-awareness on how much humility to have.” Expanding on the affair with toxicity within SLT, Gary points out, “Like, you grew up and you were toxic, and now that you got the spot, you're toxicating. It's like, because you got crapped on, now that you have the top perch, you're crapping on it. And it's like really? This is that generational bad behaviour crap that I think about in real life, that I'm seeing in creative leads. Great ideas can come from anywhere? That's not real in agencies. The chief creative officer decides what they want to do, and that's what gets done.”
Gary reiterates, “I look for humility, which is really hard to interview for. I do question that. I go with intuition, and then my belief, like, can I connect with them?”
Turning to Daisy, Vee says, “Daisy, this is real. Daisy, don't sugarcoat it for me, but don't undersell it for whatever reason. Please tell everyone what happened in the first four minutes of us ever talking to each other.”
Daisy explains, “I was very open about who I was and then he said in five years time you're going to be my CEO. And being a woman, I instantly went ‘that didn't happen, let me push this back here’ because it's your imposter syndrome.”
Adding to this, Gary suggests, “The reason I say that is, whether Daisy's destined to be the CEO or not, I surely felt that there was a person that I liked on the other line that had capacity and high energy and all the things I like. But the problem for Daisy and all of her contemporaries is she's been so built to worry about the short-term P&L, the client, all the things that I'm trying to teach all my people to not worry about, but it's hard. Even for Harriet (mentioned at the outset) on the account side. Harriet had her same version of it. PR people, in agencies, all they're trying to do is put makeup on their people.”
Empathy Amid Criticism: Detractors and Building Culture
Highlighting Vee's critics, we inquire about his response when individuals like Ritson express opinions, as Gary puts it, that “I am full of crap and everything in between.”
He says he feels “Empathetic. Flattered. And like, embarrassed when it's the most extreme in a good way. And deeply, deeply compassionate when it's extreme in the other way. Multiple people that have written nasty things about me and I'm talking not multiple - dozens of people that have written nasty things about me in this industry and outside of it have apologised to me in deep detail five, seven, ten years later. And they all say the same things: I was in a really bad place and your light made me feel even worse, and I just wanted to tear you down. It's all the same crap.”
On Ritson, Vee notes, “He has passionate points of view about me and other things. And I'm empathetic to that. I wish Mark the greatest happiness of all time. It's just, not that I completely dismiss it, not that it's just noise, but it's hard to take seriously because it's philosophy.” He says, “I think there's nobody who does what we do for a living that's actually known by real people besides me. In our entire industry, the only person that exists in our industry that real normal people actually know of as well is me.”
But is that it? Is it just the Gary Vee Show? He continues, “I think that what I'm spending my time on from a brand standpoint is, I think that the best representation of our brand is the human beings that are in it. I am getting complimented on the hour by the hour of the humanity and kindness and value of the human beings that work at Vayner. And so my goal is to continue building an internal culture that eliminates fear, to then allow our thousands of employees to show up in the world, to create the reputation of who we are, because the goal of branding and marketing is to do business.”
"I am getting complimented on the hour by the hour of the humanity and kindness and value of the human beings that work at Vayner. And so my goal is to continue building an internal culture that eliminates fear" - Gary Vaynerchuk
Redefining Relevance: Consumer-Centric Inspiration, the Power of Today, and the Future of Industry Awards
After magnifying Gary’s vision, we head back to this echo chamber issue, posing a question to Daisy: Where does the MD of such a major player in our industry seek inspiration? Industry magazines like Campaign and The Drum?
Resolutely, she says, “None of these.” Why? “To me, it's like, where's the consumer? What's actually happening in the real world? Actually, when I have my team constantly sending me, ‘Have you seen this article? Have you seen who's won?’ It's unhealthy. What game are you playing?” Expanding further, Domenghini substantiates, “For me, it's social media. It's looking at what other people are reacting to, and more than anything, looking at the comments. What are people actually saying about this? Because that's much more insightful and impactful. I also actually hate surrounding myself with other people in the industry. I want to know what's happening with this entrepreneur over here, what's actually really happening in the real world. It's the only way you're going to stay relevant.”
Gary says, “What is fun about our industry is I do believe that creativity is the variable of success. But in line with where Daisy's going, I think it's very hard to be inspired by a 30-second commercial that's made for television. There's nothing inspiring about that. For me, what's inspiring is if you're talking about creative inspiration, it's being done by individual human beings at scale across the internet today. And then inspirational overall tends to just be stories that touch something that I care about, right? And that can come in any form of media. Just whenever I hear something that is nice or a story of perseverance. That's why I like Rocky.”
But on the flip side, what really bothers Gary about our industry is our “obsession with yesterday and tomorrow.” He says, “I really do love being a part of this industry but it’s incredibly capable of not caring about today. This obsession with yesterday. This obsession with tomorrow. Meanwhile, more stuff will be sold today because of social media ads than anything else in the world. How much talk is there about social media creators? This industry is not interested in what is going on with the consumer today. It's just not.” Vee states, “If someone's like, you have to change the name [of VaynerMedia], I do think that I'd call it Today. It's just so obvious to me. It's just not what the industry does. The industry is incredibly bad at it.”
And to Gary’s point. When was the last time a social media creator won an award at Cannes? Gary recommends that “most of the awards given out at ceremonies [like Cannes] should be given out for Best TikTok that's sold crap by doing something creative.”
Reinforcing Vee’s point, Daisy reminds us of the TikTok star that gave cranberry juice a ‘vibe’. She says, “I love the idea of entering the Ocean Spray guy, 420doggface208.
Literally, enter him into an Effie. Marketing effectiveness 101.” Combining the unlikely ingredients of skateboarding, cranberry juice, and the classic “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac, the video went viral and sold a whole lot of Ocean Spray at the same time. And he is no one-hit wonder. In fact, brands have jumped at the opportunity to work with 'Dog Face' including a collaboration with Lux Longboards when it launched a limited-edition electric longboard. He has also posted Xbox, LG, ASOS, and Idaho Potatoes ads. His worth? It’s reported to be north of $1m. Not bad for a trucker from Idaho Falls.
Gary says, “You know, it's funny, anytime we talk social, immediately, even subconsciously, we go to the young. Every 40 to 60-year-old woman on earth buys their [crap] from social. Outside of this world, we talk about social media as the most powerful tool that is upending governments. In this industry, we don't talk about it.”
So, who knows, perhaps an exec at Cannes Lions will be reading this and next year, there'll be an award for Best TikTok that sold crap by doing something creative. And very likely, it will rarely be an agency that wins it. Now, that would be a shake-up of things.
“I love the idea of entering the Ocean Spray guy, 420doggface208. Literally, enter him into an Effie. Marketing effectiveness 101.” - Daisy Domenghini, Managing Director EMEA
Changing How Clients and Agencies Work Together
But, ultimately, clients pay the bills. So, client-agency relationships. How does Vayner deal with tricky clients? Gary says, “At our best, our leadership team tries to do their best, and then if they can't get it further, I'm still the active CEO, who's passionately in the business, and I beg my team to bring me in to help them. At our worst, they just eat it, because they grew up in this industry, and they think it's normal. Unfortunately, we're at our worst 85% of the time, but the good news is we were at our worst 95% of the time six months ago, so we've made a lot of progress. And I hope that next year, we’ll be doing that only 30% of the time.”
Underscoring, Vee says, “One of my most substantial passions to change this industry is that I don't think clients treat agencies nicely enough. I think they should hold them accountable. I actually think agencies should be fired more often but yelled at less.” The fix? Vee suggests, “The concept of bringing civility back. Human beings are not inspired by fear. I don't work harder for someone because they're trying to scare me.”
Mastering EMEA: Local Trust Meets Continental Reach
VaynerMedia's EMEA expansion in Amsterdam comes in response to strong demand for its modern advertising approach, boasting initial clients like Indeed and Zalando. Commenting on the launch, Daisy says, “Amsterdam's gone crazy. We opened it unofficially last year and we've got about 30 people on the ground and it's going brilliantly.” She adds that the digital-first powerhouse has 'pods' of talent spread across Europe to ensure localised, effective social media strategies. “In order to be able to authentically do social well, you need to have those creators and that strategic talent in the market. Because the algorithms aren't the same. You can try VPN and all that kind of stuff, but it's just not the same as being in the market and really understanding what's going on on the ground.”
NatWest Bank was one of VaynerMedia EMEA’s first significant partnerships. “We are now about five years into our relationship with them, and it's going brilliantly. The range of projects is diverse, from B2B podcasts to energising their digital journey,” Daisy explains. She emphasises that the level of trust clients have in VaynerMedia allows for the execution of their model most effectively. “I think too often clients are trying to hold on to control. And because that's what establishes them in their role, they feel that they are relinquishing control to us but actually they could achieve even more if they enable us.”
Of the partnership, NatWest's Commercial and Institutional Banking Chief Marketing Officer, Michael Buffham-Wade said:
“We’re very proud of the work we continue to do with VaynerMedia, across both our digital and podcast content. For several years we’ve partnered with them on our category leading podcast series, The Business Show, attracting talent such as The Pool Guy and The Bald Builders and therefore continually building our credibility and authority in supporting SMEs. In 2022 we set ourselves and them the challenge of appealing to a younger audience and in response, Vayner have been instrumental in the development of our social-first content strategy. As part of that we launched TikTok for NatWest Business in July 2022 and we’ve grown our presence in a busy start-up market, seeing our following quickly grow to 30k. Making sure we’re positioned in culturally and contextually relevant environments we’ve seen our organic influencer campaign (just 11 posts) reach over 4m views – which represents a 76% return on investment (RoI) in terms of media efficiency.”
Key clients in the UK include: TikTok, Durex, NatWest Group, and WeWork.
Greatest Regrets and Priceless Triumphs
So, away from quashing fear, agency toxicity and nurturing rising stars, what does Gary count as his biggest regret? Taking a moment, he explains stalwartly, “My biggest regret is always not spending enough time with people I love, whether they're still here with us or they're not. And there's not even a close second. I actually don't regret anything else. Period. I think it's one of the silliest energies that humans use. There's no time machine. And most things don't matter. Nothing in business matters. So that's for damn sure. So that's that.”
And Vee’s biggest triumph? “That a man whispered in my ear yesterday that I saved his life.” Turning to his Videographer, Gary asks, “And that happens how often, Dustin?”
Dustin affirms, “Every time I'm with you.”
Humanising Metrics, and Charting the Future of the Industry
VaynerMedia stands as a living challenge to conventional thinking, questioning and outright defying established norms in creativity, client-agency relationships, and the yardsticks of industry success. Much like the European Bison of Belarus's Białowieża Forest, a species that came back from the brink of extinction, Gary Vaynerchuk's own journey, in the industry thus far, echoes a resilient survival in the wilds of Adland. Juxtaposing his deepest regret—time not spent with loved ones—with his greatest triumph—saving a life through positive impact—Vaynerchuk's ethos is imprinted deeply in the agency's culture.
Behind every metric and campaign at VaynerMedia are real people, complete with emotions, ambitions, and complexities. This delicate equilibrium between hard numbers and human experience distinguishes the agency. Under the unwavering leadership of CEO Gary Vaynerchuk, EMEA Managing Director Daisy Domenghini, and the extended Vayner family, the agency uniquely blends a keen eye on today's ever-evolving consumer behaviors, especially visible in social media comment sections, with a profound respect for human values.
It's not a rebellion for its own sake but a meaningful evolution, setting a standard for the future of the creative and advertising sectors—of which anyone invested would do well to study closely.