Why influencer marketing agencies aren't going anywhere
Hallie Harris
July 25, 2017

The growing prominence of digital influencers in social media marketing has left some worrying: are agencies getting cut out of the influencer marketing boom? It's a concern now that some brands are sidestepping their agencies and going directly to online influencers to create content.

Bud Light, L'Oreal, and the skin care company InstaNatural are just a few of the brands that are adopting the "influencer as creative" model. Instead of getting an agency involved, brands are sending their creative briefs directly to digital celebrities who then carry out campaigns through Instagram, YouTube, and other social platforms.

Does this development pose a unique threat to social agencies? No.

A few isolated instances of success don’t add up to an industry-wide trend. By and large, brands aren't investing in the dedicated teams and talent required to execute sophisticated influencer campaigns. Instead they tend to hire generalists who oversee and manage agencies and vendors.

There’s been a shift towards taking creative work in-house -- a new survey by Creativebrief finds that 72% of CMOs intend to bring more marketing responsibilities in-house in the coming years.

That this trend extends in some limited way to the influencer marketing space shouldn't surprise anyone, especially given how quickly the category is growing. Marketers spent $570 million on campaigns featuring Instagram influencers alone in 2016, and spending on influencer marketing is expected to double this year.

Consider traditional agency work. Billboards and 30-second television spots have been around for decades, and have become increasingly commoditized. Although some brands have started to move their work in-house, agencies still very much control the supply to the client’s demand on a larger scale.

When it comes to social media campaigns, however, marketers are dealing with an ecosystem that is changing daily, is comparatively new, and unlike traditional agency work, can be considered to be “experimental.” Most brands are comfortable investing their resources into typical agency services, as that’s the way it’s always been done, but are less inclined to do so with services that don’t fit into the traditional mold.

If brands barely invest in taking commoditized services typically provided by agencies in-house, it’s safe to assume they’re even less inclined to do so with services that are considered experimental.

Excelling in this new domain demands a unique combination of skills drawn from industries as diverse as advertising, talent management, technology, and public relations. Hiring a full-time team solely for influencer marketing simply isn’t a priority for most brands; for so many, it’s seen as subset of a vast marketing mix, and dedicating the training time and monetary resources to a specialized team can feel like a large risk to take.

At the moment, the majority of expertise in executing successful brand influencer campaigns lies with a surprisingly small handful of agency and third-party vendors. The many marketers that perceive the space as new and experimental are out of touch. The reality is that digital influencer marketing has been around for over a decade. It’s not that new.

Many actual experts in this space didn’t cut their teeth at traditional agencies. Working outside of  “old school advertising”  before the field  was embraced  fostered the types of relationships, learnings, and social mores that have since become industry standards. Newcomers, on the other hand, tend to simply throw cash at influencers and their in-house marketing teams in an attempt to overcompensate for their lack of understanding (to varying degrees of success).

Beyond navigating the social mores and shifting platforms, these specialist agencies are increasingly tasked with keeping brands out of legal trouble in a fast-moving regulatory environment. This is no small matter. One recent poll revealed that only 55% of influencer marketers are up to date on the latest Federal Trade Commission disclosure regulations.

The best advice I can provide for brands looking to have a meaningful impact in the space is to watch out for a few key red flags, such as a focus on automation over relationships, downplaying the need for disclosure (it’s the law), or suggesting a “copy and paste” approach to your messaging -- these things are likely going to cause a gross misstep along the way.

Relationships matter

Agencies that prioritize collaboration and relationship building versus the pay to post/quid pro quo model are those who value the brands that these influencers and clients have built.

That's not to say that all agencies have the talent to excel in this domain (cough, as we’ve seen in recent news, cough), and as I’ve highlighted in the past, there are a lot of vendors in the influencer marketing space, but few really doing the work well.

By all means, I welcome those brands who are willing to invest in the proper time and expertise to take the services in-house. I just don’t believe there are many that are willing to make that sacrifice, especially considering that so few brands have made this transition successfully.

Whether or not influencer marketing is done in house or through an agency, it’s important to note the lessons learned from successful brands such as Samsung with Casey Neistat, or MTN Dew (a client) with Dtrix.

These successful partnerships are the result of an investment of time and into making digital influencers an extension of their marketing arm -- integrating the influencers across multiple business touch-points and not treating them as media outlets. They’ve established ongoing relationships more akin to an endorsement deal -- with influencers weighing in on product and ad campaigns, making TV and event appearances, as well as creating branded content.

Until brands dedicate the necessary time and resources to secure experienced in-house talent that can take a social campaign from A to Z, the agencies that are committed to doing the job right will continue to be indispensable players in influencer marketing.

Hallie Harris is the Managing Director of social video agency Epic Signal. She has been developing and marketing global brands for more than a decade.