Media Diversity & Inclusion Influencer Marketing

After this influencer was accused of harassment, how can brands improve their vetting?


By Shawn Lim | Reporter, Asia Pacific

October 28, 2021 | 7 min read

Brands including Colgate and Nestlé have ended their partnerships with Singaporean influencer Sylvia Chan and her content production company Night Owl Cinematics (NOC) after allegations of workplace harassment emerged. The scandal shows no signs of abating after more allegations were revealed. The Drum finds out what brands should learn from the situation.

The Night Owl Cinematics (NOC) scandal has continued to rumble on, even after brands including Colgate and Nestlé dropped the content creation company and its co-founder, the influencer Sylvia Chan.

The scandal started in early October when Chan was accused by an anonymous Instagram account @sgcickenrice of verbally abusing employees and creating a toxic workplace culture. Colgate and Nestlé subsequently stopped working with NOC.

After issuing a cease-and-desist letter to the account, Chan posted a statement saying that “she did not live up to the standards expected of (her).” She then stepped down as a NOC influencer.

However, the scandal did not end there as more current and former NOC employees came out in blog posts and on social media with screenshots and video recordings that accused Chan of, among other things, delayed salaries, insensitivity in dealing with mental health issues, embezzling company money, sexually exploiting her female talents and fat-shaming talent.

Chan has attempted to address these allegations, this time appearing on controversial influencer Xiaxue’s YouTube channel, where she gave a tell-all interview, alleging that her ex-husband and co-founder Ryan Tan was the one leading the ‘smear campaign’ against her and provided screenshots of Tan’s alleged unfaithfulness. Tan has denied the allegations.

In the over an hour-long video interview, which has so far reached more than a million views, Chan also revealed NOC lost $250,000 in partnership and advertising deals with brands (including the deals with Colgate and Nestlé) in the first week that the allegations against Chan emerged.

The Drum understands that more brands are reconsidering their deals with NOC and other content creation companies as they are nervous about the crisis. We find out if it is still worthwhile for brands to work with influencers, and how to not associate themselves with content creation companies that have toxic workplace practices.

What are some key insights brands can learn from this NOC saga when working with content creation companies?

Arthur Altounian, the senior client development director for the Asia Pacific at GroupM’s INCA, says it is important to dissociate content creation companies such as Night Owl Cinematics from the individual talents and influencers that are part of it because there is no doubt about the impact and influence that the right talent has on the campaign or brand product they are endorsing.

According to the Edelman 2019 Barometer Special Report on Brand Trust, 63% of consumers aged 18-34 trust what influencers say about brands – much more than what brands say about themselves in advertising.

“The reality is that whenever brands partner with an influencer, they are paying for both access to their audience and their creative license. Therefore, it is the followers and the quality of the content created that will determine the results of the campaign, not exclusively the influencer. Yet the quality of the followers should not be an excuse to overlook the influencer’s credentials [and] niche, as well as their overall brand image. These need to be vetted carefully to ensure brand safety,” he explains.

“It is paramount for brands and agencies to do the required due diligence before embarking on any partnership with influencers or companies. This includes checking the background of individual talents and their track record of activities, as well as evaluating performance and overall affinity or fit with brand value.”

He adds: “In this specific case, the incriminating content of the influencer was shared by a third-party source, post brand collaboration. Despite all efforts and checks, it can be difficult to anticipate such events, hence brands must be ready to react if something goes off-plan and be able to cope with the unexpected or have an agency with crisis management experience.”

Should brands ensure content creation companies that they work with have a non-toxic workplace environment for their talent and staff?

Shifting the focus away from vanity metrics such as the number of followers and toward indicators that focus on real engagement, culture and their stance on social issues is key to working with influencers that are brand-safe and authentic.

Scandals within influencer marketing are not new, notes Altounian. The rapid rise in social media influencers, and content creation companies, has been accompanied by its share of scandals, in which brands have called out unethical practices, creating concerns around brand safety globally.

However, he stresses it is important to remember that this represents a small fraction of influencer campaigns. It should not derail the fact that influencer marketing remains a critical channel for brands to reach audiences in a very authentic and creative way.

“Consumers are paying more attention to what brands choose to stand up for, and among social, environmental and D&I causes, toxicity in the workplace will resonate with consumers increasingly,” he explains.

“The question then is, when a company does not align with your values and ethics, and the decision has been made to end or postpone the partnership, how easily can a brand walk away? This is where having defined terms and conditions, with a clearly-outlined break clause, is key.”

He continues: “In a partnership, it is important to define the terms and conditions of the contract clearly. These need to be rigorous, exhaustive and thorough. It is important to protect your brand and agency first and foremost against risk in the rare event of something going off-plan.”

Brands and agencies can also proactively work on crisis management scenarios to mitigate risk as much as possible, adds Altounian. By defining clear guidelines and delegating roles and responsibilities for each stakeholder, brands can manage an undesirable situation in a timely and efficient manner.

“Stakeholders need to question and evaluate fit on their responsible framework. By declaring their position on pertinent topics such as sustainability, diversity, equity and inclusion, data ethics, company value and engagement on certain causes, it paints a clear picture on the type of stakeholder a brand is working with,” he says.

What’s next?

Overall, influencer marketing continues to remain a critical channel for brands to reach audiences authentically and creatively throughout the customer journey as it delivers significant ROI and is a complementary solution to media, creative and PR activities.

Influencer marketing has become a growing juggernaut regionally, especially over the last two years. It enables brands to organically engage with their target audiences via individuals who have cultivated a certain level of influence online, drive attention and build trust, explains Altounian.

This means trust is key to the partnership on both ends, between the influencer and the audience, as well as the influencer and the brand.

“While running an influencer campaign can be a trial-and-error process, our adtech industry is continuously evolving to remain one step ahead of issues by identifying better methods to mitigate the risks of working with content creators effectively. Brands and agencies also need to do their due diligence before contracting with influencers, ensuring clear requirements, deliverables [and] considerations, as well as the do’s and don’ts,” he explains.

“While the social platform’s analytics page is a good source of insights, there are several insights that cannot be obtained from an analytics page. For example, brand requirements, cultural sensitivity, trust and creativity. Therefore, establishing trust and connection with KOLs remains vital, and working with the right agency partner brings multiple benefits in terms of scale, resource, expertise and efficiencies for brands.”

Media Diversity & Inclusion Influencer Marketing

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