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How This Former Adman’s Talent Agency Convinces Brands To Let Influencers Take The Lead

Benjamin Leslie went from advertising executive to founder of Connect Management, one of the UK’s fastest-growing influencer talent agencies, in just four years.

Benjamin lost his job in travel advertising during the COVID-19 pandemic. Abruptly unemployed, he monetized a friend’s popular TikTok account, proving the potential for brands to generate revenue by partnering with social media creators. “I saw his statistics. I saw that he had millions of people watching his videos every single month,” he recounts. “And I thought, if I’ve got millions of people that are spending thousands on advertising to travelers, then surely if he’s got an audience that’s there, we should be able to sell some ads.”

Within months, the duo had monetized the TikTok account, proving advertiser demand to reach audiences on social platforms. Benjamin researched traditional talent management firms, aiming to apply that model to influencers. “I wanted to create a talent agency where we treated everybody the way I personally would want to be treated if I were a talent,” he says.

Seeing an opportunity, Benjamin launched Connect Management in 2020 to represent influencers and YouTubers. The firm has skyrocketed since then. Connect has over 160 exclusive creator clients and runs over 1,000 brand marketing campaigns monthly for major advertisers like Audi. The 36-person agency is reinvesting heavily to expand into complementary services like a record label as it pursues ambitious growth plans. “These are 20-year-old kids that before social media were just having fun…that now are earning six figures, sometimes a month,” the founder says. 

Benjamin’s goal is for Connect to become the top destination for UK influencers seeking lucrative brand partnerships and long-term career development. He emphasizes forging authentic, mutually beneficial collaborations between creators and brands over transactional sponsorships.

Overcoming Cash Flow Challenges

“Every business owner obviously goes through their own challenges,” Benjamin says. “I would say the biggest challenge for me as an agency owner is or was cash flow.”

He explains that the influencer marketing industry is known for late brand payments. “We have companies that pay us net 90, net 120, even 30 days, and they end up paying in 65 days. It’s clear and common.”

This created issues early on at Connect Management. “As a startup, you not only have influences from all sides asking, ‘Where’s my money?’ But at the same time, I have staff and office costs and bills to pay that rely on the revenue we’re booking for our talents.”

If client payments didn’t arrive on time, Benjamin says they constantly had to “chase tails” to cover operating costs while keeping creators paid. However, as the business scaled and became more profitable, cash flow became less of a concern.

To further insulate against late payments, Connect has diversified into complementary services like a music label and production company. “If a brand comes to me and says, ‘I’ve got this idea, how do we make it happen?’ I have the production company, the amplification company, the influencer agency, the marketing agency,” Benjamin says, adding that this allows Connect to control more of the process and revenue streams.

The CEO is intent on building Connect into “a 360 media company” and “a big player” able to endure: “We want to be here for a long time.”

Crafting Impactful Brand Partnerships

When it comes to securing brand deals for Connect’s roster of creators, Benjamin emphasizes crafting authentic, mutually beneficial partnerships over simple paid endorsements.

“My salespeople are trained to be targeted assassins, basically, when it comes to working for our clients,” he says. Rather than generic pitches, Connect aims to bring unique, fleshed-out activations to brands.

“If I have a food creator specializing in cakes, I’m not going to that brand and saying, ‘Do you want us to make you a cake?’ I’m going. ‘Hey, we’ve seen it’s your 40th anniversary, and we have this idea…Here’s a storyboard example of how the video would look. Forget about money right now, let’s just hop on a call because I want to make this happen.'”

Benjamin coaches creators to identify brands and activations that feel genuine. The goal is forging long-term, multifaceted collaborations, not one-off paid posts. He cites the collaboration between Connect and Pepsi Max: “Pepsi is paying and funding a lot of stuff [Connect talent Zayn Farooqui, Ethan Aveiro, and Formz] are doing. But they’re also taking them to perform at festivals they’d never get booked for otherwise and funding a music video.”

Benjamin says, “It’s not always about an exchange of money, it’s an exchange of value. We do lots of deals, not just commercial ones, that help grow our talents…We care about growing talent and understand that equals more money for everybody.”

Backed by a keen understanding of what resonates on social media, Connect seeks to lead the ideation, even challenging brands’ initial concepts if needed. As the agency’s chief says, “We are the ones who know and understand whether something is going to do well…Brands are giving us more control now.”

The Rise of YouTube 

Regarding future trends in the creator economy, Benjamin believes YouTube will become increasingly prominent, especially in the realm of short-form video content.

“I work really closely with YouTube. We do a lot of stuff with them, both as an agency and with our talents,” he says. “I’m super impressed and motivated by the work they’re doing in the industry…They are a big reason people consume social media over traditional television.”

While upstart TikTok pioneered short viral videos, Benjamin thinks YouTube’s initiatives like YouTube Shorts will help it make inroads. “All of these different features and things that everybody loves about TikTok, YouTube are going to start to implement.”

He advises creators: “Be aggressive with YouTube, especially with everything going on in the US” regarding TikTok’s ownership situation. Benjamin believes it could ultimately benefit creators if TikTok “becomes a US-owned company” to improve processes and responsiveness.

Goals for Industry Dominance

For the future, Benjamin has lofty ambitions for Connect’s continued rise. “I want to be known as the go-to agency for any talent in the UK,” he states. “If you’re looking to grow your brand, earn money, build a career, I want the first thought to be ‘I need to be with Connect Management.'”

The firm is reinvesting heavily to diversify its business lines and build longevity, including investing in a football club and record label. “We’re ambitious, dropping on multiple offerings…we’re not shy of investing back into ourselves,” Benjamin says. “The future is looking very bright.”

No matter the vertical, he believes the power of social media will be instrumental. “Every business we’re getting involved in will revolve around social media…It’s the nitrous gas to push the businesses forward. Social media is so powerful.”

Benjamin adds: “We’re always hiring and looking for motivated, young, friendly, bubbly go-getters to come build a career for themselves. We don’t care about experience. We just want people with the right energy.”

Cecilia Carloni, Interview Manager at Influence Weekly and writer for NetInfluencer. Coming from beautiful Argentina, Ceci has spent years chatting with big names in the influencer world, making friends and learning insider info along the way. When she’s not deep in interviews or writing, she's enjoying life with her two daughters. Ceci’s stories give a peek behind the curtain of influencer life, sharing the real and interesting tales from her many conversations with movers and shakers in the space.

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