Hannah Forbes started her marketing career at the sports marketing agency Leverage Agency, transitioned to one of the first influencer marketing agencies Xomad before becoming director of business growth at creative advertising agency Omelet. It was from Omelet that she moved to her current employer R/GA in July 2016. Her first real experience with influencer marketing was while working at Xomad. It followed a chance meeting with the Blackberry CMO. She helped launch BBM by tapping into the trend-setting power of club owners, promoters and key personalities in the party scene.
“We created this circle where everything shared online was through BBM. It was friend-to-friend endorsements online that you could scale. What got me really excited about that was the very natural human thing to recommend something you like. And also to want to have exclusive access. And to form that human connection with somebody outside of your circle. While influencer marketing was not an understood concept, but the premise of it, connecting with other humans, and the ability to scale those connections online through the Internet, is a simple concept that I understood very quickly.”
Working at R/GA: Designing for a More Human Future
Hannah was hired to start R/GA’s influencer studio.
“My team consists of people from different backgrounds in different markets. And I think that’s really important when you work on social to have those diverse perspectives, and be able to tap into different codes of cultures throughout the world. I always have to remind people that it’s the worldwide web, a global phenomenon. My team is a group of strategists; influencer, Internet culture and social hybrids. All they are thinking about are the people, trends, conversations, behaviors we can work with, capitalize, disrupt and hack.”
R/GA’s vision is to design brands and businesses for ‘a more human future’.
“You will see that in a lot of the work that we do. From inclusion, internal standards that we’ve held ourselves to, the way we rate our creative work. Every day we show up and drive relevance, shape culture, work to create that more human future through the people that we work with, making sure it is incredibly diverse and inclusive and from different perspectives. And not only in terms of the people we’re showcasing but the type of creative and storyline we’re sharing.”
Hannah observes that a lot of the marketplaces and agencies within the influencer space are over-automating creativity.
“These programmatic marketplaces and smaller agencies have doubled down on technology to automate creativity but are providing no strategic and creative benefit. They are just another middleman in addition to the agencies and managers, shuffling things along. It results in jarringly horrific creative ads. You are like ‘This is not work. This is an ad. It’s a product placement’. Because when you add in all those middlemen and try to do media buys at scale, where does creativity go?”
She adopts a different approach that’s centered on connecting with people, driving advocacy, strengthening loyalty and emphasizing more meaningful metrics.
“Our philosophy is to empower creators to work with us and not for us. It Is about collaboration, giving them a seat at the table. It’s not about ‘Here is some brief. Can you execute it?’ but rather ‘Here is the problem we’re trying to solve. How would you solve for it? Would your audience be receptive to these types of messages?’. When we treat our creators as creative directors and give them a seat at the table and utilize them for their creativity, audience insights and unparalleled cultural knowledge, that is when we collaborate, form strong partnerships and create work that moves the important metrics forward.”
Getting Brands on Board a More Human Future
She acknowledges that there are times she’ll get briefs from brands that make it difficult for R/GA to realize that more human future.
“Maybe they are asking to promote an unrealistic reflection of life or are focused on a narrow view of a market segment or demographic, but without thinking about all the other perspectives and how it might be perceived.”
Her team has however learned to point out when briefs veer from that more human vision.
“They are completely empowered and confident to say, ‘Yes, our clients gave us this but it doesn’t feel right. How can we quickly form a recommendation on this problem and rewrite the brief?’ We do that over and over again. Our clients and teams are receptive to it. It’s taking that moment to reflect and think ‘I’m a human. I’m a consumer’. Human first creativity. That’s what I’m really interested in.”
Where need be, Hannah passes up the business by recommending that the brand work with another agency. At other times, her team looks at the overall context and reworks the campaign.
“One of the amazing things about working at R/GA is you work on such large scale marketing initiatives that you do have flexibility to reorient some of this work across the work streams. A lot of the work we do in social and with influencers is a component and not the whole story. So in those instances, we look at the overarching work. We might look at the entire 360 campaign and think, ‘What can we reorient here and redirect the priorities and the emphasis you are putting on this part of the business elsewhere so we can redo it?’.”
Advice for Brands
Hannah notes that some brands, agencies and production companies make the mistake of approaching creators as production partners and not as creative people.
“They think like ‘We’re paying you so I need this asset due by next Friday’ without realizing that these are creative humans who built a loyal audience based on their creativity. They are essentially a media channel, have a loyal audience, are entrepreneurs and insanely savvy. There is this disconnect and lack of education and awareness around the value that creators can bring and how busy they are and that brands are not their only revenue stream.”
She urges brands to tap into the creativity, audience insights and strategic intelligence that creators bring to the table.
“If you want to buy media impressions, that is easy to do. You don’t need to work with these people. But I think if brands are working directly with creators on long-term strategies, they shouldn’t just think of them as a content production tool.”
For brands that want to make influencer marketing a core part of their marketing strategy, Hannah advises that they test and learn as much as they can.
“Dabble in different areas, different demographics and different channels. Dabble in different types of creative, maybe some videos, some visual assets like memes or stickers. Those are creative assets. They are the visual currency of online communication.”
Hannah advises that brands can no longer have a social strategy without an influencer strategy. A unified strategy is vital.
“Instead of thinking here’s our brand creative and social strategy, and then the influencers will execute it, it’s really thinking of it holistically. How are we showing up online, with what people, on what channels? Influencers can react and create content a lot quicker than brands can for a lot less money. So if we want to be reacting on Twitter quickly, create memes and reels that participate in social culture, having a unified strategy is imperative. I’m really excited to see this as trend in 2022 hoping that gives creators a lot more ability to be creative and less executional.”
Making the Case for Long Term Partnerships
She advocates long term partnerships.
“Work with fewer people long-term. You will learn a lot more from them and get a lot more out of it. And it is much more time intensive to manage those relationships. But If done properly, you’ll reap the dividends and the results will pay off throughout the entire business, not just within the walls of the marketing department.”
Hannah does acknowledge that you cannot know who to go long-term with from the get-go. Hence, a trial period may be necessary.
“When anybody starts a job, you don’t immediately understand all of it. I do try to structure the deals we execute by having a trial period for a couple months or weeks just to make sure that both parties are interested in moving forward. That’s a great time to test and learn and not just see how the content is performing. How are they as a collaborator? Are they showing up on time to your calls, with enthusiasm and passion to solve your problem? Are they bringing new ideas to the table? Or are they treating this like ‘My manager signed me up for this and I don’t want to be anywhere near any of you’. In which case, let’s make pace and find somebody who wants to show up and bring their whole selves.”
Hannah is always open to working with creators she’s contracted in the past if they demonstrate stellar performance, creativity, strategy and enthusiasm.
“I have become really good friends with Brian and Scott Nicholson, and Alfredo Flores. I’ve worked with them on countless projects. I’ve hired them as consultants when we’re pitching and coming up with work, when we need creatives who know this space. A lot of these people are insanely brilliant and can do a lot more than shoot world class creative.”
She does see a major gap in the resources and tools that would help creators scale their businesses. Hannah considers this a major reason why the influencer industry has been slow to mature. She does acknowledge however that a growing number of companies have emerged in recent years to support the creator economy.
Hannah plans to focus on demystifying the word ‘influencer’ in 2022.
“Right now, it is a very loaded term. What is a creator? What is a blogger? What is a Tiktoker? What are our impressions and engagements? I want to break down various definitions with my ultimate goal being proving what genuine influence is. I think that the industry needs a definition and standardization of the market, specifically definition around influence.”
Hannah Forbes is Group Strategy Director, Social & Influence at R/GA, a digital agency and innovation consultancy, and a subsidiary of the ‘Big Four’ advertising agency, IPG. She leads a team who generate disruptive social, influencer and content strategies for brands to garner active participation, shift brand perception and drive brand loyalty. She previously worked at Leverage Agency, Xomad and Omelet. Hannah has a bachelor of arts degree in English language and literature from Acadia University. She lives in New York, NY.