Tom Bilyeu has a vision. It’s of a world in which Tom Bilyeu’s wisdom is available to you, aspiring business leader bereft of foresight, at any time, on any platform, in any medium, always and forever. “My product is educational content that changes your life,” says Bilyeu, 41, whose social media feeds are a never-ending stream of positivity. “Blast through ‘good enough’ and become capable of the extraordinary,” one Instagram post reads, the text running below a soft-focus photo of Bilyeu staring off into the distance. Another says, “Human potential is nearly limitless.”
For seven years, Bilyeu was, as he puts it, “the protein bar guy,” the co-founder and president of Quest Nutrition LLC, a Los Angeles-based manufacturer of low-carb snacks that reached a $1 billion valuation in 2015. Last fall he left Quest and founded Impact Theory, an entertainment company that he says will be a 21st century equivalent of Walt Disney Co., making its money on long-running franchises. It’s a lofty goal. For now, Impact Theory’s main property is a YouTube talk show Bilyeu hosts from his living room, which averages about 45,000 viewers per episode.
Traditionally, people in his position might try to shop their idea to distributors. But Bilyeu opted for a different route after reading a blog post in November about a new service from VaynerMedia LLC, a New York-based media and marketing agency known for making viral videos for Budweiser and Toyota Motor Corp. Vayner normally works with corporate brands, but last fall it began offering its services to wealthy individuals, mostly businesspeople hungry for exposure, through VaynerTalent. Bilyeu signed up.
"The whole goal entirely is to build my personal brand.”
Today, Bilyeu still looks the part of a nutrition executive—athletic build, intense demeanor. Two to three times a week, Mason Tompkins, a 19-year-old videographer who works for Vayner, follows Bilyeu from meeting to meeting videotaping him. Then, with the help of Vayner’s 750-person staff, which includes producers, social media experts, designers, and copywriters, Tompkins edits the footage into a five-minute reality show broadcast on YouTube and Facebook that runs separate from Bilyeu’s talk show. Later, Vayner reedits it into smaller tidbits to run as clips or stills on other sites, which is how Bilyeu winds up with those gauzy Instagram posts. A Vayner brand director runs his social media feeds, posting almost everything that appears, though Bilyeu approves each quote.
The cost of all this content: $25,000 per month, an investment Gary Vaynerchuk, the company’s namesake and chief executive officer, insists is worth it. “It’s about building attention at scale, which leads to opportunities,” says Vaynerchuk, a YouTube star who parlayed his fame as the host of an irreverent wine-tasting show in the mid-2000s into a career as an advertising executive. He says the offering is designed so clients spend no time creating their own content. Bilyeu chooses to personally respond to followers’ comments and questions, which he says is essential to maintaining the idea that his social media is an authentic extension of himself. As he says, “The whole goal entirely is to build my personal brand.”
Besides Bilyeu, VaynerTalent has signed up executives from General Electric Co. and Microsoft Corp., plus a half-dozen entrepreneurial types. “I get that having somebody follow you around everywhere with a camera is weird,” Vaynerchuk says. He also gets that paying an ad agency more than a quarter million dollars a year to manage your social media feed cuts against the promise of a personalized platform such as Snapchat or Instagram. But he argues that every ambitious businessperson—not to mention actor, musician, and athlete—will eventually be doing something similar. “It’s a new form of PR and communications,” he says.
Vaynerchuk has dissenters. “If you’re serious about making an impact in the world, power down your smartphone,” wrote Cal Newport, a Georgetown University computer science professor, in a New York Times op-ed in November. In the piece, published under the headline “Career Tip: Quit Social Media,” Newport noted that he’d done well for himself despite ignoring Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. “Good things will find you,” he wrote.
The argument is appealing, especially at a time when new media consume more and more of our lives, but turning off social networks isn’t realistic for most people. A 2016 study by CareerBuilder LLC and Harris Poll found that about 60 percent of employers use the networks to research candidates, up from 52 percent the year before. And as millennials age and are promoted into management, that percentage is likely to climb. Without social media, says career consultant Miriam Salpeter, “you have to know someone. And even if you have a great contact, they’re going to look at whether you have a LinkedIn profile.” If a hiring manager can’t find you, that’s an obvious red flag.
Most regular people will never hire a social media consultant, of course; the beauty of Facebook and Twitter is that you don’t need one to reap the benefits of exposure, provided you have intelligent and/or funny things to say. But for the super rich and busy, it’s becoming more normal. As Bloomberg Businessweek reported earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg’s personal Facebook page is maintained by more than a dozen employees, including professional photographers, writers, and community managers who monitor his page for inappropriate comments and spam.
Salpeter offers a scaled-down version of what VaynerTalent promises: For about $2,000 a month, she’ll rewrite your LinkedIn profile and help you become a regular on Facebook and Twitter, where she encourages clients to comment on articles as a way to burnish their credentials as thought leaders. Vaynerchuk designed his service to mimic his own personal social media entourage. Like Zuckerberg, he’s long employed a dozen or so producers—“Team Gary,” as it’s known inside his company—who create a daily reality show, DailyVee, and a weekly interview show, #AskGaryVee. He has more than half a million YouTube subscribers, 2 million Instagram followers, and 1.5 million Twitter followers. Vaynerchuk says at least half the people who buy his package “will make back their investment in their advance on a book deal or on their speaking fees. It sounds like a lot of money, but it’s a deal.”
The promise of a dedicated social media team isn’t just that it will make you look better on popular apps, but that it will help you figure out which platforms matter and spot new opportunities early. “Alexa and Amazon are a high priority right now,” says Lindsay Blum, a vice president at VaynerMedia who runs the talent division, referring to the virtual assistant on Amazon.com Inc.’s Echo device. Any app developer who follows Amazon’s guidelines can create a “skill,” as the company calls it, for the Echo, and Bilyeu has an idea for one: His fans will enable the function, ask Alexa questions, and hear his prerecorded answers. “I want somebody to walk up to Alexa and treat her like she has multiple personalities,” Bilyeu says. “And I’m one of those personalities.”
“If you hit 3 million followers, you’re a force.”
Sipping a Diet Coke in Vayner’s L.A. headquarters while Tompkins films, Bilyeu says he’ll eventually record answers to fans’ most-asked questions. For now he’ll propose that Amazon recycle sound bites from the dozens of hours of footage Vayner has accumulated. “It’s an experiment. It could be a total flop,” he says. “But chatbots are going to be a big deal.” Bilyeu’s assumption is that one of his devotees in Oakland or Omaha will ask what he thinks about chatbots and hear the same answer, in his voice. If everything goes according to plan, the skill should hit devices this summer, making Bilyeu’s presence that much more ubiquitous. So far, with Vayner’s help, he’s accrued about 120,000 followers across his various platforms, after more or less starting at zero because he’d been posting from Quest corporate accounts that he gave up when he left the company. Even so, he’s a ways from his goal. “If you hit 3 million followers, you’re a force,” he says.
Should anyone get impatient, Vaynerchuk need only point to the opportunities his own social media presence has brought him. They include, in addition to his company, a seven-figure, 10-book deal with HarperCollins Publishers and the reality TV show Planet of the Apps, co-hosted by Vaynerchuk, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba, and Will.i.am, which is slated to premiere on Apple TV this year. None of his customers has seen results like that yet, but, Vaynerchuk says, a client recently landed a consulting gig after a CEO saw one of the videos Vayner created for her. “I’m empathetic to why people think this is vain or narcissistic or self-promotional,” he says. “But my whole life is doing things that people make fun of—and only look better later.”
This article originally published at Bloomberg here