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Fashion Media’s Missed Influencer Opportunity

Publishers have struggled with how to make branded content deals sweet enough for editors with growing social media followings.
Anna Rosa Vitiello and Chrissy Rutherford, both formerly Hearst employees, have become full-time influencers. Getty Images.
Anna Rosa Vitiello and Chrissy Rutherford, both formerly Hearst employees, now work as full-time influencers. Getty Images. (Christian Vierig)

In 2018, Harper’s Bazaar fashion editor Chrissy Rutherford started asking the magazine’s readers for advice about what to wear. Each day, she would appear on Instagram and talk through her calendar: trips between market appointments required comfortable shoes, while a sweltering summer day in Manhattan called for linen. Viewers could vote on various options, and shop them too.

The series, “Get Dressed With Me,” quickly grew from there. Other editors joined in, and Harper’s lined up sponsors, including the boot brand Sorel Footwear. It was exactly the sort of cheap, but potentially lucrative content that influencers seem to churn out effortlessly, but traditional publishers have struggled to master.

But while influencers see their incomes grow along with their follower counts and sponsorship deals, the ‘Get Ready With Me’ editors were employees of Hearst Corp., which owns Harper’s Bazaar. Brands ink deals with the publisher. Editors’ compensation fluctuated, but they rarely received what they might have as independent influencers producing similar posts, according to Rutherford and two others involved with the project.

Starting late last year, several editors at Hearst – including Rutherford – left the company to pursue careers as full-time influencers. Rutherford now has 147,000 followers on her personal Instagram, where she shares which outfits she’s wearing while working from home and the skin care products she’s using. Hearst did not respond to BoF’s requests for comment.

Hearst isn’t the only media company struggling with fashion brain drain. Publishers see viral social media posts and web video series as a revenue stream that can at least partially make up for declining print advertising. But few are willing to cut their employees in on the revenue that content generates. As a result, many editors who become popular enough to make serious money for their publisher discover they’re better off striking out on their own and keeping the brand deals for themselves.

“The rates that we were — or that we weren’t getting — were not aligned with what I actually felt like I deserved or what I knew I could get outside of Hearst,” said Rutherford. “I obviously recognize that part of using editors is, of course, that we’re not going to cost as much as going and hiring an influencer that has a much larger following, but still, [their] rate was offensive.”

The Rules of the Game

The line between editor and influencers has grown increasingly blurred. Magazine editors leverage their jobs’ status and access to build their social media clout, whether it’s posting images from fashion week or going on exotic press trips.

But while they may appear to live the influencer life, they are still salaried employees and have to play by their publisher’s rules. The one that rankles most: typically, editors can’t negotiate directly with brands for sponsorship opportunities, which might conflict with a magazine’s own deals.

Publishers, meanwhile, are eager to capitalise on their stars. Current and former Hearst employees said the company used their personal social media profiles in presentations to draw advertising, for example.

“If I was an editor, my personal brand is just that, personal. It cannot be sold by my employer to sweeten the deal on a campaign,” said Brittany Hennessy, co-founder of Carbon August, which offers influencer education courses, who previously worked as the senior director of influencer strategy and talent partnerships at Hearst.

Hearst has tried several models to resolve this conflict since 2017, when editors first started receiving large numbers of sponsorship offers. Initially, they were allowed to take these deals, with company approval, with rates determined by follower count (those with the biggest followings could charge $5,000 per Instagram post). Hearst switched to a flat fee of $500, which was raised to $1,000 in 2019.

When editors with large followings protested, they were offered better rates, according to Rutherford and two other people familiar with the publisher’s compensation practices at the time. They were also told not to tell their peers about these higher-paying deals, creating tension within the company, the people said.

The same fight has played out at other publishers.

Jenna Rennert, a former Vogue beauty editor, left the publication this summer after seven years to pursue influencer work full-time. Rather than evaluating beauty products for the Vogue website, Rennert now shares sponsored recommendations for Essie nail polish or Estée Lauder perfume with her combined 83,000 followers on Instagram and TikTok. She said that she worked with Condé Nast to accept partnerships while she was on Vogue’s staff, but that the “process was still evolving.”

Editors across Bustle Digital Group titles like The Zoe Report, Nylon and its namesake publication also have social media followings ranging into the tens of thousands. As is the case at Hearst, they are offered $500 flat rates for branded content deals that are negotiated by the company’s ad sales team.

For full-time influencers, a $500 fee is considered a “pretty good deal” if you have fewer than 75,000 Instagram followers, said influencer marketing platform Obviously CEO Mae Karwowski, but is considered well below market rate if you have more.

“We work in a fast-changing business, and branded content deals have become increasingly complex and thus, we are continually evaluating and evolving our policy,” BDG’s senior vice president of creative Emily DeSear said in an emailed statement. “It has always been our belief that our editors and brands are influencers in their own right, and it is only natural that our partners would want to tap into that.”

Not All About the Money

Publishers have other ways to attract top talent, even if they aren’t paying mega-influencer-level rates. For talent just starting out or without a large following, there’s value in working at a powerhouse publisher, including studios with professional equipment, production and editing teams.

Some publishers have created teams that operate like in-house talent agencies. Buzzfeed built out its “Creators Program,” which represents dozens of on-camera and social media talent. Andrea Mazey, head of talent partnerships at BuzzFeed, told Digiday that creators can be current employees, Buzzfeed alumni, or not affiliated with Buzzfeed at all.

“Influencers ... are really thought of as competition rather than a way to really elevate [the magazine’s] brand and really stay current.”

Refinery29′s “Talent Collective” team pairs in-house and external talent with brands to create sponsored content.

“It was a great opportunity to kind of increase my standing within the company,” said Lucie Fink, who was the first employee to be “signed with” Refinery29 as on-camera talent in 2015. “They were more invested in me as an employee and they were willing to put our resources behind me to help grow me.”

Refinery29 hired Fink specifically to appear on the publication’s YouTube channel. After testing different formats, the series “Try Living With Lucie,” where Fink would document everything from meal prepping to foregoing shampoo, received millions of views.

As her social media following grew, Fink started fielding offers from talent agencies eager to cash in on incoming branded content proposals. Refinery29 created its talent team and signed Fink as a way to keep her — and the money she was bringing in — in-house, and assigned an employee who acted as her agent to negotiate deals with brands. Still, Fink said she decided to leave the publisher in 2019 because ultimately, the talent team had to balance her needs with the company’s, leading to conflicts over which deals to accept as well as commission structures. However, she had discussed co-writing a book with Refinery29 before the pandemic.

Other employees whose social media profiles grew while on the payroll — like former Refinery29 fashion writer Alyssa Coscarelli, who worked with the Talent Collective and now has 345,000 Instagram followers — have since left the company.

Growing Influence

The influencer life is only getting more attractive, especially as magazines cut staff and budgets. Many are now launching their own product lines, which have the potential to generate far more money than sponsored posts.

Lindsay Silberman, former deputy digital editor at Town and Country and Elle Decor who now works as a full-time influencer, recently launched a line of candles that sold out in 24 minutes, she said. It’s conceivable that publishers, had they retained that talent, might have got a cut of those product deals.

Ultimately, publishers may be forced to either give better terms to hold onto their in-house social media stars or wind up relying on paid third-party influencers for their best social media content. Either way, they’ll have to give up on the idea of holding onto the entire pot of revenue.

“Influencers are essentially media publishers with their own online magazines if you will,” Karwowski said. “They are really thought of as competition rather than a way to really elevate [the magazine’s] brand and really stay current.”

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