Who’s influencing who?

Who’s influencing who?

Influencer marketing is in major flux. Higher standards, longer term partnerships and changing creative control are making for a more complex – but potentially more productive – relationship between brands and content creators.

No-one could have predicted that a traditional Italian Christmas cake would be the thing to bring down one of the biggest influencers in the world.

At the start of 2024, Bloomberg took vicious delight in reporting on Chiara Ferragni’s unfolding scandal, after news emerged that the influencer – who’s spent a decade cementing her place as Italy’s foremost name in social media - was being fined €1m for making false claims about a cake brand sponsorship.

It’s one of many symptoms of an industry in flux as new legislation is passed, content creators are held to account and brands rethink how they handle influencer partnerships.

“New laws around disclosure have heightened the challenge,” says Shannon Maclean-Arnott, co-founder of creative agency Outlandish. “That was the point around which it was like, ‘Oh, my favourite influencers have been paid for all of these things I thought they just loved’. It shifted the relationship between influencers and consumers, and how much the audience trusts them blindly.”

Influencers might seem like a new phenomenon – in 2023, Bloomberg called it ‘the hottest job in America’ – but, in one form or another, they’ve been around forever.

As far back as the early 1900s, adventurers and explorers – the proto-influencers of their time – were marketing toys, souvenirs and clothes under their name. The New Brunswick Hosiery Co advertised its underwear as: ‘The Underclothes Peary Wore to the Pole’.

And it’s easy to see why brands have found influencer marketing so seductive; It’s a chance to put your product in front of more eyeballs, more quickly, than the traditional PR route, and all with the help of someone people already know and love.

Almost every sector you can think of has tapped into its potential, including big oil, politics and nuclear power. It’s an industry that’s spawned its own sub-industries, as content creators separate out into micro and nano, turn to ‘de-influencing’, launch their own companies, products, podcasts, TV shows and become celebrities and brands in their own right.

But that means it’s more complex than ever. Questions are being raised about the viability of the ‘influencer ‘lifestyle’ during a cost of living crisis, as well as the ethics of ‘more more more’ consumerism. And while brands, once upon a time, could simply send their product to anyone with a big following, influencer marketing is becoming far less nakedly transactional.


“It was definitely quality over quantity in the beginning, because it was still very new, and we were just trying to get the product in as many hands as possible,” says Kelly Masuda, former Senior Marketing Associate at Daly and now Senior Manager, Influencer Marketing, at Edelman. Masuda’s been working in the field for the past 6 years, starting her career in a time when brands didn’t care so much about who they worked with, as long as they had reach.

This meant Masuda was often reaching out to 50 new influencers every month, in a series of partnerships that were, first and foremost, about boosting sales. That’s certainly no longer the case.

“For one thing, you definitely have to have a lot of time, and a lot of budget to go out to everyone like that,” she says. “And if you don’t have any budget, and you just send it to a bunch of people and hope that creates sales, it won’t always convert. You need to nurture that relationship.”

Joe & The Juice campaign by Kingsland. Casting of Paris Hilton and Alix Earle by Potion PR.
Joe & The Juice campaign by Kingsland. Casting of Paris Hilton and Alix Earle by Potion PR.
Joe & The Juice campaign by Kingsland. Casting of Paris Hilton and Alix Earle by Potion PR.
Joe & The Juice campaign by Kingsland. Casting of Paris Hilton and Alix Earle by Potion PR.


As the days of pumping out product come to an end, brands are moving away from one-off partnerships and towards longer-term engagements.

“The one and done model is something we should look to steer away from,” says Juliana Goldman, founder of Potion PR. “I like the idea of having an influencer on retainer for clients, or potentially working with a group repeatedly, instead of always chasing that next best thing. It’s nice when a brand and influencer have a genuine connection and long-term rapport, which we’re starting to do more of.

“And it’s important for brands to set up more of a repeated posting schedule – maybe they do it a few times a year, so you see something on a talent’s page a couple of times in a row. If we’re looking at influencer engagement, we’re probably going to ask that we have category exclusivity for at least a couple of months as well.”

According to Maclean-Arnott, as relationships have become longer and more collaborative, brands are now shifting their metrics towards brand performance. “If they’re really smart, they’ll couple it with paid ads and things that are more conversion-led, and see the partnership piece as product education or building trust. It’s more relationship-building than a hard sale.”


And influencers aren’t just salespeople. Brands are inviting them to become creative directors, board members, strategists and researchers. “Brands are hiring influencers more and more as brand consultants,” agrees Maclean-Arnott. “They’re treating them as real experts in content creation, in community building and in their knowledge of a specific area or audience they’re trying to relate to in an authentic way.”

Influencers could also be a huge untapped source of feedback, according to Goldman, who recommends brands actively follow-up with influencers, using them as a focus group to see how they liked a product, and how the brand might handle future campaigns.

“Think of it as a pre-pre-seed round,” she says. “For newer brands, you can pull together a group of influential people that are doing something in that space, and they can give perspective that helps build your influencer strategy. And you want influencers to be part of a larger conversation, maybe before you even launch the brand, because you want to make an impact right away.”


“Increasingly, brands are realising they need to let go of the reins and treat influencers as trusted advisors and experts in their field and audience, if they want a campaign to be successful.”

Shannon Maclean-Arnott, co-founder of creative agency Outlandish

To get the best out of them, brands have to be prepared to let influencers take control – the days of asking an influencer to recite a brand’s messaging word-for-word are long gone.

Content creators want more creative freedom, they want brands to trust them, and it’s a potential source of tension in the partnership if they’re not getting that.

“Increasingly, brands are realising they need to let go of the reins and treat influencers as trusted advisors and experts in their field and audience, if they want a campaign to be successful,” says Maclean Arnott. “They’re gaining more power in that sense, I think.”

“These are people at the end of the day, and you have to let them be creative,” agrees Masuda. “There’s a juggle between them hitting those talking points, but also letting the influencer do the content in their own way, because that’s what’s going to perform.”


“We’re at a point where influencers really need to know who they are, and what they stand for, and brands also need to know that.”

Kelly Masuda, Senior Manager, Influencer Marketing, at Edelman

Brands also have to remember that people are paying close attention – which means thinking carefully about who they work with, and what they might stand for.

“We’re at a point where influencers really need to know who they are, and what they stand for, and brands also need to know that,” says Masuda. “A lot of time you’ll see brands claim they didn’t know an influencer advocated for something, and I think they need to do better than that.

“Brands need to understand what they’re ok with being behind, and what they’re not. Are they ok with someone that’s promoted fast fashion brands, for example? Are they ok with someone talking about xyz issue?

“Right now, brands are so worried about venturing into that territory; they want to have no opinions until they have to have them. But eventually they’ll need them ahead of time, and before they do influencer marketing, if they want to stand the test of time with buyers.”


The final part of the juggle is that many influencers are extremely protective over their own brand, and how that comes across in partnerships. According to Goldman, content creators increasingly want to know what a company cares about, what its values are and what the creative looks like.

“Brands have to sell to the influencer now, whereas it used to be a transactional thing,” she explains. “Influencers and their teams will ask what other stakeholders are involved and who else the brand is working with. Many influencers will ask if a brand cares about diversity, equity and inclusion, and they’ll look at a brand’s presence to see who’s following them and what other collaborations they’re doing.”

All in all, the balance of power is changing – but that’s not a bad thing. As influencers expect more from brand partnerships, brands can also expect a more strategic, considered and fruitful collaboration that goes way beyond a blink-and-you-miss-it spike in sales.

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