Written evidence submitted by Northbank Talent Management
6 MAY 2021
EVIDENCE FOR DCMS INQUIRY INTO INFLUENCER CULTURE
Diane Banks, CEO, Northbank Talent Management
Northbank Talent Management is a full-service talent agency, representing influencers, thought leaders, broadcasters and writers across all media throughout the world. We broker deals on behalf of our clients for books, broadcast, podcasts, book-to-screen rights, corporate speaking, direct-to-consumer live events, and brand partnerships. The latter is the fastest growing area of our business.
It’s a mistake to treat the influencer phenomenon as either new or threatening. It’s the result of natural evolution and is the most authentic, self-regulating iteration of marketing and advertising we’ve ever seen.
1. How would you define ‘influencers’ and ‘influencer culture’? Is this a new phenomenon?
The term “influencer” has come to mean individuals who have established a large following on social media and who partner with brands, campaigns and causes to spread awareness of that brand, campaign or cause to their audience.
But it’s a category mistake to think of this as a new phenomenon. Influencing is advertising which is appropriate to the twenty-first century. Advertising has always evolved according to the media available to convey the message, be this billboards, newspaper ads, commercial breaks on television, or social media.
In fact, influencer culture marks a return to the most rudimentary and authentic form of advertising that exists: word of mouth. Before social media, there was no technology which could enable organisations to amplify their message in this most authentic way on any kind of scale. The resulting ads on billboards, television or in newspapers were necessarily manufactured and comparatively crude.
And sponsored content of course has a 90-year history. “Soap operas” are so-called after Proctor & Gamble invested heavily in branded radio content in the US. By the late 1930s, it was paying for five hours of programming on network radio every weekday, interweaving plugs for Tide or Crisco with edge-of-the-seat plots.
2. Has ‘influencing’ impacted popular culture? If so, how has society and/or culture changed because of this side of social media?
The key tenet of popular culture in the twenty-first century is that, for the first time in human history, its leaders are “ordinary” people. Humans are intrinsically social animals and have always looked to leaders, whether these be Roman emperors, prophets in biblical times, the aristocracy in medieval times, great thinkers during the Enlightenment, industrialists or indeed artists in the 19th century, or film stars in the mid 20th century. In the absence of a democratic media, the images of these leaders were necessarily tightly controlled. The veracity of their messaging was by definition opaque.
Technology has democratized popular culture, enabling everybody to have a voice. To grow and maintain a following in this competitive environment, individuals must build a personal brand and remain true to that brand. Any deviation will quickly lose followers. The value lies in authenticity - with the result that influencers are very careful about which brands and campaigns they align themselves with. As a rule, at Northbank our influencer clients accept just 30% of the opportunities which we take to them - and that’s after we’ve weeded out those which are obviously not a fit.
Under this twenty-first century model, the consumer is able to engage with the brand, whereas 20th century advertising was one-way. As former Spotify economist Will Page points out in his recent book Tarzan Economics, the “like” button is an advertiser’s dream in that it offers metrics not just about what people have read or watched, but how they felt about it.
However, it’s important to consider that it’s not just the advertiser who gains. The brand’s brief offers a creative opportunity for the influencer to add to their portfolio of content, which in turn leads to social interaction between the influencer and their followers, and between their followers.
This is a delicate ecosystem, which needs to benefit everyone to work. It’s Adam Smith’s invisible hand at its very best.
3. Is it right that influencers are predominantly associated with advertising and consumerism, and if not, what other roles do influencers fulfil online?
It’s important to understand the meta-trend here, which is that social, commerce and culture are now interacting in the same space. For the younger generations, they are not separate. The consumer has more power than ever before, and influencers make the brand’s content their own, to align with their own brand as part of their creative process.
The cultural element is at play when we see both influencers and consumers only buying into brands which tally with their values. Brands recognise this and align their awareness campaigns with causes. A good example of this is the recent partnership between anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label and clothing brand Asos: Stop Asian Hate - Advice, Guides and Support | Ditch the Label.
Is this advertising, or raising awareness of an important issue?
Again, we must avoid making a category mistake by putting influencers into the “advertising and consumerism” box. There’s much more at play in this interdependent community.
4. How are tech companies encouraging or disrupting the activities of influencing?
Newer platforms such as TikTok and Instagram take a much more sophisticated, interventionist approach than the “wild west” of older platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Investment in this capability, which benefits all parties, is becoming essential for platforms to be competitive.
Last year, TikTok announced that they would be commissioning hundreds of videos featuring educational tips and advice as part of their new #LearnOnTikTok campaign, with a budget of $50 million for creators. For example, mathematician Rachel Riley creating videos to help TikTok users develop maths skills. This is referred to as “micro-learning” in that it utilises the format of short videos to offer digestible bitesize learning opportunities.
Another example is Instagram’s branded partner tag. In 2017, Instagram launched a function allowing influencers to tag their business partners in branded content. Operating similarly to location tags, an influencer can tag the company they’re creating content with and it will appear at the top of their post. The influencer’s request must be approved individually by the brand, allowing them to verify all advertisements and creating greater transparency for users.
5. How aware are users of the arrangements between influencers and advertisers? Should policymakers, tech companies and influencers and advertisers themselves do more to ensure these arrangements are transparent?
Following the success of the ASA guidelines, social media users are now very aware of when influencers’ content is coming from a paid partnership. This is now incredibly obvious, with most captions heralded with #AD and the brand tagged as a sponsor on the post.
Users don’t mind this – Gen Z particularly place importance on transparency and authenticity, and having a clearly signposted relationship between the brand and the influencer feeds into this transparency.
Gen Z are the most ethically-conscious market to date and they don’t want to feel ‘duped’ by who they’re following.
It’s a mistake to think that influencers and brands don’t want to make their partnerships apparent, and that they are some way "ashamed” of the commercial relationship. On the contrary, it’s in influencers’ interests to continue to keep the relationship obvious – instead of exposing a fashionable/unobtainable lifestyle, it actually makes them more relatable to their audience.
Again, there needs to be a degree of trust in the market. Influencers style themselves as brands in their own right, and authenticity is key. They are very aware that this is where their value lies. This new economy comes with an inbuilt self-regulation which we’ve not seen before, and should embrace. And we need to be careful not to patronise the consumer, who can make their own decisions, and increasingly feel empowered to do so.
In short, we feel that the current arrangements with the ASA work very well and that we should be careful not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
 Alan Greenspan & Adrian Wooldridge, Capitalism in America 2018, p63
 Will Page, Tarzan Economics 2021, p68