Right now, it’s not talent driving change in the influencer marketing industry — it’s the dealmakers.
Competition in the influencer marketing space is evolving — quickly. In the last two months, global communications firm Karla Otto purchased influencer marketing firm Lefty; influencer marketing agency Ykone, whose clients include Chopard, L’Oréal and LVMH, acquired Milan-based communications firm Matteo Baldi New Media Agency; and the Swedish live video shopping platform Bambuser purchased influencer marketing agency Relatable.
The recent flurry of M&A activity points to the growing importance for both agencies and brands to equip themselves with a thoughtful influencer marketing strategy. But as they build up their operations, brands and agencies must examine what their own teams are capable of handling. Some are great at finding new talent, others are better at crafting unique content campaigns. Few are good at doing it all.
“You just have the bigger winners that go out and gobble up the smaller players because they add some layer with an edge or some component they don’t have,” said Conor Begley, chief executive and founder of influencer marketing platform Tribe Dynamics.
In an ever-changing, increasingly competitive space, both brands and their agency partners must determine how to keep up. They must decide their focus — building technology or relationships, honing skills in creativity or analytics, for example — as well as if it’s worth it to build out a team versus simply buying one.
For brands, building an in-house team is necessary to handle the fundamental aspects of brokering influencer deals. But from there, brands can rely on agency partners and software firms to help them create more fleshed-out campaigns and measure their effectiveness. For agencies, assessing blind spots — in relationship building, creative services or data analysis — will help determine whether to build out those teams, outsource work, or look for an acquisition.
Brands Need The Bare Minimum
For brands, having at least a handful of dedicated influencer marketing employees in-house is a must, particularly for managing talent relationships.
Brands can then rely on social media platforms and third-party agencies for certain tools, particularly technology-focused capabilities, that are complex to build out in-house, like brand-talent matching algorithms or performance software.
“What we found was, if you look at like NYX, Too Faced, Huda, Tatcha, Fashion Nova or GymShark, it’s always an in-house process,” Begley said of his Tribe Dynamics’ clients, who focus their internal influencer marketing efforts on seeking out talent and maintaining those relationships. The firm, for its part, offers a software platform to its clients (mostly brands) that tracks how well digital talent or campaigns perform.
“We wanted to build our tools to help those in-house teams do their jobs better, rather than for them,” he added.
The roles that brands should keep in-house, at a minimum, include an influencer relationship manager and someone who is tasked with seeking out new talent, Begley said. (Brands like Fashion Nova — whose success has come in large part due to a robust influencer marketing strategy that cost $40 million in 2019 — have larger in-house teams responsible for handling talent alone.) It is also important to make sure someone is able to draft and negotiate influencer contracts, as well as a data analyst who can help parse the information received through third-party platforms to inform future campaign decisions. Responsibilities that are better handled by agency partners include campaign design, executing gifting programs and event planning and management, Begley said.
Assessing Digital Agencies’ Blind Spots
For digital agencies, the question is not whether to have an influencer marketing team, but what services it should include.
Many agencies today, like Digital Brand Architects, offer multiple services, like relationship management, talent sourcing or brand partnerships. Other firms, meanwhile, have tailored their strategy to serve a particular niche. Toronto-based agency Kensington Grey, for example, focuses on managing a diverse roster of influencers to help brands expand their visibility in front of new audiences and build cultural capital.
Because those relationships are so valuable, digital agencies that focus solely on representing talent and relationships are often ripe candidates for acquisitions: In 2019, for example, the Hollywood talent agency United Talent Agency acquired DBA, which manages several top fashion influencers, including Aimee Song.
But typically, when agencies are strong in their talent teams, they may lack the proprietary technology — software platforms that deliver data insights about social media campaigns, talent and other brands — that helps give them a competitive advantage in creating influencer campaigns that better identify and resonate with a target audience. But even if a firm has the liquidity to build out a technological tool, they may not have the time. In that case, a firm may decide to pursue a strategic acquisition.
Such was the case for livestream shopping platform Bambuser. Before purchasing influencer marketing technology company Relatable at the end of May in a deal worth $230 million, Bambuser had previously worked with influencers in a way that was “very tailored, but very manual” for deals with fashion brands like Louisa Via Roma, said Bambuser chief commercial officer Sophie Abrahamsson. Relatable, which founded its software platform to search for and book influencers in 2016, filled the gaps in Bambuser’s business instantaneously.
“It’s not [about] how long it would have taken for us to build it, it’s a matter of fact that we don’t have that time … even if you can build with some luck and some time and in some money,” Abrahamsson said.
An acquisition can also help a brand or digital agency extend its reach to markets where it does not intimately know the culture, the influencer landscape or the existing players. For example, branching out from the US or European influencer landscape into China, where key opinion leader (KOL) culture is quite different, was a driving force behind the Karla Otto acquisition of influencer marketing firm Lefty.
Other firms have perfected their technology, but lack the necessary fashion industry relationships. Influencer marketing software service Ykone’s real-time tracking tool (called Campaygn, which measures everything from influencer engagement rates to competitor brand partnership performance) helped the business scale to work with companies like LVMH and L’Oreal over its five-year history and to grow 48 percent in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period the year earlier, said Ykone founder and CEO Olivier Billon. But the business still lacked the creative capabilities and talent relationships with top-tier talent like Chiara Ferragni that its would-be seven-figure acquisition target, Matteo Baldi New Media, offered.
Firms also must realise they may not be everything to everyone. It’s important for agencies to take an honest look at where they are in the market based on global reach, revenue and services. Smaller firms may consider perfecting their existing services or niche to become an attractive acquisition target to a bigger shop. For the bigger fish, the only way to remain competitive is to be as full-service as possible, offering brands the opportunity to work with one agency rather than managing a handful of partners in a fragmented space.
“Our goal is not to be an influencer marketing agency, but to be an influencer marketing solution with four entry points: technology, production, international campaigns and talent,” Billon said.