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The REVisionists: WHOSAY’s CEO Steve Ellis On Integrating Influencer Marketing For Success

Steve Ellis is founder and CEO of WHOSAY, which after nearly a decade is one of the oldest and largest influencer-marketing agencies in the business. And as of about a year ago, Ellis is also Executive Vice President for Ad Strategy and Business Development at Viacom. That second title came as a result of his decision to sell WHOSAY to the TV giant, which spent 2018 remaking itself with a series of acquisitions to better embrace the changing world of video distribution, marketing and advertising.

WHOSAY began with a focus on connecting brands to celebrity online influencers, but since has expanded its remit to a broader array of influencers, and to a broader array of platforms and strategies, in keeping with the fast-evolving industry in which the company works.

These days, the company says it “maximizes performance across social, TV and digital media distribution,” leveraging its position within a major media company to build integrated campaigns structured upon far more than the organic reach of any creator.

I talked recently with Ellis about recent trends in influencer marketing and what they mean for the year to come, as well as the company’s approach to connecting influencer campaigns with broader marketing efforts. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

TVR: What do you see as the big trends and strategic shifts happening now?

Steve Ellis: We essentially formulated what now is referred to as influencer marketing. The size of WHOSAY as a business is at least three or four times the size of the next largest influencer marketing firm.  So I think we are uniquely able to describe every level of the market.

We work with every kind of talent and execute every kind of (influencer-marketing) campaign. I think one of the biggest misunderstandings about the space is that it is somehow dependent on the follower counts of the talent, hence the (concern about) fraud and fake followers. Frankly, it’s a bit of mild red herring. For many years at WHOSAY we have required talent we work with on campaigns to say they’ve never bought followers.  We have done more of this than anyone, at scale greater than anyone, for longer than anyone.

We know that the organic reach of a mommy blogger or (other influencer), no matter how many followers they have, on Facebook is about 7 percent and on Instagram it’s in the mid 20s. So if you’re basing the performance of your money spend in media on the organic fan follower counts of talent and hoping for consistent ROI, you’re not doing influencer marketing the right way.

What you really need to look at is creative execution, leveraging the talent and their creative skills to match with your idea or your message as an advertiser. Very early on, WHOSAY got involved deeply in premium creative assets because we watch them perform better. But then you must coordinate that creative ideation and the complement the talent brings to it with a coordinated paid distribution plan.

I sold the business to Viacom for this very reason. It gives us the ability to offer our customers distribution beyond social. We have executed campaigns where the talent is selected in the normal manner, we come up with the idea for the campaign with the clients, the talent approves the idea, we create the asset, the talent shares the asset. But then there is a coordinated paid-media campaign supporting that asset. Viacom now can include running it as pre roll on Viacom OTT video, it can run as a 15- or 30-second TV spot.

So I think the mindset that when you’re (hiring) an influencer, you’re just buying their followers is antithetical to everything that we’ve always believed in. In reality, you want to reach the people who are the fans of your product. If (the influencers are) selected correctly, there should be crossover. There should be a big Venn diagram overlap here.

So it’s less about followers of an influencer and more about finding likely fans of your own product who follow that influencer. Does that mean organic reach doesn’t matter?

Steve Ellis:
To give Facebook and other (platforms) credit,  they are designed to be paid media platforms with effective targeting. So if you make good creative and you use those tools effectively, you can then distribute those assets to anybody that you think you need to reach. And we do that all day long. That is where the ROI comes in.

We are now looking at trends where the deal goes from being a one-off RFP on a case-by-case basis to being more of an always-on comprehensive campaign-management approach. It’s not just about a transaction here and a transaction there. There’s a real strategy behind it.

Most importantly, as a second part of the trend, there’s a deeper coordination with the media agency, that paid support will get behind the best performing creative. So if we run a campaign with three influencers in it, and one is a mommy blogger and another is a trailblazing TV star, and the content the mommy blogger creates performs better, then let’s put more paid support behind that one.

The two trends we are seeing is that we now can coordinate with our advertising partners, clients and agencies in a more comprehensive way, plan creative strategy and coordinate paid support.

TVR: One thing I hear is it’s not, ‘We should go get an influencer today,’ but. ‘Who can we build a long-term relationship with?’  it’s like the in the makeup business where they have the cover girl contract for years rather than the random one shot of a model in an ad.

Steve Ellis: I think the answer is maybe. Don’t focus just on the fact that it might be a subset of people who always work. it could be a variety of people over the year that work with you but the approach to the strategy is more holistic. You might only use 10 people throughout the year. But the plan also might be to engage lots of different people at different levels. You know, ‘Let’s do a hero unit with a trailblazer. Let’s do some supporting units of mommy bloggers.’

But it’s not about the people as much as it is about the idea. The talent are part of the idea. The talent cannot make a bad idea good. It’s still like the old days, where you got to have a good idea. People don’t have to pay attention to your advertising, especially on social when they can scroll by so many more interesting photos. You have to cut through and you’re not going to cut through with a bad ad.

Now sometimes a good ad can be iPhone basic stuff. But in many cases, we’re seeing better performance from more professionally created assets.

TVR: So the authentic, rough-hewn social-media post isn’t necessarily doing as well these days. You need some production values.

Steve Ellis: In many cases, the best of these professional creators agree to the concept of the idea and then contribute additional creative to make it really perform within their voice. That’s ultimately what you’re looking for.

Two is then the better coordination with the distribution of that asset beyond just social to your followers. It’s about optimizing. And let me give you one story that gives you the whole picture. The beauty of social media is that you can retain knowledge as a result of the performance of your campaign.

So you can create a traditional awareness campaign, you can use hero units, you can use high-level talent, you can make a beautiful 15-, 10-, 7-, 30-second video, 90-, whatever you think, is the storytelling you need, you can distribute those assets on TV, you can distribute those assets as digital pre-roll on videos, you can also distribute them on YouTube as pre-roll, and you can run them in the feed as ads on Facebook and Instagram.

Twitter, you can see and target who you want, you can target people who like the Chicago Bears, live in Cleveland, and drive fancy cars. You can see who engages the most with that video. You can see that people watch 10 seconds rather than two. And you then can use the platforms as they’re designed, to serve those most interested people. Perhaps the second creative asset you’ve done, which is an informational video about the same product, and then you can see who watches the second asset for 10 seconds. And then you can serve those people offers and calls to action because now you know that you have a very interested customer.

TVR: I would think it’s tougher than ever to get organic reach, given changes in the algorithms and other issues. What’s your assessment?

Steve Ellis: When I started WHOSAY 10 years ago, we had the thousand most famous people in the whole world being put by us on Twitter and Facebook. I witnessed the amount of reach and organic posts, and I also witnessed over the next three years, how that went from 150 percent reach down to 5 (percent).

The platforms are designed to be paid advertising platforms. They’re not designed to be free content-marketing platforms. You can’t just pay the the creative talent, you have to pay for the reach as well. That’s just the reality.

Every single campaign we have ever run has come with a guaranteed deliverable views, clicks, distribution, whatever they asked for. And to guarantee that outcome, you have to have the combination of what organic will deliver, and that you will then deliver the targeted rest of that using the platforms in an optimized way.

TVR: Follower numbers really are basically the social-media version of buying eyeballs in traditional TV. But is the industry and brands catching up now and understanding that it’s not just enough?

Steve Ellis: The answer is you have to do a bit of all of it. There’s no clean one way. If you do it comprehensively, I think you can have the most success. But you also are going to measure each of those slightly differently. Some are impression based, some are view based, some are performance based.

The reason it’s not happening at the speed we like it to happen is that the companies involved in the process tend to be structured to separate the agency creative from media. That coordinated effort is not how many of us collectively are structured today. That prevents coordinated efforts across the mediums and the measurement. And that’s what I’m beginning to see change with all of us. Viacom, I can say we’re absolutely leading the charge for those coordinated solutions.

TVR: Any thoughts about GDPR, privacy concerns and similar issues and their impact on social-media usage and influencer marketing? Will we see more regulation out of Washington?

Steve Ellis: It’s a little beyond my remit. These days it’s anybody’s guess. But I will tell you this. For all the criticism levied at the platforms, they are very effective at targeted advertising media. I just think that the level of understanding about how to best use them is in pockets.

My view is we need to provide more comprehensive solutions to our clients. Our job is to help the advertiser create the most effective advertising campaign, and that I think means leveraging all the platforms effectively. So I think our whole actions are driven by a view that we need comprehensive solutions to help marketers cut through.

TVR: Do you see any particular sectors or technologies that are particularly ripe for growth this year?

Steve Ellis: Voice (control) is going to be the big wave we use the tools. (Right now) they are pretty useful, but they’re not all the way there yet. I think they are going to get very, very useful, very quickly. People in the next 10 years are going to get more naturally familiar with voice commands very early on in their lives. And that’s likely to impact how we message people with marketing and everything else.