Slide The Age of Influencers How a burgeoning group of enterprising Canadians are pushing the boundaries of the marketing industry By Katherine Singh

On June 7, Katie-Rose Decoeli found herself sitting in a hot car in a Walmart parking lot in excruciating pain. Hours earlier, exactly 27 weeks and 6 days into her pregnancy, she’d been induced at her local Halifax hospital. The nurses advised her to come back by 1 pm the next day or when she went in to labour, whichever came first. Now, it was happening and it was painful. 

Back at the hospital, with her husband Rob at her side, Katie-Rose stood in a shower hoping for relief from contractions – eight in a span of 10 minutes. Finally, her water broke. “That was when they realized something was wrong,” she recalls. “Along with my water breaking, came blood, more blood than usual. Then, shortly after, with each contraction, Baby D’s heart rate would disappear. Something was wrong.” 

As she lay on the hospital bed, surrounded by doctors trying to get a fetal heart rate, all she could see was her husband and mom, looking, as she puts it, “scared to death.” In the 24 hours before she went into labour, her placenta had detached from her uterus. The risk was potentially fatal, and that was just the danger for her. 

Unbeknownst to Katie-Rose and Rob at the time, the umbilical cord was wrapped around their unborn baby’s body and neck. Every blistering contraction was wrapping the cord tighter and tighter, “essentially strangling him,” she details. Though she was only 9 centimetres dilated, she had to push. After what felt like an hour, but was in reality five minutes, Katie-Rose gave birth to their son. She soon held him tightly against her stomach, separated only by her thin hospital nightgown, stained with afterbirth. The room was quiet as everyone waited with bated breath to hear the newborn’s wail.

Suddenly the sound of the baby’s cries filled the air.

“And it was beautiful. The tears began to fall and next thing I know, Rob, baby and I were holding each other crying, waiting for the doctors to tell us what comes next,” recalls Katie-Rose, 32. “It went from the scariest moments of our life, to everyone being so happy and me holding a healthy eight-pound baby boy.”

It was a harrowing experience for the now-mother-of- three and her family. One that she also shared with 34,000 of her closest friends on Instagram. She detailed the birth of Baby D extensively on her feed as well as on her popular blog, The Wild Decoelis. Her birth story was illustrated with photos of the delivery: Katie-Rose posing with her belly, labouring in the hospital shower, a look of pain seared across her face. Had the “shiznet” not hit hit the fan, as she put it, Rob would have even vlogged the delivery.

One day after his entry into the world, Emmitt Anthony Joseph made his Instagram debut on the @TheWildDecoelis, nestled in Katie-Rose’s arms. The mustard-coloured swaddle blanket appropriately tagged with the name of the sponsor: @SollyBaby.  

For this self-described millennial family, sharing the nitty gritty moments of parenting is not only part of their everyday lives, but it has become their livelihood. Everything from the purchase of their 101-year-old home on the beach to the delivery of their baby to making a cup of coffee is sponsored content for their burgeoning business, a multi-platform digital content machine that evokes the sensibilities of HGTV, Today’s Parent and Real Simple. Their life is aspirational but they don’t want it to be unattainable. “We need to tell it how it is. We need to not filter our lives,” says Katie-Rose in a phone interview. “We just need to be 100 per cent honest about our lives because there are people who are going through the exact same thing as us and they feel alone in the situation. And that is what I started this blog [for], so that people didn’t feel alone.”

In our world of ever-present marketing and sponsored content, the Decoelis are definitely not alone. They are part of a growing number of Canadians hustling to join an increasingly lucrative, increasingly mainstream workforce. Not as doctors or lawyers, but as influencers.

The last five years have seen tremendous growth in influencer marketing in the United States, where leading brands have built entire strategies around social media. However, in Canada, the landscape of social media influencers has been referred to as “the Wild West.” A 2017 study conducted by social marketing platform IZEA found that Canada lags three years behind the United States when it comes to the use of influencers and the creative economy. So, we’re poised to finally catch up. Canadians spend up to four hours a day on their digital devices. So much so, the report says that more than 74 per cent of marketers in Canada have allocated specific budgets for influencer and content marketing, with 31 per cent and 22 per cent going towards digital and social respectively. 

There’s no question that the influencer industry is burgeoning in Canada. More mainstream influencers are giving way to people branching out beyond fashion, beauty and lifestyle to touch on issues of race, body positivity, sexual identity and culture. But, with accessibility to the space still a large hurdle for influencers representing more marginalized communities and the over-saturation of the influencer space, is the industry here to stay?

Canada's influence economy

Toronto marketing expert Sara Koonar thinks so. Working as an editor and in branded content for online platforms like 29Secrets, WhoWhatWear and Byrdie from 2012 to 2016, Koonar watched money for print advertising move over to digital year after year. “We were incorporating influencers in the magazine’s advertising content because we knew they were part of the budget,” she says. “And then I realized, one day social media will be the majority of the budget and unfortunately, the other side will have less of it.”   

Koonar saw a gap in the market for influencer agencies that were influencer-first. She didn’t want to just use influencers as a quick way to make money. She wanted to work with them to create their own brands and partner with products that made sense. “So I decided, why wait for someone else to do this? Why can’t I do it myself?” She started Platform Media, a popular Toronto-based firm for content creators, in 2016. The company, which has gone on to represent over 30 Canadian influencers in the realms of beauty, lifestyle and family, including Rob and Katie-Rose Decoeli, takes a 20 per cent commission from every campaign netted for their roster. 

Over the last three years, Koonar has seen firsthand the growth and legitimization of the industry. It’s reflected in Platform’s own expansion, from purely a management company to now being in the business of creating influencers, with the launch of their annual Platforum conference for aspiring influencers. Even the language has shifted. “When social media started, there were these people who had a lot of followers and they needed a word that basically was the equivalent of celebrity,” she says. “Influencer spans a lot of different categories, [but] it’s just people who have a lot of followers on social media.” 

“I think that people we’re working with are ‘content creators,” Koonar says. “You really pay attention to the content, you really take time to create  content; It’s not just [people] who have so many followers because they make silly videos. They’re taking the time and really thinking about [what they’re putting out].”

Subodha Kumar thinks that this reframing of the role of the influencer is an inevitable next step. Kumar, a marketing professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, has studied the effects of social media marketing over the last five years. During this time, he says, influencer marketing has experienced a resurgence in the public conscience, linked to the rise of social media apps like Twitter and Instagram that boasts more targeted and intimate interactions among users. “It’s a combination of [these apps] and how people interact with each other… [which is that] more and more people are using social media channels,” Subodha says of the rise of influencers and rise in engagement from followers.

The 2017 IZEA study polling influencers in the U.S. and Canada found that, in Canada, content and influencer marketing are more effective than traditional advertising. According to stats from social marketing platform StarNGage, as of 2017, mobile social media ad revenue was estimated to grow from $282 million (USD) in 2015 to $508 million (USD) by 2021. And now, the people drawing in these dollars are less likely to be Hollywood celebrities like Priyanka Chopra or Blake Lively. They’re more likely to be people like Sharan Guruparan (@sharanguru), a Tamil Canadian social work student who focuses on body positivity or Alexandra Nikolajev (@lexniko), who is building her profile as a reality show recapper while still keeping her day job, and all-in influencers like the Decoelis (@thewilddecoelis), who have given up their careers to create family-friendly content full time. These everyday influencers offer more attainable #lifegoals and thus are often seen as more valuable to advertisers and sponsors.

Building with brands

“A lot of brands want to get their message out in front of the audience,” Adrian Capobianco, the president of Vizeum Marketing says. “Influencers don’t have a larger reach than other media channels, but they have engagement. So you may get smaller reach, but hopefully get greater engagement than just a paid advertising.” That engagement can come in the form of direct messages (DMs), comments and shares to the follower’s own social media accounts, and engagement between creators and their audiences.  

It’s this engagement that influencers and the corporate brands that sponsor them closely measure and bank on. In September 2018, Italian social media star Chiara Ferragni (@chiaraferragni) got married, broadcasting her two sponsored couture Dior dresses under the hashtag #SuppliedByDior to her 14.9 million Instagram followers. Her nuptials reportedly brought the design house a media-impact value of $5.2 million, earning the brand more media attention than another VIP 2018 bridal client: Duchess Meghan Markle.

Within the past year there’s been a really strong interest in influencers [from brands],” says Amanpreet Dhami, a digital strategist at Devon Consulting & Public Relations. The Toronto-based firm is a middleman between brands and influencers and has led campaigns with companies including Burt’s Bees, Glossier and Prada. 

Of the over 30 brands currently working with the firm, “I would say a quarter of [our brands] do paid influencer marketing,” Dhami says. It might seem against the grain for haute couture companies like Dior to turn to influencer marketing alongside more drugstore brands like Burt’s Bees. But with 72 per cent of 2,000 millennial-aged Instagram users reporting that they’d made beauty or style-related purchases after seeing photos on their feed, “brands know that, with social media being that much more relevant with the millennial population and Gen Z, it has more influence over people’s purchasing decisions,” Dhami says. 

And with the intimacy fostered by the idea that your feed is curated and targeted just to you, Capobianco says, “there is more of an expectation that the content a consumer is getting is more relevant, more tailored and more specific for them. Influencer content helps do that do that.”  

Canadian brands, in recognition of this influence, have now allocated a higher percentage of their budget towards influencer marketing, with 77 per cent of brand’s budgets going to the strategy, compared to 69 per cent in the United States, per the 2017 Izea State of the Creator Economy Study. While Dhami says budgets are brand, campaign and influencer specific, typically, “Budgets range anywhere from $10,000 for a micro-influencer campaign to up to $100,000 if it’s a larger campaign,” she says. “There are also larger players in the industry such as the L’Oréals and the P&Gs (Proctor and Gamble) of the world who work with [even] larger budgets than this.” 

Major brands may be spending more money on influencers, but they’re actually spending less on producing ads. “In the beginning, they couldn’t wrap their heads around paying influencers,” says Koonar, “[but] now that they see they’re replacing the typical amount they’d spend shooting an editorial: photographer, models, hair and makeup people, stylists, location. They see that it is actually quite affordable, especially when the audiences’ on social media are much more engaged than any other medium for advertising.”

These newly increased brand budgets, along with a greater knowledge of how to price your work, has allowed content creators like the Decoelis, and fellow Platform Media influencer Matt Benfield (@mr.benfield) to live off their content. Benfield is a member of the LGBTQ community and his lifestyle posts, often featuring his partner and fellow influencer Omar Ahmad, celebrate his sexuality and focus on positivity. When he launched his social media feeds in Berlin before moving to Toronto in 2018, he was coming into the field with a very limited knowledge of the financial side.  “I didn’t really know how to price myself. [So] it was like a hundred euros here and a hundred euros there [for my content], but there wasn’t really anything sustainable.” Since joining Platform, Benfield says he’s seen his rates increase tenfold. In 2019, he’ll take home $80,000 to $100,000 after taxes. “It’s actually livable,” he says. “It’s more money than I’ve ever had and that I know what to do with. I’m really blessed to be able to have that financial stability.”

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Let’s talk body image for a hot sec (loaded topic, I know ?). Not once in my life thus far have I been comfortable with how I look body-wise. Literally not once. I’ve always looked into the mirror and negative thoughts would start rolling in (as they always do). As a good ‘ole southern boy, my diet for most of my life was deffo not the most nutritious ? Let’s just say, my parents made Happy Meals a staple of my diet growing up ??‍♂️ I was actually pretty pudgy until I leaned down a bit once I started uni in 2012. But, until around 3 months ago, I never really put in the time & effort necessary to actually actively work on my fitness and diet. The past couple of months, with the help of my fav fitness partners like @barryscanada, @soulcycle, and most recently, @athleteskitchen, I’ve been able to really burn off the extra fat I’m carrying around and build up lean muscle. This is the first pic of me shirtless where I’m actually crazy proud of how I look ?? I’m 100% not close to where I want my body to be, but as they say, it’s all about the journey. Every single day, I’m learning to love & accept the body I see in the mirror, while taking active steps to improve my health & fitness. For me, that’s what body positivity is all about ? What have y'all done today to show your body some love? ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀ #torontoblog #torontoblogger #torontobloggers #yyzblogger #igerstoronto #canadablogger #torontostyle #lgbt #lgbtpride #queer #lgbtq #pridemonth #pride #torontofashionblogger #fitnessbloggers #fitgram #fitnessprogress #fitspire

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“[My most popular posts] are either personal posts or when I put a ‘thirsty’ photo up. If I do some kind of shirtless photo or something where I’m showing off my body, it’s because I’m proud of the progress that I’ve made and I want to share that with people. [Like Antoni Porowski from Queer Eye]; I love him to death, he’s one of my favourites—but he’s a thirst trap Queen. I like thirst with a purpose. If everyone’s coming to your post because you’re shirtless and that’s what’s going to push the post further, then I’d rather there be a message in the caption that someone’s going to read and have a little moment…Thirst with a purpose—I need to copyright that.”

But there is a limit. While Koonar says Canada has less influencers and thus less competition, it comes with a downside: “We always have much smaller budgets.” So while brands may pay more for micro- to mid-range followers (10-100K), like Benfield, “macro influencers in the US definitely get paid more (and) most Canadian brands can’t afford them,” she says. “We don’t tend to work with influencers over 300K followers as we find it hard to secure budgets in that price range.”

A profession under pressure

A new study from researchers at Federation University in Australia found that more than any other social media platform, Instagram skews our perception of reality and social comparisons, not only for followers but also for influencers. 

“There are a range of possible health effects to people who become influencers,” says psychology professor Danielle Wagstaff, whose findings were recently published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Wagstaff has spent the last three years studying the effects of social media, and how it can be used as a tool for women to compete. 

“People can become obsessed with their social media lives and neglect to nurture their substantial, ‘real’ relationships, the ones that provide the bread and butter of feeling loved and socially connected,” she says. Along with cyber-bullying, and trolling, which can lead to emotional and mental breakdowns, it can become tiring to continuously feel the need to “curate” your life.  “The pressure to live up to the expectations of thousands of people watching your every move can be enormous.”

“I really didn’t like the look when I put it up so it’s crazy that it’s arguably my most engaged with post. I still look at it and I like parts of it, but man, that lip is rough. I hate looking at it so much. And I feel like it took me three tries to get even that. Even the outfit I tried to put together, I look like a schoolboy somehow, and it’s not what I really wanted for it. When I looked at the photo afterwards, I was like ‘something’s missing.’ I felt like I needed to add something to it, but felt like if I added anything it was going to ruin it.”

It’s especially tenuous when it is a couple or family that are sharing their life in real time for the world. Katie-Rose Decoeli says, so far, blogging as a family hasn’t been difficult. She’s never had any hesitation when thinking about featuring her three kids on social media.  “To me, I enjoy following other moms who are real and talk about everything and share everything,” she says. She hasn’t thought about when or if to draw a line, but maybe she should. 

“The question of how much of your child’s life to share on social media strikes a note for a range of ethical and moral reasons,” says Wagstaff. While there’s little research on the topic, she believes many problems can arise when private family time becomes public. “There’s a pressure there to interact in a particular way, a fear that potentially your candid, intimate moments with your family are going to be shared with the world, potentially without your informed consent. Especially with little kids, how much informed consent are they really giving to have their images all over social media when they potentially don’t understand what’s happening?”

The Decoelis have been sharing photos of their kids from birth, literally. ““Our kids have been in front of the camera their entire lives. So they have never said no, really,” Katie-Rose says. If they ever were to realize they’re “all over the Internet” at a later age, and dislike it, she adds, the family would find a new angle.  But, that doesn’t really account for the content being posted now, in their infancy and as toddlers. “How do kids decide the terms on which they participate in being a social media star? How do we know children really understand the implications of what’s happening, and therefore can consent to this?” Wagstaff asks about this scenario. “How much right does a parent have to share what are sometimes the intimate details of their child’s life?”

But despite the mental toll, the draw to sharing content, and the adrenaline boost, like the one Guruparan says she gets from the likes on her body-positive bikini photos and her traditionally Tamil wedding looks, is natural. “It’s one thing to appear appealing to your friends and family, but being noticed by a stranger can certainly induce an adrenaline rush,” Wagstaff agrees. “I think any positive feedback we receive from others taps into our self-esteem. We feel that we must be doing something right if other people are noticing and liking what we are doing. The desire to be well-regarded by others is wide-spread, some people just crave it from a wider social circle.”

Of course, it’s not without its benefits. For people like Guruparan and Benfield, for example, who are looking for representation, social media opens up a whole other world. “You really, can find support and love from like-minded people online,” Wagstaff says. “The feeling of being part of a community taps some of our most primitive desires to feel accepted and be held in positive regard.”

The future of influencing

“Audiences aren’t stupid,” says Platform Media’s Koonar. She points to Proactiv’s recent campaign with supermodel Kendall Jenner as a failure of authenticity, because people could see right through it. “I think a lot of people were like, ‘You’re one of the most beautiful people on the planet, you have doctors who can pump you with whatever you want,” she says. “These macro influencers like Kylie Jenner, Kendall Jenner. We know how much money they make. We know that they have access to everything, [and] so when they’re talking about a drugstore product everyone sort of questions that. Everyone’s sick of the macro influencers that will talk about anything.”

“Authenticity is becoming like a buzzword,” Koonar says,  but I do think people are craving [it].” Outside of even branded content, people are looking for content that makes them feel like the world is a good place. “I think getting people to be a little more truthful and a little more believable, it is great because social media is a scary place where everything can be really fake; you only show your highlight reel, you’re not showing the behind the scenes of the 40 images it took to get that one image,” she says. “So I think the more authentic and unfiltered people are, people are really attracted to that. People on social media are craving those types of interactions, because the more we get into social media, the less authentic reactions we have in real life.” 

The Decoelis, for their part, have turned down opportunities and have ended contracts early. For example, the one they had with a fast food company, whose food ended up going entirely against the diet prescribed to their eldest son for his behavioural issues. “People don’t talk about real life enough,” Rob says. “People put on a show of what real life is, and we show things up, too. You know, we put a spin on things sometimes for the Internet, but we also try to keep it very real with our messaging. We’re going through trials and errors. We’re just trying to raise our kids the best way possible.”

As with anything that becomes popular, everyone looking to jump on the bandwagon can lead to one thing: over-saturation. In a January 2019 article for Media in Canada, Vizeum’s Capobianco predicted that by the end of 2019, we’ll see an “influencer overload” in the country. Not only does this affect the creators themselves, but as Capobianco tells me, too much influencer marketing can create a fatigue in audiences, the ones they’re hoping to speak to, either for a social media like or a product purchase. 

“I think there’s a fine line on [influencer marketing],” Capobianco says. “If you feel like an influencer is just randomly selling or promoting any new product, any given week, it falls flat. If people feel good about a product, genuinely support a product and provide a genuine point of view on it, that works better,” he continues. “[If] one week [an influencer] promotes brand A and [then] three weeks later they promote a competitor to brand A, it starts to feel disingenuous, and it’ll lose its effect.”  

While the idea of “this” all coming to and end is a scary one, it’s something that Koonar says is top-of-mind for her and Platform’s roster of talent, and something they openly discuss. “I think it’s smart for [influencers] to think about [what comes next], because there’s always someone new to follow or something different.  You might not have a super long career as an influencer and, it gets tiring after a point,” Koonar says.

Benfield agrees. “No creator wants to do sponsorships for the rest of their life as their main source of income,” he says. While it’s great as a baseline, allowing content creators to find other avenues and streams of revenue, Benfield is wary of banking everything on one means of engagement: “Because number one, it’s not sustainable. Who knows what Instagram is going to be doing in the next year? Who knows where social media is going to be?” he says. Benfield recalls a recent meeting between Koonar and the roster, where a presenter from Indeed posed a terrifying, albeit very real, situation. “She was like ‘Instagram could go down tomorrow, and then what are you doing?’” Benfield says. When asked if the idea that his livelihood is at stake scares him, he says: “100 per cent.”

Recently, Benfield was given a small taste of what that would be like if Instagram did disappear when the app was down for 24 hours in March. The experience reinforced the necessity of having a diverse portfolio and Internet presence. “It did make me think: ‘Wow, you’re just on Instagram. You need to have your own blog. You need to have your own website where you can do different creative things and have a YouTube channel. You need to have all of these spaces where [you can] create different types of content,’” he says.“It’s like investing; you don’t invest $1,000 in one stock. You invest many different portfolios and different, you know, eggs in a basket, that whole metaphor.”

Koonar says she always encourages her clients to dig deep to understand why they’re building their brand and to look ahead to their potential next steps.“Is it just because you want people to follow you or is it because you want to do something next?” she asks. For a lot of content creators, that “something next” means commoditizing, and capitalizing on their name, branching out into other entrepreneurial fields. “Maybe [it’s] having their own vegan beauty line or children’s books—we’ve had quite a few people do cookbooks,” she says. “I think books are on everyone’s list. I think everyone wants to be some sort of author, or on a television show.” 

People, Koonar says, are thinking about how to utilize their platform—most people at least. “Why wouldn’t you? If you have 300,000 people following you and doing what you liked or your tell them to do, then why not use that to venture into something new? ”

Nikolajev is holding on to her day job at Sportsnet – for now. She has her own plans for the future. “Ultimately my end game would be to write some sort of book or have some sort of show in the vein of a Busy Phillips or Chrissy Teigen, with a little bit of satire or [comedy],” she says. “People resonate with my stories and when I talk to them, so I just feel like it would be a really natural progression that I would love and feel comfortable doing.” 

“I only started using meme content in 2019 because with Netflix, the nostalgia factor is really big. Sex and The City was a show that resonated with so many women that were Gen Y and older millennials, and with the dating landscape now there has to be ways that we can apply what happened in SATC to now. This image was so funny, because literally when I go on these apps, I always feel like saying all these things. So l put [the caption] as ‘Dating in 2019.’

A lot of the feedback that I get through my social channels is that I have a personality. And I think that [memes] are a way for my followers to really see that I have more personality than just the outfit that I’m wearing. That’s how they find me more relatable than necessarily what I’m wearing or what I’m doing. It’s like when I’m doing my Instagram stories or talking to my phone, I think that people find that they hear a lot of themselves in what I’m saying and they find that how I’m saying it is very much like having a conversation with a friend.”

Whatever the future holds for the industry, marketing experts seem to agree the important thing is that influencer culture and the people who fund it will be around for a long time. 

“I think now that influencers exist, they won’t not exist,” Koonar confirms. “Social media is just how we like to operate now. It’s like the Internet wasn’t going to go away after three years, you know, [people weren’t going to say] ‘I had enough of the Internet, that’s fine, take it away.’ No, it’s here. 

“Now we have social media. We like, it’s here [and] it’s going to continue to evolve. It’s going to get a little bit different. In what direction, we don’t know.”