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Fuelling the Influencer Machine: The Hidden Network Turning People Into Stars

The influencer boom has created new demand for assistants, managers, photographers and ghostwriters. It's becoming the new way to break into fashion — if you don't mind staying behind the scenes.
Collage by Rachel Deeley for BoF
By
  • Chavie Lieber

LOS ANGELES, United States —  Patrick Starrr has 4.7 million followers on Instagram and has his own MAC Cosmetics collection. Manny "MUA" Gutierrez is closing in on 5 million subscribers to his YouTube channel and launched his own cosmetics line last year. Bretman Rock parlayed YouTube stardom into endorsement deals with Morphe and Benefit Cosmetics and is now filming his own reality show for MTV. 

Behind all of them  — and plenty of other internet-famous faces — is Christina Jones, vice president of talent at influencer marketing agency Digital Brand Architects. A typical workday might find the 27-year-old Washington native prepping Starrr for an award show, negotiating multi-million-dollar endorsement contracts and dealing with a minor Instagram tagging “emergency.” 

"I'm usually starting by 6am and ending at 10pm," she said, sitting inside a conference room at DBA's headquarters overlooking LA's rolling canyons. Her iPhone, positioned next to a succulent and crystal garden, buzzed incessantly. 

Jones is at the top of a vast and complex network of managers, agents, financial advisors, writers, stylists and photographers who keep the influencer economy humming along. 

There's a lot of money to be made: Brands will spend $10 billion on influencer marketing this year, according to the market agency Mediakix. Some influencers charge as much as $100,000 per Instagram post and are launching fashion lines and beauty brands that generate millions of dollars in sales. 

As the money has ballooned, the influencer space has been absorbed by the celebrity-entertainment complex, where teams of people are collectively working on the brand, image, and product of one star. DBA works with about 170 influencer clients and has arranged collaborations ranging from fashion lines at Nordstrom to luggage at Target and olive oils at Williams-Sonoma; the company was acquired last year by United Talent Agency, which represents Hollywood stars like Chris Pratt, Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow. 

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Plenty of influencers with at least 20,000 Instagram followers have retained a manager and an assistant, and likely have freelance writers and photographers on speed dial. An influencer with at least one million Instagram followers and a healthy endorsement business might have a half a dozen people working on their team. The biggest social media stars are running small corporations; Becky Li, a prominent Chinese influencer, has a staff of 70. 

Much like their peers in music and film, these people typically stay hidden from view to maintain the illusion that influencers' are the minds behind their content. The jobs often involve long hours and unglamorous work, and dealing in a still-evolving industry full of contracts with murky terms and scammers.

But for those who can stomach it, the influencer world is providing the sort of entry-level fashion industry opportunities that have grown harder to find at publishers and public relations firms.

"I don't like attention so I'd rather be the one taking the pictures," said Moe Paretti, who for six years has served as chief brand officer for Danielle Bernstein, the WeWoreWhat blogger turned mega-influencer. "I like that a lot of these girls and guys are more relatable than celebrities. And we are disrupting fashion by creating this huge, modern type of advertising."

The pros of working for an influencer

Paretti had no connection to Bernstein and was a sophomore at Fashion Institute of Technology when she applied for the job.
“I thought I’d end up being a buyer at Macy’s,” Paretti said. “But then I saw girls like Danielle and [Man Repeller blogger] Leandra Medine posting pictures to Instagram and I could tell they were making money so emailed Danielle asking if I could help.”

Paretti, 25, has been Bernstein's right hand ever since. She edits blog posts, handles sponsored content, answers emails and attends fashion shoots all over the world. She helped Bernstein develop her swimwear line and the duo recently rolled out a tech platform for fellow influencers. 

We are disrupting fashion by creating this huge, modern type of advertising.

Even entry-level jobs can provide experience building a brand that industry newcomers would be unlikely to have with an established fashion label, said Adriana Suarez, a professor at Fashion Institute of Technology who teaches influencer marketing.
But it’s also a crowded market; Suarez said she doesn’t recommend students take jobs with lesser-known names, as there are fewer opportunities for advancement.
“It would be possible to build an influencer brand today, but it’s similar to playing the lottery,” she said. 

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Kejie Yi, 23, landed an internship with Li, the popular Chinese influencer, after messaging her on WeChat in 2017. She helped run the influencer’s WeChat accounts, which have about 8 million followers. 
“I’ve had a lot of internships but working for Becky was the most valuable,” said Yi. “Payments, advertising, social media, building out an online persona ... I learned so much about impact.”

Yi, who is attending university in Australia, now co-hosts a podcast with a marketing expert, where she shares insight into the worlds of Chinese social media

Some creatives have also built careers off of their work with influencers. 
Grant Legan, a 32-year-old photographer from Chicago, was shooting for Groupon before he began photographing influencers like Aimee Song, Olivia Lopez and Julie Sariñana. Legan has since gone on to work for Usher, Halle Berry and Fergie and shot global campaigns for Four Seasons and Mr Porter.
He said pre-Instagram, he would likely have needed to work as an established photographer’s assistant to have a hope of gaining exposure. 
“There’s been a power shift,” Legan said. “Influencers provided a backdoor. Brands trust influencers, so they trust their photographer.” 

Influencers provided a backdoor. Brands trust influencers, so they trust their photographer.

Getting a foot in the influencer space can be tricky. Paretti said emailing an influencer or attending their events can lead to jobs. Some influencers like Rachel Parcell of Pink Peonies post jobs to their sites, while others, including Leonie Hanne and Victoria Barbara, have posted to digital boards. (Other influencers prefer to post openings covertly with recruitment companies, which is how some Hollywood assistant jobs are shared.)  

There’s also the agency route, working at DBA, Viral Nation (which works with dozens of YouTubers) or RQ Agency (which is working with rising TikTok stars), among others. These firms can offer a fast track to a career as a manager or agent. 

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“On the traditional side [of talent management] you’re not an agent until your late 30s and you're not a good agent until you're 40, but the dynamic is really different when it comes to digital,” Jones said. “We are in an industry that is developing, and is in extreme expansion.” 

The cons of working for influencers

Influencer jobs don’t always come with the same clout as the equivalent positions in fashion — Paretti joked that even her parents were once sceptical she had a “real job.” Legan noted that brands often have the last say in influencer content, which can be creatively frustrating.
“There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen, and so the end product doesn’t always feel as strong,” Legan said. “Plus … they care less about the creation since it’s only going to exist for 10 seconds now.” 
The space is also cutthroat, added Paretti. 
“It's such a new industry, you'd think everybody would be helping each other out but people are more competitive the bigger they get,” she said. 

There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen, and so the end product doesn't always feel as strong.

The pressure also never lets up, even after an influencer hits it big. Riccardo Pozzoli, the ex-boyfriend of Chiara Ferragni and co-founder of The Blonde Salad said that even his team felt the heat once the influencer space started to explode.
 “The challenge was to feel global and to be everywhere,” said Pozzoli, who left the fashion blog in 2017. “One day we were in Korea, the next in Brazil, the next in Milan. It never stopped, it was work, travel, work, travel.”

In some cases, the combination of a heavy workload and little or no credit can take a mental toll. Last year, Caroline Calloway's former ghostwriter wrote a widely-read essay for New York Magazine describing her time with the influencer as a low point in her life.

Much like joining a start-up, working for influencers comes with long hours and in some cases little pay. Social media content is largely unregulated — and many influencers have a dodgy track record of following the rules that exist. Working for the wrong influencer can mean performing tasks that are unethical, or even fraudulent.

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Influencers have been caught buying followers, posting fake sponsored content and teaming up with friends in Instagram "pods" to like and comment on each other's content in order to boost engagement rates. Influencers shill for dubious products, from diet teas to the infamous Fyre music festival. 

BJ Mendelson began ghostwriting influencers’ blog posts, emails and Instagram captions in 2013. But he said he was also asked to maintain “sock puppet accounts” — fake online identities that were used to hit back at critics. He said he has mostly stopped working in the space because he feels the lack of regulation is dangerous.
“It started to feel like the system is rigged to benefit rich people,” he said. “Wealthy people who hire ghostwriters have no business pretending they are inspirational.”

Wealthy people who hire ghostwriters have no business pretending they are inspirational.

Jones said the hardest part of her job is dealing with cancel culture — and the idea that a few bad mistakes can end a career.
“The ability to make something viral so quickly is very scary to me because someone could have a career today and not have one tomorrow because of something they tweeted ten years ago,” Jones said. In 2018, one of her clients, Laura Lee, was embroiled in a feud with rival beauty influencer Jeffree Star, with both sides accusing each other of sending offensive tweets. Lee lost hundreds of thousands of followers, though her count has since rebounded. Jones said Lee "felt awful and apologized for what was said" but noted that the atmosphere her client faced was "toxic." 

Jenn Powell, who started an influencer management firm in 2017 after nearly 20 years as an agent at Next Models, said helping to write the rules of a new industry can be stressful.

“There’s no real place you can go to learn,” Powell said. “Both influencers and managers can end up in the wrong hands.”

How to make it  

While some members of prominent influencers’ teams have become famous themselves, most social media celebrities are looking for people willing to stay behind the scenes. 
“When we are hiring assistants we ask if they want to be influencers because you wouldn't want to hire somebody that wants to be in the limelight,” said Paretti. “We're looking for longterm people, not people that just want to get seen.”

We're looking for longterm people, not people that just want to get seen.

Influencers are also looking to hire people who respect privacy, added Powell. Emily Schuman of Cupcakes and Cashmere learned that lesson the hard way when a former editorial director shared the blogger's dirty laundry online after Schuman fired her in 2017. 

“You want someone who has professionalism, can deliver on time, being responsive, and really takes it seriously,” Powell said. 
Suarez said the key to success is to be comfortable wearing multiple hats. 
“You are truly at the mercy of social media,” Suarez said. “You need to be willing to start from the ground up, every day.”

Editor's Note: This article was revised on 14 January, 2020. An earlier version misstated the age of Christina Jones. She is 27, not 26.

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