Who needs the Kardashians — Meet the new breed of influencers tapping social media’s ‘gold rush’

Who needs the Kardashians — Meet the new breed of influencers tapping social media’s ‘gold rush’

Victoria Hui is part of a new class of online influencers who are doing an end run around traditional advertising channels and turning social media into a lucrative platform for selling brands.

Peter J. Thompson/National Post

To scroll through her Instagram, Victoria Hui, a.k.a. @thelustlistt, is living an impossibly glamorous life.

She’s on vacation every single day, posting meticulously beautiful photos with an ever-so-slight pinkish hue that give each image a dreamlike quality, like a perfect memory. There she is laughing on the streets of Paris; strolling across the Brooklyn Bridge, holding a bouquet of flowers; or relaxing on a resort beach in Mexico.

In the captions, Hui tends to include information about what swimsuit she’s wearing, who made her purse, or where she’s visiting, along with a jumble of hashtags.

And then, nearly indistinguishable from all her other photos, there is one of Hui posing in front of the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto, with a corny joke in the caption, a few emojis and, right at the end of the caption, a hashtag: #ad.

That little hashtag is the only hint that this photo might be different. This is the one that pays the bills.

Turns out, Hui’s life isn’t a constant vacation. Instead, posting on Instagram is her full-time job as an all-in-one marketing professional, and she’s part of a new class of online influencers who are doing an end run around traditional advertising channels and turning social media into a lucrative platform for selling brands.

It’s a market the some sources have pegged as being worth more than $1 billion in Canada, but only a few influencers make more than $100,000. This is the gig economy, but for advertising, and navigating it can be tricky for both influencers and the brands that are tapping them.

“It’s still the Wild West. It’s still very new,” said Richard Wong, co-chair of the Advertising Standards Canada’s Influencer Marketing Steering Committee and vice-president of marketing and creative relations at #Paid, a Toronto-based advertising agency that specifically focuses on influencer marketing.

#Paid said it has a roster of more than 20,000 influencers, and about 31 per cent call Canada home. According to the company, just over half of those influencers describe themselves as “full-time creators,” but a defining feature of this kind of work is that most influencers pull together freelance income from several different sources, not just paid brand promotional work.

Hui used to work at #Paid, but Lust Listt actually started out as a grade 9 school project to build a website. From there it turned into a blog, then eventually an Instagram account with more than 88,000 followers.

The Lust Listt was initially a hobby, allowing Hui to post about fashion and beauty products, and it remained one through high school and a university degree in molecular and cellular biology, before she decided that science wasn’t her calling.

Instead, she moved to Toronto and started working at a marketing company as a copywriter. Before too long, Hui moved on to a public relations company and then to #Paid, which she left in January so that she could focus on Instagram and her blog full time.

It wasn’t an easy choice, but she said she was making more money from her Instagram account and blog than her salary, and she felt bad about taking so much time off from #Paid for various marketing trips to exotic locations.


A post from Victoria Hui’s Instagram account promoting Crest White Strips. The post is marked with #ad to let followers now it is promotional.

“When I left there, I was already annually making six figures,” she said. “Like, just starting to hit the six-figure mark.”

#Paid is one of the companies that have sprung up in recent years to connect brands with Insta-famous creators such as Hui, who are ready and willing to monetize their social media following.

Here’s how the influencer marketing game works: Brands approach #Paid or one of its ilk with the basics for an advertising campaign — say, a new product, a few defining features, and a target demographics.

From there, #Paid comes up with more detailed guidelines and draws from its roster of 20,000 influencers to find a few who are a good fit for the campaign.

Figuring out payment is a bit more complicated. There’s a slider tool on #Paid’s website that gives a general idea, based on how many comments and likes an influencer typically gets on an average post, but that public-facing tool is just a coarse generalization.

There are different rates based on an influencer’s following and number of interactions, as well as whether the post is a photo or a video, or an ephemeral Instagram “story” post, whether there are other products in the photo, or just the one thing a company wants to promote, whether the influencer is interacting with the product, and so on.

Brands can also negotiate for publishing rights, so they can use influencer images and videos in subsequent ad campaigns.

As a baseline, Hui said she starts at $1,000 per post, with room to negotiate down if necessary, or up if the company wants to buy more of her services.

Once a price is set and a contract is signed, the influencer makes the ads and submits them through #Paid for approval. After the customer signs off, the photo goes public on Instagram.

This process happens a little bit on other social media networks too, but Instagram is by far the hottest game in town right now, according to #Paid.

Companies want the influencers to create the ads in their own distinctive style, so it doesn’t feel like an ad.


Steve “Dangle” Glynn has become an influencer through his Toronto Maple Leafs channel on YouTube. Glynn says influencers need to be careful what, if any, commercial campaigns they sign up for as they could be a bad fit with they followers who made the influencers.

Screen grab/YouTube

Influencers say they regularly turn down campaigns because they’re not a good fit for their audience. This need to strike a careful balance is something Steve “Dangle” Glynn is acutely aware of as a popular hockey personality with about 88,000 YouTube subscribers and 24,000 Instagram followers.

Glynn slowly built his audience over time as a YouTuber, one who has recorded a “Leaf Fan Reaction” video after every Toronto Maple Leafs game since 2007. These days, he writes articles and makes videos for Sportsnet, including some that get aired on television before hockey games.

But he also knows the audience he built up on YouTube is what opened up all sorts of other opportunities.

“I don’t want to be part of a campaign that’s going to flop, and I don’t want to hawk something that I know my followers don’t want,” Glynn said. “It’s great to make money and all, but you can’t take advantage of your fans.”

In one sense, the idea of an influencer is nothing new in advertising. Celebrities have been endorsing products for decades, even centuries. In more recent times, think Michael Jordan’s efforts in endorsing Nike shoes since the 1980s, or Hollywood studios negotiating onscreen product placement deals.

What’s new is the ability for regular people to be influencers by amassing a significant following through social media, and then using those digital services’ tools to quantify that following.

#Paid started in the summer of 2013 when co-founders Adam Rivietz and Bryan Gold watched their friend, Ronnie Friedman, amass a huge following on Instagram by posting fitness inspiration — “fitspo” — pictures.

“Back then, there were maybe five companies globally focused on monetizing Instagram. Now it’s probably 500 globally, so it’s gotten a lot more competitive. It’s basically like the gold rush in advertising,” Rivietz said.

“But similar to the gold rush, a lot of people rushed and didn’t find anything. You actually have to know what you’re doing.”

In June, #Paid secured US$9 million in Series A venture-capital funding, and this fall it’s launching a significant expansion, opening up its proprietary influencer matching system as a platform — an open marketplace to allow companies to build campaigns through an automated interface instead of using a #Paid account manager, which the company hopes will allow it to scale up in a big way.

This platform model is how #Paid operated when the company first launched, but its first really big client taught the fledgling company that advertisers simply weren’t ready to dive headlong into influencer marketing without some hand-holding.

“While we started out building this open marketplace, Pepsi asked us to just do it for them, and were willing to pay more for it,” Gold said. “Because the industry was so new at the time, the industry was so new, we had to kind of become the experts and do it on their behalf.”


#Paid started in the summer of 2013 when co-founders Adam Rivietz and Bryan Gold watched their friend, Ronnie Friedman, amass a huge following on Instagram by posting fitness inspiration â “fitspo” â pictures. In June, #Paid secured US$9 million in Series A venture-capital funding, and this fall it’s launching a significant expansion, opening up its proprietary influencer matching system as a platform

Peter J. Thompson/National Post

Both co-founders talk like they’re on a mission to evangelize influencer marketing and bring it into the mainstream. Making sure that creators get fairly paid in brand partnerships is core to that vision — the company is, after all, called #Paid.

“Influencers don’t know how to price themselves, and brands don’t know how to price influencers,” Rivietz said. “Professionals don’t work for free, and influencers are professional content creators who’ve been validated by all these followers.”

In addition to educating potential clients and advocating for fair pay, #Paid is also working with Advertising Standards Canada, the industry’s non-profit self-regulating body whose Influencer Marketing Steering Committee in June released a set of guidelines for best practices.

Chief among those guidelines was an emphasis on clear labelling so that consumers can distinguish paid endorsements from organic social media content — thus, Hui’s little #ad hashtag.

Under the Competition Act, influencer marketing counts as advertising, although the Competition Bureau has never brought a public enforcement action against deceptive advertising by an influencer.

“The brands themselves don’t know how to operate in the best way possible, in terms of following the rules,” said Wong at #Paid. “Purely speculating, I’d estimate that probably about 60 per cent are operating above board,” he said.

Influencers tend to be young, and a common refrain among them is that they’re really just muddling along, trying to pull together enough freelance work from different sources to make a comfortable living.

Hui focuses mostly on Instagram, but in addition to the #ad promotions for brands such as Dynamite Clothing, Yellowtail wines and Pandora jewelry, she accepts free trips from tourism promotional agencies to exotic locations. Those don’t pay, because her online following is not big enough yet, but they offer her lots of interesting backdrops for the photos that she posts daily. She also intermittently still writes for her blog, including some paid product reviews.

Glynn, meanwhile, juggles some paid endorsement work alongside regular content production for Sportsnet, a podcast and advertising money from his YouTube channel. On top of all that, he’s written a book that’s being published in March 2019.

Both Glynn and Hui emphasize that influencing is serious work and the job can be a grind. Hui may go to Paris for a few days, but she goes with a shot list and zips from one location to the next, stockpiling photos that she can steadily post later.


Another Instagram post by Victoria Hui, an ad promoting a brand of purse. This post is also marked with #ad.

The precariousness of the gig economy can also make monetizing an influencer’s role a tough proposition for some people, even if they have the social media following to make it happen.

Take Ronnie Friedman, who was the inspiration for #Paid when she started an Instagram account — Inspiredtobefit — as a way to post workout progress pictures and keep herself accountable as she tried to lose weight.

Friedman was surprised when her account blew up to 30,000 from 300 followers in just a few months. Rivietz and Gold offered to be her talent agent and help monetize her Instagram fame.

She did some paid posts, but she found her followers back in 2013 and 2014 were a lot more hostile to the idea of brand partnerships, and there was no road map for making a go of this.

Ultimately, Friedman didn’t dive into the influencer world, and now she has a corporate job in Ottawa.

“I did think about it a lot, to just go full time. I just didn’t think it was going to be enough money to sustain myself,” she said.

“It took a long time for brands to realize that they don’t need to go to the Kardashians or Jennifer Lopez or Jennifer Aniston to get deals. They can actually go to people with 5,000, 10,000, 100,000 followers, and get results.”

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