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Influencer Agencies Influencer Marketing

As indie influencer shop Ykone enters the UK, can it take on the networks?


By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

June 12, 2024 | 8 min read

France-founded influencer group Ykone has opened a UK outpost. We sat down with UK hire #1, Paula Albuquerque, to talk about the agency’s ambitions to beat the network behemoths.

Paula Albuquerque of Ykone

Ykone's first hire in the UK, Paula Albuquerque, intends to take the fight to network agencies / Credit: Ykone

About a year ago, the advertising world was aflutter with what felt like a new trend in M&A: independent influencer agencies being acquired by network titans and the larger groups. In one week, WPP snapped up both Obviously and Goat. Elsewhere Publicis plumped for Perlu; Brave Bison bought Social Chain; Born social went to Croud.

Since then, there’s been a steady drip of similar activity – among a raft of other acquisitions, Havas snapped up social shop Wilderness back in March – but the full M&A storm some were predicting hasn’t quite manifested. Clearly, some influencer shops are enjoying their independence.

You can count in that number agencies like Ykone, the French-founded influencer marketing group that has been quietly developing a global footprint to take on the network behemoths. Now entering the UK for the first time, we sat down with UK hire #1 Paula Albuquerque to talk about the influencer channel’s strategic shift, why old “desperate and inefficient” ad tactics need a refresh, and why she thinks that a certain kind of indie really can beat the networks.

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‘We’re here to diversify the way agencies operate’

Albuquerque joins Ykone as managing partner and UK vice president, where she’ll be setting up the agency’s 18th market outpost globally. With that worldwide spread, a headcount of 300, and revenues topping €100m, it’s worth taking their challenge seriously.

Albuquerque acknowledges that the UK may be a tough market to crack, with plenty of worthy competitors. “Because the market is more saturated, we wanted to come at a later stage with a very ambitious vision based on our European positioning,” she says. “But we’re now coming with a different proposition. We’re here, really, to diversify the way agencies operate.”

Core to that pitch is an existing worldwide scope – one that can offer the reach of a network agency, Albuquerque says, without the bloat: “we have the same global footprint of a large network agency… [And] we’re definitely not a roster agency”.

It’s not surprising, she says, to see networks coughing up large sums for expertise in the influencer space – but that doesn’t mean that the indies need the networks. “As we start seeing digital reaching a whole new level of maturity, we see that clients are demanding a whole new level of specialization. But it’s not only about bringing a specialist in that can help with delivery. It’s about their strategic direction – and it’s going to take [the networks] time to come up to speed with what specialist agencies can deliver from a strategic point of view.” Albuquerque calls this strategic shift “working back up the funnel”.

This shift in client demand in the influencer space (from execution to strategy) is one that favors those with deep experience, Albuquerque says – but it also favors those who are flexible and channel-agnostic. “What network agencies have been doing so well is keeping distribution flexible: if clients want to pivot from influencer to media, they can do that across the vast offering from a network agency. But, of course, you cannot be 100% good in all of those specialisms.” Here again, Albuquerque reckons those outside the network model have an edge of agility: “if you buy into a specialism, it takes some time for you to get up to speed”.

Speaking of agility, a third area where Albuquerque thinks indies have the edge is billing. In comparison with the “incrementally bureaucratic” networks, she says, clients will increasingly appreciate the flexibility around payment models that an indie can offer. In the influencer world where speed is key, she says, bureaucracy around payment can be a dealbreaker – while rigidity around remuneration models can be a straight-jacket. “The traditional model is a percentage on top of media spend. We tend to operate in a different way, based on the specialisms that you’re high hiring. If the client then decides to pivot from that specialism, we revise our approach.”

Nobody puts influencers in the corner

Ykone’s background is in the luxury space, from which it’s expanding out into neighboring verticals like sport, health, wellness and beauty. A recent appointment as the celebrity agency for consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble – beating out some of the giants in the process – is, Albuquerque says, evidence of client appetite for this global-but-independent influencer offering. “Clients are asking for my more diversification and specialization, which is something that, historically, has led them to work with network agencies, because they can keep it all under the same roof. But now, they’re seeing value in coming to more specialization, which can provide a whole new level of experience and keep the same global footprint as a large network would have”.

And while Albuquerque is clear that Ykone has no ambitions to take on all of the skillsets of their network competitors, she is also insistent that it’d be mistake to think of influencer as (only) its own marketing channel. Rather, influencer strategy ought to be a part of every channel and discipline. Now, she says, “influencing has intersected in the whole marketing spectrum. We don’t approach influencer from a traditional lens – translating it into social content only – but as basically the driver behind the whole marketing funnel… it just doesn’t make sense to silo influencers.”

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