Friday, March 26, 2010

Oaky, with a hint of WTF.

It was one of those hyperlink ambushes that happens to us all from time to time. You start off innocently enough, searching for information on, oh, say, the correct way to spell ‘Walmart’. One thing leads to another, click begets click, and minutes melt away as you fall down, down, down into a digital rabbit hole. At the bottom of which is Gary Vaynerchuk.

If you don’t know the name of this cherubic, potty-mouthed social media phenomenon, you may have avoided Twitter just a little too long. But if you do, you probably know that he’s a big deal out there. From gonzo wine video blogger to New York Times bestseller in three years, a messiah to the wide-eyed soldiers of the social economy, a branding consultant therein, and a sought after keynote speaker on how to make your hustling dreams come true. And it was in his latter capacity that, this day, my fall down the rabbit hole was broken by the frozen evangelical glare of Gary Vee. Someone had re-re-reposted a link to his recent talk at SXSW, the annual film/music/interactive happening in Austin, TX. All the cool kids had been buzzing about it. And so, resignedly, I hit ‘play’.

His official theme and the most common takeaway based on the chatter in the aftermath, was that anyone who sells anything is or soon will be in the customer service business. Not the widget business, or the integrated, end-to-end source-optimized thus-and-so solution business, but the customer service business. Which manifestly makes sense in an age of fleeting and microscopic competitive advantage. But buried in the talk was a theme I thought was more fundamental than that: “Caring,” he spat, “is massively underrated.”

This week, I will quietly mark the end of my third decade in the branding business. A cowboy can’t help but reflect in moments like that. And I think the ‘Social Media Sommelier’ may have hit the nail of what has mattered, squarely on its flat little head. Every high moment, every piece of work that made a difference, every person that left a mark on me, every great product, every inspiration all had in common that single ingredient: Somebody, to use Gary’s vernacular, gave a f*ck. I have never had a proud or memorable moment in the company of a coolly professional, brilliantly calculating and detached marketing whiz. Whereas I’ve had more than I can count in the company of the opposite kind of animal. Passionate, unreasonable, certain that if they figured out how to make someone’s life better, the money would follow. I’ve had mentors like that. I’ve had clients like that. I’ve met legends in the industry who, to my complete delight, were still like that, unburnished by the years. I’ve had employees like that. And students like that, more than you might imagine. Caring people make caring brands; calculating people make calculating brands.

If I had to start over again, this is the only kind of brand – or human - I would allow within a hundred feet of me. And the best part is, things seem to turn out pretty well for them, which is more than I can say for the clever whizzes. I think, in fact, that caring is how you keep going.

Thanks for the heads-up, Gary. I kind of feel like celebrating.

Maybe I’ll even open a bottle of f*cking wine.

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