My experience in the world of influencers and influencer marketing happened like most things in life: unintentionally. I had left the trading desk at Goldman Sachs behind and was working with a group of partners managing Free DMC, a multicultural agency. We published a lifestyle magazine called Free Magazine and designed strategy and events for clients like Belvedere, Jaguar and others who were seeking access to a world they didn't quite understand. As the work multiplied and the expertise grew, I discovered there was less common ground between brands and those who were moving culture forward and pushing boundaries. These people that brands would covet would eventually become known as influencers, though back in the early days very few people used that term. Hell, we were wrestling with the definition and the meaning of influencers as a term.
Even as adoption of the term influencer grew, it was barely used by those who most naturally navigated these culture spaces. The perception was that you were an expert in something: a musician, a director, a photographer, and that expertise gave you influence. You weren't an influencer as a final goal, but rather as a part of a larger creative journey. I saw an opportunity to bring the world of branding and influencers together, not through consumerism, but a connection rooted in shared values. As a result, I founded the Influencer Conference in 2010 with the intention of creating a platform to discuss influencer culture by emphasizing deeper cultural connections. What was it that united influencers across geography, disciplines and background? What best practices could be unearthed that would elevate culture to its rightful importance? Perceiving influence as a distinct culture in turn informed my perceptions of influencer marketing.
Fast-forwarding to 2019 the business of influence has grown up, but I am not sure it has matured. Without a doubt, we have come a long way, and the parlance of influencer marketing is firmly a part of the branding world. Brands are estimated to spend between $5-$10 billion on influencer marketing programs by 2020. The upward trajectory continues in terms of advertising spend, even as the downward trajectory continues for customers in terms of trust. Proving that inverse logic continues to rule advertising as brands commit more resources, studies increasingly show that influencer marketing is less effective. The reasons for this include, but are not limited to, oversaturation as a strategy, fake influencer metrics and bad campaigns. Tragicomic experiences like Fyre Festival -- the high-priced event that never happened hawked by highly paid super models -- add fuel to the fire that influencer marketing is populated with hacks and fraudsters. But understanding influence is an exercise in understanding culture. Chasing clicks, likes, views, all under the guise of "engagement," was never going to work as a long-term, viable and effective strategy.
While the Fyre Festival and other recent headlines might suggest dismissing the field as unimportant, I urge you to resist giving in to that sentiment. If we give in to the grifters, charlatans and algorithm peddlers, we cede vital cultural real estate. To denigrate the importance of influence is giving power to the faulty manner in which it is applied across industries. We should not assume the current wayward path is the only path. While the efficacy of influencer marketing deserves to be debated, the importance of influence has never been more apparent.
My column, On Influence and Influencers, will evaluate the world of influencer marketing and explore what is "next" on the cultural horizon. Culture is the result of creators seeking answers to questions that the mainstream either ignores or doesn't understand. This column will explore the margins where culture originates. My goal will be to make those margined worlds more clear and reflect their values to the mainstream. Pushback on influence and influencers is a valuable opportunity to realign our perspective and do this business better.
Throughout these columns, I will be critical and will never hesitate to call out the "BS" that is elevated to the detriment of more thoughtful work. Although ROI is not useful when talking about culture, there will be ROI from reading this column.
We're going to do it for the culture because the culture demands it.
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