The first thing agents at the United Talent Agency did when it signed Charli D’Amelio, one of the biggest stars on TikTok, was help her build up her presence on YouTube.
D’Amelio, a freckle-faced teen from Connecticut whose rise to fame came by way of bubbly dance videos she posts of herself on TikTok, already has 87 millions followers on the short-short-short-form video platform that has become the fastest-growing social media app in history by serving up a Dopamine-like rush of nonstop, lip-synching, dancing, and other goofy video snippets to its 1 billion active users. Charli and her sister, Dixie, a fellow TikTok phenom, also signed a partnership deal with Hollister jeans. And through another brand deal, with Dunkin’, there is now even a Charli D’Amelio iced-coffee drink.
— Dunkin' (@dunkindonuts) September 8, 2020
So why bother with YouTube, the aging, though still ginormous, video platform where D’Amelio has a relatively measly 7 million followers? Isn’t it more for Generation Rogan than Gen Z these days? Wasn’t YouTube the vanguard for young stars back when President Trump was just the host of Celebrity Apprentice?
The answer became clearer this past week, when D’Amelio gave a very public snub to the platform that made her famous by signing a deal with Triller, an upstart TikTok wannabe financed by Ryan Kavanaugh, the once-hot Hollywood producer whose Relativity Studios filed for bankruptcy in 2015. Dixie D’Amelio, and the girls’ parents, Marc and Heidi (yes, they’re also TikTok stars), also defected to Triller, which has been aggressively courting TikTok stars with compensation and equity stakes in the company.
The D’Amelios are the latest big names to migrate away from the platform that had made them very famous—and very rich—practically overnight as Hollywood talent agents race to sign up TikTok talent and guide their careers. Make no mistake: The D’Amelios and other influencers’ exodus from TikTok is clearly related to the geopolitical controversy that surrounds the Chinese app. As one digital insider put it, “I don’t think a single meaningful creator would be on Triller if it weren’t for the uncertainty around TikTok.”
(If you’ve been watching dance videos on a loop for the last six weeks or so, last month President Trump threatened to ban TikTok in the United States by September 20 if the company’s Chinese owner, Bytedance, did not divest its U.S. operations by then, citing reasons of national security threat. The concern is that ByteDance could be giving TikTok user data to the Chinese government, and because there’s no visibility into how TikTok’s recommendation algorithm works, it could be used to promote Chinese and/or anti-American propaganda. On September 13 and 14, Microsoft, which had been seen as the leading candidate to acquire TikTok, said its bid had been rejected, and then Oracle, the enterprise software giant founded by Larry Ellison (who happens to be a major Trump supporter), announced that it would be the “trusted technology partner” for TikTok in the United States. As of the evening of September 17, President Trump was still pushing for Bytedance to surrender its majority ownership stake and the matter remained unresolved.)
Even before this brouhaha, though, TikTok’s stars have been investing in rival platforms like YouTube, a sign of the new reality of how Hollywood is growing digital stars. No longer are young internet stars being pushed to build their audience on a single platform and then parlay a massive YouTube, Vine, or Instagram fame into a starring role in a Hollywood movie or Netflix comedy series. Now the idea is to become as big as possible on as many social media platforms as possible and use that extended bandwidth to build a multimedia empire where there are opportunities to own content and intellectual property. YouTube is a key component in that strategy, given that it has one of the most established and robust monetization models for influencers and thus has the potential to be incredibly lucrative in the long term. But so are younger platforms such as Triller and Reels, Instagram’s new TikTok copycat. For all of TikTok’s massive popularity and skyrocketing growth, its monetization model for influencers is still at a relatively nascent stage, meaning that most stars on the platform make the most money from brand deals.
From the standpoint of the stars’ agents and managers, spreading followers across multiple platforms is a hedge against pesky, ever-changing algorithms that can dry up revenue streams overnight or the fickle nature of the platforms themselves and how they’re now political footballs. “For any talent, I think it’s important early on to establish, what is the IP created that they can own?” says Alex Devlin, a digital agent at WME. “When I first started working in digital, someone said, ‘You have to look at talent as though, What if Instagram went away tomorrow? What are they creating? Where are they moving their audience to?'”
The evolution of the multifaceted social star
Diversification has always been part of the Influencer Management 101 handbook. YouTube stars made direct-to-digital movies to sell to their fans (Grace Helbig, Hannah Hart, and Mamrie Hart made 2013’s Camp Takota together), were booked in comedy clubs (David Dobrik and Jason Nash), and published cookbooks (Rosanna Pansino) and YA novels (CutiePieMarzia). But a lot of these efforts were part of a desire to break into more traditional (and lucrative) entertainment. Helbig, for example, had a short-lived late-night show on E!.
With the exception of a few digital-first stars like Liza Koshy, who earned a spot on MTV’s TRL reboot, few succeeded in breaking through to mainstream media, even though back then—somewhere between 3 and 10 years ago—that was the ultimate goal.
“Many of the earliest creators wanted a career in film, TV, and music,” says Brent Weinstein, chief innovation officer at UTA. “They viewed YouTube as a way to go direct to audience and build up a fan base and circumvent the traditional gatekeepers. Now, a very small percentage of our digital-native clients prioritize film and TV. They’re happy to do a guest-star role or, on occasion, [pursue] an idea for a TV show to star in or produce. But being a TV star or movie star is no longer the primary goal of many of our clients.”
“Hollywood didn’t know what to do with the first few waves of YouTube stars,” says Marc Hustvedt, CEO of FBE, one of the largest creator-founded media companies that emerged from YouTube (perhaps best known for its React series, such as Teens React and College Kids React). “Hollywood saw YouTube as a new form of television, and, eager to lure back those young viewers, they raced to get them on TV and, to some degree, films.”
Hustvedt says that today there “will still be stunt casting and projects financed off dubious logic of aggregate followers of the cast. But many influencers are diversifying off solely being on the one platform that shot them into this new celebrity.”
Part of this is simply because the opportunity exists to extend these stars’ reach to a multitude of social media platforms. As YouTube emerged into a creative and culture force about a decade ago, other video-friendly platforms such as Instagram, Facebook Watch, and Snapchat literally did not exist. “Back then, your primary platform was YouTube,” says Weinstein. “The generation we’re in now is a generation where there are more platforms than ever before that can drive a career.”
Adds Hustvedt, “The sheer scale of the social internet today is what is mind-blowing. The speed at which Charli D’Amelio grew her following is unheard of on YouTube. She launched her TikTok account in June of 2019. Six months later, in January 2020, she hit at over 20 million followers and signs with UTA. Today she’s at 80 million. That kind of scale at that speed was never possible on any other video platform.”
Although other platforms may not be able to match TikTok’s ability to acquire new followers at that blistering rate, they do offer the ability to attract different followers, particularly for TikTokers whose brand image on TikTok is limited to videos that are typically 15 seconds long. While that quick glimpse can add to their mystery and allure, it also begs for more and deeper content that rival platforms like YouTube and Instagram Stories allow.
TikTokers are also flocking to (and being wooed by) Spotify, where they’re able to show a different side of their personality and tap into an audience that goes well beyond Gen Z. Last month, Spotify signed podcast deals with TikTok stars Addison Rae and Rickey Thompson, adding to over a dozen TikTok deals that the music app has made recently. Rae, a TikTok dance video star, uses Spotify as a place to share a more earnest, relatable side of herself on the podcast she does with her mother: Mama Knows Best. About a million people have reportedly listened to the podcast.
“Whether it’s driving (a TikToker) to a podcast, or a YouTube channel, or a TV show, or things in the hosting space, I think getting them out there and letting people see a different side of them is always important,” says WME agent Joe Izzi. “It can help amplify everything else.”
Turning breadth into success
Rae, a Britany Spears-like prodigy from Louisiana, is one of the best examples today of a digital star with the kind of breadth that translates into success beyond TikTok. The 19-year-old has her own makeup line, Item Beauty; was the face of an American Eagle campaign; and was recently cast as the lead in a Miramax movie, the remake of She’s All That, being directed by Mark Waters (Mean Girls, Freaky Friday).
But when you talk to her reps at WME, the movie is almost beside the point.
Just as, if not more, impressive is her deal with American Eagle, because in the campaign—which was pegged to a virtual “prom” event— the content she appeared in lived across American Eagle’s promotional platforms. In this way the brand provided yet another showcase for Rae before an audience that went beyond her followers.
“It was really one of the first deals where we were able to take her off the TikTok platform and able to expose her” somewhere else, says WME’s Devlin. Based on the success of the campaign, which drove over a million views to the prom event, Rae then made a much larger ambassador deal with the clothing company.
TikTok’s the launch pad, not the destination
TikTokers at every level of fame are following the Brand Beyond TikTok model.
When Devain Doolarami, CEO and founder of The Fuel Injector, a digital influencer management company, first signed TikTok influencer Brooke Monk, an Olivia Jade-doppelganger who lives in Colorado, he immediately pushed her to grow her Instagram following.
“It’s just good,” Doolarami says. “Having a bigger platform allows for more brand diversity.” He adds that Monk’s image on TikTok is more fun and teen-friendly (her most-popular post was when she got her braces off), whereas on Instagram she presents more of a beauty and lifestyle persona.
Monk isn’t quite at the Rae level of stardom. She has yet to sign with a Hollywood talent agency (though she’s taking meetings) and has a solid but not yet stratospheric 11 million followers.
But Doolarami still has big plans. There are talks with brands and a line of clothing is in the works. “Just normal merch—bucket hats, shirts, sweatpants. All that good stuff,” he says.
As for Monk, she says she was more worried about her TikTok future a month ago, when Trump first threatened banning the platform. The news caused her to post a video thanking her followers for all of their support, because “I thought (TikTok) was going to go down and I was really sad,” she says.
Today, she says, she’s much more sanguine. “If it was my only platform, it would definitely be more nerve-wracking,” she says. “But I am on other platforms like Instagram, which is a big one. And YouTube, which I’m working on, making other content there. You just work with what happens. I’d prefer that (TikTok) doesn’t (end). It would be an unfortunate circumstance, but it’s not something you need to get super freaked out about and say, Oh, my career is over.
“It’s not like kids get off their phones,” she adds. “They’re gonna go to other platforms.”