All Aboard! Chartering the Mainstream Party Boat to the Island of Web3
Born in the depths of the pandemic, the Vayner3 consultancy has guided many of the biggest mainstream companies into Web3. That’s why Avery Akkineni and Gary Vaynerchuk are two of CoinDesk’s Most Influential 2022.
An NFT of this image was sold at auction on Coinbase NFT. A percentage of the sale went to oneearth.org.
Avery Akkineni can read the room. She knows the fall of FTX will have consequences, and that it might scare off brands that were otherwise crypto curious. When it comes to the brands that were on the sidelines and mulling a Web3 play, says Akkineni, the FTX news “has probably set us back six to 12 to 18 months.”
But this is only part of the story. Akkineni is the president of Vayner3, the Web3 arm of Gary Vaynerchuk’s VaynerMedia. She spent the past two years onboarding mainstream companies into crypto and non-fungible tokens (NFT), working with brands that range from KFC to Crocs to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. And while some companies remain skittish – and might even view Web3 as a “CFO killer” – Akkineni says that much of Corporate America still has a crypto appetite.
“From everything that I see and feel in my day to day, there’s so much inbound enterprise interest from companies who want to learn, and want to think critically about what’s happening in this new world,” says Akkineni. She points to Spotify, Reddit, Instagram, DraftKings and Salesforce as examples of mainstream companies forging ahead with Web3 initiatives – even in the frost of crypto winter. “There’s so much building going on, and there’s so much interest from enterprises,” she says, even if the bearish climate means that the “activation of some of those strategies will be delayed.”
Read more: Presenting CoinDesk's Most Influential 2022
Akkineni might seem an unlikely ambassador of Web3 adoption. She doesn’t come from the worlds of crypto, art, finance or any of the usual NFT on-ramps. She spent her early career in digital marketing, including a six-year stint at Google, which is where she met a charismatic figure giving a motivational speech – Gary Vaynerchuk. She was impressed. She was intrigued by how Vaynerchuk was “leveraging social media to build brands in a way that I wasn’t seeing from other agency partners.”
She was so impressed that she eventually left Google (not the safest choice) and joined VaynerMedia in 2018. Her first mission was to open the firms’ offices in the Asia-Pacific region. So she went on a hiring spree and opened shops in Bangkok, Tokyo, Sydney and Singapore.
Working in Asia had a trade-off. During the depths of COVID-19, Akkineni sat cooped up in her Singapore apartment for months. She stared at screens. She Zoomed. And she thought more about how the world was becoming more digitally immersive.
Vaynerchuk had similar thoughts, and he began to dabble in NFTs. He encouraged his core team, including Akkineni, to look into this wild new space. They saw passionate, highly engaged, animated behavior in the social-media subcultures of NFTs – on Discords and Clubhouse and Twitter, As Akkineni says, “it’s the small subcultures, in our experience, which often drive mainstream adoption.”
So Akkineni started experimenting in the NFT space, buying random projects and artwork to get a sense of the consumer perspective. “The fundamental question that was propelling me to research all of this was, ‘What’s in it for the consumer?’ Because brands follow consumers. Where attention goes, brands follow.”
Meanwhile, Vaynerchuk became seemingly omnipresent in NFT-land, often wearing a hoodie and baseball cap, popping up in Clubhouse after Clubhouse. He gobbled up NFTs and grew a sizable collection, sometimes giving high-profile endorsements to projects like World of Women. (Vaynerchuk also warned that “98% of NFT projects that came out in 2021 will likely end up being bad investments for many that bought them.”)
He launched “VeeFriends,” the NFT project that would later include perks like FaceTimes with Vaynerchuk, entrepreneur coaching and admission to “VeeCon” – a May 2022 convention that featured Web3 and Web3-adjacent notables including Beeple, Mila Kunis and Snoop Dogg. (The 10,255 VeeFriends NFTs have a floor price of $1,206, as of this writing, suggesting a market cap of $74 million.)
And early in 2022, Vaynerchuk made one of the pithiest, most compelling pitches yet for the true value of NFTs. This is perhaps his most important contribution to the space – convincing mainstream (and deep-pocketed) audiences that NFTs are legit. “I think NFTs are grossly misunderstood," he told CNBC. “People thought that Andy Warhols and Jackson Pollocks should not have value. People thought that sports cards should not have value. People thought that sneakers should not have value.”
Mainstream brands listened to this kind of advice. Vaynerchuk has the credibility. “PepsiCo and Anheuser-Busch have been clients of VaynerMedia for many years,” says Akkineni, who became president of VaynerNFT in 2021, and says the firm has now worked with nearly 50 Fortune 500 companies. “With that comes a level of trust.”
This is what helped Akkineni and team, for example, encourage Budweiser to purchase the Ethereum Name Service domain Beer.eth for $95,000, as well as spending $25,000 on an NFT from artist Tom Sachs, and making this its Twitter profile picture. (Budweiser no longer has the rocket-themed NFT as its profile picture – perhaps a sign of the times – but Akkineni said she considers the purchase of Beer.eth a watershed moment for the Web3 space, as it was the first time a Fortune 500 company bought an ENS domain.) “Budweiser is taking its first steps into the NFT universe,” an Anheuser-Busch InBev spokesperson told CoinDesk at the time, and it was Akkineni driving the behind-the-scenes work.
That work would continue throughout 2022, even if the firm needed to pivot. “We’re constantly reinventing ourselves and evolving,” says Akkineni. “What worked a year ago doesn’t work now … and what works today won’t work tomorrow.”
She now leads a team of 60 that’s spread across offices in New York and Miami. Part of the “reinvention” was changing the name of VaynerNFT to Vayner3 (as in Web3), and focusing on a more holistic consulting approach. The scope now includes education, long-term strategy, and developing the infrastructure to support future rollouts. “The biggest demand and the biggest value-add that we’re providing is really strategic services,” says Akkineni. “The phase that most companies are in is being thoughtful, and strategic, and learning, and deciding if they’re going to make a move.” She says that 7-Eleven, for example, is a partner they are working with to develop Web3 strategy, but they haven’t executed anything yet because “it’s not the time.”
The vibes have changed. During the peak of the NFT hype cycle, Akkineni says that brands were eager to trumpet their crypto experiments and rack up the publicity. “A year ago, everybody wanted to PR everything. Now, people are a little bit like, ‘Let’s see what gets picked up. Let’s see what people like,’” she says, adding that they are taking a more conservative approach, as opposed to “shouting from the rooftops.”
While the brands are not shouting, says Akkineni, they’re curious. Some see Web3 as an insurance policy to make sure they don’t miss a future trend. “Companies who really missed the boat on Web2 and social media are wanting to leapfrog themselves into Web3," says Akkineni.
It might take a little more time, but ultimately, Akkineni predicts that in 2023, “we’re going to see some enterprises take bigger, more intentional, more strategic swings.”
Even in the chill of crypto winter.
CORRECTION (12/6/22 – 13:30 UTC): Brand names were corrected in paragraphs two and 15.
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