Last year, Vickie Segar made news for a 2,400-square-foot, $15,000-per-month Manhattan apartment that nobody actually lived in. The entire place was designed, decorated, and managed as a studio for Instagram influencers.
That was just step one in Segar’s quest to make influencers a bigger part of the marketing industry machine. Today, Segar’s company, Village Marketing, is introducing a new model that aims to turn Instagram influencers into the next generation of advertising creative directors. Think Don Draper staging a meticulously coordinated selfie. Or Khloe Kardashian pining for Cannes Lions glory.
While many people over a certain age may see social media influencers as the demon spawn of P.T. Barnum and David Ogilvy, it has emerged as a significant advertising tool. According to a CivicScience survey in December 2018, one-third of daily Instagram users in the U.S. said they had purchased a product or service based on a recommendation from an influencer or blogger on the platform. (A recent study by Mediakix confirms that Instagram is far and away the most important influencer channel, with 89% of American marketers anointing it.)
While plenty of brands work with influencers, many still do so through traditional ad agency partners. Segar says in this old dynamic, influencers are treated more like celebrity spokespeople than creative collaborators. What Village Marketing is essentially asking is, why get traditional ad creatives to make ads for Instagram when you’re already working with experts on that platform?
“Brands are very used to traditional media. They’re very used to speaking at people and controlling a message,” says Segar. “It’s about a brand speaking at someone instead of with someone. Influencers are really the true creative directors of social media and the way that social media functions. They’re the ones that have a media platform, are connecting with an audience, producing content, and then getting it out into the world.”
After a more traditional start to her career, with stops at such elite agencies as Crispin Porter+Bogusky and Wieden+Kennedy and in-house marketing positions at Equinox and Aloha.com, Segar founded Village Marketing in 2013. It’s now a 35-person agency that specializes in social influencers, working with brands like SoulCycle, Casper, Wayfair, and Rent The Runway.
The new model Village Marketing is launching has a stable of about 15 influencers, including Tezza (692K followers), Patrick Janelle (439K followers), and Jenna Kutcher (792K followers). The agency will talk to or get a brief from a brand, decide which combination of two or three influencers might best fit the business, and, like a traditional creative agency, pitch ideas to the client. Once ideas are chosen, the influencer-cum-creative directors then work to find the best influencers within Village Marketing’s larger pool of collaborators to actually take the campaign public.
A graphic designer by trade, Janelle has been making a living as an influencer for the past five years. “You’re accessing an audience that was built on a one-to-one relationship,” says Janelle. “The value of that following is how it engages with that individual. So if you’re not taking that into account, what that relationship looks like, what it means, how it works, then you’re missing the whole point. Often, it’s that piece not being taken into account.”
For Kutcher, also a professional photographer, the more freedom brands give an influencer, the better the campaign will usually perform, because it feels more authentic to the person sharing it. “The campaigns that usually fall flat are the ones with limited freedom, the ones with multiple speaking prompts, and awkward call to actions,” says Kutcher. “I find myself often pushing back or educating brands on my audience, what resonates, what will fall flat in order to get not only great results but ultimately to keep the trust I’ve worked so hard to gain from my followers.”
Of course, thanks to high-profile dumpster fires like the Fyre Festival, and a lack of transparency among some influencers around what’s an ad and what isn’t, the relatively nascent world of influencer marketing is still viewed by both brands and consumers with a hearty dose of skepticism. Segar, who actually appeared as a talking head in Hulu’s Fyre Fraud documentary, knows there’s a perception problem but maintains that the majority of influencers are legitimate content creators and brand partners.
“The misconception about what they do and who they are has created an environment in the advertising space where people think that they need creative directors to tell them what to do,” she says. “But creative directors within these ad agencies don’t have 200,000 followers and don’t know how to speak in a social environment, because they don’t do it every day. So having a creative tell another creative how to do what they’re not an expert in just doesn’t make sense.”
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While what Segar is saying makes sense, the way traditional ad agencies actually work with social influencers is almost as varied and diverse as the influencers themselves. Wieden+Kennedy New York’s director of social John Petty may only have 1,967 Instagram followers, seemingly making Segar’s point, but remember his job is to boost brands like Bud Light and OKCupid on social, not himself. Petty says influencers need to confirm their role in approval processes and be comfortable pushing on the creative, while agencies are there to be brand stewards, making recommendations that work for everyone involved. Sometimes the influencer is the executive chef of a given campaign, other times they’re simply one ingredient. “Allowing space for a creative influencer to impact the work likely makes the final output better,” says Petty. “In some instances, earlier collaboration at a conceptual level is necessary. In others, later, tactical collaboration suffices.”
Despite any protestations from ad agencies who do get it, Village Marketing’s new model is intriguing and will undoubtedly attract plenty of interest, particularly amid the agency’s roster of direct-to-consumer clients. The ad industry is no stranger to specialty agencies that delve into the cutting edge, only to be acquired or expand as that edge becomes mainstream. We saw it with “digital” agencies a decade ago, and “social” agencies more recently. Perhaps an influencer agency is just the next logical step.
With expanding audiences, particularly among young people, the days of simply adding #ad to a post are over.