Ideasex Episode 15: James Orsini – ‘Sell the sausage not the ingredients’
Over the course of his career, James has held a number of C-level titles, so the podcast crew talks about what that experience has been like and how James approaches each new role. They also talk about the future of advertising and creative work, as well as a deep dive into the student debt crisis.
I first came across James when I was taking on the role of chief operating officer at Abacus and I wanted to find out who else out there was a chief operating officer of an agency, particularly a forward-thinking agency. And of course, VaynerMedia came to mind, and James at the time was the chief operating officer there.
He’s held a tonne of C-Suite titles from CFO to CEO to COO to CIO and we get into some of that in the episode as well as talking about other things like student debt and its effects on employees. Check it out.
Ian: Who are you and what do you do?
James: I’m James Orsini, and I’m currently the president of The Sasha Group, a VaynerX company in Gary Vaynerchuk’s world.
Ian: For those of our listeners who don’t necessarily know The Sasha Group, I’m sure they’re all familiar with Gary V and VaynerMedia and everything that’s going on there. The Sasha Group is a relatively new offering. Could you maybe tell us a little bit about that?
James: This is the latest offering in Gary’s portfolio of companies as he looks to build a $500 million integrated international independent communications company. I was chief operating officer for the last four years and helping them grow that company, and we’ve been working over the last two years to make sure that we had a product that was right for his six million plus followers.
We built the company to service Fortune 500 companies and didn’t really have anything for the person who wanted to be the next Wine Library like his claim to fame. So, we launched it on January 15th and it’s a full-service offering, including education, consulting and digital marketing for businesses between one and one hundred million in revenues.
Jeff: I’ve been listening to a bunch of podcasts that seeing you’ve been pretty active, doing different interviews recently. There are a couple things that you’d mentioned in other shows that I’d like to dive into. One of the things was for The Sasha Group you had a target of one hundred million dollars. Is that correct?
James: Gary has aggressive goals as he has. We’re looking to grow The Sasha Group offering to be a $100 million-dollar company in four years. It’s about half the time it took for VaynerMedia to get to $100 million.
Jeff: So, with a big goal like that, I’d like to kind of dive into that. What are you thinking about? You’re saying that that’s about half the time that it took VaynerMedia to achieve the same goals? What’s your thinking like to be able to achieve that? What do you think about in terms of first projects? What are some of the first milestones you’re working towards? Love to know some more about that in specific?
James: Gary runs an environment of tests and optimization. It’s a fail fast, fix fast, learn fast kind of environment. So, in fact, I recall out of my interview dinner when he hired me, he said, “Listen, you’ve made 25 years of mistakes that I don’t want to make. Help me avoid the potholes and move faster and in order to get to growth.”
Simply replicating the VaynerMedia model that’s in place is not what we’re here to do. We’re here to really garnish the attention of our audience and understand what matters to them. And then pull the levers that we deem appropriate from our experience with Fortune 500 companies, helping to unlock explosive growth for them.
This is a unique offering because it’s infused with the DNA of an entrepreneur. But it has experienced personnel that have serviced some of the largest the most successful companies in the world.
Jeff: Pete, Ian and I started Abacus a couple of years ago and launching an agency into this ‘agency world’ was very interesting because a lot of traditional ‘agency world’ is broken and the relationship between agencies and clients is not exactly at an all-time high. Launching an agency into this type of ecosystem, what are the kind of things that are going through your head in terms of how I’m going to be part of the solution and not just another contributor?
James: You’ll notice that I called it a full-service offering and not necessarily an agency. I’m trying not to have an agency model. I’ve been full fortunate with a 30-year, 25 years of which were in this industry. I was in public relations first. Then I was in branding with Interbrand. I was in general market advertising with Saatchi & Saatchi. My last gig before coming to work for Gary was running a small, publicly traded mobile media company and now, the digital social space.
I’ve seen the nuggets of gold that exists throughout all those agencies, but I also know what it’s like to work in a firm, having worked at KPMG and Goldman Sachs. Part of what we’re trying to figure out is how do we peel out the cream of each of those and be able to come up with this full-service offering that combines a classroom type educational component with a full-service consulting component.
Like a sort of McKenzie light, if you will, with then the creative agency offering that also includes the media planning and buying. So, yoke in the media to the creative is the secret sauce. And really having those two work in tandem and being able to double down on the stuff that’s working and pull back on the stuff that isn’t in quick time is a pointed differentiation on the agency side.
Jeff: So, I’ve heard you mentioned that quote from you from your interview, your first meeting with Gary, where he said, he doesn’t want to make the same twenty-five years of mistakes that you had made already. Which makes sense. Absolutely. I’d love to hear more about that, though. In terms of, for you over your career, what are some of those mistakes that really stick out in your mind, particularly as it relates to agencies in the agency model? And how have you learned from them and trying to change things now?
James: Some of the mistakes I made is, you don’t need to be 31 offices in 26 countries to service the world. You could service the world from a couple of key strategic areas. We’re doing that a little differently here in VaynerMedia with our first international office being in London and a second to be a put into Singapore later this year.
I also learned that culture is very important. I once acquired three different public relations companies in London, and I merged them all together. And one plus one plus one equaled one and a half when I was done. Just recognizing that cultures are different, and it’s important to keep them precious and recognised and nuances.
When we made our first big acquisition here, we acquired PureWow, the digital publishing company. We kind of left him as a stand alone rather than immediately just drop them into the middle of VaynerMedia world. We let them breathe on their own for a year and then began to bring them a little closer. Now they’re on a different floor, than VaynerMedia, but in the same building. Just some learning is like those, I was I was able to share with.
Jeff: One of the groups that you guys are targeting is start-ups. How are start-ups and working with start-ups different than working with small SMBs.
James: The interesting thing is, we’re working with funded start-ups and there’s a big difference. When Gary announced the launch of the company on January 15th, we had over 4,700 inquiries to our website the first 48 hours. It didn’t take me too long to realize that 3,000 of those were really ideas and not necessarily a company to be serviced.
And that’s part of what we were talking about as well. Gary realizes how entrepreneurship is so sexy right at this moment. But the fact of the matter is many who are professing to be entrepreneurs are not and should not be. Part of what we do is help them ferret out whether this is really where they shouldn’t be. On the consulting side, people often pay us to come in with three- or four-hour white sessions to just sit with them and their team to see if there’s legs to this idea to actually become a business. And if so, what direction should it go in.
We have one offering that we’re working on now, which is devising the pitch deck to teach them how to go and try and secure funding to have that dream become a vision and become an actual company.
Jeff: So, over your career held a lot of different rules, particularly see rules. You’ve been a CFO. You’ve been a CEO. You been a COO. Now you’re the president of a company I’d love to hear your take on how you perceive those different roles and how they interact and what you’ve taken from each of those rolls on to the next one.
James: I’m really blessed I’ve had a wonderful thirty plus year career, and it’s not over yet. Thank God. But what it taught me was the overlap between those. So as a CFO I had to sometimes provide HR-type counsel. As a COO I had to lean in on legal counsel, getting a better understanding for contracts and things like that.
As a CEO I’ve been on the front line of sales. I wrote an article called Guided Exploration and it goes through that. It came about because at the time, I was taking my daughter to see colleges and they were really encouraging the students, like, “Don’t necessarily come in with a major. You don’t even know what you want. Do this little guided exploration, get a feel for things and then kind of settle in.”
Having all those titles and playing those roles really has me respecting the other departments and the needs that they have. In this president role, I am purposing to not be a burden on the finance or legal or HR department, because I understand what it is that they do and how they work.
Jeff: When you got the CFO title, I believe I heard on of the podcast you were on that you were under thirty years old, right? When you first became a CFO, is that correct? What was that like? Being a young leader and possibly managing people older than yourself. What was that experience like?
James: Yes. So that was interesting. I remember. And look that you’re talking about late eighties, early nineties when my boss said, “Listen, we’re going to go to Hong Kong now, and I need you to tell everybody down there that you’re thirty. I don’t want them to know that you’re not thirty yet.”
So, traveling the globe as I did fifteen years circling twenty-six countries in two different companies, really gave me a great understanding and respect for other cultures. Americans kind of take for granted that everybody is just like them, and it’s not the case. So, I worked really hard to get the respect of peers. But sometimes it was difficult. Look, as a global CFO, I was the guy that they often sent in to remove a local office CEO.
At the time working for two different holding companies, the global CEO really didn’t want to play that role, so that was often put on the back of the CFO. And a lot of times that was the hardest part of my job I was doing. In fact, I once had to fire the same guy twice in two different companies, like what’s the chances of that? So really not pleasurable but needed to be done.
Ian: What do you think advertising is going to look like in five years, and particularly how are we to reconcile TV and Mobile right now?
James: I think I think we’re going to see a lot more of what I call ‘advertainment’, where advertising and entertainment come together. I think the days of the single message shouted from the top of the hill generically for everyone are just not going to be the case. We’re a society of on demand, personalization and the message that you receive needs to be tailored to your likings.
With Jeff, not necessarily seeing what Ian sees on his screen or mobile device. I can’t comprehend how anybody could not be advertising on a mobile device right now. But I don’t think it’s an and/or. I do believe it’s and/and. Integrated messaging across multiple platforms.
Should it be spent evenly? No, that is not the case. But did I happen to flip through a magazine at the PATH train station stop before coming here? Yeah, I did. Did I pick my head up while I was on the path train and look at some of the outer home-type posters that were there? I certainly did. Was I on my phone 80% of that time? Absolutely I was.
Jeff: And the and/and is interesting. And also, until you have the good stuff maxed, why are you moving into the soft stuff? That’s something we see all the time. Feel free to go into television, but make sure that you’ve got the important personal stuff maxed and calibrated before moving into it.
What about television? Are we going to be buying from broadcasters in five years, or are we going to be buying from tech companies?
James: Look, television still works. Nobody’s going to watch the NCAA tournament of sixty-four teams on their mobile device. That’s going to be television Now does it stream live on your computer? Absolutely it does. But there still will be a place for television. I was just at a panel that Gary was on talking about the value of Super Bowl commercials and he believes that they should be charging more for Super Bowl commercials given the attention the week before, the day of, and the week after.
When you realize how much attention is being drawn to that one creative deliverable. There is value there. Do I think you could become a display side platform? That is a lot up to people like Barry Diller and others who are much, much smarter than me in figuring out the nuances of how that’s going to be transmitted. But clearly, that is space that ready for disruption. It’s ripe for the Airbnb and the Uber disruptive type model.
Jeff: When you’re working with companies at The Sasha Group, what questions are you asking that you don’t find other people are asking? What kinds of questions are you guys probing or asking that companies don’t tend to ask themselves?
James: What’s interesting about the clients that were working here at The Sasha Group is and why I like to position ourselves as the anti-agency. Agencies started to dig in and wanted to spend fifty years with a client. That’s what we did, when we were at Saatchi, whether it’s Proctor and Gamble or General Mills.
At Sasha, we are purposing to have the client outgrow us and grow into VaynerMedia. So how quickly can we get you to $100 million in sales so we could transfer you down to Hudson Yards from Broadway where I’m talking to you from. A lot of times what we’re finding with these clients are boy, they’re good products or a compelling story that simply needs to be told.
We’re working with Bag Balm right now, which is the guy who was running it described it as a 120-year-old start-up, out of Vermont. It’s a Chapstick Vaseline type product, right for chafing. But the story is it was developed for cows 120 years ago because the udders were chafing. Bag milk bag balm for the udders. And then they realized, hey, this stuff works on humans. It’s like a wonder drug and he’s doing his sales through Walmart. We’ve got to just help him tell that story because it’s a good product.
We’re working with another one called SunButter. A healthy alternative to peanut butter using sunflower seeds selling out of Wegmans. And you’d be surprised as the awareness increases, the more people talk about “Hey, that You know what? That is pretty good because my kid’s allergic to peanuts. And now he can have a sandwich that looks like a peanut butter and jelly like everybody else.” So just helping them tell the great stories are what we’re trying to do here.
Jeff: When you meet with a new company that wants to work with you, how can you tell if they’re a fit for you guys? What are the things that you get better and better at figuring out as you go?
James: We’re fortunate in that at this point, we could have a little moxie and be a little selective with the clients that we take. So, we could help position ourselves for success. First and foremost, we have a very charismatic leader who is very purposeful on his way to market. Remember, he was a retailer by trade, he wasn’t an ad guy, so he’s all about what he likes to say, “selling shit”.
First and foremost, you have to buy into our approach. Second, we’re looking for sustainable businesses that are going to be around. Gary’s all about legacy. So, in fact, when the things that he wants to do is really buy an orphan or abandoned brand that has brand legacy and then resurrect it through our marketing machine here and flip the brands that have then gained the value in his quest to purchase the New York Jets.
We’re working with companies that have products or offerings that we believe are going to be around and not just a flash in the pan type things that you will.
Jeff: One thing that you talked about quite a bit and Gary talks about a lot is scale. Scale, scale, scale. We’re just over two years old. We’ve scaled from the three of us to about thirty people in those two years. What are some things that you think about in early scaling? You had from three to thirty, from thirty to one hundred. What are some things that are always top of your mind when you’re doing that and how are you thinking about that growth?
James: One of the things that I’d like to say is there’s a real difference between swelling and growing. Both get big and one is healthy. So, if you just think about that there’s a caution to not swell. Gary is a big proponent, as am I.
I could never figure out why the guy with a very successful restaurant in New York City with people lined up out the door, would open a second restaurant in San Francisco. Why wouldn’t you just take the space next door and seat the people that are already in line?
Oftentimes we see that as an issue. Recognize as you go through these thirty to fifty stages, you’re kind of too big to be small, too small to be big. There’s really no room for prima donnas in a company like that. If the copier machine gets stuck, you got to stick your arm in and pull the paper out because there’s nobody coming by to help you with that. So that’s important as well.
I just had a very candid, open and forceful conversation with one of our mentor clients this morning where I let him know, look, you have, an employee in that company is not pulling your weight, and it is being noticed and demoralizing those that are in your company and pulling their weight. So, you need to address it, even if it means admitting you made a mistake in this hire. It is not bringing you to value that you thought and worse. They say, “one rotten apple will spoil the whole basket or so. But a great apple can’t resurrect a rotten bushel.” But he’s got to really deal with that. I know that was hard for him to hear by the deafening silence on the other end of the phone. I shared it. But you got to do what you got to do.
Jeff: One last question before we pivot into the next part of the show. VaynerMedia is a new media company doing things in a different way. I Imagine the types of creatives that you guys have is not necessarily the types of creatives that Saatchi & Saatchi, JWT or Ogilvy would have. How do you see the role of a creative person in advertising? And how do you scale creative when you’re taking people who might have been working on a handful of TV spots and now, they’re going to make hundreds of assets every year? What’s that like? And how do you think about that? And how has that been as a challenge and that you guys have overcome?
James: Look, this is why we’re trying to do things so differently at The Sasha Group. The service sector model is a difficult model. In order to grow, you have to hire more people and take on more space. When it’s an hour’s times rate type set up, it’s just extremely difficult. What we’re trying to do is sell packaged items.
I don’t want to sell the ingredients that everybody could have a comment on. I’d rather just sell the sausage. And do you want the sausage, yes or no? It’s fine. But if I say here’s all the pieces and then you tell it has too much salt or there’s not enough pepper, I really don’t like parsley – that sausage is not going to taste like what it was that I meant for it to be.
So, we’re working hard at a VaynerMedia to say, “Hey, you want one of these? It’s one hundred thousand dollars. Now, let us get busy for you. Let us show you how it’s worked four times in the past.”
I always get a kick out of clients who say, “listen, I want something totally new from you, and I want to see how it worked three times in the past.” And that’s oxymoronic isn’t it? But we’ll get through that. So, scaling creative – we’re working on something right now called the Vayner Volume Model, which allows us to take an enormous amount of content and push it into the ecosystem to see how people are reacting to the content.
And then double down further on the stuff that they are reacting to. Six tweets could then lead to a hero video because we know that that’s the compelling notion which could then lead to a Super Bowl commercial. So, by the time we get to the Super Bowl commercial, we’ve already proven it down in the tweets that this is what’s resonating with the consumer. It’s not the Super Bowl of old where we’re just going to throw out the idea and hope people like it
Jeff: It’s not reach and amplification.
James: Yeah, the amplification used to watch how people are doing so. So, we like to say that our creators are strategically creative and creatively strategic. Because we have them involved in the process. It’s not necessarily a pass off.
Think about the person who’s running the four hundred meter has a better time than the relay team running the same four hundred meters. It’s still four hundred meters. Okay, but if it’s a seamless product, which is the company if Gary’s built. The agency yoked to the media, yoked to the production. All one company, all one CEO, all one bottom line. You could say, well, doesn’t every holding company have that? They’re miles apart. They’re incentivized differently. Everybody’s got their own agenda.
You’re trying to figure out how one guy steals the budget from the next guy. I’ve been in two of them, I see how it works.
Jeff: We’re going to pivot into the next piece of the show. So, what are you thinking about these days? What big ideas do you have on your mind? When you’re at home, what are you thinking about?
James: Well, I was recently interviewed by UBS on the topic of student debt. I really had my eyes opens here working with 850 millennials. And it really just took one in the hallway to stop me cold and say, “Listen, how can you be asking me to put away for a 401k plan for retirement when I am struggling with this college debt and I’m eating pizza and Ramen every night. Do you actually think I’m thinking about when I’m 62, 63 years old?” And that that comment paused me and realized wow! our whole benefits package, which was probably developed thirty years ago.
You should have this medical, you should have this vision, this dental. There’s nothing there to help these kids, pay down their college debt. And recognizing even if you were fortunate enough and smart enough to be someone like me who was financially astute. Who put away for three kids’ college? The likelihood that one of those kids are going to marry somebody with debt and therefore debt is in the family is a very high percentage.
This is something that I think this whole model of higher education and the cost thereof and the pressure of students that have to go to name schools because so and so applied to a Villanova or Georgetown. It’s really something that we have to pay some attention to.
Jeff: So, what’s the path forward, then? Because there are so many different elements that enabled that kind of system. You have the lenders that are giving the students the money to begin with, so they’re enabling it. That’s then inflating the tuition costs because they know that the students are getting the money to pay those inflated tuition costs. There’s a whole bunch of different angles where the system is self-enabling it. Up here in Canada, we have government-backed loans that they give to the students. Then they’re taking taxes off your paycheck and you’re paying back your government-backed student loan. Where do you think that the path forward is or the primary point that needs to be addressed?
James: I don’t think there’s any one silver bullet, and I think it’s a series of levers. The lending needs to be tightened. This is Deja vu dot com implosion, where everybody was able to get a mortgage, forgetting how much they put down, forgetting how much they made, just go to the bank. They’re going to give you money, and you can buy that big house. So, the lending side has change.
Two: the government needs to catch up. We, as employers need to be able to make tax-efficient contributions to help these kids pay down their debt, just like 401K. Where people put away money, that’s pre tax. And here today, if VaynerMedia decided that they wanted to help students pay down some debt, it’s considered a taxable fringe benefit. And any money that I give to them is taxable. So, the government needs to catch up and figure out a way—just like they did with 401K for retirement— to allow companies to help pay down the debt tax-free.
And the third thing is really a much bigger societal pressure and shift is to recognize that college isn’t for everybody. We need plumbers. We need electricians. We need trashmen and tradesmen.
Why? You don’t need to incur fifty thousand dollars worth of debt to be a good plumber. And quite frankly, you’ll make more than the doctor who does have $200 thousand worth of debt if done right. So, society has got to shift a little bit and be a little more accepting to just let people be people. There’s going to be some who are entrepreneurs. They’re going to be some who are tradesmen and they’re going to be some who need to go to college.
Jeff: I absolutely love this topic and I’m so glad you brought it up a couple of thought-starters for you gentlemen. Is student debt a necessary evil of the system to keep people plugged in and needing employment? Is it the cause of indentured servitude is one question I have?
Why did the Trump U’s and the Culinary Institutes of the world get shut down because their tuition as a percentage of the future earning power of the people is too low? The universities don’t.
James: I think those were all disruptor notions and in the spirit of your podcast—and forcing people to think about those ideas—it’s only going to take one or two to come up with that and to recognize that we need a different model. Gary feels strongly, especially if you’re saying that you want to be an entrepreneur. There are 268 universities in the US that now offer entrepreneurship as a major and Gary’s like, really like if you want to be an entrepreneur, go out and do your business. Okay? Why are you sitting in class?
Learning about how to be an entrepreneur. It’s kind of a DNA thing. Either you are or you are not He was running lemonade stands and flipping baseball cards at an early age. The fact is you could be someone like me who has an entrepreneurial spirit, but not necessarily. I really don’t have any desire to go out and start up a company from scratch. But I am entrepreneurial in my approach to many things. So, I think, recognizing that’s a difference as well.
Jeff: I’m hoping that there’s going to be another trend that helps fuel the switch. To which are the actual professors that have draws and have audiences, picking up on the model where I’m going to make content. I’m going to put my stuff out there. I’m going to write books, and I’m going to be my own channel. And now I can educate the masses. And it’s not a twenty thousand dollars tuition or more, or whatever it is, but I’m going to charge a million people, one hundred bucks for my model, and I’m going to get paid well, and I’m going to educate more people and maybe on the back of the Internet and professors taking that that ownership. We might have a new model.
James: I think when you realize (and I’ve met some of these kids through sitting on the border regions for Seton Hall University) some of them are running serious businesses out of their dorm room. I mean, I’m talking about picking up sixty, seventy, eighty thousand a year, so clearly not worried about that, because now they’ve figured out a way to fund their college education that they’re getting through a unique entrepreneurial idea that’s happening right there in your dorm rooms. And I used to think that was the odd man out until I realized, “Wait a second. I just talked to ten kids in the last year who are doing that” So maybe this isn’t as far fetched as I once thought it was.
Jeff: How come no super rich guy like a Jeff Bezos decides one day to just pay off everyone’s student debt? They would build statues of him in every park in every town, in every city from coast to coast. How come no one wants to just do that?
James: Look, do I believe people genuinely want to do good and just need to be directed? Yes, I sit on several, not for profit boards of drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers for men. I sit on something called Griffin Bridges, which is for academically gifted, financially challenged inner-city boys. I support an interesting not for profit one-twenty-seven project which fixes and builds homes for single moms.
So, there’s a lot of good out there. Now let me circle that back to advertising and branding. Because this is where so many not for profits are getting it wrong. And not paying attention to their brand and their marketing message. When you are Unilever, you know exactly who your competitors are. When you are a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, your competitors are anyone willing to take the dollar from the donor.
It could be a synagogue. It could be a church. It could be a university. It could be a cancer charity. Think about it. You’re fighting for that gift of a dollar. And your competition is voluminous. So, it’s very important for not for profits to get their brand and their and their marketing message right.
And so, few really see that as an investment. They see it as a cost that they don’t need, and all they need is another Jeff Bezos. I just got to find one more rich dude and my pain goes away.
Jeff: And I think also to the whole advertising for these charities and organizations. When they do get picked up and they get the pro bono work from the ad agencies of the world, generally, those are ploys to win awards and they’re optimized for a different outcome than the outcome of helping the company. And I see that quite often, and it makes me a little upset. I understand why that is, but it’s something you see. It feels very disingenuous.
James: When we were at Interbrand we used to bring our interns in, and their assignment for the summer was to rebrand a not for profit, and I recall this was probably 2002 or 2003. These guys re-branded a cancer research company and the director of that program came in and said, “Hey, guys, just here to thank you for saving lives” and everybody kind of looked around at each other.
She was like, “You think you just do a logo or come up with a name or an identity? You have to understand that what you did now puts me on the map to get the money to fund the research, to save lives. Can you look at your job a little differently and realize what you just did I want to thank you for helping save lives”.
So why don’t you put that perspective? The whole award-winning shit goes out the roof, and that’s what I love about the VaynerMedia, VaynerX companies is we’re not about the award. Were about what’s on the other end. We need to sell shit, we need to drive awareness, we need to tell people about this service.
Tat is what we live for. If we win in the award as a result of that, more power to you. And awards are good. I don’t say that they’re not. But we’re not purposed to win awards.
Jeff: On that note. I think this is probably a good point to say thank you for coming to the show just before we go. Where can people find you online? Where can they find out more information about The Sasha Group?
LinkedIn: James Orsini
The Sasha Group: https://thesashagroup.com/