Influencers starting their own brands was a disruptive trend for brands in 2017. Last year was especially prolific as countless influencers started successful physical product businesses — Becky Li’s new clothing line, for example, or Zhang Mofan’s makeup brand Moamour, or Taobao queens like Zhang Dayi and Lin张林超. In 2018, the emergence of influencer-led creative studios is set to disrupt traditional ad agencies and production companies in China. Influencer-led creative studios are now directly competing with China ad agencies for brand’s content creation projects.
It’s What Brands Want
Why are influencers launching creative studios?
The main reason is longevity.
Influencers cannot stay young forever. For some, their audience will change and grow with them, while others have more difficulty transitioning. Creating an agency is a long-term play that utilizes their network and knowledge. Furthermore, maintaining a brand around one’s personality is exhausting and limits how much content they can produce or sponsorships they can accept.
The other big reason comes from the demand side. In many cases, brands ask influencers for production services. Last October, US fashion and beauty blogger Chriselle Lim launched her production house Cinc Studios. In a recent interview with Glossy, Chriselle explained that the impetus to create a production studio came from brands.
“There’s a real need for digital production and content creation,” she said. Over the years, Lim has grown a large team of creatives to help with her personal brand, The Chriselle Factor. Companies started seeking her recommendations for photographers and videographers, not realizing that she employed them all. Eventually, she got so many requests that she decided to create Cinc Studios.
“There has been a significant amount of investment poured into the influencer development industry. So much so that many influencers’ teams are creating content at the level of most production studios and China ad agencies,” he said.
“There has been a mass exodus of talent from industries like print media with many of the professional writers and photographers joining influencer-led creative studios or becoming influencers themselves.”
“The next generation of talent are trying their hand at becoming influencers instead of joining traditional companies. The influencer industry is sucking up talent, as it is generally seen as more interesting, freeing, and provides better opportunities.”
Peter Xu Studio
An early mover in the industry was fashion influencer Peter Xu @徐峰立. He launched his creative studio, Peter Xu Studio @徐峰立Studio, in 2016, providing photo and video production for lifestyle brands, shows, fashion labels and other influencers and celebrities.
Fast-forward to today and his team includes a core group of full-time workers and over 100 freelancer photographers, photo editors, producers and other creative personnel. Together they shot over 100 videos last year. Xu’s studio not only produces content but can distribute it too by posting on its network of influencer media channels.
Xu is extremely happy with his decision to transition away from being an influencer and focus on his studio. Not only does he find the work to be more satisfying, it’s also much more profitable. “The first year the studio made about €500,000 [US$600,000] in profit and in 2017 it was over double that. After switching from being a blogger to a production house, we are generating so much more revenue.”
More Than Just a Food Blogger
Antoine was a professional creative and marketer before becoming an influencer.
Antoine Bunel, originally hailing from France, is one of China’s top food influencers. Huge international and Chinese brands are constantly come knocking, looking to collaborate.
Over the past couple of months, Antoine has slowly been launching his own production agency. “We’ve worked with so many clients and agencies for over two years, we feel we can contribute to campaigns much more than just appear on video or events as talent.”
His agency provides a range of services from helping clients with writing scripts, finding locations, supplying video and live stream shooting teams, producing short videos and online distribution.
Currently the agency is comprised of Antoine, his wife, a video editor, and an assistant. They work with a number of freelancers for each project, depending on the project’s needs, and have already worked with a number of large brands including Bosch kitchen, WMF, Mercedes, and Lexus.
Antoine is not planning on limiting their work to specific industries.
“We’re very much lifestyle, about sharing positive values, culture and entertainment, so lots of possibilities.”
When asked how his company differs from a regular China ad agency or production studio, Antoine replied, “We care! Because we’re small, we’re very focused on delivering the best for every project. That’s not corporate sales talk. We really do care, and we’re not scared to tell the client when we think they’re not getting the best results they could. As an influencer, I understand both content creation and distribution, which means I’m very involved both in front and behind the cameras. I care about it all.”
Even Influencers Without Formal Agencies are Doing Production Work
If this trend doesn’t seem extremely apparent yet, it’s because many influencers are providing services similar to Peter and Antoine without officially launching agencies.
This happened with Elijah’s brand Melilim Fu.
Images created for 王者荣耀 (China’s most popular video game) but never publish on Melilim’s Social Media.
“Last year, 20% of the work we did never showed up on our social accounts. Brands came to us just for videos, pictures, and articles. Two things are taking place here. One: They don’t have the budget for distribution on our social channels, but still want some of the recognizability from a well-known and respected influencer. Two: They can have a level of production that is quite high, with the assurance that it is coming from an expert that knows how to influence people online.”
Social is in their DNA
Elijah went on to explain the benefits of working with an influencer.
“Influencer-created content has one key advantage when compared to traditional production companies or ad agencies: Social is in their DNA. Influencers have gone through the grind of developing audiences in a mobile-first social media world, whereas professionals at traditional agencies might have little-to-no hands-on experience with how content will be engaged with or received online.”
“I’ve never met a professional creative that actually reads all social comments on a client video after it was posted online. Influencers have an instinctive edge that they have developed over years of daily trial and error and intimate engagement with social media communities.”
He shares the same view as Antoine, who said he believes passion is a factor.
“For the employees that work at traditional agencies, their work is their job. For influencers, their work is their life. Influencers are entrepreneurs who’s work and personal lives are public for all to see. Their failures will be public. And so, the pressure to perform at one’s peak is much higher than the salaried employee at an agency.” say’s Elijah.
Will Influencer-Led Creative Studios Replace China Ad Agencies?
With all the benefits of working with influencer-led creative studios, it appears that traditional creative agencies should be taking measures to stay relevant in China.
Fashion influencer Blackbab in production for a YSL video with her boyfriend (seen behind the camera) who is a professional video producer.
“We are seeing the more experienced influencers starting their own agencies and brands. It’s an inevitable development in China where entrepreneurship is booming and business models are constantly challenged and disrupted,” said Antoine. “I don’t see influencers totally replacing China ad agencies, but I believe they will gain much more weight in the conversations.”
Elijah agrees that traditional agencies and media companies need to be worried about losing their edge. “I don’t personally know of too many influencers that have started a proper ‘agency’, but, as I mentioned, many influencers are being contracted to only create content.”
“I know many professional writers, photographers, and videographers that have left magazines and even TV to work with influencers or become influencers. I believe the surge of influencer production studios or influencer created creative agencies is just around the corner.”