Arts & Culture

Controlling The Media 101: AJ Vaynerchuck

Still in his early 20’s AJ Vaynerchuck has become a pioneer of social media-based marketing. As co-founder of Vaynermedia, AJ along with his brother, internet celebrity Gary Vaynerchuck, has managed to become a leader in a burgeoning industry by always staying one step ahead of a world that moves at light speed. Here’s how. Read More

By / February 17, 2011

At a café in the East Village, a father and his grown son are having an arduous conversation.  The son, living in an expensive East Village apartment that’s paid for by his father, wants to pursue a career in art and dad wants him to pursue a career in absolutely anything else.   Dad tries to play it cool by subtly bringing up potential career paths as random topics of conversation.

“You wouldn’t believe it!” Dad says.  “This guy comes into our office and gets paid ten thousand bucks a day to make the company Facebook account.  I’m telling you son, you should look into it.   It’s like a gold rush.  People are making truck loads just for knowing how to do Facebook.”

The son nods, making art out of his peas.  The dad sighs, probably wishing that his kid were more like AJ Vaynerchuck.

AJ Vaynerchuck and his brother Gary are the founders of Vaynermedia, one of the leading companies dealing the realm of exactly what pops was talking about.  Vaynermedia is essentially an advertising marketing company that deals solely in the realm of social networks.

“I would say a lot of our competitors established their social branch recently out of necessity.  We built a consulting agency around our knowledge and our experience of social media,” says AJ Vaynerchuck.

Gary, who is twelve years older than his brother, is currently a tech celebrity, a journey that began with his decision to transform his father’s liquor store into an empire, partly by taking advantage of the burgeoning internet market.  Gary then took it a step further by hosting a weekly video podcast called “Wine Library TV,” turning himself into a one of the biggest names in video podcasting.  While, most successful podcasts were, and are still, about technology, Gary’s show focused solely wine.

Meanwhile, AJ was about to graduate college at Boston University.  He’d majored in advertising with a concentration in computer science.  Most of AJ’s college nights and weekends were spent reading up on new trends in technology instead of drinking and going to parties.  For AJ, graduation couldn’t soon enough, as he was eager to take the reigns the boom he saw happening in the world of social media.

It wasn’t until AJ graduated and he and Gary founded Vaynermedia, that the Vaynerchuck name would start to become mentioned in the same breath as other post internet entrepreneurial pioneers like Kevin Rose or Mark Zuckerberg.

So, why are people getting paid thousands per day to make Facebook pages?  I asked AJ for specifics about what exactly Vaynermedia does for their clients, who according to the company website include, Pepsico, Harrah’s and the National Hockey League.

Sitting in the same East Village bar where earlier art kid and his dad were eating brunch, AJ tells me about a job they did involving, Gowalla, and The New Jersey Nets.

“We matched up Gowalla with the Nets and then targeted individuals who checked into sports related areas: parks, Foot Locker, etc.   Then we planted virtual tickets that could be traded for tangible tickets, so when a person checked into say, ESPN Zone, they’d get a blast from Gowalla saying You just won a pair of tickets.  It drove amazing user engagement, brand equity and conversation on social networks.”

It was interesting, but I still didn’t understand.  Why would a company invest all of this money into paying people to use internet platforms that are designed so that anyone can utilize them.  AJ explains that there’s a lot more to it than games, and making nice looking pages, that proper use of Social Networks is about building a network that is useful to you, and to whom you are useful.

I ask about Twitter, how does one build a network on Twitter?  How can a writer advertise his articles on Twitter aside from simply posting them once they’re published?  What about a novelist?

“The book world is fascinating.  We’re just beginning the marketing for Gary’s next book, The Thank You Economy.  One of my favorite things in the entire world is applying social media concepts and processes to non-traditional industries.  It’s so intellectually stimulating because the book world is so broken in so many ways that there’s so much opportunity for innovation.   99 percent of that world isn’t thinking the right way.  For me to go out and release a new social network there’s a lot of competition, people do smart things.  In the book world, so many people are falling behind there’s so much opportunity to do things that having been done before.”

AJ paused, then continued.

“I’d say do what’s counter intuitive.  I think one of the best things to do is give away free content.  A lot of authors would say, If I give away free content why would anyone buy my book? You need to give people a reason to have any interest in what you’re saying“

Does this mean that aspiring authors should simply be throwing their novels up on Bit Torrent?  According to AJ, the answer is “Sure.”

“What’s the worst that could happen?  People are going to be interested in your stuff?   50,000 people read your book, that way if you don’t get published, you could come back to a publisher and say, you better publish this now because thousands of people want this.”

While this sounds comforting, what about the music industry, which is essentially dying because of piracy?

Aspiring artists shouldn’t be worried about piracy. Kanye West should be far more worried about piracy than any up and comer.  I think the best thing that can happen for an up and coming artist is people sharing their content.

AJ stresses the importance of humanizing and personalizing interactions on the internet.  He tells me how his brother answers every direct message he gets on Twitter personally.

AJ, who approached the bar rather quietly, politely, with mussed hair under a the hood of a red sweatshirt and his hands in his pockets, sans beverage, has opened up at this point, his eyes almost aflame as he talks about strategies for utilizing social networks.

“For content generation, it’s far less about broadcasting than it is building your network on these platforms.  Sure, posting on Twitter is a tactic, but it’s far better when you have 50 times the people getting that link.”

However, he’s quick to warn about the dangers of indiscriminate networking.

“Using those platforms is one thing, but the main thing you can do to help get more distribution is to engage with other people when not talking about your work.  Find a topic you just wrote about.  Find people who are talking about those kinds of subjects.   Find the websites, find the forums and become a voice in those conversations.  I don’t mean show them your articles but give advice.  Say you just showed your stuff on some blog, people would be like, this person is just spamming the blog, who cares. It’s about building up authentic relationships and building loyalty amongst people, a sense that you’re someone who cares and is part of their community, not someone who’s just trying to sell themselves.”

AJ stops short and looks into my eyes.

“How many followers do you have on twitter?”

I try to come up with a number that’s not too large an exaggeration, but not embarrassingly low.  Too befuddled to think, the embarrassing truth ends up popping out.

“Seventy something.”

“How many of those 70 would you feel really comfortable with sending a personal email saying, hey I need you to read this article you wrote.”

I laugh and again, unwittingly tell the truth.

“None!” I say, admitting that half of my followers seem to think that I am a British documentary filmmaker or the singer of the band Hot Snakes, since I share the same name with them.

“Start with your seventy something followers, find out why they’re following you.  You don’t know who’s following them.  Maybe they have some great offline network.  For Gary, that one person following him was the executive producer of The Conan O’Brien Show.”

It occurs to me that people with acumen for working a room, the natural schmoozers and socialites used to populate the ladder of success.  Now, they’ve been replaced by those who’ve mastered encouraging comment or know when to poke.

Another thing that separates AJ from the pack is his dedication to being ahead of the curb.

“Instead of watching The Office during my subway ride home, I’ll take out my iPhone,” he says, taking out his iPhone and opening an app called, “Instapaper” and scrolling down a list of saved articles about technology.  Part of AJ’s job is knowing what’s on the horizon, what will stick.  Plainly, I ask AJ what’s going to be the next thing and he’s got a list of upcoming web projects that are on his radar.


“Essentially this is a network that helps people stay informed.  It’s a platform that allows people to subscribe to a person’s email newsletter at a charge.  So two to three times a month I’ll write my newsletter, which people can subscribe to for $2.99/ month.  It’s called In the Loop.

AJ recommends the DROP.IO founder, Sam Lesson’s personal newsletter as a good place to start on


“It’s SMS payments between peers, so lets say you and I are getting drinks.  I can put the tab on my card and you can pay me your share via SMS.  A co-worker at the office picked up sushi, and he didn’t’ even have to ask me for the money, he could just charge me for it.  When I got out of my meeting, there was sushi there, and I’d already paid him. It completely eliminates IOU’s.


“It’s group messaging.  Think of an AOL chat room on your cell phone.  I was at the Tahoe tech conference with friends.  At night we went to this casino and got into this Fast Society group, so if we got split up we could say, “Hey I’m over at the roulette table.  It’s like BBM on steroids.  Teenagers are going to eat it up.

Throughout Gary and AJ’s work, one thing that really sticks out as a theme is the importance of family.  The Vaynerchuck’s, a first generation Russian Jewish Family who moved to the states in 1978 are clearly tight knit.  When I first mention the religious association of Jewcy, AJ remarks.  “My parents will be psyched.”

With Wine Library, the books, the podcast and Vaynermedia, the success of the Vaynerchuck’s seems almost reminiscent of the early Jewish American immigrants who came through Ellis Island with a kind of drive for success that’s become more and more rare. I ask AJ what, for him, would be an indicator of true success.  Throughout our conversation, AJ shows a certain admiration for his brother and an appreciation that he is able to collaborate with him for a living.  AJ and Gary have expressed a desire to one day own the NY Jets.  However, after giving it a bit of thought, AJ says that for him, it’s much more simple than that.

“Just controlling my own destiny, working when I want to work, and doing what I want when I want, complete and absolute freedom of my time. The other day I got to leave work during the afternoon to go to the Jets game with Gary.  For me, that was the best thing in the world.”