It's hard to say which of Gary Vaynerchuk's pithy one-liners his audience at Cannes Lions liked the best.
Totting up the levels of laughter and groans of agreement, it was a close call between his critique of the concept of being "on-brand" — "You get to decide? You, the brand manager, of an opinion of one, decide what's on brand because you interpreted a sentence a copywriter wrote as the brand and what it stands for?" — and his observation that every conversation everyone is having today about artificial intelligence (AI) is "a waste of time".
"Talking to creatives and marketers and agency people about AI has been the most enjoyable thing this week. Not a soul knows what the fuck they are talking about," said Vaynerchuk, the notoriously outspoken chairman of his own holding company, VaynerX, and CEO of the ad agency VaynerMedia.
We are still so far away from any practical applications of AI, he continued. "Most of [the CEOs] making decisions around AI today will never see it mean something to their company while they're at that company."
Such pontificating among 'insiders' — "how many normal people in life even know this week is happening?" — is one of the reasons Vanyerchuk sees the industry, particularly the holding companies, as vulnerable to consultancies, in-housing and independent agencies. In five years' time, he believes, consultancies like Bain and Accenture will have consolidated and replicated what the holding companies are doing.
The idea that clients might keep hold of their agencies to preserve continuity doesn't make any sense, he continued, because people move on to different jobs. "This thought that if you fire Anomaly, you lose everything — if the people who work on your business left Anomaly and went to Droga, then you've lost it already. This notion that there is a Vayner or Anomaly... no there's not, there’s human beings."
On Cannes, Vaynerchuk was equally immutable. "We’re about to clap and award a lot of people for a lot of work that no human has ever really actually seen," he said. In his view, the festival falls short because people continuously talk about things that aren't real and don't benefit clients or average people on the street.
Normal human beings don't consume TV commercials, for example, he said, pointing to the global rise of OTT services like Netflix, and 'real people's' real life tendancies to be looking at their phones, fast-forwarding ads or doing anything other than paying attention to a TV ad when it is on. The fact that 30-second TV spots are still the "pedestal" of the industry in 2019 is "audacious, at best, and ridiculous," said Vaynerchuk.
The Belarusian American, who co-founded VaynerMedia in 2009 with his brother, is an unusually frank and unashamedly challenging voice in the industry. His "deeply practical" framework of reference was informed by his formative years running a retail business — the licquor store originally owned by his father that he renamed Wine Library, took online and grew exponentially, he explained.
Vaynerchuk relentlessly returns to the consumers — "real people" — that he feels are constantly ignored or forgotten about by the industry. Ads at the Superbowl, for example, while being "the best media bet anybody in America can make", are commonly created by companies with the aim of winning awards or attracting talent and new business, rather than actually selling products to the consumers who see the spot, he said.
Asked by his panel host Janet Balis, global advisory leader for media and entertainment at EY, whether creativity or targeting was more important in driving results, Vaynerchuk replied that creativity is always the variable of success — data is so commoditised that everyone can access everything everywhere — whether it is first party data or not. "Getting someone's attention and then making something that actually compels them to make them do something — both are equally important."
Vaynerchuk predicts that "pain" caused by an inevitable economic downturn will start to solve some of the problems he sees in the industry. "It's easier to waste money when the times are good," he pointed out. One of the reasons he wanted to come to Cannes was to inspire people to build their own independent shops, so they can do "the work they want to be doing, not the work they have been doing," he said. "That’s how we change the industry and that's going to happen with me or not."
In the future, he thinks brand will be all that remains — and people will only make brand decisions on a few products they care about in a couple of different categories. The buying of everything else, from toothpaste to clothes, will all be fixed so that people don't have to think about it, he suggested.
Being top of mind when people think of what product they want and say it out loud to the voice-activated devices we'll all be using in 15 years, according to Vaynerchuk, is going to be the critical difference between a brand making lots of money — if someone says 'Alexa, get me Kellogg's cornflakes' — and Amazon making a lot of money — if they instead say 'Alexa, get me cereal'.
"People are being very naive about what the next chess move looks like," said Vaynerchuk. "The toll booths that are coming that will make Google and Facebook look like child's play are going to dominate and destroy many brands."
"Wait till we wake up and Amazon buys LVMH," he said. "Brand is the only thing left."