‘It’s genuine, you know?’: why the online influencer industry is going ‘authentic’



Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “‘It’s genuine, you know?’: why the online influencer industry is going ‘authentic’” was written by Sophie Elmhirst, for The Guardian on Friday 5th April 2019 05.00 UTC

In a central London hair salon last December, the fashion influencer Victoria Magrath (@inthefrow) mingled among a few of her 849,000 Instagram followers. Magrath – tall, with signature silver hair – was celebrating the launch of her book, The New Fashion Rules, at an event organised by her talent agency, Gleam Futures. She chatted easily, her high, delighted voice ringing out over the roar of the hairdryers and her manner so convincingly intimate that it was possible to think she knew her followers as well as they knew her. In a group discussion, a fan asked how her wedding plans were going, another if it was too late to start being a blogger. Magrath was encouraging: “Anyone can do it if they’ve got the right formula.”

After nearly seven years in the game, Magrath is now part of the digital establishment – the Waitrose of influencers, high-end and dependable. Her content, spread across Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and her blog, is an old-school, manicured mix of fashion hauls, luxurious travel and commercial partnerships with brands from Armani to Reiss. Last year, she went on 36 trips, often gifted by PRs, on which her photographer boyfriend Alex (@harrison) took pictures of her in Venetian gondolas and St Lucian waterfalls. “It’s nice to keep the content flowing, that’s the main reason we do it,” she told her followers in the salon. “I love London, but there’s only so many times I can keep taking pictures in Notting Hill.”

Such is the life of a top-of-the-range influencer in 2019, who has to sustain an insatiable audience and satisfy platforms that reward constant posting. The beasts must be fed. But Magrath senses that change is afoot. The sheer volume of digital content has reached a point where everyone is becoming desensitised. “There’s been a million makeup tutorials and a million fashion hauls,” she told me. “People are a bit done with it.”

Over the last decade, influencer marketing – the business of brands paying social media celebrities to advertise their wares – has become a well-established tactic. Influencers now have their own line on a brand’s marketing-spend spreadsheet alongside TV, radio and so on. But as Magrath suggested, the industry is now entering a new phase. If phase one was hyperactive expansion – bump the follower count, boss the Instagram algorithm, rack up the brand deals – then insiders say that phase two is about authenticity, about “coming back to quality again,” as Dominic Smales, CEO of Magrath’s agency Gleam Futures, told me.

Victoria Magrath, a social media fashion influencer.
Victoria Magrath. Photograph: Gleam Futures

In this new era of authenticity, influencers must display passion, a word that fills the air at Gleam. (It is the kind of office where instead of replying “yes” to a question, everyone says “100%!”) Magrath is like Gleam’s head girl, a role model for others: “Victoria is really passionate about Dior, for example,” said Smales. “She’ll hang out with the people at Dior because she loves that brand, she loves what they do, for no payment or anything like that. Not everything is transactional, it’s genuine, you know?”

Like many in the industry, Gleam have come to dislike the term “influencer”, finding it both misrepresentative and degrading. They describe themselves instead as a “digital-first talent agency”: if their talent have influence, that is simply a blessed byproduct of their creative abilities. Gleam pride themselves on being able to distinguish between the hollow Instagrammers in it for fame and cash, and the genuine talent who have the potential to broaden and prolong their career beyond the transient limits of a social media platform (hence digital-first: their talent might start online, but they could go anywhere, do anything). “We want to represent the absolute crème de la crème,” Lucy Loveridge, Gleam’s head of global talent, told me. “In the UK, there’s a lot of what I would call ‘influencers’. There’s less talent.”

Back at the salon, after hugging the last of her followers goodbye, Magrath sat down to relax. She was still buzzing from the event: “I just feel like I have a massive family, to be honest.” Her usually buoyant tone only slipped once, when talking about her audience’s relentless expectations. Last Christmas, Magrath had decided not to do Vlogmas – a YouTube tradition where vloggers post a video every day in December. Some of her followers expressed their displeasure. “I’m like, ‘Well you got three blogposts, seven images, two videos and a multitude of tweets this week, so what more could I do, you know?’”

At Gleam, they often emphasise how hard their talent works: content-production is a grind, and a talent essentially does six jobs in one – producer, presenter, cameraman, editor, marketeer, PR. It looks easy, influencing – one long holiday with free clothes and a paycheck at the end – but as with many aspects of the industry, the image deceives. This year, said Magrath, was going to be all about stripping back the artifice. Honesty was in. “More honest portrayals of people’s lives,” she explained. “I kind of want to move that way as well.”

* * *

In this strange moment – when the Pope (@pontifex) writes a tweet describing the Virgin Mary as the “first influencer” and Kim Kardashian West is extravagantly paid for promoting an appetite-suppressing lollipop to her then 111 million Instagram followers – the word “influencer” has become a little soiled. There have been noted catastrophes, such as Fyre Festival, when supermodel influencers including Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski advertised an event that spectacularly failed to resemble its publicised image. There have been revelations of corruption – bought followers, undeclared paid-for content, fake likes. And there has been controversy around some of the industry’s stars, such as vegan YouTuber Yovana Mendoza (@rawvana) who was recently caught on camera eating fish, and Logan Paul, who last year posted a video of the dead body of a suicide victim in Japan, prompting YouTube to temporarily suspend advertising on his channels. (Earlier this year, Paul announced on his podcast that he was going to “attempt to go gay” for a month.)

Last year, the cumulative effect of events like these led to a spate of industry-press articles proclaiming the death of influencer marketing. Some insiders felt there was a danger that trust in digital celebrities had been so eroded as to render them worthless. In a speech last summer, Unilever’s chief marketing officer Keith Weed called on the influencer ecosystem to “rebuild trust before it’s gone for ever”. Dutifully, the industry began an ostentatious clean-up operation: platforms deleted fake followers, regulators tightened guidelines around sponsored content, influencers developed a new line in performative transparency – with many posting how-the-sausage-gets-made videos explaining how they earn their money (though rarely saying how much).

“I wouldn’t say it’s all commercial, and I wouldn’t say it’s all sincere,” digital anthropologist Crystal Abidin told me, describing the current trend in which influencers undercut their own projection of Instagram perfection to reveal the value in their flaws. “These days it’s hard to tell which.” Either way, despite last year’s loss of faith, the industry is growing. According to agency Mediakix, influencer market value on Instagram alone is projected to rise from $800m in 2017 to $2.3bn in 2020. (In the same period, the number of sponsored Instagram posts is predicted to more than double, from 2.5m to 6.1m.)

For Gleam’s roster in this new bare-all era, being authentic – or at least appearing so – is vital. The agency’s talent is a who’s who of mainstream influencing, a brand-friendly crowd who play by the rules. They include the industry’s most famous, now heritage-status stars, many of whom have been around for a decade and are probably in the running for a blue plaque: lifestyle vlogger-turned-actor Tanya Burr, make-up artist sisters Sam and Nic Chapman (AKA Pixiwoo) and Zoe Sugg (Zoella), undisputed queen of British YouTubers. Gleam’s stars have no single unifying characteristic, but there are overlaps. Unsurprisingly in an industry that sanctifies the visual and trades on aspiration, no one is unattractive. Self-improving activities dominate – yoga, healthy eating, fitness, makeup, fashion. Many of Gleam’s talent appear to be in the process of either buying or renovating a house.

Sam and Nic Chapman, AKA Pixiwoo.
Sam and Nic Chapman, AKA Pixiwoo. Photograph: James Lincoln

Recently, however, industry buzz has grown around “micro” and “nano” influencers. Mega-influencers with multi-million followers are supposedly going out of style: “They worked with so many brands they couldn’t possibly be authentic,” said Sarah Penny, head of content at marketing agency Influencer Intelligence. But Smales, a man who likes to be ahead of the curve, is fairly dismissive of this new vogue: “I’d be pretty confident in saying that you’d probably get better value from spending lots of money on Zoe than a little money on a micro-influencer,” he said, a little defensively. It’s not in his interest that a marketing budget should be dispersed among a bunch of random Joes with 30,000 followers instead of going in one full thwack to one of his audience-loaded stars. Like any talent agency, Gleam take a cut of their talent’s fee – in line with the wider talent industry, they told me, so somewhere in the region of 10-20%.

Precise figures are elusive in the world of influencer marketing. Kylie Jenner recently became the youngest ever “self-made” billionaire at the age of 21 and apparently receives $1m per Instagram post. Other reported pay packets range from the $250,000 Kendall Jenner was given to promote a fantastical shitshow (Fyre), down to the almost quaint £12,000 that Zoe Sugg is rumoured to receive for each Instagram post. At the bottom of the food chain reside the aspirational high-school influencers, as recently reported in the Atlantic, who advertise brands for free, believing that to look sponsored denotes social status and credibility.

In reality, influencers rarely have a set fee. Chris Davis, the head of brand partnerships at Gleam, told me that a talent’s market rate was usually decreed by whatever the last brand was willing to pay, unless a talent desperately wanted to work with a brand, in which case they’d do it for less. It also depended on demand. If a talent was busy and the brand wanted a partnership to happen on a certain day, they’d have to pay more. “The way I always describe it,” said Davis, “is like an Uber surge price.”

Gleam’s challenge isn’t just to secure deals for their talent, but to prove they’re worth the money. Davis said that for too long the industry had judged success by counting clicks and likes. Audience engagement was all very well, but brands now want proof that a talent can deliver a financial return. While Instagram can tell you how many people click on affiliate links or swipe up on a Instagram Story (the platform’s self-deleting video feature) to get to a brand page, platforms don’t say how many people actually end up buying a product. Brands might share this information with Gleam, but not always. “If you could say to someone that if you spend £1 with this person you will see £5 in return,” said Davis imagining what would surely be the killer blow in his fantasy pitch, “what are you willing to pay for that?”

* * *

The Gleam Futures office is a sleek, open-plan space on the sixth floor of a modern block in Fitzrovia, with views across the rooftops of London. On a recent Thursday morning, staff were busy at their desks, which were as uncluttered as you’d expect in a digital-first talent agency. Scented candles burned, a pop playlist looped, everyone seemed to possess the same giant water flask. Smales – a youthful father of two with a professional casualness about him – has the corner office, a glass box containing an elegant vintage desk lamp and a large ornamental wooden hashtag adorned with light bulbs. On the walls were black-and-white portraits of his talent: Victoria Magrath with a hand on a hip, Lily Pebbles covering her mouth with her hands as though she’d just emitted a tiny burp, the Pixiwoo sisters Sam and Nic Chapman standing back to back.

Sam and Nic were Gleam’s first talent, the reason for the agency’s existence. The pair, makeup artists from Norwich, began filming themselves 12 years ago after a friend asked Sam how to do a smokey eye and she posted the first of countless YouTube tutorials. Smales, at the time working as a social media consultant for brands such as Chanel, spotted the sisters’ videos on YouTube’s homepage in the now-remote era when there were, as he put it, roughly “10 or 20 people doing it” and no one was making any money. He reached out through YouTube’s messaging system, they met up, hit it off, discussed the commercial possibilities. “I won’t profess to have had an epiphany moment where I saw the future of social media,” said Smales modestly, “but I knew this was going to grow.” In 2010, he founded Gleam, one of the first agencies to represent this new breed of talent and an early architect of the influencer industry.

Dominic Smales, CEO of Gleam Futures, an agency for influencers.
Dominic Smales, CEO of Gleam Futures. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Gleam expanded quickly, partly because its first batch of talent were, literally, a family. Sam and Nic introduced Smales to their brother Jim Chapman, who was hating his job in insurance, and his girlfriend, Tanya Burr, who was making YouTube videos while saving up to go travelling. “We all just started talking about the potential,” said Smales. Commercially, the innovation was radical. Viewers, it turned out, trusted recommendations from their friends, or from people who felt like their friends, more than other forms of advertising.

Through Pixiwoo, Smales had an early realisation that came to define how Gleam chose their talent. Sam and Nic were successful not just because they made watchable content, but because he “could take them out of their bedrooms where they were filming their YouTube videos and put them in a room full of Chanel execs and they would be charming and charismatic and the real them”. It was vital to find people who could both be and seem themselves.

A decade on, Gleam staffers now talk about Sam and Nic’s Pixiwoo journey as though it’s a primer to be handed out to newbie influencers who arrive on Instagram and presume they’ll take home a tidy sum for unboxing some eyeshadow. The sisters established their personal brand, grew their audience from a few thousand to 2.1m YouTube subscribers and, in 2011, founded a makeup brush company called Real Techniques. “Now that brand is bigger than Sam and Nic,” said Smales. “It’s the fastest growing makeup brush brand in the US, it’s the No 1 makeup brush brand in the UK.” This was the other lesson Sam and Nic taught Smales: to last, a talent needs to be able to diversify offline. “I would bet my bottom dollar that a large proportion of people who pick up a pack of Real Techniques makeup brushes in Ohio won’t know who those two girls are, and might discover Sam and Nic through Real Techniques.” Smales looked triumphant. “And that’s kind of the dream.”

Recently, the Chapman clan were photographed for the cover of the Times Saturday magazine for a feature about the family’s social media empire. Someone at Gleam had cut out the article and placed each page in a plastic wallet in a black folder which they displayed on a coffee table in the office reception. It was touching, somehow, to see the corporate pride in a newspaper magazine feature, when approximately 1.7 million more people subscribe to Pixiwoo’s YouTube channel than buy the Times.

Initially, Gleam’s roster were all YouTubers like Pixiwoo. But since Instagram developed video features (Stories in 2016 and IGTV last year), hit a billion users and became the dominant platform for influencer advertising spend, Gleam is now as likely to sign talent on the basis of their Instagram alone. Gleam do not like their talent to be dependent on a single platform, however. “Vine disappeared overnight,” warned Lucy Loveridge. Variety is key: television shows, beauty products, books. “Why shouldn’t the pages of a paper book be any more valid than a blog post or a YouTube video?” wondered Smales. So many of their talent want to write books that Gleam recently established a kind of in-house literary agency, Gleam Titles. (A recent publication was Why Social Media Is Ruining Your Life”, which seems a bit rich given that social media is the foundation of Gleam’s business.) Last December, one of Gleam’s new talents, cleaning-obsessive Mrs Hinch, signed a six-figure deal with Penguin in what must surely be one of the fastest journeys from Instagram Stories to an 11-way book auction.

Mrs Hinch looms large at Gleam: the star of the hour. Sophie Hinchliffe – a 29-year-old former hairdresser from Essex – first reached out to the agency early last year when she had around 100,000 Instagram followers. At that point, Loveridge wasn’t sure what they could do for her beyond a few brand partnerships, but then a Gleam manager, Zara Nicholas, noticed her following was rising by thousands every day, reaching a million within six months. (“Now we could do more,” said Loveridge.) By the time Gleam went back to Mrs Hinch in the autumn, she’d already been approached by a host of other management companies. But that’s where Gleam’s status as the UK’s blue-chip talent agency with outposts in LA and Sydney serves them well: they got her.

Sophie Hinchliffe, AKA Mrs Hinch, on ITV’s This Morning.
Sophie Hinchliffe, AKA Mrs Hinch, on ITV’s This Morning. Photograph: Ken McKay/ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Hinchliffe is the model influencer for the current moment. Gleam insist she didn’t even know what an influencer was when she started; she’s that authentic. Her content, now broadcast to her 2.2 million followers, takes the form of an ever-unfurling Instagram Story accompanied by a pop soundtrack and a perky voiceover as she cleans her house: “One thing I haven’t done for a few weeks is my plugholes! … Mrs Hinch, what a mess mate … Living your best life!” Along the way she offers cleaning tips and expresses deep affection for her favourite accessories including Vera the mop, Dave the duster and Stewart the sonic scrubber. (The Minky, Hinch’s preferred brand of cleaning pad, often sells out, such is the demand created among her fans, who she calls her Hinchers.)

Watching Mrs Hinch is like slipping into a pleasant but inescapable dream, both baffling and oddly comforting. It’s not obvious why you want to see someone scrub the bottom of their frying pan while an Usher track plays, but you soon find yourself locked into the rhythm of her endlessly looping day – #spritzo’clock before bed, a wipe-down of her kitchen worktop, a spray of the sofa. In between offering swipe-up deals on mops, Mrs Hinch takes her followers round the Morrisons cleaning aisle, thanks them constantly and always says good night. She’s been credited with helping many of her followers who suffer from anxiety, and you can see why: Hinchliffe offers a reassuring structure to the day, a vision of domestic order.

Commercially Mrs Hinch is a gift, too, opening up a new sector of potential brand partnerships for Gleam to negotiate. Unlike fashion and beauty brands, cleaning products haven’t previously been associated with influencers. In the Gleam office, piles of PR gifts for Mrs Hinch were arrayed on a window-ledge, including a twist mop, 10-litre collapsible bucket and collapsible dish drainer. Luckily, Hinchliffe has understood that staying grounded is not just psychologically advisable but professionally essential – that the person who an audience and a brand buy into must not be too quickly altered by success. “I think it will take a lot to take her away from being who she is,” said Nicholas. “She knows that’s very, very important, because otherwise people won’t be following the same person that they started following.”

* * *

But even Instagrammers change. In this new era, where “realness” is prized, a longtime talent “would be inauthentic to themselves if they didn’t change,” as one Gleam manager put it to me. Ideally, a talent and audience grow together, accompanying each other on a “journey”, though these journeys must look rather different unless the audience has also spent a decade filming and monetising their lives.

Take Anna Saccone, one half of the Saccone-Joly YouTube channel. Saccone and Jonathan Joly started out in 2009 as a young couple living in a flat in Cork, uploading YouTube videos of daft skits and Anna doing her makeup. Over the next 10 years, as the couple married and had children, they morphed into what Gleam call “family talent”, parcelling up their domestic existence into daily 20-minute YouTube videos that eventually attracted 1.9m YouTube subscribers, as well as maintaining individual channels of their own. Their skill is to make you feel almost part of the family, handheld footage taking you into bathrooms and bedrooms, to sit at the kitchen table with their kids. Months of household minutiae are carried by moments of drama – moving house, the births of four children, even a miscarriage. “They vlog their daily lives, basically,” Smales told me. “That’s all it is!” Even he seemed amazed. “It’s like a very long-term real-life soap opera.” But a decade is a long time in soaps, and the set is unrecognisable from its early days. Thanks to partnerships with family-friendly brands such as Pampers and Febreze Fabric Refresher, the Saccone-Jolys now film themselves in a newly renovated Surrey mansion. There are mentions of staff.

The Saccone-Joly family.
The Saccone-Joly family. Photograph: Gleam Futures

Earlier this year, the Saccone-Jolys announced that, given time pressures, they were only going to post videos on the family channel every other day rather than daily. Shortly afterwards, Saccone said that she was going to stop posting to her own YouTube channel altogether. She was overstretched, and wanted more time with her kids. Over email, Saccone said that she didn’t think reducing her output would harm her career. She simply wanted to cut the time she spent editing videos. (A virtue of Instagram Stories is that they require zero production time, unlike a YouTube video, which has to be edited down from a day’s worth of filming.) It was just one of many shifts in her life. “I’m looking forward to closing my chapter of pregnancies,” she wrote. “It’s going to have a big impact on my career. I’m really excited to develop my identity outside of becoming a mum.”

Gleam call this process a “brand transition”. It often happens when influencers become parents because they want to protect their children’s privacy. For Saccone, who as she put it “became a mum online”, the context was different. “Now the kids are getting older, I think we’re starting to show them less and less,” she wrote. “They are becoming more conscious as they grow up. It’s their decision for later in life.” Perhaps, but it would be hard to erase their children’s early lives from their multiple homes on the internet. If the Saccone-Jolys did decide to stop filming their kids, Gleam wouldn’t be concerned. “The whole thing with Anna and Jonathan is that they started off without the kids,” said Loveridge. “So as much as people love seeing them, I don’t worry.”

Perhaps she’s right, but it would be a strange soap that suddenly dropped most of its cast. Their followers adore the children; their comments often sound like they’re raising them, too. In an interview with the Irish Independent, Joly described how fans would sometimes turn up on their doorstep to visit, as if they were their friends: “And it’s like, you can’t, OK?” Of course they can’t, but you can see why people might feel they could. At the Manchester launch of Saccone’s new Benefit-partnered eyebrow makeup kit – “worth £117” but selling for £49.50 – I sat next to Eva, aged 13, who’d been watching the Saccone-Joly family channel every day for four years. “My mum watches it with me,” said Eva. “It’s part of my life.”

* * *

In an industry still thrilled by its own youthful promise, while also having to prove its commercial viability, there is a constant race to find the next big thing, to know before anyone else, for example, that cleaning will be huge. No one plays the game better than the talent themselves, and some, like old-hand YouTubers Caspar Lee and Joe Sugg, are now moving behind the scenes. (Sugg is the younger brother of Zoe Sugg, AKA Zoella; this trade runs in families.) Formerly represented by Gleam, Lee and Sugg left in 2017 to set up their own agency, Margravine Management, backed by talent giant WME. Zoe Sugg’s partner, Alfie Deyes, recently did the same thing, quitting Gleam to form PointlessBlog Ltd.

One recent morning, on their way to do beaver voiceovers for a Nickelodeon movie called Wonder Park, Sugg and Lee ate breakfast in a Soho brasserie. (Crushed avocado on gluten-free toast for Sugg; Marmite crumpets for Lee.) Sugg has hair that looks like a cresting wave arrested in motion, a sweet, small face that bewitches young girls and older women, and a new terrestrial following to add to his digital empire after his near-win on Strictly last year. “Yeah, my demographic’s shifted a little bit,” Sugg told me. “Both ways actually.”

The pair still run their own YouTube channels: after nine years of making content Lee has 7.4m subscribers; after seven, Sugg has 8.1m (as @thatcherjoe, because he used to be a thatcher). They often collaborate on their distinctive brand of banter and daft stunts (“Epic toilet paper prank on roommate” was a recent offering of Lee’s). When they visited the Philippines, which regularly tops lists as the country with the heaviest use of social media in the world, they had to have a police escort from the airport. “That’s when it hits you,” said Sugg. “How borderless it is,” added Lee.

Caspar Lee (left) and Joe Sugg.
Caspar Lee (left) and Joe Sugg. Photograph: Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage

Now, however, they spend half their time managing the careers of the next generation – people like 16-year-old makeup talent GlambyFlo and chirpy lifestyle YouTuber Mark Ferris, who vlogs road-trips and DIY mishaps. Sugg is the creative director, helping talent come up with new ideas. “And you’re more like the strategic director,” he said to Lee. “I am the strategic director,” said Lee.

Both Lee and Sugg want to carry on making content, not just to keep their followers happy, but to stay on the inside of the machine, abreast of the algorithms and endless platform shifts. They possess precious expertise – things like knowing that while a brand might want you to put all its messaging within the first 30 seconds of a video, the key to getting YouTube to serve up your video to the maximum number of viewers was to retain your audience for as long as possible, and the key to retaining an audience was to make your videos the right length (around 13 minutes) and lock them in from the start with an entertaining highlight reel. “You have to do a trailer for a 10-minute video!” said Lee. Kicking off with 30 seconds of solid spon-con was probably the worst thing you could do.

Lee – the tactical brain to Sugg’s maverick – predicted that successful content creators would increasingly have their own production teams, rather than being one-man bands making videos in their bedrooms, as he and Sugg used to. They both backed the micro-influencer trend, even though this seemed to predict their own demise. “If you had 100,000 views on a car video,” said Sugg, “that could be worth more than 1 million views of a video of me and Caspar eating hot peppers.” Content avenues will expand to reflect “everything you see on television”, said Lee. Wildlife will be big. Investigations into conspiracy theories. News.

As they’ve become businessmen, Lee and Sugg’s personal brands have transitioned in tandem. Recently, Lee uploaded a video about his commercial projects. His followers loved it, he said. Many have grown up with him, and now they want to be entrepreneurs, too. “As they get older, it’s good to show them new things,” said Lee, “and not just be the wacky kid I was.” Sugg has a more delicate balance to achieve, now that he’s straddling YouTube legend and Saturday-night telly stardom. “I’ve put my name on the line,” he joked. He meant his real name, as opposed to his online persona. Sugg is alert to the nuances of his brand, as you’d expect him to be. “I kind of say my YouTube personality is ThatcherJoe, that’s my brand, and Joe Sugg is like separate to that,” he told me. “Joe Sugg is just Joe Sugg.”

* * *

A common view among the staff at Gleam Futures (so-called because the company is “all about future-gazing”, said Loveridge) is that the industry moves so fast that it’s like having a new job every six months. Despite having close relationships with platforms, this time last year no one knew IGTV was coming; no one knows what will come next.

Except, perhaps, the people at Instagram. The future according to Instagram is immersion, a total surrender to the platform at the expense of all others. At the first ever British VidCon, a YouTube-sponsored festival of video held at conference centre London ExCeL in February, Instagram product manager Ashley Yuki told a packed audience in a windowless chamber that she wanted the platform’s 1 billion users to engage with Instagram’s features “holistically” to save them from having to hop around other platforms. In other words, she wanted them to abandon Instagram’s rivals such as Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube. (Instagram v YouTube is one of many frontlines in the Facebook-Google war.) Yuki offered a tutorial on how this looked – you trail your next IGTV video in your Stories, use the new feature of a countdown sticker to show your followers exactly how long they have to wait until the video drops, drop the video, then Instagram Live with your followers so they get real-time interaction. (In one of VidCon’s many meta-moments, the guy next to me Instagram-Storied the masterclass on Instagram Stories.)

Afterwards, in a lounge decked out in all the glorious rainbow colours of Instagram, Yuki and I spoke, unfilmed, sitting on a natty green sofa with lights blaring into our faces. “Once you’re here and able to share yourself, your raw self, your best self, and all the different selves,” she told me, “you also see on Instagram that you can go beyond that.”

VidCon’s CEO, a vigorous American called Jim Louderback, told me that the way he saw it, we were finally entering the exciting stage of digital media. The disruption phase was over – digital platforms had redefined print media, music, TV and film. Now we could get on with making the new: virtual reality, augmented reality and all the other as yet unimagined realities. “The people who are going to create those things,” he said, “it’s probably not Caspar [Lee] and Joe [Sugg], because they’re not growing up in that world.” Don’t worry, I wanted to tell him, they’re one step ahead. They’ll be managing those people.

In Louderback’s view, there was no division between traditional and digital media any more: everyone was operating on a continuum – YouTubers were making movies while Will Smith had drawn nearly 5m subscribers to his year-old YouTube channel. The volume and variety of content is now so vast that it’s impossible to keep abreast of it all. Instead we live in a strangely dichotomous world where the presence of James Charles, an American makeup artist and YouTuber with almost 16 million subscribers, attracted so many of his British followers to a Birmingham shopping centre that local traffic gridlocked and people had to desert their cars, while half the country still had no idea who he was.

As for the influencers: “I want to get away from that word,” said Louderback. In the course of our conversation he described them as both “direct-to-consumer brands”, like the mattress company Casper, and as people with “the heart of an artist” – as in, “they owe their ability to make money with the heart of an artist only because of their fans”. I asked him about the latter phrase and he said he’d heard it the other day and loved it. “I’m trying it out on you,” he laughed. “Is it working?!”

No one really knows what the future holds for this new species of talent, because no one’s done the job for long enough. “Zoella’s not going to be pumping out YouTube videos for her entire life,” said Smales. She already has four books, a Zoella Beauty range, her own social media company called A To Z Creatives and a “brunch-inspired” makeup collection with ColourPop cosmetics; who knows what’s next on the mood-board?

For the rest of Gleam’s talent, the year ahead at least holds some certainties. Mrs Hinch will have a baby boy, and her book is out this week. Hinch Yourself Happy: All the Best Cleaning Tips to Shine Your Sink and Soothe Your Soul was a bestseller on Amazon before it was published; at the time of writing, it’s the site’s top-selling book in the UK. Magrath, as she recently announced on Instagram, will get married in a Phillipa Lepley dress. Saccone and Joly will “continue to grow with our platforms and keep it fresh for as long as it’s still fun for us both”.

Sugg and Lee, meanwhile, will steer the next generation to adulation in the Philippines. Finishing his brasserie breakfast, Sugg had a fantasy of the future that involved everyone sitting in rooms with VR headsets on. Lee wasn’t sure: VR headsets made him feel sick. “AI reality shows,” joked Sugg, ever the ideas man. “Put them in a room and they start fighting.” Alongside AI warfare, there’s room in Sugg’s vision for something a little more low-key. One of his favourite YouTube channels is called Man + River, made by a guy who scuba-dives in Arizona rivers and uses a metal detector to find things like mobile phones, which he then reunites with their owners. Vaguely in this vein, Sugg wants a channel which is just a grandfather and his grandson fishing, talking about which baits they’re using. Niche, but he reckons it could be huge. He’s probably right.

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