Digital Brand Architects has been managing influencers since before the term existed, going back to the days of young retail clerks snapping selfies on the street corner for inclusion in their own budding written blogs. Now those clerks have grown up, and are running cross-platform media companies with huge social-media presences, fashion and cosmetics lines, book deals, live events and much else.
DBA oversees all those initiatives for about 160 influencers, including such big names as Something Navy founder Arielle Charnas. It also has launched Dear Media, a female-focused podcast network featuring notables such as Alli Webb and Michael Landau, Lauryn Evarts, and Chinae Alexander. In February, DBA was acquired by United Talent Agency, one of Hollywood’s biggest and most digitally savvy talent agencies. DBA remains a separate company.
TVRev talked with partner and EVP of brand partnerships Reesa Lake about changes in the business of influencers, how her clients are extending far beyond their modest blogger roots into big new opportunities, and where the business of influencer marketing and management is heading. The interview was edited for clarity and length.
TVR: Tell me about the UTA acquisition, and what it means for DBA and its clients.
RL: DBA was the first agency to focus on the management of digital influencers, the strategy was always to grow them into bigger brands, which brings extensions in terms of products and licensing and TV and publishing. And in house, we’ve launched DBP, our division for products and a licensing, which is building brands for our clients and will launch over 20 projects this year. But after looking at the areas of opportunity and servicing our clients, we don’t have a publishing arm and we don’t have a production division… And the opportunity to have the expertise of UTA in other sectors is exciting for us and will open doors to create new opportunities for our influencers. The team at UTA has been amazing and welcoming. We’re already finding synergies of our clients collaborating and opportunities for us to work with all of their departments. They represent a lot of YouTube talent, but not necessarily with a focus in the fashion and women’s lifestyle space the way we do. We’re looking to see how we can provide our talent new opportunities and continue to bridge the gap between traditional and digital media. We’re having lots of meetings and calls with their divisions and getting submerged in their culture as they are in ours. We’re each learning from each other. It was important we found a partner that embodied the same spirit that DBA does.
TVR: Would you say that fashion, lifestyle, beauty are DBA’s core areas?
RL: We started primarily in fashion and beauty. Since then, a lot of our clients have grown up and gotten married and bought houses and they’ve morphed their brands beyond what used to be street-style photography. Now they’re overarching lifestyle brands where they touch all different verticals, from parenting and travel to fashion and beauty. I’d say about 95% of our clients are female. Almost all of them touch fashion and lifestyle. Food, home and interiors are probably our next biggest bracket… And then last year, we built out our YouTube and video division, but most of that talent falls under some sort of fashion or beauty (area): Patrick Starr, Nyma Tang and Camila Coelho are a few of our top video native influencers
TVR: What synergies are possible as part of UTA?
RL: We’re always looking at evolving the influencers that we manage and figuring out what are the opportunities for growth and anticipating the shifts in the space to stay ahead of what brands are looking for. UTA will accelerate the growth opportunities for us and our clients. There are many synergies in our businesses, from talent to team, we are both pioneers who see the opportunity in digital. In terms of the evolution of the influencer, it looks very different today than it did when we started. We saw video as an area of growth and opportunity so we built up our YouTube division. We signed a number of body-positivity talent in the female lifestyle space. We’re embracing diversity across all different categories from body diversity to ethnic diversity to sexual orientation. We’re also looking at opportunities to evolve our current talent, so those who started in one vertical are now venturing into other verticals. Those who started in fashion are now creating cooking content and interior (design) content and lifestyle content. We’re not going to start signing sports athletes and musicians in the near future, but now we have access to different types of talent through UTA.
TVR: Are you going to remain separate within UTA?
RL: We’re definitely part of the UTA family but we will always be DBA, will maintain the name and our offices. Our clients are managed by DBA. We actually have a couple of clients that we share. Louise Roe is a longtime client that we have shared with UTA along with longtime client Katherine Schwarzenegger, who is a newer client to UTA. It’s always been a great relationship working with their agents and we’re discussing co-signing talents and leveraging each others’ expertise.
TVR: It’s funny to hear you talk about influencers from before there were influencers. You’re O.G. compared to a lot of people in the business.
RL: Our clients, when we signed them, were bloggers. Instead of creating content on YouTube, all of our clients had blogs. It was before Instagram. It’s so interesting to think about the evolution of advertising. We saw this opportunity to shift the way that brands were advertising with our talents. Instead of doing banner ads, we created original content opportunities, pivoting to integrated content, and influencers as talent and the face of brands’ advertising campaigns. And some of our clients were the first digital influencer celebrities to be the face of brands and to be in global TV commercials. Our early clients started with blogs as a photo journal. That changed with the launch of social platforms like Instagram and changed all of our lives and how we consume content.
TVR: Tell me some of your most prominent talents.
RL: Aimee Song, Gal Meets Glam, Chriselle Lim, Rach Parcell, and Whitney Port are top influencers in the fashion space, each with over a million followers. They have shifted from digital influencers to lifestyle brands with books, products and are known ascelebrities in their space. In the food space, we manage best-selling authors SkinnyTaste, Half Baked Harvest, and What’s Gaby Cooking, who has a line of sauces and spices at William Sonoma. Arielle Charnas (Something Navy) has been a longtime client. And she was one of the first influencers to really evolve outside of just blog and social content. We launched a brand with her at Nordstrom as a collaboration and we launched a standalone brand at Nordstrom last year, which sold out in an hour. A second collaboration sold out in an hour, too. And now that brand has expanded from women’s fashion to kids and swimwear and other categories. She started off as a blogger, the girl who liked to take pictures of herself on the street corner, Now she has a staff of six people and a standalone brand at Nordstrom.
TVR: So talk about some of the changes you’ve seen?
RL: I have seen it all, the good, the bad and the ugly. And I remember walking in and talking to brands and they’re like, “We will never ever pay a blogger.” At the time, we had to position talent very differently. We managed some photographers and stylists and we would go in say, “You should hire Jamie Beck, who at the time was most known for creating the Cinemagraph. She’ll take beautiful photographs of your collection and put them on her blog too, as added value.” In that instance, they cared about the fact that they were paying for a photographer versus a blogger. We had to have a different value proposition in the early days. We had no idea how to gauge any type of conversion at that time. And there were no platforms, like a CreatorIQ that we use to dig into data and analytics. It was a very different conversation we were having with talent and brands in the early days.
TVR: When did that start to change? It seems like it’s fairly recent, say, in the last three years.
RL: It really comes down to understanding the value and the data and the analytics behind what being an influencer means. Brands are always trying to figure out what’s the return on investment when they don’t know what the ROI of a billboard is or a taxi-cab advertisement. How can they expect more from digital? Everybody wants to put a number on influencers and for a long time, ignorance was almost our bliss because the data was not available. We didn’t have case studies, we didn’t have conversion data or analytics. Now we know by digging into the back end of their analytics platforms, we can see how many pairs of jeans are selling or how many clicks an influencer gets on a post. We know what the audience is engaging with. And that gives us ammunition to go in and say, “This talent makes a lot of sense for your brand.” We are finally at the place where it’s moved beyond essentially a digital version of Nielsen, from how many eyeballs saw this, to more meaningful things like engagement and conversion to sales.
So on my team, we spend a lot of time working with the brand and understanding their needs when it comes to influencer marketing.Everybody wants to figure out how they check the influencer box. But it needs to be done in a smart way. A lot of what we do is working with a marketer to manage expectations. If somebody wants to drive sales, how many sales are you expecting to drive? If you want to host an event in store, how many people do you want to drive? The data and analytics and insights that we have position us to have much more educated matchmaking between influencer and brand.
TVR: Fashion and beauty seem custom built for online-influencer campaigns. So what’s the mix, typically for your clients, in terms of their media presence?
RL: Most of the new guard don’t even have a blog. And if they have a blog, it exists as a platform for a campaign that needs longerstorytelling or more images and content. We do have a number of clients who still publish consistent blog content because that’s where they’re doing long-form content, but it’s really where they convert to sales, so for someone like Gal Meets Glam, Pink Peonies and Barefoot Blonde, the blog is as equally important as social. They’re creating a lot of content on their blog that still has a very high engagement. A lot of people want to maintain a blog because it’s something that they own. When Instagram changes their algorithm, again and again and again, their blog they still own. And then we have talent who are using other platforms. Last year, we launched Dear Media, which is a female-centric podcast network. So the same thing that we did with blogs is what we’re looking to do in the audio space. It’s meant to change the way brands are advertising on audio. We have over 20 live shows with 10 more launching.
TVR: Many of your clients seem to have deals for fashion lines with Nordstrom’s. Tell me how that’s gone for your clients.
RL: It’s pretty impressive to walk down the floor at Nordstrom and see the lines. Gal Meets Glam, Something Navy and Rach Parcell are all launching lines in mid-April. (After Charnas’ line debuted and the site crashed,) Pete Nordstrom went on Facebook Live with Arielle after the site crashed and said, “Arielle, we’re so sorry that the site crashed. We did everything we could to prepare for it.” Heraudience had taken off time from work, they had skipped school, and the site crashed and they couldn’t shop. It became a big issue because she felt like she let down her audience. The same thing happened on the second launch, and Pete went on to say, “Your first launch was the most successful brand that we have ever launched in Nordstrom. And your second launch was the second-most successful brand we have ever launched at Nordstrom.” So to see that, you know, somebody who started off as a blogger taking pictures on the street corner or in her kitchen in her apartment is now the top sales driver and brand launch for a retailer like Nordstrom, I feel like really shows the evolution of where this business has gone and where it continues to go.