Clout is currency but what does it take to make it pay? Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup finds out
FAME is an odd, fickle thing. While not everyone pursues it, enough people aspire to it. It’s part of the human desire to be acknowledged and recognised. Sometimes fame is induced through a massive publicity blitz and sometimes, it happens spontaneously – or so we think.
Andre Amir is an Instagram influencer, a term which did not exist a decade ago. He didn’t set out to achieve fame and he would be the first to tell you that he isn’t famous, yet he gets a lot of the perks of famous people.
In the media industry, he’s known as a KOL – key opinion leader. He gets recognised and acknowledged by strangers. He gets to attend fancy events, put on fabulous clothes, wear swanky watches and drive expensive cars. And he gets paid for it, either in cash or kind.
With 76,000 followers on Instagram, he has his own kind of fame that is different from the celebrities – who act, sing, walk the runway or play a sport. To some or even most segments of society, his fame is accidental.
But it’s actually a public persona that came with and from a game plan. It may be his lifestyle that he is presenting to the world but that presence is curated and perhaps, even constructed. Like all of his peers, he does not lie about who he is on the Internet but none of it is accidental either.
At 37, Andre is older than most Instagram influencers in this country. He also has the advantage of working for an advertising agency for the last 15 years, so he knows brand building like the back of his hand. Instead of raising a company’s profile, he’s working his own.
“It started about seven years ago when I turned 30, when I realised that I needed to step it up at work,” he says. “I was handling accounts and meeting CEOs, and I needed to look the part so they would trust me. So I started wearing suits.”
“That was what I featured on Instagram, my OOTD (outfit of the day). In 2014, I joined Esquire Malaysia’s best dressed event and started getting a lot of attention from brands. Last year, I was named the magazine’s Best of the Best Dressed Man.”
Andre’s niche is men’s fashion, and he spoke about suits at an event with Lord’s Tailor. He also worked with skincare brand Kiehl’s, did a campaign with Coach and Cole Haan, and took a Mercedes GLA out for a publicity spin. He has travelled for Omega watches and had his teeth whitened, thanks to Philips.
“I consider myself a content creator and a lot of influencers don’t realise that that’s what they are and what they should do. I’ve always controlled my branding, which is premium lifestyle. I do work with high street brands like Uniqlo and Pedro but my strategy is premium.
“Seventy per cent of my followers are men, urban, 21 to 50-year-olds who want to look good and have money to spend. There aren’t a lot of male, Malay fashion influencers working the scene, except maybe Wak Doyok. But he’s more of a celebrity than an influencer. And I’m not another Wak Doyok.”
When brands look to tie up with an Instagram influencer, they look at their “engagement.”
This has nothing to do with marital status or social events but the level of response from followers. There’s no point in having thousands of followers when not many of them like, comment or view your posts.
“I get direct messages asking for fashion advice or where to get a particular outfit that I wore on a post. When I posted about using Kiehl’s, people would send me photos of themselves also using Kiehl’s,” says Andre.
His insight into what his audience are into allows him to dictate how he works with brands, or whether he works with them at all. Going off-brand, so to say, is akin to cheating his followers. When he gets an offer to work with a certain company, he will first gauge how that product fits into his lifestyle.
“Philips offered me an electric toothbrush, so I said okay - I could use an electric toothbrush. They offered me a robot vacuum cleaner and I’ve always wanted that. Then they asked me to do a teeth whitening campaign and that was a bit tricky.”
Andre doesn’t like to show off his teeth, hence his reluctance. But he managed to work the product as he was getting ready to attend shows at Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week last August. He refused to do a before-and-after shot though; instead he came up with an Instagram video of the process.
“I like brands that I can work with, instead of them telling me what to do. Some public relations agencies, that are the go-betweens, can be demanding, which I don’t like. Let me work with you on creating what’s best for me, for you and the client.”
Plying the influencer scene can be costly. There’s a lot of glamour in it but it doesn’t always pay. Andre has different rates for attending events, or making posts or videos — though he maintains that it’s negotiable. Some months he can make five figures but some months, he doesn’t make any and just gets free products or services.
“Often you have to spend your own money to raise your profile but I consider that an investment. For men to get famous on Instagram, it’s easier if you’re extremely good looking or have a ripped body. I’m neither but I love the work. Payment or not, I still have my day job. This is just my retirement plan,” he says.
SKIN IN THE GAME
As co-founder of local shoe brand Kulet, Aina Syahirah, 26, is always on the lookout for Instagram personalities whom she can feature as a KuletGirl. But as she works to raise Kulet’s profile, hers grew as well.
“I got on Instagram when it started several years ago when no one really cared about the quality of your photos,” she says. “But my account got a lot of attention when I started working for Tengku Chanela Jamidah, who was already a strong fashion personality at that time.”
Aina has over 23,000 followers on Instagram and she’s considered an up-and-coming influencer. She does a lot of makeup work, most recently Zalora’s campaign for the L’Oreal Paris x Balmain Color Riche lipstick collection.
“People associate me with Kulet and so the brands I work with will be associated with Kulet. I can’t work with another shoe company, it just doesn’t make sense. Brands may hire me as a personality but they always introduce me as the co-founder of Kulet,” she says.
There’s a lot of work that goes into making a brand post, she adds. Captions and photos need to be approved in advance. And when a good photo or caption doesn’t show the product the way the brand wants it, the influencer will need to go back and do it again, usually all by themselves.
Aina’s advice on getting the perfect Instagram photo is to take lots of them and pick the best one. Her boyfriend takes good photos but she mostly relies on her business partner Julie Anne Kang, who has a considerable Instagram presence as well.
“Some influencers can produce amazing photos but I work with what I have and I don’t edit so much. I don’t want to look very different from real life. When brands hire you, they want your point of view. They want to see that product as part of your lifestyle. The followers want to see your personality in it as well.
“But I also don’t share much of my personal life because I know my family and partner value their privacy. I mostly post about my work with Kulet and I think that’s why people follow me.”
But one follower proved to be too “freaky” for comfort. “He messaged me saying he had a fetish for my feet, and that he couldn’t stop looking at them. It grossed me out and I blocked him! But that just goes to show why privacy is important, even when you have a public account.”
LY Choon runs his own public relations agency and often acts as an intermediary between KOLs and the companies that want to hire them.
But Instagram influencers are a recent phenomenon, especially in this country, so there is no specific formula in measuring an influencer’s worth or even effectiveness.
“A lot of what we do is based on instinct, as well as content,” says Choon. “It started last year and it used to be about the number of followers. You need to have at least 10,000 followers, but we realised that you can “buy” followers.
“So we look at the content of the account. For example, is the person really into fashion that we can use them for a fashion campaign? There’s also the number of followers and your engagement - your likes and views on video. Who are liking your posts? What are they commenting on? Is it positive or negative?”
Choon is discovering new people on Instagram every day. Some of them are as young as 14, with lots of followers and genuine engagement. But he’s wary of pushing minors into the limelight, so he works with them only occasionally. Older influencers are not without their complications. Some have discipline issues, or an oversized sense of entitlement.
Others may not follow instructions, or oversell their link with the brand. He deals with these problematic personalities as best as he can because he doesn’t want to jeopardise his relationships with either the brand or the influencer.
To put it coarsely, influencers work for either fame or money, preferably both. Fame can open doors and raise profiles but cold hard cash is what’s needed to survive.
When influencers know their worth, they can command big bucks like a celebrity but not everyone can last the journey of getting there.
Choon explains: “The Malaysian fashion scene is unique, in which we have a lot more brands than people who can afford them, and these days the retail industry is not doing so great. When you go to events, you won’t necessarily get paid. But you already need to spend almost RM1,000 on hair and make-up.
“So influencers will feel that they’ve been used. They think that a relationship with one brand is an opportunity to make money but not everybody can pay them. You keep doing it to maintain that relationship, but how long can you survive on free products? In the end, it’s the rich kids who can afford to do this.”
When influencers work with brands, there’s usually a contract on the number of photos they will post and what will be included in the caption. The value of coming to a store opening or product launch is no longer on the attendance itself, but posts about that appearance.
There’s superficiality on Instagram, particularly fashion Instagram, where people show money (or rather its representation) in order to make money. Influencers have an audience they need to wow, and the moment they stop posting is when they stop becoming relevant.
This can be stressful and even harmful to their mental health, and some influencers quit for this reason. But there’s always someone else ready to take over. So faces and personalities change but the cycle continues.