Dear Cannes. Influencer Marketing is hard. So let’s get better at it.

Jet lag is a killer. Three days in to my LA trip for VidCon 2018 and I’m still pretty heavily on European time. And because I’m such a ‘digital native’ (i.e. I’m unhealthily addicted to my phone and the idea of putting it on to airplane mode for a few hours makes me feel physically sick) I’ve been keeping up with the Twitter chatter from Cannes. I’ve noticed lots of talk about an influencer marketing backlash*. Now, I dearly love a good backlash — anyone who’s heard me grinningly talk at length about the decline of Eddie Jones’ England team will be aware of this — but this one seems a bit unfair to me.

It seems that much of the furore is to do with a lack of clarity or transparency of audiences, and some of the more traditional ad industry outlets have jumped on this like football journalists on a faltering England team. Clearly there are issues in the influencer marketing industry but lets take a second before we all pile in and write it off as if the whole thing was smoke and mirrors all along.

There’s a certain amount of hypocrisy here too. Take TV ratings. In the UK, we get these from BARB. For those working in TV, as I myself did for many years, they are a really helpful benchmark for understanding the relative success of this programme vs that programme. “This show got X million viewers, a share of __% in this slot — that’s __% up/down on the slot average.” So for influencing your commissioning strategy it makes perfect sense. That was more popular than this, lets make more of that. I mean, a hell of a lot more goes into an effective commissioning strategy, but that’s a very long conversation for another day.

But for advertisers, these ratings are only so helpful. Primarily because the big numbers are scaled up from a sample size that is alarmingly small. BARB has a panel of 5,100 homes (roughly 12,000 individuals), all of whom have opted in to having a little box on top of their TV that tracks what they watch. I’ll re-iterate this because it’s important. TV ratings in the UK, a country with a population of 65.6 million people, are calculated from a sample size roughly equivalent to the population of Walton-on-the-Naze.

Don’t get me wrong, Walton-on-the-Naze looks lovely and it’s definitely challenging Upton Snodsbury for the crown of most charmingly named English town, but it’s not big.

Clearly I’m massively over-simplifying here to make a point— media agencies do an enormous amount of effective research, testing and tracking to validate TV ad spend and this isn’t me suggesting that advertisers should take all their money out of TV and shove it on digital. Far from it. I worked at BBC Worldwide for years, have since had the privilege of working on some awesome TV focussed ad campaigns and thus am acutely aware of the immense value of linear in reaching enormous audiences.

But it does seem rather hypocritical of the more traditional adland set at Cannes, furiously agreeing with each other that digital influencers need to provide more clarity and transparency about who their audiences are, when their biggest campaign investments on TV are based on such an imperfect science. I love you really Cannes, but I’ve caught Silicon Valley fever out here and I do relish a bit of punchy conference hyperbole.

Anyway. Yes, 100%, it is up to the social platforms and the influencer marketing industry to solve the issues of paid-for fake audiences and bots — any fraudulent activity is clearly completely unacceptable. And yes, influencers also need to be more savvy about the true ROI for brands of viewership of their content. Unilever are absolutely right to be pushing the influencer marketing industry to get serious, self-regulate and spend more time getting it’s house in order and less time being so hyperbolic about how great it thinks it is. And hopefully this very public dressing down for the industry will give it the kick up the arse in needs.

But alongside this, rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, marketers, in-house and agency, need to have a good look at their own approaches to influencer marketing. Have you really done the research into who your paying and interrogated the data? Have you put in the level of effort, time and resource these campaigns warrant? Have you thought about building an actual working relationship with the influencers, rather than just throwing money at them? Have you just lumped “influencers” into your brief, as a nod to Gen Z, without really assessing it’s potential ROI?

I feel this comes back to the crux of why I’m here at VidCon rather than at Cannes. The influencer marketing space is challenging — it’s intimidatingly complex, nobody is entirely sure what it is yet, and it’s changing every day. So rather than bemoan it for being so, sipping rosé Champagne at La Baoli**, I’ve come here to learn about how we can approach it in a way that’s genuinely valuable for our clients.

Over the next few days I’ll be attending a few panels which discuss the very topic of ‘fake influencers’, so I will update after that. Who knows? I may completely disagree with myself, decide it’s all a mess, gorge on tequila and drunkenly write a polemic how we should just stop putting so much faith in these young creative folk. I feel its unlikely, but in fairness I’m also not entirely sure what time of day it is. The jet-lag struggle is real.

* - They may have changed it by now, but as if to highlight the gaping divide between VidCon and Cannes even further, the original Digiday article somehow managed to mistake YouTube royalty Casey Neistat for Verge editor Casey Newton.

Come on Digiday. You’re better than this.

** - NB. I know they’d never let the likes of me in to La Baoli and rosé Champagne is just for people who think they like Champagne, but actually don’t and are just drinking it because they think it’s fancier. Just get yourself the Blue WKD you really want and give your expenses a break.




Strategist / Creative at ENGINE. Ex @BBCEarth & @BBC_TopGear. Informed opinion on TV and digital things. Ill-informed hyperbole on rugby and football.

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Leo Birch

Leo Birch

Strategist / Creative at ENGINE. Ex @BBCEarth & @BBC_TopGear. Informed opinion on TV and digital things. Ill-informed hyperbole on rugby and football.

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