Mark Ritson: Gary Vaynerchuk is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong about media

Gary Vaynerchuk Gary Vee
Photo by Stephen McCarthy/RISE/Sportsfile

Every advertising era has its guru. From Thomas Barratt and the advent of modern outdoor advertising to David Ogilvy and the creation of effective print ads, Rosser Reeves and the emergence of TV commercials to Lester Wunderman and the turn toward direct marketing.

Media changes with the decades and so do the thought leaders that represent and promote them to marketers. Interestingly, each medium seems to also reflect its guru’s own personal positioning.

Barratt applied the flair for controversy that he prescribed for successful advertising to his own reputation. Wunderman’s clinical approach to media was reflected in the way he promoted himself and his firm. Ogilvy made his own personal narrative as absorbing as anything he prescribed for effective print advertising.

It’s therefore highly appropriate that, in this age of Facebook and social media, the most influential media thinker of our current age is Gary Vaynerchuk. Some marketers might bristle at my elevation of Vaynerchuk to such a vaunted role but his social media statistics, if they are to be believed, speak volumes. His millions of followers across LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram – where he is known as Gary Vee – mean that more people learn from Vaynerchuk on a typical day than the combined total of students who settle down for a marketing lecture at the universities across the planet.

And that troubles me deeply. Not because Vaynerchuk is undeserving of his fame. No-one has worked harder or proven more adept in building a personal brand and public company. And lest this column appear to be a personal attack, let me also make it clear that Vaynerchuk himself appears at all times to be a personable and genuinely appealing individual. Despite his fame and fortune he has kept it real and passed a test that many, of lesser humility and character, have failed.

But it’s not his work rate or personality that worries me. It’s the fact that he is so frequently wrong. And that fallibility multiplied by the fame he now enjoys means that his wrongness echoes around marketing and media circles like a giant, ongoing thunderstorm of bullshit. Truly, he is an appropriate media guru for our post-modern, post-truth times.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson: Marketers are clueless about media effectiveness – here’s the proof

Here is an overview of the main places where Vaynerchuk is wrong. Note I will not take issue with the personal brand or motivational aspects of Vaynerchuk’s content. That is for others, with expertise on these topics, to comment on. It is the media nonsense that I focus on here

In a move that will totally bamboozle Gary himself, I do not rely on my recent experiences on my couch or “simple common sense”, but rather use a chart featuring data from a representative sample of consumers to demonstrate the utter wrongness of his point.

Gary Vaynerchuk is wrong about Facebook and Instagram

Gary saying it (2:02-2:29)

Gary’s argument

Over and over again Vaynerchuk has the same prescription for brands and entrepreneurs. It does not matter who he speaks to. It does not matter where he is speaking. Irrespective of brand, target audience or objective Vaynerchuk has three go-to marketing “strategies”. They aren’t strategies, of course. Like most of the digital marketing industry, Vaynerchuk confuses communications and tactics with proper brand strategy.

His first recommendation is Super Bowl advertising. This might come as something of a shock given his general antipathy for TV advertising but in the binary world of Gary Vaynerchuk the Super Bowl is different from all other TV commercials because, I assume based on his own annual experiences every January, he believes that people watch ads during the Super Bowl but never at any other time of the year. Having acknowledged this one, extremely expensive outlier he then moves to his main two prescribed “strategies”: Facebook and Instagram.

To be clear, his recommendation is not to include Facebook and Instagram in the mix. No such mix is even countenanced. This is a recommendation to absolutely spend all your marketing budget (aside from your Super Bowl ad of course) on these two channels and on nothing else.

Why he is wrong

There is nothing wrong with investing some of your marketing budget on Facebook and Instagram. You’d be hard pushed to find a large company that does not do this, or anyone that would suggest the move was mistaken. But the idea that this would “literally be your entire spend” is hilariously wrong-headed.

It’s wrong because to instantly prescribe any tactical solution without first pausing to consider the strategic requirements that precede the media decision is dumbness personified.

What if the brand is positioned around privacy and supreme secrecy? Facebook for that? Does Vaynerchuk’s approach work if the target audience is made up of 70-year old high-rollers who use the internet but don’t touch Instagram? How about if the brand has the single objective for 2019 of increasing awareness from 12% to 25%? Why prescribe bottom-of-funnel tools for a top-of-funnel objective?

But it’s mostly wrong because it sets a very simplistic, limiting goal for channel selection. If Vaynerchuk has the budget he would choose just three channels and then double or triple down on them with his media investment. But that approach flies in the face of all the evidence that, rather than investing heavily in a few ‘superior’ channels, the prudent approach is to invest across as many channels as your budget will allow.

If Vaynerchuk’s advice were correct we would see a slew of effectiveness awards for campaigns just featuring Facebook and Instagram. We don’t. We see a lot of awards for campaigns that use Facebook and Instagram but also integrate those channels with TV, outdoor, radio and others.

In fact, there appears to be a clear correlation between more channels and more effectiveness in most cases. Even Facebook makes the point that its advertising works well with TV advertising, for goodness sake.

The killer chart

Graph: Facebook; Source: Nielsen TBE + CE meta analysis, commissioned by Facebook, November 2017

A Nielsen meta-analysis of 29 campaigns across TV and Facebook showed that dual exposure using both TV and Facebook leads to a higher lift in ad recall than TV-only or Facebook-only campaigns. To be clear, this data does not show that TV is better than Facebook, or Facebook better than TV. It shows that TV and Facebook combined produce a better result than one or the other on its own. It also shows that Vaynerchuk has no clue what he is talking about.

Gary Vaynerchuk is wrong that nobody watches TV

Gary saying it (24:38-26:08)

Gary’s argument

If Vaynerchuk remains intrinsically focused on promoting Facebook and Instagram as the ideal channel mix, he takes the opposite view of TV as an advertising medium. With the notable and bizarre exception of the Super Bowl, Vaynerchuk is convinced that literally no one is watching TV anymore.

As usual, Vaynerchuk is bereft of any data and relies initially on his own media consumption for empirical proof. But in recent years his stage show has usually included a section in which he uses his audience and a show of hands to demonstrate the fallacy of TV advertising.

Vaynerchuk shows that nobody, and he means nobody, watches traditional network TV anymore and that most have shifted their viewing to VOD options like YouTube and Netflix. As a result, he concludes that “70% or 80%” of the population don’t even have the chance to see a TV ad and that, as a result, the $80bn spent this year in America is wasted.

Why he is wrong

Too many marketers over the past decade have made the same mistake and used their own viewing behaviour and that of their industry friends to make media decisions and predictions that wildly underestimate the reach, impact and longevity of TV advertising.

Even if the sample of people in the theatre were big enough (it isn’t), even if their selection was done using a non-biased approach (it wasn’t), the context of being asked what you do at home by one of the world’s most famous denouncers of TV while surrounded by his baying digital exponents makes this already flawed insight even more ropey.

Ignoring the amateur hour that goes on at every Gary Vaynerchuk event for a second, we have a mountain of data to show that marketers are far more digital and social while far less likely to go home and turn on a TV than the average consumer. But marketers are not the market. And they are meant to know that.

In most countries, there is an ongoing representative sample of households (the UK’s has 12,000 panel members) who use increasingly advanced meters to measure not just what they say they are watching but what they actually do watch. Once you add proper data like that to the picture Vaynerchuk’s argument is not just disproved, it’s shown to be ridiculous. TV remains the dominant source of video for British people of all demographics, accounting for 71% of our video consumption and a whopping 95% of ad viewing time last year.

I’ve met marketers who have not only made the point that TV is not being watched but, on being presented with the data to disprove their claim, have disputed this data as being somehow inaccurate or biased. They drop shadowy hints that something is going on with measurement bias.

Let’s be clear what that would require. It would mean Ipsos Mori, BARB, Nielsen, Channels 4 and 5, ITV, BBC, Sky, the IPA and a host of similar organisations around the world are all in on a global data conspiracy; and that only Vaynerchuk and Facebook, those paragons of empirical accuracy, can be trusted.

The killer chart

Graph: Thinkbox; Source: 2017, BARB/comScore/Broadcaster stream data/IPA Touchpoints 2017/Rentrak

If you take BARB data and combine it with comScore data, IPA Touchpoints and Rentrak box office data you can arrive at an accurate picture of where British people are getting their daily video from. Clearly the new generation of video on-demand (VOD) options are increasingly popular but TV in both its live and playback formats remains dominant for most British people.

Even the so-called millennials spend more time watching video on TV in 2017 than they did on the of YouTube, Facebook and all the subscription VOD players like Netflix combined. None of this fits with my personal behaviour. I hardly watch any TV of any kind. But I am able, unlike Vaynerchuk, to read a pie chart and appreciate that my own personal viewing is not representative of the world.

Gary Vaynerchuk is wrong about multiscreening

Gary saying it (7:43-9:14)

Gary’s argument

Vaynerchuk “day trades attention”. Hence his love for Super Bowl ads, which he believes everybody watches. But for all other TV programmes Vaynerchuk maintains that even when the tiny audience for network TV does tune in, as soon as the ad break occurs the whole audience reaches for their phone and tunes out from the commercial messages targeting them.

Vaynerchuk’s evidence for this is, as you might expect, is based on his own personal experiences and an occasional vox-pop at a mid-tier theatre complex populated by a few hundred digital entrepreneurs.

Why he is wrong

Vaynerchuk’s first error is to overstate the prevalence of multiscreening. Since advertising began almost everyone has claimed to avoid its impact. If you had stopped an ancient Greek on the streets of Athens in 800 BC he would have claimed to look away as he passed the posters that surrounded the temple.

Today, when you simply ask consumers if they turn to other screens like their smartphone during the ad break most will agree. Around 80% of British adults claim to multiscreen and we have no reason to doubt them. If you asked me if I have sex with my wife I would agree with that too. But that does not mean we are at it every evening, non-stop.

Observational data (of multiscreening during ad breaks, not me and the missus going at it) from the IPA confirms that only around 20% of total TV watching coincides with online use. That’s still significant and clearly likely to increase during ad breaks – research from Nielsen suggests multiscreen use doubles during the breaks while Facebook estimates that between 49% and 57% of ads are watched with a second screen in America. But none of this is the end-of-days scenario painted by Vaynerchuk.

His next mistake is using the undergraduate assumption that the only attention that matters is active, eyes-on-screen audience behaviour. That’s certainly an arousing advertising prospect, but rarely the reality of even the most effective campaign.

Advertising is a low-involvement medium. It is unwelcomed, unwanted and it interrupts the high-involvement content we chose to consume. That makes advertising often partially seen, actively avoided or only aurally consumed. TV advertising works from the cracks of quotidian existence, somewhere between making a coffee and an argument with your dad about the cat.

Vaynerchuk assumes attention is a binary on or off switch. That’s an over-simplistic notion and one that leads to his next fundamental error – assuming that a multiscreening viewer belongs to one screen and not to both. As the name suggests, simply picking up a smartphone does not signify a total lack of exposure to the big screen in the background. Far from it.

When viewers do, as Vaynerchuk suggests, whip out their phone during the ad breaks guess what they don’t do? Leave the room. Talk to their spouse. Fast forward through the ads. Mute the TV. Go for a piss.

Multi-screening viewers might turn their attention to the small screen in their hand, but they stay in the room with the ads playing (in the background) for significantly longer periods of time than many other viewers. That extended, albeit partial, exposure to TV advertising means that a multiscreen viewer is actually a more receptive target than the much of the potential audience for TV ads.

Several studies have demonstrated that when a viewer multiscreens, their ability to recall both ad campaigns and the brands featured in those campaigns significantly improves over the average viewer, who is more likely to engage in a host of other non-viewing practices.

And by the way, why would you not want viewers turning to a source of more information and even purchase in response to a TV ad? Multiscreening is not the arch enemy of TV advertising; it’s her sidekick.

The killer chart

Graph: Thinkbox; Source: Craft, SL3, mobile field test (7pm-11pm), August 2014

Screen Life 3 was a groundbreaking piece of audience research that combined a video ethnography of 18 households with mobile viewing diaries of 800 British consumers to answer many of the more complex questions about audience behaviours during advertising exposure.

The research revealed multiscreening occurs at approximately the same levels irrespective of whether the audience is watching live TV, VOD or recorded TV. Importantly, multiscreeners exhibit slightly higher ad recall than viewers who engage in other advertising avoidance activities.

What the second screen removes in terms of attention, it often returns in physical proximity and aural availability. Ideally, a viewer would sit transfixed through every ad but that rarely happens. In reality, however, picking up a smartphone is not the end of effectiveness as Vaynerchuk portrays it.

Gary Vaynerchuk is wrong that TV companies are ‘gone’

Gary saying it (11:53-13:19)

Gary’s argument

It’s perhaps no surprise, given he thinks no-one is watching network TV and that even when they do occasionally (presumably accidentally) encounter a TV ad they shift 100% of their attention to their smartphone, Vaynerchuk is certain that the TV companies “are all dead” and it’s “only a matter of time” before they disappear.

Why he is wrong

In Vaynerchuk’s world there has to be a paradigm shift in which streaming companies use their digital skills to take over from the traditional TV companies and their broadcast model. While that scenario is possible it is highly unlikely.

Despite claiming to be a “historian” Vaynerchuk is missing the traditional manner in which new media enter the world of the viewer and the advertiser. Rarely are incumbent media like radio (despite his claim above) or cinema completely destroyed and replaced by a new medium.

Back in the early 80s there were a lot of Gary Vaynerchuks predicting the certain death of cinema given the arrival of VHS movie rentals. Why would anyone pay triple the price to drive to a cinema to see a movie you could watch for less, in the comfort of your own home, when and how you wanted to?

The answer was that it was a lot more complicated than that. Thirty years on from the arrival of VHS, then DVD and now VOD, cinema has not only survived the invasion but prospered in terms of both attendances and box office revenues.

While it’s true that TV companies now face a major commercial threat from alternatives like Amazon and Netflix, it’s also true that most of these digital companies are struggling with the practicalities of actually making good TV. Netflix is the exception but given the company has never made a profit and currently owes more than $8bn in long-term debt options, I would suggest the prediction that TV companies are the ones that will be “gone” very soon might be a case of right prediction, wrong company.

One other potent reason for the continued survival of TV is that its advertising revenues continue to hold up relatively well in the face of repeated predictions from the likes of Vaynerchuk that they are about to fall off a cliff. One of the main reasons for that continued commercial success is the dramatic growth in one particular sector of the market for TV advertising – digital companies.

Keen to use the power of TV advertising to build their brands and recruit more consumers, the likes of Google and Apple have spent big in recent years. In the UK, online companies spent more than £600m last year on TV ads and are the fastest growing sector for TV advertising.

That growth proves Vaynerchuk wrong twice. First, if TV ads are such a waste of money why would the likes of Google and Amazon need to spend so much on them? Second, with so much growing revenue from such a huge sector of the industry, is he really sure TV companies are about to become extinct?

The killer chart

Graph: The Global TV Group; Source: Nielsen Ad Intel (US)

In the five years between 2011 and 2016 the big digital firms like Amazon and Apple have steadily increased their investments in TV advertising. According to Nielsen, the five major digital media companies upped their annual TV spend by around $800m in half a decade.

More recent expenditure reports suggest that these double-digit annual increases in TV ad spend have continued in 2017 and 2018, prompting the question: if digital advertising is so good and, presumably, free for most of these companies, why bother with TV advertising at all? It’s almost as if what they say about TV advertising to clients is entirely different from what they do inside their own businesses. Imagine that.

Gary Vaynerchuk is wrong that social media companies are about to boom big

Gary saying it (21:49-26:46)

Gary’s argument

Probably the biggest evidence that some, perhaps most, of Vaynerchuk’s content has a worrying degree of scam attached to it is his argument that if entrepreneurs do not follow his advice and go “all in” now they will miss out completely on the opportunity. He’s like a market trader hurriedly telling shoppers that there are only three Taiwanese toasters left.

His argument is that as more big businesses become aware of the true power of social media they will move most of their marketing money that way from outdoor, sponsorship and TV advertising. Because these social media sites are advertising marketplaces this means that over the next three years the CPMs will go up and smaller players will be unable to compete as they do today.

Why he is wrong

First, there is no evidence that media like outdoor are losing out to social media. In fact, in most countries outdoor advertising, which is itself increasingly digital in nature, is currently outgrowing social media advertising. While social media continues to grow, the prognosis that channels like Facebook and Instagram will suck all the dollars from other media channels in the near future appears highly unlikely.

The companies Vaynerchuk claims will be moving most of their media spend to social media – Coca-Cola, Budweiser and Mercedes Benz – don’t appear to have received the memo either. Coke’s senior insights manager for Western Europe, Adam Palenicek, told Marketing Week last year that his employer was “not particularly doing that brilliantly at the moment” in transforming its content for digital.

Mercedes Benz recently doubled down on a major new TV campaign in America called ‘What Makes Us’, in which six 30-second TV spots show off the different Benz models with each highlighting one of the company’s brand values.

Meanwhile Budweiser’s parent company AB InBev appears unlikely to move its budget from sponsorship in the near future. It recently announced impressive global revenue growth and Jason Warner, the company’s president for Northern Europe, was quick to credit Bud’s World Cup sponsorship as one of the main factors in this success.

“As the official beer of the FIFA World Cup, Budweiser lit up the globe’s biggest sporting event with our most ambitious campaign to date,” Warner explained. “Even post-tournament, Budweiser remained the number one contributor to volume and value growth across total trade.” That does not sound like a man about to turn his back on sponsorship or TV and move his money to Facebook and Instagram.

Vaynerchuk is wrong in predicting that companies will shift most of their remaining media budgets across to digital in the next two or three years. It makes no sense.

The killer chart

In a study commissioned by Thinkbox, Ebiquity and Gain Theory used their databanks of existing, client-funded data and analysed over 2,000 advertising campaigns across 11 categories to uncover the impact of different forms of advertising on both short and long-term profit.

The results suggest Vaynerchuk’s predicted shift in client spending from TV to digital media is unlikely to transpire for two reasons. First, online video and display simply do not perform well enough to deserve greater investment levels. Second, TV advertising’s place in generating the best ROI and providing the most substantial contribution to profitability is unequalled.

If there is a major shift in budgets coming in the next few years it will be despite, not because of, the effectiveness and efficiency of TV.

None of this matters anyway

I am well aware that my opening paragraph makes this whole column redundant. I have but a tiny fraction of the following and fame of Vaynerchuk. My influence on marketing is minor compared to the giant dark shadow he casts over our discipline.

Twitter provides a suitable comparison point. For every marketer I reach with a tweet, Vaynerchuk will connect with 50 times that number.

One can make an ignoble argument that quality might trump quantity in our respective followings. Indeed, one of the great services that Vaynerchuk performs is as an idiot magnet for marketers. Make no mistake: Vaynerchuk himself is anything but an idiot. But whenever I encounter a marketer who asks what I think of his latest content I know I am in the presence of the vocal majority in our discipline who cannot find their ass with either hand.

But sheer numbers and global influence mean that, optimistically, I have less than a percentage point of Vaynerchuk’s impact on marketing and media. I’ve tried in the past to suggest a public debate but my requests have been met with (amiable and respectful) rejection and the suggestion instead of a pleasant glass of wine. Tempting but pointless.

Perhaps now that I have committed my critique to paper the great Gary Vaynerchuk will reply with a rejoinder to the five points above. I very much doubt it. How do you counter empirical data with personal anecdote? Is course correction possible or even preferable when you are making so much money talking nonsense?

The likely option – the only option – is to carry on being Gary Vaynerchuk and being wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong about media. We get the gurus we deserve after all, and you could not invent a more suitable spokesperson for social media.

The post Mark Ritson: Gary Vaynerchuk is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong about media appeared first on Marketing Week.