TikTok Influencer Marketing Marketing

A premature post-mortem: Ad execs on TikTok’s legacy so far


By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

April 2, 2024 | 12 min read

TikTok probably isn’t going anywhere soon. But attempts to ban it in the US have put critics and fans alike in a nostalgic mood. So: what’s the biggest change it has wrought so far?

The TikTok logo, lit by a ring light

TikTok looks likely to survive attacks from US lawmakers, but if it didn't, what would be its legacy? / Solen Feyissa via Unsplash

Whether the proposed TikTok ban will pass through the US Senate is looking doubtful but, either way, the app’s continued presence in the US looks like it will be a major issue this election year. So, you’d be bold to bet against TikTok in the short term, but debates about its merits will be on a lot of powerful people’s lips over the next while.

And it’s no wonder: in just a few years, TikTok has changed an awful lot. It’s changed the social landscape (vertical video; social shopping). It’s changed how influencers influence. It’s changed how creatives and companies promote themselves. It’s introduced ad formats. It has (according to some) melted our brains, or (according to others) given control of our thinking to its developers.

So: what’s the most conspicuous legacy of TikTok’s tenure so far? We asked leading marketers from The Drum Network.

Liz Cole, chief social officer, VML: “I would call TikTok the first truly post-millennial social media platform. That’s not to say it’s the first social platform people younger than millennials were on, but it’s the first time I noticed that the people on a particular platform and the people writing think pieces about how that platform was changing the internet were no longer the same age. That dynamic has defined the discourse on TikTok since the start. No matter how widespread its adoption among every age group, what’s happening on TikTok has always served as rhetorical shorthand for ‘what the young people are doing’. That generalization hasn’t always served us – or the young people we’re trying to reach.”

Michaela Florez, insights and research assistant, Don’t be Shy : “Despite – or maybe because of – its infamously manipulative algorithm, TikTok still feels like it’s shaped and ‘owned’ by its users, rather than its advertisers. Authentic, user-generated content and conversations always have absolute priority, and this inherent ‘organicness’ is central to TikTok’s appeal. It’s difficult for brands to flagrantly bullshit on the platform, or to brute-force spend their way to buzzy virality. They’ll either be ignored, mocked, or angrily shouted down by the crowd. TikTok is redressing the power imbalance between brand and consumer – which is great for me as a user, tricky for me as a marketer.”

Matt Belanger, vice president, group director, digital comms strategy, NA, Momentum Worldwide: “TikTok taught the world what an algorithm was, unveiling the power of data, good and bad. Once revered by marketers, brands, and influencers during social media’s rise, 'the algorithm' once felt like a distant skill, an unconquerable feat. All the while, it was slowly embedding itself into conversations across generations. We all remember hearing less savvy family members 'being served an ad on social for something after talking about it and how scary they thought that was. It wasn't until TikTok’s rise and sophistication of ultimate instant 'for you' content that the world began to understand its power and usefulness. Beyond the controversy, it influenced purchase decisions, drove movements, and acted as an evolved search engine...all while skyrocketing everyday citizens into stardom overnight. Its sophistication in content, trainability, slot machine-esque UX, and speed captivated audiences far beyond gen Z.”

Ross Crump, president at Kairos Group USA: “TikTok’s greatest legacy lies in its ability to captivate a generation whose attention spans were dwindling amid increasing social media consumption. But its impact isn’t truly revolutionary; rather, it's a repackaging of existing models for a new audience. Its early entry into the market seized the attention of gen Z, a coveted demographic for brands and influencers alike, by reintroducing short-form content, reminiscent of six-second video app Vine’s heyday. The platform’s future hinges on its capacity to sustain engagement alongside a shifting business model, which risks diluting its original appeal with a focus on long-form content and initiatives like TikTok Shop – which some gen Zers see as off-putting. Time will tell whether TikTok can maintain its relevance.”

Clare Roberts, head of marketing, Clickon: “TikTok has been instrumental in allowing communities to grow internationally, leading to a diverse range of voices being heard and celebrated, cultivating a rich tapestry of global creativity and cultural exchange. Unlike other platforms, TikTok’s unique algorithm offers a level playing field, allowing people to organically discover communities and new branded content based on user engagement rather than pre-existing popularity or follower count. TikTok’s legacy is one of empowerment, inclusion and togetherness, changing internet culture for the better; creating opportunities and new audiences for communities and businesses. As well as changing how content is created and consumed, it has reshaped the digital landscape into one where everyone has the opportunity to be heard and to connect, making it a powerful force for good in our interconnected society.”

Rachel Poole, senior social media manager, AgencyUK: “TikTok’s algorithm has transformed the way people interact with content. The algorithm prioritizes user engagement over follower count, giving rising content creators an equal chance at virality. This has empowered diverse voices and challenged the traditional hierarchy of influencers, making authenticity and creativity a dominant focus. This has transformed the social media landscape by elevating unpolished and genuine content that resonates on a personal level, creating a space where real connections and communities thrive. This has reshaped influencer culture, emphasizing relatability and originality over perfection, which we are now seeing across other social platforms and advertising techniques.”

Claire Shalbrack, managing director, Dept US: “Despite its epic growth in a short time, TikTok has retained its magic as a platform that prioritizes user-based content. It is creator-centric at its core, and it hasn’t lost its edge to the lure of brands and branded content (yet). To be served up user-centric content seems like a novelty in today’s social media landscape. But this is also how an increasing number of people are getting their news: straight from the mouths of users who can posit that they have credibility in areas where they do not. That toxic blend of political content mixed with social media entertainment can get us into trouble.”

Mollie Lyons, head of strategy, Wilderness: “TikTok has undergone a remarkable evolution. Initially known for viral dance challenges, it has become a trendsetting powerhouse. What sets TikTok apart is its seamless integration into contemporary culture, effortlessly inserting itself into trending conversations. The most significant shift lies in how users engage with the platform. While Google used to be the go-to for searching anything and everything, TikTok is encroaching. Research from a Her Campus study found that 74% of gen Z internet users use TikTok for search, with 51% favoring it over Google. Users flock to TikTok to explore every aspect of their lives, from DIY hacks to life advice and beyond. This marks a fundamental change in how people interact with digital platforms, as TikTok becomes not just a source of entertainment but a destination for discovering and sharing content.”

Harry Williams, head of growth, Found: “TikTok rewrote the rules and the playbook, forcing Instagram to fight for its crown (and audience), forcing Google to expedite SGE, given the proliferation of users across multiple platforms, and forcing brands to reconsider their media buying cycles. It also forced the digital world to recognize that search is everywhere, with audiences commanding how and where they want to be communicated to. TikTok has a lot to answer for. And we love it.”

Alexandra Whiteside, account manager, No Brainer: “TikTok has blazed the way in developing social apps; its recent update continues to uphold its legacy status by placing its creators at the core of its service offerings. The new analytics feature ‘Creator Search Insights’ (currently available in selected regions) is aimed at helping creators boost their content strategy and provide audience insights. It allows creators to see which topics are the most searched, displaying a popularity rating or a ‘recommended topic label’, allowing creators to identify those that are being engaged with the most. This is just one of many ways TikTok empowers creators to make content that’s relevant to their audience, equipping them with what they need to succeed. If the TikTok ban comes into effect in the US, it’ll be a huge blow to creators.”

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Robyn Rawlings, senior graphic designer, TRO: “TikTok’s changed how we think about showing up in the real world. Brands used to rely heavily on tailored, scripted, and overly produced posts on Instagram, but audiences no longer want to connect with brands that show up in a polished way. With over-saturation, unachievable standards and digital mistrust, people looking for relatable experiences get drawn more to genuine productions. TikTok levels the playing field, giving anyone a voice on the platform. As a creative in experiential, translating trends from TikTok (‘get ready with me’) and applying them to IRL experiences helps us tailor our experience designs towards what the audience wants, ensuring they feel seen and understood, and adding depth to that interaction. It’s about authenticity, not perfection.”

Jack Chape, chief media officer, RocketMill: “While the future of TikTok in the US remains uncertain, we can be sure of its lasting impact on digital habits. It has fundamentally changed the way we consume and produce video content: how we discover brands and products, how we shop, and even how we learn (DIY hacks and Excel formulae anyone?). The algorithm is the jewel in TikTok’s crown and something Meta and Google have had good success in emulating. The captivating ‘For You’ feed creates a stickiness unlike any other social platform (TikTok tops the charts for monthly time spent globally [excluding China]). But that high dwell time is a double-edged sword: it’s a major pull for advertisers in a fragmented media landscape, but that sentiment is not shared by parents of young children or policymakers, albeit for different reasons.”

TikTok Influencer Marketing Marketing

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