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How celebrity shout-out startup Cameo is trying to turn its 15 minutes into full-fledged stardom

With a recent round of funding and a growing celebrity roster on the platform, Cameo is at a crucial juncture. CEO Steven Galanis’s plan: “Don’t f— it up.”

How celebrity shout-out startup Cameo is trying to turn its 15 minutes into full-fledged stardom
[Photo: Owen Beard/Unsplash; courtesy of Cameo]

For as long as there’s been a cadre of the rich, famous, and influential, there’s also been a public fascinated by their every move. Researchers in the 1950s actually coined the term para-social interaction to describe the perceived relationship people have with public figures.

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Celebrity obsession may be nothing new, but how we interact with them (and who’s even deserving of that title) has seen a significant evolution. Social media has given the public unprecedented access to their favorite celebrities, while simultaneously creating a new class, aka influencers. This intersection of accessibility and entrepreneurship is what cofounder and CEO Steven Galanis is using as the foundation for his company Cameo.

Founded in 2017, Cameo is a platform where users pay celebrities to make personalized video messages. Celebrities on the platform—including Snoop Dogg (who’s also an investor), Tituss Burgess, and Stormy Daniels—set their own rates, which can range anywhere from $25 per video to Caitlyn Jenner’s exorbitant fee of $2,500. Users give a brief description of what they want them to say or who the message is for, and within a few days or even hours, a video is delivered.

Cameo taps into our celebrity obsession while simultaneously providing a new revenue stream of long-tail content for creators. Investors have taken notice: Kleiner Perkins led its $50 million Series B funding round (it’s raised $65 million to date). The company currently has 18,000 celebrities who have produced more than 300,000 videos.

Cameo’s appeal is evident: It’s a fun and flashy way to surprise (or playfully troll) family and friends. But there’s a long road in front of the startup to prove that it’s more than just a novelty. Here’s how Cameo is trying to turn its 15 minutes into full-fledged stardom.

Star search

The running joke against Cameo is that it’s something of a respirator for C-list celebrities gasping for their last bit of relevancy and revenue. But the way Galanis sees it, one person’s “C” is another’s “A”—and, point of fact, can be better for the company overall. “If Drake was on Cameo, for example, maybe he would charge $10,000, and there’s just not as many people in the world that can afford that,” Galanis says. “Our number-one KPI (key performance indicator) at Cameo is the amount of Cameos created. So for us, it’s not just about who’s making them, it’s about how many people are we delighting?”

With its most recent cash infusion, Galanis says the company’s first priority is getting more international celebrities on the platform. “We’re seeing rabid customer demand coming from overseas, even though we haven’t largely acquired a significant amount of foreign talent,” he says.

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Around 30% of bookings come from people outside of the United States, but, by Galanis’s estimate, less than 5% of talent on the platform is from other parts of the world. Some of Cameo’s target countries for more immediate expansion include Australia, the U.K., Canada, and Mexico. Certain archetypes have proven more successful on the platform stateside (namely, musicians and comedians), so Galanis believes finding those counterparts abroad will play well, in addition to tapping celebrities who lord over country- or region-specific fandoms (K-pop in South Korea, soccer players across Europe, cricket players and Bollywood stars in India, and so forth).

That’s where Cameo cofounder Martin Blencowe comes in. The British actor turned producer (he had a hand in not one but two Bruce Willis action thrillers) turned entrepreneur recently moved from Los Angeles to London in order to head up the company’s expansion efforts.

“Steven likes to sometimes call me a talent whisperer as a joke,” Blencowe says. “I’ve signed people up in the gym, anywhere you can imagine.” Rapper Tyga? A run-in at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Actor Taye Diggs? At Soho House.

Blencowe admits that some celebrities have flat-out refused. “We’re too young [as a company]. We’re not the norm yet. I get that,” he says.

Cameo’s “delight” factor has become part of the company’s ethos—not to mention a selling point for some celebrities. “You just got to find the thing that motivates them,” Blencowe says of the talent recruitment process. “Because some guys it’s not always money—some guys see the fan reactions [from other Cameos] and they’re like, ‘I want to do that. I want to make people feel that way.’ ”

Cameo cofounders Steven Galanis (left) and Martin Blencowe (right). [Photo: courtesy of Cameo]

Finding new revenue streams

Cameo’s prime source of revenue today comes from the 25% cut the company takes from each transaction, which is not only far less than, say, YouTube’s purported 45% cut of ad revenue with creators but also avoids the increasingly fractious ad-supported business model of traditional social media platforms altogether. “The great thing about this compared to having a startup where you’ve got to build an audience and sell eyeballs is, this is a transaction,” says Paul Hardart, director of the entertainment, media, and technology program at New York University Stern School of Business. “There is a real business model.”

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The challenge, of course, is that transaction means that the chances any one person will regularly buy Cameos is also pretty slim. “It might be funny for your wedding, your birthday, [or if] you’ve got a big test, but a lot of these are not cheap,” Hardart says. “Snapchat or Facebook or Instagram, those are things that people use multiple times during the day. How do you turn [Cameo] into something that people are integrating into their lives more regularly? When there’s a transaction cost, that gets to be harder.”

Which is why Galanis is looking to brands to open up a new revenue stream.

Cameo’s standard content/user agreement gives ownership rights of the video to the talent and Cameo; the user is effectively a leaseholder. They’re encouraged to post and share the videos they receive but only for noncommercial purposes.

But now Cameo is experimenting with a new option where brands can license a celebrity’s content to repurpose as part of a campaign. For example, as Galanis lays out, Charlie Sheen charges $550 for a regular Cameo video, but for a brand he could go as high as $5,000 for an endorsement. The company is currently testing this branded tier with about 10 celebrities.

Kool-Aid recently became the first brand on Cameo, working with a host of celebrities. To celebrate National Kool-Aid Day (August 14), the brand worked with the digital agency VaynerMedia to create a Cameo-centric campaign including putting The Kool-Aid Man on the platform as a bookable celebrity for free (they allotted 50 Cameos, which were filled in 20 minutes). They also created a music video of Cameo celebrities including Raven-Symoné, Sisqó, Flavor Flav, and Ryan Cabrera singing what Kool-Aid is calling their “Oh Yeah Anthem.”

“It’s really like a seamless experience, the likes of which really don’t exist in the traditional world of the marketing ad agency model with talent,” says Nick Miaritis, executive vice president at VaynerMedia. “To get Flavor Flav to do something would normally be six meetings and 17 phone calls. Now it’s the press of a button. So from a creative perspective on the agency side, this idea of frictionless communication with talent is fascinating.”

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Cameo is also exploring how to leverage their stable of celebrities for charitable causes. Blencowe says they’re in the early stages of collaborating with actor and comedian Bryan Callen (The Hangover) to do something in the viral vein of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge for the nonprofit Operation Smile, an organization dedicated to giving children access to cleft lip and palate surgeries.

“For two months, we’ve been trying to find out what is that thing for Operation Smile. Is it a song? Is it a dance? It’s more complicated than I hoped for, but then if you get it, hopefully we can do a lot of good with it,” Blencowe says.

As Blencowe is trying to create more brand awareness with talent, Miaritis urges Cameo to do the same with advertisers, explaining how the platform could fit within their campaign strategies.

“At this stage in the game, I would say them communicating general awareness to the ad community of what this is and how powerful it can be for brands is my number one, two, and three priority for them,” Miaritis says. “I’ve got ideas in my mind, which are like, how do we do this at scale 5,000 times a day? How do we surprise and delight 5,000 customers of another brand in the house today with something on Cameo?”

Building a brand that lasts

Even with a broader, more international user base and talent pool and brands gravitating to the platform, there’s still something of a “so what?” factor to Cameo: You buy one for a friend, and they post it to Instagram or tweet it out. It gets the word out, sure, but all those likes, retweets, and comments are engagement on another platform. There’s no sense of community on Cameo right now, and that could make for a rather slippery trek as the company tries to gain its foothold in an already crowded social space.

“The branding of it is gonna be really important because it has the hallmarks of something that could be kind of a passing trend,” NYU’s Hardart says.

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Miaritis adds, “The same way on Facebook certain meme content gets suppressed a bit more by their algorithm, it’ll be interesting to see how big this could get and how long it goes before it becomes something that feels almost spammy. That’s the one thing that with explosive growth, it comes with the risk of it’s here today, gone tomorrow.”

Part of that problem stems from the fact that Cameo can’t offer customers the opportunity to transact through its iOS app because of Apple’s 30% commission for each in-app purchase, ironically enough a higher cut than Cameo takes.

“We have a 75/25 split with talent. It’s so criminal the rate that Apple tries to take for payment processing in the app,” Galanis says. “[Payment platform] Stripe is under 3%. For us, we’ve launched mobile, but we are not going to go into the App Store until that changes.” Cameo is fully available on Android.

Right now, Galanis is focused on building the platform into a space with a higher frequency of engagement. He says in the next two to three months, Cameo needs to evolve into a two-way messaging platform (e.g., texting with celebrities) and/or a content platform.

Judging from how frequently both Galanis and Blencowe brought up the impact Cameo is having on people’s everyday lives, building out content that gives the context around a video seems to be the higher priority. “We’ve seen people getting engaged with this platform, and people come out to their parents—so many of life’s biggest moments Cameo now is playing a pretty central role to it,” Galanis says. “Enabling users to share their stories is something that can be super compelling. We know people love watching the videos. So how do we build a content business around that?”

[Image: courtesy of Cameo]
The other challenge Galanis says they’re addressing immediately is search and discoverability on the platform. When Cameo first started, the number of celebrities was manageable enough to scroll through every single one. Now, with more than 18,000 options, you have to know who you’re looking for. The fix: a more personalized version of Cameo where, as you’re scrolling, you see the most relevant options to you based on people you’ve selected before.

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Galanis says that Cameo’s tallest hurdles to clear at the moment are all about scaling the team and the platform itself.

But what about the infamous Brett Favre incident?

Back in 2018, the former Green Bay Packers quarterback fulfilled a request from a user that, at first, seemed like an innocuous shoutout. However, as it was later discovered, the message Favre was asked to deliver was loaded with coded anti-Semitic language. As Cameo elevates its profile, and as content shared on social media continues to be more and more weaponized, there is a risk that the Favre incident could happen again, if it hasn’t already. But Galanis was bullish on the issue.

“We built the infrastructure [to filter requests] and we continue to iterate on it all the time,” he says. “There’s always going to be bad actors out there, but I’d put our safety record against any platform that’s ever existed. I think we fixed something that could have been an existential threat to the company, and we’ve turned that into a huge strength. There is no way that another platform would be safer than what we’re doing.”

All the talent in the world

Cameo is standing at a critical juncture: It has a sizable talent roster, notable investors, and brands and users willing to pay for the product. Competitors such as CelebVM, Greetzly, and Starsona have popped up, but none have quite entered the zeitgeist like Cameo has—and by “entered,” it’s more like a foot in the door. How successful Galanis and Blencowe are at executing their strategies for growth and, most importantly, cultural relevancy will play out soon enough. The main thing on Galanis’s mind: perfect the core product and “don’t fuck it up.”

“What we’re really building at Cameo is the marketplace where for X amount of money, you can do Y activity with Z person. We’ve just been focused on doing one Y activity with as many people as possible,” he says. “Our game plan is to get all of the talent in the world on Cameo. The fight for simplicity is also a value at Cameo. It’s really important that we have something that’s super easy and intuitive for [users and celebrities] to figure out. Once people start figuring it out, that’s when we would starting experimenting.”

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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