Many brands are still spending big bucks on influencers with upward of a million followers, despite multiple reports that micro-influencers, which demand much lower rates, are more effective at driving ROI.
Rhiyen Sharp, whose resume includes years at IMG and New York Models, has represented a wide range of influencers, from models and musicians to Instagram “it” girls. He is now director of digital strategy and creators at The Industry Model Mgmt, where he spends time consulting brands and retailers on partnerships, and designing and producing campaigns. Among his latest projects to launch is a campaign for Switzerland-based fashion brand Tally Weijl, featuring influencer Ava Sambora.
In a meeting at his Pier59 Studios office in Chelsea, we talked to Sharp about the difference between celebrities, influencers and girls with large social followings, and where macro-influencers fit into the current mix. (Preview: They don’t.)
You worked with models most of your career — what drew you to the influencer world?
For [an agent], it’s all about, “How can I get my opinion to be the one that makes the client decide to use my talent?” [Modeling] is a business of opinions. To one person, a girl is the most beautiful person in the world, and to another, she’s hideous. I started to look at, “What can I offer that’s a little bit more?” And the answer was a social following. I eventually left New York Models to run an influencer agency.
You didn’t stay long.
The problem was that I started to see the real results. There is a big difference between an influencer and someone with followers on Instagram; an influencer actually makes a difference in whether or not a product gets sold. A girl with 3 million followers was getting paid $15,000 or $20,000 to do a post, and it was resulting in zero sales — I got that feedback so frequently, it was shocking. Girls with a lot of followers are not influencers, they’re advertising platforms. Compare them to a magazine: If the content is a bit cheap, would you want to buy an ad in it? And who’s reading it? Most of the girls’ audiences were 60 percent men. Unless they’re going to be promoting beer, it doesn’t work.
What about the new model-influencers?
They’re not influencers, they’re celebrities. The smart girls — the Gigi Hadids, the Kendall Jenners, the Kaia Gerbers — they’re not posting bikini photos all the time. They’re making sure they have a female audience; if you want to be selling product to a woman, you have to appeal to a woman. Luxury brands are not hiring just any “influencer” with a high follower count. You don’t see LVMH making mistakes like that.
So, who would you say is truly influential?
Right now, I’m working with [‘90s supermodel] Niki Taylor. During New York Fashion Week, I took her to a party, and she was wearing this dress by Trina Turk. The paparazzi took photos of her, and within 24 hours, the dress sold out in all 14 Trina Turk stores and online. She can sell product, and she only has 58,000 followers.
A lot of celebs don’t even use social media.
Some of the biggest stars don’t: Jennifer Lawrence, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Emma Stone, George Clooney, Jennifer Aniston… That’s because you’ve got to make people want more. How do you maintain a level of public interest, if you’re saturating social media with information?
Are clients still hung up on follower count?
Absolutely. When a client has a smaller budget, I might offer up a girl without a lot of followers who is really on the verge. A lot of times, the client doesn’t want them. A couple of months later, when the person is huge, I like to send an email that essentially says, “Sucks to be you. Sorry, not sorry.” If you’re just looking at numbers, then you shouldn’t be working in this industry, because that moment has passed. No one high up in adverting and none of the companies that matter care about the girl with 1.5 million followers anymore.
Are you representing any influencers now?
I let nearly all of those girls go. Quite simply, I’m not interested — and neither are they, really. They’re not really trying to build something. It was just so boring for me, so it must be boring for clients and it must be boring for the public. The ones I kept, they don’t have the hugest follower count, but they have something interesting, a unique viewpoint. We have to think of talent as a product; I’m a sales person, and it’s my job to sell people. If I’m not sold on someone, there’s no point.
Influencers are still in demand, though.
If you’re a person with a high social following and you’re able to get paid a lot of money from someone for something, fucking take it; if you’re just an Instamodel, and you were able to convince a brand, kudos. But to the person who’s paying all that money: You’re about to lose your job. This has been happening long enough that we can see what changes customer behavior and what doesn’t. Teaming up with groups of influencers, doing these lame activations doesn’t. Instagirl No. 15 doesn’t.