Podcast: Insider Interviews with VaynerMedia’s Claude Silver

My version of scaling Gary,” acknowledges Claude Silver, “is to remind people that every single person is responsible for the culture at VaynerMedia.

Phrases with the word “heart” in them are too many to count; it’s our most treasured reference, aligned with love, soul, happiness…basically anything positive (unless tied to “attack”.) But tie it to “Silver” and you have a whole added meaning for positivity, because then you’re talking about Claude Silver, Chief Heart Officer of VaynerMedia, a full service digital agency “built for the now.” It’s a fairly unique title, but trust media trend-shaper Gary Vaynerchuk (AKA Gary Vee) to assign that role to his “number two” person. Since Silver’s job is about encouraging “courageous conversations” in order to ensure the whole company has a mindset of empathy, I kicked off our podcast asking about the 93 days she spent on Outward Bound without toilet paper. But the real value of the conversation was around the ways to inspire healthy attitudes at work while still hitting the company KPIs of speed, hustle and winning. I recommend listening to the full episode, because while this topline is filled with solid gold takeaways, you won’t want to miss the full Silver.

Silver’s background in positive psychology and leadership positions in brand strategy at leading ad agencies in the US and UK make her eminently qualified to inspire and encourage transparency while keeping an eye on the customer objectives. In a balancing act with business, Silver drives the human goals forward based on the belief that, as she says, “pretty much anything is accomplishable with vulnerability with people showing up to be big and authentic in conversations to greeting one another, you know, both ways on a bridge, not building walls, but really finding ways to bond with one another and connect.”  Connecting – which is key – is not perceived as a major challenge by Silver. “I just don’t see a lot of difference in humans. I think that we’re all extremely similar and when we can accept that we can move through it and move with it and move on and do great things together.”

E.B. Moss and Claude Silver

Coming from her most recent position as client service strategist on Unilever in London, Silver is the first say she is not classic “HR.” But she doesn’t love the term “human resources” anyway, and finds it better described, as they dubbed the team, People and Experiences. And those experiences are what matter and make the “differences” that Vayner now aims to hire for: broad cultural perspectives that will enable empathy – especially with their customers. Yes, the “E” word, again.

“I changed the way we hired from culture fit to skillset fit,” Silver explains. “That means we both like music, but we both don’t both have to love Dave Matthews. Our values are in the same zip code, but they’re not identical. And that allowed us to bring in all different types of people and backgrounds and socioeconomics that can actually do the job.” Those factors support the goal for speed. But the biggest factor in driving speed is employee retention. Again, think about the value of empathy, of what that employee wants and how they prefer to work.

How we work in our COVID-19 impacted way today may be different, but for Silver, “it’s actually similar because my day consists of being with people, and so now I’m not physically with them, so I’m on screens with them. I’m on still on one-on-ones quite a bit…a lot of Zooms and a lot of Hangouts where … we do culture jam sessions, or ‘ask me anythings’, and open it up for Q and A and really talk to them about who we are, what we do, why we do the things that we do.”

It’s a remarkable attitude, and a remarkable challenge, as her role was set up to scale CEO Vaynerchuk, by all accounts a unique personality. “In many ways I’m translating his vision in my voice to [employees.] I’m also very clear on the fact that I work for them. They don’t work for me…. I wasn’t a trained HR practitioner. I trained as a psychotherapist and somehow took a left turn and ended up in this digital world. I’m in the business of people whether or not I was selling soap on the front lines of advertising,” or, after her Outward Bound experience, running a surfing company. But she sees the HR world morphing from being the defense of a company to “the office of people — and helping them get from point A to C, being coaches, being Sherpas.”

Vaynerchuk, who is something of a Sherpa himself for the digital native set with his regular streams of advice, has publicly described Silver as “the second most important person in the company” and that “when there’s a debate between emotional continuity and what’s best for the internal vibe versus the CFO and the bottom line, Claude wins 99% of the time.” It’s evidence of culture over commerce – one which not only draws but retains staff with rare longevity in the ad world.

“My version of scaling Gary,” acknowledges Silver, “is to remind people that every single person is responsible for the culture there. … We have selected them because they can do the job and they add to the culture.” That culture also encourages staff to “do just about anything, except for maybe that one sliver, you might need permission for. But then that allows people to use their own curiosity and inspiration and their minds and their hearts to create and to join.”

Silver does acknowledge their hipster culture image as well as the realities of ageism, especially as a 50-something woman herself now. But she encourages people to pivot, as she did, and not buy in to “the number thing”. That is, admittedly, a challenge these days, but on joining VaynerMedia she said, “I never ever thought of myself as older than them. I just knew I was more experienced, but I had so much to learn from them, which really leveled the playing field….and they want to learn from me… especially a lot of females want to learn how do you become a leader? And I wanted to learn how to become a social media practitioner.”

She also became clear that the ad strategy world was not for her, and that “when your soul kind of dies in a way, that’s when you figure out what is really going to light you up. Now today’s a different age in COVID and we’re all lucky that we have jobs right now. …But …there are always going to be people that are like you that want to make the place better, that want to mentor, that want to bring more levity and imagination into a place.” So, without meaning to, she quoted a tagline: “Just do it.” Adding, “It only takes two people to have a meeting and culture change starts on the fringes.”

Speaking of change I asked her to put her strategist hat back on for a minute, to offer some advice for brands and what advertising should look like now, since, as Erica Keswin noted in Episode 3 about our current crisis, it’s essential to think about how you want your brand to be remembered when we emerge from these pandemic days. True to her brand, Silver said, “I do think brands have a big responsibility to be as authentic as possible today and not try to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, because we are all reading the same news. … there’s a level playing field that we’re all in this world together, so, don’t try to fluff that. We are resilient animals, and we will get through this. But I don’t think we need to be cotton candy, and I also don’t think we need to be showing things that are not attainable today. For example, if I was an alcohol brand, I shouldn’t be showing ads of people going into bars today because that’s not happening. And, how many more ways can I make chicken? Let’s get real about that. I think that there is resiliency, and there’s authenticity. …like me going to the refrigerator 20 times in one hour because it’s there. Those are things that capture human emotion and that’s what it’s always been about. However, [before,] brands wanted to give that consumer peace of mind. ‘You buy this, and your worries go away.’ I don’t believe that’s where we are today.

She goes on to explain options for brand behavior, as well as the people upon whom she modeled her own behavior. Michelle Obama aside, the person who impacted her most was her grandmother who worked her whole life in retail.

And the nickname they had for each other? “Heart.”

E.B. RossE.B. is a strategist, podcaster, and writer who creates content and “explanatory journalism” that drives revenue and humanizes brands. She also profiles executives through her podcast, “Insider Interviews with E.B. Moss” and guest hosts/produces Advancing Diversity podcast for MediaVillage where she was formerly Head of Content Strategy. She ran ad sales marketing at Food Network, Lifetime and Westwood One and now helms marketing consultancy, Moss Appeal. To inquire about help with a B2B podcast please email [email protected]

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