What the rise of ‘social talent’ means for the media industry | M&M Global

What the rise of ‘social talent’ means for the media industry

Gleam Futures managing director Dominic Smales, who manages YouTube sensation Zoella, outlines what the rise of “social talent” means for brands and media owners.


Even the most digitally-ignorant are now becoming aware of the emerging stars of YouTube, from Swedish video gaming king PewDiePie to British fashion and beauty queen Zoella.

Take PewDiePie, real name Felix Kjellberg: his channel has amassed a seriously monetisable 36 million YouTube subscribers. There have been over 8.5 billion views of his videos commentating on game clips, numbers which will make any traditional broadcaster green with envy.

It would be easy to dismiss such individuals as a digital media phenomenon, popular among teens who will eventually grow out of their fandom. But, claims Gleam Futures founder and managing director Dominic Smales – who manages Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella (below) – such a view misunderstands their appeal.

“I think the audience will go wherever it has access to the talent, irrespective of the platform. It’s not just platform-specific. YouTube kicked it off because that is where they found their audience, but books have been just as popular,” says Smales.

“I’m really interested to see what happens in the next couple of years in terms of expanding this talent activity across, yeah, why not, movies and magazine and books.”


The latter is a reference to Zoella’s debut novel ‘Girl Online’, which, notwithstanding some controversy about ghost writers, sold a record-breaking 78,000 copies in its first week of sales. A second book is already on the way, as is the transition of these performers to mainstream media names.

London and Los Angeles-based Gleam Futures’ roster of ‘social talent’ includes beauty tutorial provider Tanya Burr and comedy vlogger Alfie Deyes, aka PointlessBlog. Collectively its acts deliver over 21 million subscribers on YouTube – Zoella alone passed the eight million-mark this week, to a great deal of social media fanfare.

“We are wanting to forge really deep partnerships with brands and digital talent, because the relationship they have has to be real.”

Comparing the rise of The Beatles with today’s boyband sensation One Direction, Smales points out that Beatles’ fanatics would have spread the word person-by-person, perhaps over the phone, whereas the explosion in popularity of 1D was fuelled by digital sharing.

The lesson for traditional media owners, he says, is to understand the importance of genuine audience engagement: “For the first time, talent itself has immediate access to their own audience, rather than needing to access through a gatekeeper like a commissioner or a broadcaster network. That knocks on to the relationship the talent has with their audience, in that it’s much more real, interactive and two-way.

“It’s not been quick. These guys have been doing it for six or seven years, under everybody’s noses, and it has just got the point where it has reached critical mass and broadcasters and the press are comparing it to their reach. It has all suddenly become interesting – we’ve started publishing books, making records and all of that kind of thing.”

Brand appeal

Each YouTuber boasts a dedicated, passionate audience, predominantly aged under 25: the appeal for brands is obvious. Take Reckitt Benckiser-owned Durex, which has recruited UK YouTube star Hannah Witton to discuss sex and relationships in its latest campaign.

Vloggers have been paid for product placement for some time, although YouTube tightened up its rules in an attempt to get video creators to negotiate with advertisers through Google’s own sales team.

The regulators are getting twitchy, too. Mondelez ran a campaign paying YouTubers to feature its Oreo cookies in their videos, which prompted the UK’s ad watchdog to introduce new rules enforcing video makers to clearly label any paid-for content.

Smales insists Gleam Futures’ acts ensure they are “compliant” with regulations, but says his talent is moving away from “pile-them-high, sell-them-cheap” media deals in favour of deeper brand relationships.

Partnerships must be relevant to the performers, says Smales, such as Zoella’s videos showing the young star baking lemon drizzle cakes made with ingredients from Walmart-owned grocery chain Asda, or Tanya Burr’s ongoing haircare deal with Unilever (below).

“We are wanting to forge really deep partnerships with brands and digital talent, because the relationship they have has to be real. This year we’re hoping to do fewer brand deals than we did last year, simply because they are creative people. They are not poster people for brands, it’s got to be really credible,” he says.

“The best brand deals are when the brand relinquishes as much creative control as possible. We counsel brands by saying, if you want to have scripts and to put control over the content, then use pre-roll in YouTube rather than talent.

“These aren’t TV spots – you have to trust the talent to represent your brand.”

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