Agencies Social Media Influencer Marketing

Gleam Futures shaped the social talent wave, then succumbed to it


By Raf McDonnell, Managing director and managing partner

January 25, 2024 | 6 min read

Once-pioneering influencer marketing agency Gleam Futures recently shut down its talent management arm. Supernova’s Raf McDonnell looks at how it lost its lead in an industry it helped build.

A social influencer wave

Gleam Futures talent is no more, as Dentsu Aegis closed the doors on the talent arm of the business that it acquired in 2017 last week.

One of the world’s first social talent management agencies, Gleam was founded by Dom Smales in 2010, at the start of the social media talent revolution. Smales saw the potential to monetize social talent through platforms like YouTube, generating substantial ad revenues for the influencers on its books, which included Zoella, Tanya Burr and Alfie Deyes, and then additionally commercializing brand partnerships, books and licensing deals off the back of the profile that they created.

So, how did a company so successful in leading the social media talent landscape end up closing its doors at the height of the social talent boom?

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Gleam Futures saw the opportunity created by social talent as brands shunned expensive celebrity endorsements in search of more measurable reach and analytics. It also provided brands with the ability to talk directly to their audience in a way that traditional celebrities had never been able to. There is no doubt that brands want to work with social talent more than ever, but celebrities have also upped their game in this respect, using their social channels to build even greater connection with their audience.

Then TikTok came along and gave anyone with a mobile phone the ability to become a creator with a multimillion-dollar following. This has meant an explosion in the number of social talent agencies, with many big traditional talent agencies also starting up their own social talent divisions. I believe Gleam was slower than other agencies to see the rise of TikTok talent, with its roster more focused on YouTube and Instagram talent.

Gleam’s acquisition by Dentsu Aegis and the departure of its founder were probably the defining moments in the demise of the talent arm. Smales was a pioneer, and he understood the difficult task of managing social talent strategically while monetizing influencers as a valuable media resource. He had great relationships with his talent, and they trusted him to guide them.

While the acquisition undoubtedly provided many opportunities for Gleam’s talent to reach more brands, there is a natural tension between a media-led approach to talent and the very nature of talent management. The talent are creatives and need to be managed carefully. As a talent manager, you have to know how to get the best out of your talent commercially while supporting them as human beings and developing a long-term strategic vision for them.

We have moved from the age of influencers to the age of creators. Consumers no longer want to be influenced, but they will watch entertaining or informative content from creators. So, the role of the creator working with brands is no longer a pure media effectiveness play. It is now about creative output. Of course, the effectiveness of that creative output needs to be measured, but when a brand engages a celebrity for a campaign, it’s not just looking at their social media following; it’s investing in the positive impact that the association will have on the brand’s awareness or consideration. Too many agencies see social as a media-led approach focussing on views, likes and shares rather than looking at the shared creative values between the creator and the brand and whether the partnership will create positive value for both parties.

There has been a gold rush of agencies in the social space claiming to have hundreds of influencers on their books. But good talent management requires strategic thinking, deal-making ability, career management and people management skills. Anyone can do a deal, but not everyone can manage talent effectively. Some of the best long-term management relationships in the entertainment industry have evolved over decades and are built on mutual trust and respect.

Social talent management is best integrated into an advertising environment when approached creatively and not just as a media buy. When my own agency, Talent and Brands, was acquired by independent creative agency Atomic, and we set up Supernova, it was an opportunity for our talent to benefit from a more strategic and creative approach to social content creation.

Dom Smales and the team at Gleam led the way for many agencies like ours, and I will be forever grateful to them for opening up this industry and setting the standards for the rest of us to follow. Gleam’s talent offering may be gone, but the creator economy is thriving and agencies who can understand the needs of brands and creator talent will be well-placed to take advantage of it.

Raf McDonnell is managing director of talent and brands (which represents creators including Rob Mayhew and brokers of celebrity talent partnerships). He is also managing partner of Supernova (a creator-first social communications agency).

Agencies Social Media Influencer Marketing

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