The essays were a way for Jenner to talk about her sexual transformation seriously and to engage the transgender community in a way that the tabloids didn’t. In short, they allowed her to control her message and tell her story herself. The first entry began, “Hello friends. Caitlyn Jenner here.”
This type of direct-to-fan relationship that feels less publicist-controlled than most celebrity interactions–not that Jenner was going totally rogue; someone from WhoSay worked with her on the pieces–was one of the reasons WhoSay was founded five years ago within the halls of power agency CAA. The idea was to create a platform where celebrities could feel safe and in control of their images and thoughts, as well as one that was easy to use. (This idea has caught on–last year Derek Jeter launched a similar platform for athletes called The Players’ Tribune.) With just a few clicks, WhoSay users such as Tom Hanks and Eva Longoria can post items across social media, as well as to syndicated outlets like People.com and the Huffington Post.
Today, however, that piece of WhoSay’s business is just that–a piece. Over the last two years, the company has evolved into a much broader business, one that now has a “religious focus,” according to cofounder and CEO Steve Ellis on “generating media revenue for ourselves and our clients.” The way WhoSay has been doing that is through content creation: specifically, working with brands to create online advertising campaigns built around stars like Alec Baldwin and comedian Michael Ian Black.
Last April Fool’s, when Chevrolet was looking to run an online spot for its “Best Day Ever” campaign, WhoSay connected the car company with Baldwin, who dressed up like Abraham Lincoln and showed up at Occidental College as a surprise guest lecturer. And for AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign (a call to end fiddling with your phone while driving), WhoSay worked with Black to create a video showing the comedian at home, his eyes glued to his smartphone as he does laundry and makes dinner. Only when he gets in his car does he put his phone away.
Those are just two of the 70 campaigns that WhoSay has crafted over the last year or so, for companies like Diet Coke, Nestle, and Bank of America. The result is a 500% spike in revenue, according to the company.
Ellis doesn’t like to say that WhoSay has pivoted from its original business model. There is still WhoSay.com, which in September attracted a modest 2.6 million unique visitors a month globally, according to Quantcast, and the company has put out two apps. “We still have the desire to be the trusted voice of our celebrity clients, and an outlet that allows them to tell and distribute their stories,” he says, pointing to Jenner as an example.
But he readily admits that when people ask him what his company does, his reply is: “We connect brands to superstars.”
So what brought on this shift?
Ellis says that part of it was just responding to the fast-changing Internet ad business and seizing an opportunity. After spending the first few years building out its product and growing its celebrity user base–there are over 2,000 stars on the service–in 2013, Rob Gregory, a media veteran and the former president of Newsweek and the Daily Beast, was brought on as the company’s chief revenue officer. He was tasked with launching WhoSay’s advertising model. The only problem was, the online ad market was in the midst of a major shakeup.
“The ad business is no longer really in search of a dotcom with traffic,” Ellis says. “It’s in search of content marketing that can be distributed across multiple platforms rather than a media company’s money going into a single place.”
In other words, relying on big, splashy display ads–as WhoSay had been doing–was no longer a wise option. With the rise of mobile, people were getting most of their information on their phones, via services like Twitter and Facebook. No one was going to home pages anymore. Throw in the proliferation of ad-blocking services and it was clear that WhoSay needed to find a new path.
That path became creating celebrity-driven videos that can be sent out across social media, taking advantage of Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms’ ability to target specific demographics on a huge scale (soccer moms who live in the Southwest; teenage girls who like horror films). WhoSay’s own third-party data that it has been collecting for years allows it to refine this targeting even more. Having monitored the social media activity of so many celebs, it now knows as much about them as their fans, and has amassed a database of 400 million email and social media addresses of all those followers across multiple networks, including Instagram and YouTube.
“Obviously, you can just send [a video] out and target on Facebook,” says Ellis. “But we have an added layer of intelligence around what people like that allows us to put together a good graph of whom to target across the web.”
Some say that one of WhoSay’s challenges is that it is focussed on traditional celebrities, as opposed to, say, YouTube and Vine stars, who are in general much savvier about engaging their fans online. Says Brendan Gahan, whose company Epic Signal pairs social media stars with brands, “Celebrities that aren’t ‘digital celebrities’ don’t translate as well online. They don’t know how to really activate and cultivate those audiences.”
According to a recent study, teens perceive YouTube stars to be 90% more genuine, 17 times more engaging, and 11 times more extraordinary than mainstream celebrities.
WhoSay is also effectively, if not competing with, then offering a service that talent agencies themselves are growing more aggressive about giving their clients. WME, for one, has a partnership with the ad agency Droga5 that allows the talent firm to create celeb-driven ads from the ground up.
But WhoSay’s added level of social media intelligence and efficiency is drawing in major brands. Last year, AT&T hired WhoSay to create a series of videos for its “It Can Wait” campaign. Before, AT&T had primarily been creating TV spots to raise awareness.
“The beauty of WhoSay is that it’s primarily a social activation,” says Heather Bern, director of It Can Wait. “And when you’re [advertising] in social media, there’s this advocacy, because people can actually share and chatter about the message.”
She further praised WhoSay, which operates as a soup-to-nuts firm, wrangling the talent, and handling all video production and paperwork, for being “turnkey.”
“You give them a brief, they hit the nail on the head. They make it easy for the client. And then the quality is amazing and they’re pushing it out to all social channels with one click, essentially.”
According to WhoSay, the “It Can Wait” campaign–which also featured videos starring actors Peter Facinelli and James Maslow— delivered 13 million targeted impressions across multiple social networks and WhoSay.com, and a nearly 10% overall engagement rate.
That latter number, which Ellis says is more than three times the engagement rate of a direct Facebook campaign, is what he’s most revved up about.
“If you’re a brand spending money and you’ve got your choices of where to spend it, one of the choices is XYZ dotcom or Facebook or us. With us, you’re going to get the same number of impressions. But you’re going to wake up at the end having got more for your money, because we have better engagement rates. And when you add that to today’s world, where interrupting people with advertising is getting poorer and poorer results–that’s why we’ve seen such great results.”
Of course, the real secret sauce, and what WhoSay claims is setting it apart from its competition, is what Ellis calls “great content.” In other words, videos that are truly entertaining and don’t feel overly scripted and rehearsed. Seeing Baldwin don an Abe Lincoln outfit is amusing enough. Seeing him stroll into a college classroom and start lecturing on American history is perhaps worth a few minutes of even a cynic’s time. As for the AT&T ads, they feel more like short films than ads, but with a seemingly homemade quality that draws the viewer in.
“We don’t want it to be meticulously scripted,” says Ellis. “You can tell from most of what we’ve done, celebs are not being asked to do stiff endorsement-type campaigns. People don’t want to see that stuff. They don’t want to be interrupted, they want to be engaged. So it’s a creative challenge, first and foremost.”
He circles back to his theme that at its core, WhoSay is still what it always was. “To be really clear on the Hollywood aspect,” he says, “we made millions of dollars a year this year for our clients from campaigns with brands. We are trying to be what we set out to be, which was a media business by, with, and for our clients.”
“And also which delivers a really effective ad.”