A few years ago, Mike Platco was working at an advertising staffing agency in Boston. The job helped him pay back his student loans, but his passion was fooling around on the web, specifically on social media. “I may or may not have tried to become Vine famous, but failed miserably,” says Platco, 26, when we chat.
Then he discovered Snapchat.
“I used to be an art teacher, so I liked those apps you could draw on,” Platco says. “I heard about Snapchat, I downloaded it, and I started making highly detailed pictures of myself, drawn as Harry Potter and Dr. Who characters, to an audience that consisted primarily of my 13-year-old cousin.”
In the year and a half since Platco first started to doodle on Snapchat, that audience has grown considerably. Today he has a quarter of a million Snapchat followers and is a go-to “influencer” for major entertainment companies such as CBS Films and Paramount Pictures. He also has a steady gig working with ABC Family to promote the show Pretty Little Liars, which has more than 1.4 million followers, making it one of the biggest entertainment accounts on Snapchat.
Despite the power that Platco wields on Snapchat—he says he averages 105,000 views per Snap—he’s never once interacted with the company. Instead he works with Naritiv, a startup that bills itself as “the first Snapchat network.” The company represents about 120 Snapchat stars with considerable followings, pairing them with brands who want to forgo (or complement) a traditional ad buy with Snapchat and create native campaigns on the platform. Naritiv is the equivalent of a multichannel network (MCN) like Fullscreen or Maker Studios, companies that have grown into multimillion-dollar enterprises by managing the careers of YouTube stars. Because MCNs ultimately block a direct relationship between YouTube and its stars—and siphon off revenue that would otherwise be going to YouTube—they have emerged as uncomfortable bedfellows with the Google-owned online video behemoth. A similar dynamic is emerging between companies like Naritiv and Snapchat. According to Naritiv’s cofounder and CEO Daniel Altmann, his company has “no official relationship” with the platform that is supporting its livelihood.
This burgeoning cottage industry that is rapidly taking shape around Snapchat points to how valuable it has become as an advertising vehicle. It also underscores how that value is leading to thorny conflicts of interest as Snapchat itself competes with its own service’s stars for ad dollars. At the very least, Snapchat seems to be at a crossroads as to how it will define its relationship with its influencers going forward. Like YouTube, it could essentially look the other way and allow influencers to forge marketing deals on their own, while insisting—as per a recent initiative—that any overtly branded content be backed by the brand also buying ad space on YouTube. Alternatively, it could take the Facebook route and create a policy that forbids posting branded content in an attempt to preemptively shut down the emergence of an MCN-like economy. In yet another path forward, it could follow Twitter’s lead and try to swallow the economy whole and bring it all under one roof. In February, Twitter paid a reported $30 million for Niche, a startup that helped advertisers work with Twitter stars.
Most industry observers predict that Snapchat will likely not be as aggressive as Twitter when it comes to getting involved with influencers, but will follow more of YouTube’s lead as it takes a long-term approach to growing ad revenue. “I think they’ll want to figure out a scalable system of selling advertising and media so that they don’t have to rely on these people at all,” says one digital executive. “Talent management is hard. Dealing with idiosyncratic, egotistical, entrepreneurial people that all want differing things . . . you’re telling them, ‘Well, Nike wants you to do this.’ And they say, ‘Well, I don’t even wear Nike.’ It’s very complex.”
Adds Brendan Gahan, whose company Epic Signal pairs social media stars on YouTube, Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat (and which was acquired by the ad agency Mekanism this summer), “They’re valued at $16 billion. They’re not going to get their investor’s money back by hiring hundreds of people to negotiate and manage influencer brand deals.”
A Snapchat spokeswoman acknowledges, “We have not yet invested in creating a differentiated experience for [influencers]. At a high level, we are paying attention to what they are doing and trying to learn what’s working and what isn’t. They’re obviously important to us, and we’ll use this to inform our longer-term thinking.”
So for now, it’s the Wild West, with Snapchat stars pulling in six-figure incomes as full-time influencers, as Snapchat sees zero of that revenue. Someone like Platco works mainly with entertainment brands, helping studios and networks build buzz for films and TV shows. But deals are being made all over the place. Snapchatter Jake Paul, a buff, blond 18-year-old who in another decade could have been a Backstreet Boy, was reportedly hired by Mondelez to tout Sour Patch Kids. Shaun McBride, a long-haired Mormon from Utah who favors backwards baseball hats, has done work for Disney and Major League Soccer.
Snapchat’s very nature has helped fuel this sideline commerce. As a proudly nonintuitive platform where just searching for someone’s name is incredibly frustrating for anyone over the age of 14—you have to know the person’s exact handle—many brands feel the need to hire an expert user to help guide them. Snapchat also doesn’t yet offer the extensive targeting ability that rivals such as Twitter and Facebook do, and it’s a very expensive platform to advertise on (a geo filter can cost up to $750,000 for 24 hours). If a brand wants to advertise to teenage boys who like hockey, not only can they not do that, but they also need to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to send out a blanket ad to the entire platform.
This predicament has caused companies like CBS Films to call on Snapchat influencers. When the studio was getting ready to release What If, a romantic comedy starring Daniel Radcliffe, it reached out to Platco. “They knew I was a big Harry Potter guy, so they thought, ‘Let’s send this guy to the premiere in New York and have him tell a Snapchat story.’ So that’s what I did,” Platco says. “I made a whole story asking questions: ‘What if dogs could talk? What if this? What if that?’ It kind of led me on a little adventure that ended up with me going to the premiere. Once I got there, I took pictures with Daniel Radcliffe and the stars of the film on the red carpet. Then I got to see the film, so it was great.” CBS Films also tapped Platco for The Duff, another teen-skewing title, asking him to launch and manage the film’s Snapchat account over the course of the three months leading up to the film’s release.
Platco’s appeal is immediately evident: He’s classic clickbait for the young women using Snapchat. He has a goofy, lovable quality and is in no way threatening, sexually or otherwise. He posts snaps of himself walking around the mall shopping for Lego, getting lost in a parking lot, and sitting on the couch watching TV with his dog. All of his posts have an ad hoc, DIY quality—the preferred style on Snapchat, which prizes raw, immediate footage over the sepia-toned perfection of Instagram or Facebook’s photo-album feel. His art background also lends itself to Snapchat’s illustrator tools, which he uses to draw funny faces on himself or gives himself a blue-ink hairdo.
“The interesting thing about Snapchat influencers like Mike Platco is that it’s not just about them being popular and funny,” says Danielle Mullin, VP of marketing at ABC Family, which hired Platco to promote Pretty Little Liars. (ABC Family has also bought paid ads for the show on Snapchat.) “There is this artistic component to their skill set as well. Mike is really great at that. He was a fine art major, so he can take a 10-second snap and add all the bells and whistles to it that drive this huge engagement. So when we launched the Pretty Little Liars account, we worked with folks like Mike, who helped us create really engaging snaps each week while the show was on the air.” Altmann calls Platco the “voice” of the account.
Naritiv’s function is to help brands tell their story by offering them experienced Snapchat storytellers such as Platco. The company has worked with companies like Marriott and 20th Century Fox “to help them better expand and amplify what they do officially on Snapchat,” says Altmann. “Say you’re buying a filter. How do you get that filter into the most phones possible and get buzz around it, and get people talking about it? Helping optimize what you do on the platform is what we do with a lot of our partners.”
Naritiv also gives brands more detailed analytics than Snapchat provides. “What they give us on the back end are metrics, like how many people did a screenshot of your snap, how many people opened it, how many new followers did you get, average viewer length,” says Mullin. “Because Snapchat is in its infancy, they don’t have a lot of those metrics or reporting tools built out yet for brands to access. So Naritiv is able to help us put some measurement around what we’re doing.”
While Snapchat figures out its strategy, people like Platco are making hay. The Snapchat star says he has paid back all his student loans and now calls Snapchatting his full-time occupation. “I’m not a millionaire or anything. But the decision to leave a very decent-paying job to do this full-time was easy.”