Why VaynerMedia’s 130 strategists all added ‘post creative strategist’ to their titles
The agency is leveling up its model to put social listening and engagement with real consumers at the heart of creative strategy.
VaynerMedia is reimagining the role that the consumer can play in shaping brand strategy / Adobe Stock
130 people at VaynerMedia have a new title. They are now post creative strategists.
The global creative and media agency, helmed by serial entrepreneur and business influencer Gary Vaynerchuk, has updated the role of every member of its global strategy department.
The change signifies a new challenge – and requirement – for all team members, from entry-level talent all the way up to chief strategy officer Wanda Pogue. It demands that they not only work more intimately with the creative department but also that they dedicate more time and attention to engaging with real consumers.
The role of post creative strategist was originally conceived by Vaynerchuk himself. He wrote in a blog post in late 2020 that he felt the traditional model of media strategy was “highly broken.” Instead of using a client’s brief to conduct research, develop a hypothesis and then hand off that hypothesis to the creative team, strategists should be actively involved in every step of the creative deployment – and post-deployment – process, he argued. The executive described the role of a post creative strategist as “an anthropologist … an emotional intelligence-focused psychologist” whose job it is to listen to and respond to real consumers’ real-time responses to creative online – and adapt accordingly.
Since hiring the first dedicated post creative strategists in 2021, VaynerMedia has seen such success with the role that it’s used the concept to revamp its entire approach to strategy. In February, the company decided it would go so far as imparting the title of post creative strategist to every member of its strategy team.
Now, what VaynerMedia sees as post-creative skills – which center on social listening, active engagement with real consumers and agile creative adaption – and the principles underlying them, serve as the backbone of the organization’s overall strategic vision.
“Our ethos at VaynerMedia is to find right versus be right, and that means paying meticulous attention to culture and consumer behavior to insert clients directly into the zeitgeist to craft culturally relevant work,” Vaynerchuk tells The Drum.
So what does post-creative strategy look like on the ground?
Post creative strategy in action
When a client approaches VaynerMedia – whether with a broad business challenge or a detailed brief – the strategy team will seek to understand the brand’s core objectives. Then, strategists will conduct an extensive audit that surveys the state of the category, the players within it and consumer perception of the brand.
Armed with these insights, the team works with the media department to develop highly-specified audience cohorts. These groups are created through a number of methods – based on the most vocal brand advocates identified on social media; using the client’s first-party data; and through market research and available demographic and psychographic data.
These cohorts become audience segments for intensive creative testing. “They are meant to be a launchpad for all of our creative ideas,” says Pogue. “The internet gives us an opportunity to really be nuanced and very targeted with our messaging.” Most projects are assigned upwards of 15 cohorts.
Different creative will be deployed to these hyper-specific cohorts. Then, the role of the post creative strategist shifts into high gear: strategists act as the brand’s ears and eyes on the ground – or rather, in the comment sections of the platforms and publishers hosting their ads. “[At VaynerMedia, strategists and creatives] work in tandem and in partnership … what [the strategists are] seeing and learning on a day-to-day basis is then being fed to our creators, who go off and create contextual creative against what we’re hearing and learning. All of those signals that we’re seeing in the market are then translated into insights for the creatives to be able to build off of.”
She calls the model a “mass qualitative insight machine.” All of the insights garnered from social listening and interacting with cohorts online via polls and other tactics are used to make recommendations to the client. And it’s not just about tailoring the creative and the brand messaging – sometimes the VaynerMedia team is going so far as to make recommendations about product innovation.
Unlocking new brand wins
Hormel Foods-owned Planters has reaped the rewards of VaynerMedia’s unusual approach to strategy. After receiving the brand’s 2022 Super Bowl brief – which was focused on promoting the brand’s Mixed Nuts – VaynerMedia began putting out contextual creative to their various cohorts.
The strategy team had a number of hypotheses about what approach might prove the most engaging – so it turned to polling. “We put a poll out asking consumers, ‘How do you eat your mixed nuts?’ because we had a theory internally that the way that … there are different ways to eat mixed nuts – some people eat them one at a time, and some people kind of eat them by the handful.” The question ignited a fiery debate online, and VaynerMedia found that the results were split nearly 50-50. The comments sections of the polls were filled with consumers advocating passionately for their position and roasting others for their preferences.
“There were so many rich comments and so much engagement that it gave us the confidence that we were onto a really strong insight.” In fact, the concept became the inspiration for the final Super Bowl spot, which saw actors Ken Jeong and Joel McHale hash it out – and then get all of America involved in the debate of one-at-a-time or all-at-once. The campaign proved extremely successful.
“What our model and our post creative strategists allowed for was qualifying the insight,” Pogue says. “Super Bowl is a really big bet, and it’s incredibly expensive. You want to have the confidence that what you’re putting on air – given all of the attention and eyeballs around it – is actually something ’thats going to work. We were able to mitigate that risk – we were able to give the client the confidence that we were creating a program around insight and an idea that was really going to resonate.”
In another project, mattress and bedding brand Casper tasked VaynerMedia with helping to reset the brand through organic social media. As part of the post creative strategy process, the team made a post that featured one of its creators sleeping on a mattress at the Casper store. “When people saw that post, they were like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe somebody is sleeping on a Casper mattress in the Casper store. Is that a job?’” says Pogue.
The VaynerMedia team took the idea and ran with it. It created a real job posting hiring for Casper sleepers – yep, people who would be paid to sleep. Of course, like any job, there were a series of requirements: qualified candidates would have a love for sleeping, be able to sleep through any noise, be willing to make social content for the brand and be able to commute into the brand’s New York City Casper Sleep Shop. The stunt was an instant hit – it appeared in news headlines and even on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
“The comments and the momentum … that the post creative strategists were able to identify led us to bigger creative – which ultimately led us to a brand new positioning. [It] led us to completely reposition the brand as a brand that wakes up people's love for sleep,” Pogue says.
Flipping the triangle – and the status quo
Ultimately, the VaynerMedia team feels that these kinds of wins evidence the effectiveness of its approach to strategy. “That's the power of the post creative strategist role, which feels really different in comparison to how most agencies work, particularly for brand positioning,” says Pogue. “[A new brand positioning] often ends up taking, like, 12 months in the boardroom. We do it consumer-up, and it's much faster, and we can go to market with a positioning that's that we're a lot more confident in.”
Internally, the VaynerMedia team often talks about “flipping the triangle,” she says. “If you look at the way that a lot of agencies are structured, they're very top-heavy. We've made a real commitment to invest in our post creative strategists and to also invest in creators [with a more bottom-up approach].”
Vaynerchuk is confident that the model is a game-changer for clients – largely because it takes the power of social listening and engagement to a new level. “Social media is constantly iterating and evolving,” he says. “And to find success for clients in this unstable climate means matching the speed of this innovation in effective ways. The restructuring of the strategy team and adoption of the post creative strategist title across all levels was done so that the goals and responsibilities of that role are adopted unilaterally to best serve our clients’ needs.”
And in Pogue’s assessment, the executive himself is the best proof of the approach’s efficacy. “Gary’s whole brand was built against this model. [It was] him really mining and listening to what his audience was liking, and building off of that,” she says. “He still uses that as his way of continuing to build his brand. And from there, it has grown into what it is today.”
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