Sara-McCorquodale

The Influence Room Podcast - Changing the dialogue Sara McCorquodale, CEO of CORQ

Posted on Dec 9, 2019 4:01:55 PM

The industry of influence has never been more potent in terms of its disruptive nature and its role in leading the narrative on how brands and talent interact with each other. Someone who has been at the forefront of this wave from a journalistic perspective is Sara McCorquodale.


Overview

Sara’s editorial and investigative background as a local news writer in Scotland and later as a journalist at multiple national outlets became the building blocks of what is now known as her business, CORQ; an influencer intelligence and digital trends platform.

Sara also authored the book ‘Influence’ a manual aimed at demystifying the influencer space through first hand interviews with globally recognised influencers. Safe to say the word influence is something that is clearly imprinted on all aspects of her current career.

In the interview it was clear that Sara is much more interested in pushing the humanity of influencers rather than focusing on numbers and data:

 

Actually people don’t behave like numbers, and the reason why so many consumers are compelled by influencers is because of the human story that they’re telling. I think understanding those details will allow brands to make better decisions about who they work with."

What was also really refreshing about Sara was how focused her business is on shining a light on positive influencer initiatives. By steering big brands towards community led projects, money is then being spent on positive change rather than more meaningless advertising.

Five quick takeaways:

  1. Journalists have an incredible skill-set that brands should be tapping into on a larger scale. Adding editorial flare and attention to detail when finding new ambassadors.  
  2. Print media saw the shift towards influencer led content but just hasn’t kept up with the monumental growth of independent creators and online publishers.
  3. Never assume that an influencer is doing something out of genuine interest, money is still a big sway, but a misjudged partnership could damage your brand in the long run, so do your research!
  4. People working in the media industry often view professional projects through a media bubble lens. Remember that social media is important but there’s so much more that drives a brand.
  5. Being an influencer is not a bi-product of having a large social media following. Brands are equally as interested in those with offline impact. 

If you enjoyed this episode and don’t want to miss the rest of the series, you can follow The Influence Room Podcast on Spotify and Apple iTunes podcasts.


 

Full audio transcription

- Bronagh                   

Hello Sara.

- Sara M                      

Hi.

- Bronagh

Welcome to the Influencer Room Podcast. We are sitting in a café in West London, so you might hear some signs of coffee being brewed in the background, and some music, but we like to keep it very casual.

- Alex                             

We're of the people.

- Bronagh                     

And thank you very much for traveling all the way over here.

- Sara M                      

That's fine, it's my pleasure.

- Bronagh 

So we just want to talk to you about your career. I've seen your name pop up everywhere recently. We're big fans of the CORQ business, and we think that there's a lot  to what you do and what we do at the Influence Room, so we're going to cover that. But I just wanted to kick off with, let's take it back, when you were in Scotland, how did you get into journalism, which was kind of your finding career? Is that right?

- Sara M

Yes, yes, thank you for your comments on the business. Yes, so when I was about 15, I decided that I quite wanted to have writing as a career. I'd always written poetry since I was about five or six years old. It was probably terrible.

- Alex                             

Have you kept any of it?

- Sara M                       

Yes, I have actually. My mom raised me and my sister herself, and we really had no money at all growing up, and she managed to get me this beautiful hardback notebook, so that I could write my poetry in it. That was her way of encouraging me to keep going. She was so yes, I have kept it, and no, I don't read it.

- Sara M

Yes, so I decided I wanted writing to be my career, and journalism seemed like the most plausible way to do that. So I went to my local paper. I did work experience picking up telegraph. They said, "Why don't you keep coming back and writing for us?"

- Sara M

- So I did that a lot, learning that skill. Then I did English Lit and Politics at Sterling University. Throughout my time there, I was doing work at [inaudible] at the Herald. I used to work three jobs on top my degree so that I could spend my holidays in London working for the Sunday Times magazine for free. I did that throughout my degree. I was the editor of my student newspaper, and then I got placed at City on the newspaper journalism post-grad. And it just sort of kept going.

- Sara M

I just loved being a journalist. I loved interviewing people. I loved how surprising it was. I loved how everyday was so different. I started after City, I went and worked on the South London Guardian. It was things like, it was everything from council meetings to going to court and covering different crimes, start small to quite large. Death Knocks, which are kind of like, you know, every print journalist has to go through that experience, which is pretty rough, but-

- Bronagh

What is a Death Knock?

- Sara M                       

A Death Knock is when someone dies in either suspicious, or perhaps tragic, circumstances, and you have to go and talk to their family, probably within 24 or 40 hours of their death, and basically get the story. So you have to go and, you get their family's address, and you go and knock their door, and they don't know that you're coming.

- Bronagh                     

Oh that's horrific.

- Sara M

 Yes.

- Alex

 And you had to do, can you remember the incidents that you 

- Sara M

Well I think probably the most kind of, I don't know, I don't want to say traumatic, but strangest experience I had of doing a Death Knock was, there was a woman in the borough that I covered, which was Sutton. Three of her daughters committed suicide, and so I went into the Knock for each one of the daughters. So by the final time, it was unbelievably heartbreaking, my the final time, we kind of knew each other, and she was just sort of, she was on a lot of medication, and I said, "I don't know if you should do this."

- Sara M

And she said, "No, no, no, come in, and let's sit down and talk. I want to talk."

- Sara M

And it turned out that her daughter had been working as prostitute, and also working in porn films as well. So we went into the kitchen, and there were candles everywhere, and there were pictures of her daughter everywhere. As I sat down and started to look around, I realized it was actually her daughter's porn and glamor shots.

- Bronagh                     

Oh wow.

- Sara M

Were sort of pinned up all over the kitchen, and it was very strange.

- Bronagh

So strange. I was going to say, what are the qualities that make good journalism, but it's sort of all about that mutual respect, and also being able to meet someone in the middle where they are giving a story that is personal to them, and that has so many layers to it, and you come in as someone as an outsider who doesn't have any relationship with them.

- Sara M                       

Yes, and sometimes you know, people can be aware, they don't want to talk to you, and some people would be really angry that you showed up at their door, and of course you completely understood it. I mean, nobody that I've ever met, no journalist I know enjoys doing a Death Knock. There was one that I got sent to, it was terrible, their daughter had died in a car crash. I think she was 19. The father, he was so heartbroken and furious, that he locked me in the house, and went outside and called the police. I had to try and get, sort of talk to him, calm him down, so that he would let me out.

- Bronagh                     

So how did you get through that, did you come out of that situation and still feel passionate about journalism? Or-

- Sara M                       

Yes always. I think that's the thing, it's like, your job is to report on the story that your editor wants you to tell, and bring in stories of your own that you think are pertinent to your readership. So there's always that drive to do that. I think once you've got the bug, it never really leaves you, and I also think that local news is really important. I think the fact that we've seen really the erosion of local news in this country over the past few years, I think that's hugely problematic, because it means that fewer people are holding those local authorities and those regional authorities to account. That's really why local news and regional news is so important. So that the money that going into those councils and those organizations is being spent on the people in the right way. It means that when Lively's closed down, those newspapers start campaigns.

- Sara M                       

We did a huge campaign for a hospital in our patch that at, the point when I was a reporter there, the [inaudible] wanted to close down. It would mean that there wasn't another hospital for miles and miles. Things like that, that sort of local and regional news is so important, and also as a journalist, to start your career in that way, where you're surrounded people who you really have to prove yourself, your shorthand has to be brilliant, because if you're going to report on court cases you need to take down everything shorthand. I actually, you would have an editor come up to your desk and say, "Show me your shorthand."

- Sara M                     

So you had to prove no only that you could do it, but also that the information was correct, and they would stand and read your shorthand, and say, "Why is this like this? What does this not mean?"

- Sara M

So you actually learn how to be a journalist in a really incredible way. It's difficult, but I loved it. The only thing was the pay was rubbish. I think I was on 12 grand a year. So I used to do Monday to Friday at the newspaper, 9:00 to 5:00, and then 8:00 in the evening a couple times a week I would go and do 8:00 until about 4:00am at the Sun. I did that for eight sexy months. Yes I decide, I left [inaudible] part of the industry, I think that there are so many interesting people in the industry, and I'm still obsessed with the news even though I'm not part of it anymore.

- Alex

I had a coffee with Dominic Mohan yesterday, the ex editor of the Sun. He's a fascinating bloke. Actually we should do a podcast with him. He could tell about some very interesting.

- Bronagh

Oh gosh, I can imagine.

- Alex

The rock and roll years, because he was a bizarre editor. So when you were doing the, you were overnights at the Sun?

- Sara M

That was 2006 until 2007. Then I did Meal Online. So I was part of that launch team, and that was-

- Alex                           

What did you do as part of the launch?

- Sara M

 I was just a reporter. I wasn't important. I wasn't making the decisions, but it was the first digital thing I worked on. It was just this incredibly aggressive approach to digital at a time when most news rooms really sort of silos. Anything digital, it wasn't as important as the print product. Martin Clark, who is kind of quite divisive in the media, I would say, he just had this vision for what the website would be, and wanted it to be almost like a different brand from the print product, which I think was a success. But also it was all about volume, so using analytics to see what did The Meal Online readers like, and then just giving them more and more and more of that.

- Sara M                     

So for example at that point, Meal Online readers really enjoyed stories about loose women presenters. So there would be a lot of that. Then also, when anyone typed those presenters' names into Google, on the first page of Google, it would just be all of this Meal Online content. You were just getting this huge audience through search. And also because they could rely on the fact that if they went back directly to the website there would more. There was always newness. So it was interesting to work on a digital product that wasn't based around getting traffic via social, which is kind of how things changed, I think, maybe around about 2012-ish, I would say.

- Alex

What do you ... you know the stats far better than I, but it's a phenomenal amount in terms of a product, a digital success story. What do you make of its place in the media landscape now?

- Sara M

I think that it hasn't evolved. I think that that's probably the main criticism that I have over ... I think it's still doing pretty much the same thing it's done since launch. I guess you could say, "Well if it's not broke."

- Sara M                       

And obviously it still has this enormous readership, but I do think as there is more free content online, people are looking for truth and quality more, and I think that there's going to come a point that the good stuff all goes under pay walls, and the stuff that's of no importance remains free. I don't think that The Meal Online could necessarily put what they do under a pay wall. I don't necessarily think that people would pay for it, because it's not really information. It's conje-

- Bronagh                     

It's almost a photo gallery.

- Sara M                        

It is. It's a photo gallery, and I think that's not to say that journalism that they put on from the paper is obviously a lot of it is so good, and I think as well, when it comes to breaking news, Meal Online I would say is second to none. They're so fast. But you can also get that on the BBC. So I just kind of wonder where it's going to go in the future, but I still think it's very interesting. I still think it's a triumph for a traditional media company to have created that product so early.

- Bronagh                   

Yes, agree.

- Bronagh                    

And sort of to touch on kind of what we're here to talk about today, is the field of influence. From what I've read and heard about you, you were getting asked ... Was it that you were getting asked by brands about your perspective who they should work with just because you had that relationship already, and it was almost by you sort of saying, "Oh I think you should work with this person, this person, this person," that was how the idea of CORQ came about? Is that right?

- Sara M                       

Yes, yes. So I went to Tattler, [inaudible] online, then I went to Huffington Post, [inaudible] My Daily. Both at Tattler and My Daily, I started working with influencers, not that they were known as such then, but people who weren't celebrities, but had large social followings, because my job was essentially to grow the digital audience of both those products. And thought influencers was a great way to do that, because actually you get in touch with the people who you really want it to resonate with.

- Sara M                       

So we hired them as photographers, writers, we did so many interesting things, actually, and I loved working with those girls. Then I went to [inaudible 00:13:56], and then I did it again there, but with creative influencers. So you know, people who were designers, ceramicists, strategists for big brands. Then when I set up my consultancy, people like, I guess, Chanel, would say to me, "Okay, well who should we be working with?"

- Sara M                      

I would say, "I think you should work with this person and that person."

- Sara M                        

Then I would do a background check into them, and see okay, is there anything in this person's background that makes them unsuitable for that brand in particular? Because actually when you work with luxury brands, their brand is so important, it's so corporately to them, it means everything, and if it's damaged, it causes a huge amount of anxiety. So for them, working with influencers, it was a massive jump, and they wanted to really nail it. Luxury has to nail it, that's the thing, and when it doesn't, it's just made an example of continually. Luxury brands aren't really allowed to fail.

- Sara M                       

Yes, so I do background check, and I would say, "Okay, I think this person, because of this reason. And this is the angle that you should get content with them from. I know you like this person, but actually on Twitter, six years ago they said something racist, so you shouldn't."

- Alex                           

Can you, and genuinely interested. I'm trying to think of like a Joe Raglan moment, who had an empire and then dissed his own product and all. Have you got any examples where you have seen a luxury brand get it spectacularly wrong?

- Sara M                       

I do.

- Alex

Or do they tend to put the fire blanket over it pretty quickly?

- Sara M

They do. They deal with it quite well, but I think the internal anxiety of a failure remains for a long time. So even though publicly people get over it, I think the news cycle is so fast now, nothing really remains for very long, but internally it really shakes people I think, because they're under so much pressure to get it perfect.

- Sara M

I guess one brand that I can talk about, but I potentially can't name. It was basically a gun brand, and they sell these incredible, antique, hunting rifles to people who have estates, and they go hunting on the weekend, and they go on hunting holidays and that kind of thing. So it was really for people, a very small part of the population, and who have a lot of money to spend on that sport. They did a fashion collection, and they hired a stylist who was very cool, and her content was amazing, to style their collection. It turned out she was anti-firearms. Famously so. So when that content came out, their audience was just like, "What is going on? This person stands for everything that we don't. This person wants us to not have the freedoms that we do."

 - Sara M                     

That information wasn't difficult to find about that person.

- Alex                          

Why on earth did they take the job?

- Sara M                       

Money. That's the thing. A lot of people will say, "Well just because I think this personally, it doesn't mean professionally I can't take the job."

- Sara M                       

I think for anyone else, there's obviously a conflict, and I think definitely more so now, but I've seen it time and time again, [inaudible] have talked about, "Oh I don't want to work with brands that test on animals." Or, "I don't use products that have been tested on animals."

- Sara M                   

And then they're working with a brand who does. That kind of thing, that's what really erodes the influencer/audience relationship. It's when they kind of sell out for the commercial gain. I think that the friction that's been caused by that is at an all time high. For brands, as well, then that puts their product in a very negative context. So that's basically why I think that due diligence of, who is this person, beyond what they're telling me about themselves, beyond how beautiful their content is, and how fantastic they look, who are they, actually?

- Bronagh                   

Yes, because I guess social media just exacerbates any of those sort of crisis control situations, and I do think that influencers, to give them, to put it in a category, I think they have suffered a lot more than maybe a traditional celeb might have done, say, 15 years ago. Because everything they do is so public facing, and it's almost this they have to apologize for everything, and you're so quick to apologize for stuff. And it is, the accountability's on both sides, because one, it's to say you're an influencer that is taking money off a brand, there's a level of trust there, and obviously it's hugely embarrassing and then equally for the brand, you just think that these corporations have massive teams who will check that to the letter. But actually it's maybe just one person within one department who said, "Oh no, I really like them."

- Bronagh                     

It sort of then breaks the fourth wall in way, except actually people do ...

- Alex

I imagine though, as a brand, though, you're far more wary of the fact that an army can mobilize against itself against you so quickly. In fact, I was talking about this yesterday with Dominic, about the, go back to your time at the Sun, going back to the big story of the week, which is the Ben Stokes, I don't know if you follow cricket or not, but they went after the national sporting icon right now. A story that was 31 years old, he wasn't even born, an absolute tragedy on the other side of the world, and the Sun went with it. I just, we were discussing how Hillsborough, famously the Sun is never bought in Liverpool anymore for [inaudible] of that.

- Alex                           

But that was quite isolated. Whereas in a space of an hour, Ben Stokes releases a really aggressive statement against the Sun, and it's got a quarter of a million re-Tweets in 10 minutes. Now as, I presume as a brand, you can scope for error is just non-existent now.

- Sara M

Oh yes, and I think it just happens so quickly. That's the thing. The damage happens in a blink of an eye, and even though you have that fast news cycles where it's sort of buried within a couple of days, it still exists on Google. It's still exists. That criticism is still out there. It's just the drama and the anxiety around it for everyone involved, if you can avoid it, I think you should.

- Sara M                 

But one thing I will say, is, I think that when female influencers do something wrong, or something that they're followers decide that they don't like, or they make a mistake, or something like that, they get dragged for days by everyone from their followers, to fellow influencers, to celebrities, to MPs. Everyone weighs in on them. Not the same for male influencers.

- Alex                           

Why is that?

- Bronagh                     

Yes, I was going to say, why do you think that is?

- Sara M

I think that female influencers are expected to be saints. I think that the entire narrative around content for women is very much about lifestyle, a lot of it is around parenting, a lot of it is very much about those areas where you're basically trying to help people-

- Alex                        

Virtue.

- Sara M                       

Yes, yes. It's only really in the past couple of years that we've seen influencers rise to the top, here in more [inaudible 00:21:00], more willing to sort of, "This is what I believe in, and I don't care if you don't like it."

- Sara M

But when those lifestyle influencers, when they get something wrong, it's just unbelievable how the Internet descends upon them. I mean, you look at someone like Scarlett Dixon last year, who, she posted a picture, and I believe it was an advert for Listerine, and basically she had balloons in her room-

- Bronagh                    

Oh yes, I remember this.

- Sara M

Yes, exactly. And I mean, don't get me wrong, I do get it. It was kind of like, I mean it was almost like a farce. But I think at the same time, the strong feelings that that post-

- Bronagh                     

And the shaming.

- Sara M                        

The shaming was absolutely unforgivable. I think that if a male influencer was to do the same thing, and actually I have seen so many bad adverts by male lifestyle influencers, but there's none of the same criticism. There's none of the same dissection of their work. I think for women in this space, it's actually, it's very difficult to exist where you feel like you can post freely.

- Sara M                   

One of the people I interviewed for the book, was a mother of daughters, and she was telling me about when she was trolled in 2018 to the extent that she came off the Internet, she had to have a break. It was kind of like, there wasn't really a reason for it. She wasn't doing anything that other people weren't also doing, but for some reason, people just decided, "No, we're going to go after her."

- Sara M             

And it really impacted her health. I think that, you know, I've not seen the same example around male influencers, and I interviewed many for the book, and trolling doesn't really come up in the same way.

- Alex                         

You see, I think it does. I'm not an [inaudible] in any way, shape, or form, but from a personal point of view, we've mentioned this podcast that I do. It gets some quite chunky numbers, and every week, so I do it with a bloke called James Haskell, he openly admits he's quite divisive, but he has people lauding him and smashing him. We have a saying, "Never read below the line."

- Alex                         

And I I've done a fair amount of broadcasting, but I've never really sort of put myself out there in that space, and now having done it, it's fascinating. We make a joke of it. So we had a lady called [Mabrice] who came after us, and came after us, and then we invited her on the show, and we haven't heard from her again since, which is a shame, because I would, genuinely, I would be fascinated to say, "Come and have a drink, and say what you're saying to our face, and explain yourself."

- Bronagh

They never will, though.

- Alex

But they go very quiet at that point. I wonder if there's a, and I don't think it's a male female thing, what I would say to the people at work is just none of it matters. I think the quicker you can get to the point where none of it matters, then you're quite comfortable with it either way. There are, it's society in general,

- Alex

It's noisy on the far right, it's noisy on far left, and there's not a lot going on, there's no nuance in anything in politics at the moment. And likewise on social media, there's no real nuance. Either you are Piers Morgan, where you take everything that gets thrown at you, and you just don't really care, or you are someone who gets it, and it throws you completely. It's very difficult to find that balanced middle ground almost in anything.

- Sara M                       

Yes, yes, I mean, I think that there is this sort of idea of there's black and white online, and that's it. There is no room for discussion. Actually I read something the other day, which basically the person was saying that people post online not to listen to people, and not to have a conversation, but so that they can reply. It's all that individual's voice, not really the conversation between the individual and several others. I think that mindset is what has turned, I suppose, the space of social media into something that is just so combative.

- Alex                           

Where are we going to be in two, three, four year's time in that kind of space? When we find a peace with it, and everyone go, "Actually I'll just get back to what we were doing, and just sort of get on?"

- Alex

Or do we keep drilling deeper and deeper?

- Bronagh

I think the thing is, we're sort of in a media bubble. So the way that the importance of social media has on our lives, and how big an issue it is to us, it's completely different to other people, I would say. Definitely when I go and speak at universities, or go and see businesses in other parts of the country, they'll say, "Social media's important to us, but it's not actually the main thing driving our brand."

- Sara M

So I always think that, yes, sometimes I kind of think, well is it the big thing that we think it is in the media bubble in London? But what I do think is it will continue. I don't necessarily think that things will get worse in terms of trolling. I think the trolls will always exist, and I think people will always use platforms to communicate, basically, online, and to share their opinion. I think it's very much become ingrained in our behavior.

- Sara M

But those platforms might not be Twitter. It might not be Facebook. It might not be Instagram. It might not be YouTube. There will be something else that comes along, and perhaps whatever that thing is will be a sort of balm to the other things. We just don't know, and I think at this point in time, the really interesting thing about the influencers who I interviewed for the book was, the majority said, "If another platform was to come along right now, I would jump immediately."

- Sara M

There's quite a dissatisfaction, I think, with the way in which Instagram has been commercialized. I think a lot of influencers feel like in some ways they have been exposers. And also they started created content on these platforms because they wanted to communicate, and then of course the platforms have gone from being tills of communication to them as a brand, to being-

- Bronagh

 Advertising space.

- Sara M

Entertainment, Yes, advertise and entertainment spaces. So that's completely changed what the influencer does, and how they approach their content.

- Alex

Someone mentioned to me the other day that the one to watch is WhatsApp.

- Sara M

Yes, interesting, yes.

- Alex

You wonder whether influencers will start building their own communities where they can talk to people, and it's much more sort of discourse in that responsive, and if you step out line, you're out, kind of thing. As a much safer, quieter, happier place.

- Bronagh

Like a chat forum.

- Alex

Yes.

- Sara M

Yes, yes, well it's interesting, actually, how many have started creating Facebook pages. So closed Facebook pages. I saw that Kaushal Modha, she's got, I think it's called Kaushal's Angels, and it's this private Facebook page that you have to apply to be part of. They all talk about beauty secrets, and tips and tricks. I think that is, that's such a positive thing to do. It's such a positive way to interact with people, and also really strip out the people who potentially turn being a part of the influencers' community into a negative experience, and it just gets right back to the heart of why the influencer started, which was they wanted to share their experience of things, and also share the knowledge that they had.

- Bronagh

 I also just wanted to kind of contextualize for anyone who's listening that doesn't know what CORQ is. Can you tell us exactly what it is, and what are the company's objectives?

- Sara M

Sure. So CORQ is an influencer intelligence and digital trans-platform. What we do is we really look for, I suppose, the most interesting influencers who are operating across every platform right now, across different verticals, and we curate them onto the platform, and independently go through their content and research who they are, and why they would be interesting to a brand. What's their background? And basically put all of that information, that often brands and agencies have to pill together, which is so hard when you don't have a lot of time, into a platform so that they can see, "Oh well this person sounds great for this brand, and this is why they would resonate with us."

- Sara M

It's really finding that information that makes someone human. Part of the thing that I think has been quite negative about how the influencer industry has developed, is how much it is dependent on data. Actually people don't behave like numbers, and the reason why so many consumers are compelled by influencers is because of the human story that they're telling. I think understanding those details will allow brands to make better decisions about who they work with.

- Sara M

Also, I just think as well, we could do more interesting things in this space. I see so many terrible product promotions, where I just think, you know, you could've put your money into something that was fantastic, and instead you've gone for a really big YouTuber who's just done a crap job. 

- Bronagh

I was going to say, do you have a criteria of who is an influencer on CORQ?

- Sara M

Yes we do. So usually it's people who are doing more than just taking pictures of themselves wearing clothes and putting them on the Internet. Usually we're looking for people who have some kind of background, or standpoint, or even if it that they are just styling clothes on themselves, it's like, do they have a distinct aesthetic? Is there something in what they're doing that has cut through, and that's driving a community, and it's making people ask them questions?

- Sara M

I think as well, we've profiled all of those big YouTubers and followed that journey down, because you have to give people a sense of landscape. So where does someone like Brittany Bathgate, who's an incredible fashion influencer on Instagram, where does she sit in comparison to someone like Tanya Bark, who's gone through this entire rebrand and rebirth, and who actually I think is doing a really good job right now.

- Bronagh

Do they always have to operate online? Or do you have anyone who is an influencer offline, and doesn't have a digital community?

- Sara M

We have people who are not entirely focused online. So people who are painters, and creatives, and stuff like that, and they're doing incredible murals, or work in the community. People like that, who have started grassroots movement, yes, they have an influence online, but maybe they only have 3000 followers, but what they're doing offline is so compelling that if the right brand was to come along and partner with them, it would be so interesting. It's always people like that that brands like Google and Nike are really looking to work with. That's what I really enjoy, is I enjoy finding those people.

- Alex

How long does it take to build, and to do the research, and to have someone ready to go for a brand to-

- Sara M

So we have a team of journalists and editors who are working on the platform all day, every day, and it really depends. Someone like a YouTuber who maybe started between 2008 and 2010, that is quite a big job, because you want to go through all those videos. You want to understand how they evolved, what their progression was, why they started, and you know what they're doing now. Because if you follow those early adopters, most of them, their content has changed so much. So to get a full background on who they are, and help a brand understand them as a human being, could take two, three hours, maybe, sometimes.

- Sara M

But for people who have adopted just like Instagram maybe in the past four years, that could take like and hour, and it's just really going through those posts and seeing, okay, what do they do, what do they care about? Where did they come from? It's even things like, what do they like? For example, we'll always put down if someone doesn't drink alcohol, we'll put that into their profile, because, you know, we met an influencer late last year, and she said, "You know I always talk about the fact that I'm sober, and I always get approached by alcohol brands."

- Alex:                            

Really?

- Sara M

Yes. But you know, things like that, I think are really helpful. Just sort of that time waste of contacting someone, for example, who either is vegan with a dairy product or a leather product, just take all of that out of the equation, get to the person who is most likely to be willing to promote your product, and in an authentic way.

- Bronagh

 I think that's where the parallels cross, because the influencer room was founded on learning that Alex was getting sent all of this stuff from brands that he didn't want, and if someone within that brand just did a little bit of research on what Alex likes, then they would save all of that time, and also money that they're sending products to people who have no interest-

- Alex

And it's the flip side as well. It's not only people receiving product they don't want, but actually there's some very interesting storytellers out there who are creating amazing content, and doing really interesting things, and going to some amazing places, and working on some fabulous causes, and actually they could take some really intelligent brands with them, and plug them into those stories to help amplify it. Then it's a win win on both sides. So that, we're in that sort of contrary economy whereby brands don't chat with stuffy idiots like me, they find the people that want it and will do something with it, and interesting storytellers can say that I'm off to do this, would anyone like to come and help? [crosstalk]

- Sara M

I think as well, as things are changing with the cultural context that we live in, this awareness of climate change, and how people feel about plastic, and just people becoming more conscious about their decisions, I think that has naturally had an impact on how influencers are now pushing content. We caused an event at ad week, and two of the influencers who were on our panel said, "I can't get on stage until those plastic bottles of water have been removed."

- Sara M

We weren't going to open them. We weren't going to drink from them, but they said, "I can't even be pictured [crosstalk] next to them."

- Sara M

And I thought that's really interesting how Instagram has been built on this idea of consumerism, and showcasing products, and how to sell products, and the best products for a certain amount of money, and I think as people become more aware of the issues that that consumerism has caused, influencer content is going to change. It's going to become much more story led, and finding those influencers who are doing things that naturally result in a really compelling story is going to be really important.

- Alex

One other thing, we find we have to educate a lot of our brands on what we do and what is beneficial, and then they do it and it works. But I think one of the things that brands are going to have to evolve in the way that they work, is the ability to trust the people who love them to tell their story in a really authentic setting. This sort of explosion in influencer marketing moment is all about brands paying people to post specific content about that brand, but if you think about social media, it's an organic content discussion sharing site, and therefore the whole sort of paid promotion doesn't, exactly what you were saying, it doesn't really fit naturally with what the site is all about. So I think the brands who will get the most from influencers in the next few years to come, are those who say, "You love our product, we've got an opportunity for you to work with us. Take what it is. Include us in your story authentic."

- Alex                            

I think there is education to be done around that. I don't think it's the whole, but hopefully it'll become a bigger part of what brands do, is that they trust their advocates to create amazing content, including great stories.

- Sara M

Yes, 100%, and I think that working with influencers who we can actually do things with, be on the content, the content is just part of the job. I think there are so many interesting influencers who are hosting soccer clubs, and who are doing spoken word poetry in the evening, and who, people have diversified so much in this culture of side hustle, and I think that those people where a brand can get in touch with them and say, "Okay, let's host an evening and do something, and invite down your followers, and we can invite down some people."

- Sara M                       

And that naturally creates a situation, which it feels to produce rich content. I think that that's really where brands who are thinking, "What can we do beyond this Instagram focus?"

- Sara M                       

That's where I hope it goes, because I think that there a lot of very interesting people out there in this space, but they could do so much more for brands than just some pictures on Instagram.

- Alex                             

Agreed.

- Bronagh                     

And then you've also just published your first book. Congratulations.

- Sara M

Yes, thank you.

- Bronagh

With Bloomsbury. tell us about that process, and what did you learn from writing the book? Was it just cathartic, this is everything I've learned about influence? Or did you learn stuff along the way?

-  Sara M

 Yes, so I learned tons. At that point, yes, I'd been working with influencers for seven years, and I knew what my experience was, but I really wanted to approach the book journalistically. We went to see a lot of publishers, and the majority said, "Yes, we would like this book, but we want it to be a bit close comment, rather than journalism."

- Sara M

So basically, this is what I think about this space. Actually I wanted to write something that was more like a foundation text for anyone who had to excel in this area, so that they could understand why this influencer phenomenon has happened, and how influence works on each platform, where it's going, the people behind it.

- Sara M

I interviewed just over 80 influencers for the book. [inaudible] definitely people who worked with influencers as well. One of them, Liam Chivers, who is KSI's manager, he is just fascinating. Really down to earth as well. He's taught me so much.

- Alex

What were the interesting tidbits? I don't know how to keep a handle on KSI, but [crosstalk] by itself is a book.

- Sara M

Yes, yes, I think he should write a book.

- Alex

That's one hell of a journey, though. [crosstalk]

- Sara M

He's a very inspired individual, actually, because he saw that something was happening in the YouTube space when it came to gaming, and he just thought, "I need to do something here."

- Sara M

It was just like, he was almost like thinking on his feet, and he brokered Ali-A's first deal. He got KSI to sign with him within two months of him starting his business. He just really saw this opportunity, and he wasn't really sure what shape it was going to take, but he thought, "I'm going to follow it through, and I'm going to get the right people to join you in that journey."

- Sara M

I think, yes, he was just incredible to talk to. Then also, a guy called, Sam Betesh, at one point he was the second biggest gaming YouTuber, and he told me about his journey and how he was kind of one of the first, and how he was really unhappy at that time. He said he didn't have any friends at school. He didn't have anyone to share it with. He doesn't look back on it fondly.

- Sara M                      

Again, some people are just so generous with actually the personal information around it, which I think really gives the book a richness. But since then, Sam doesn't do YouTubing anymore. Now he's like the influencer marketing guru in America. He sort of disappeared for a couple years, and then reappeared in Miami with Justin Bieber doing his social media. He told me a lot about that, which was great.

- Bronagh                 

Amazing. And then, off the back of the book, obviously you've had some amazing press around it, and I kind of just wanted to touch on the Sunday Times article that went live the other weekend. I mean, I thought it was amazing. I messaged Haley, who's marketing director at CORQ, and I was like, "You have absolutely, you and Sara have smashed this PR," because it's obviously promoting Sara's book, and promoting the business.

- Bronagh                   

But then there was this other wave of backlash to it. So talk to us a little bit about that.

- Sara M                     

Yes, yes.

- Bronagh                   

What was the problem?

- Sara M

People didn't like the list. They were like, "This is too random."

- Sara M                     

And I think they kind of, I don't know, had different opinions about who should be on that list. A lot of people didn't read the article that contextualized it, so they thought it was an endorsement. So people were saying things like, "How can you put PewDiePie on there? How can put the [Angems] on there? Bearing in mind the controversies that they've had."

- Sara M

But the thing is, it's not an endorsement. It's just the reality of who people are engaging with frequently online, and actually ... It's not the nice list. I could've easily said, "Okay let's do something that everyone will really like."

- Sara M

But it wouldn't have been the truth. I think a lot of people want this influencer industry to fit really neatly into a box where I suppose the top 100 are all the really big YouTubers. It actually doesn't anymore, it's so sprawling, it's so broad, I'm continually surprised by the people who are gaining traction in this space. I think one of the criticisms I had was that Caspar Lee was too low on the list, and Zoe Sugg was too low on the list.

- Sara M

But the fact is, they don't really post on social media a huge amount anymore. They're nowhere near as prolific as they used to be. And actually it's such a competitive space that others are just coming up behind them and going past them. And I think a lot of people potentially still have this 2015 idea of what an influencer is, and I guess maybe they think it's Zoe Sugg and Alfie Deyes, and all of those early adopters, but those early adopters have moved past this in some ways, and they've launched businesses, and they've become entrepreneurs, and their focus is on building brands that are not just about themselves anymore.

- Sara M                   

Also it would have been, there's no way anyone else apart from PewDiePie could have been number one. He's just so enormous now that-

- Bronagh

On a global scale.

- Sara M

On a global scale, that to put someone else at the top, it would have been disingenuous regardless of how you feel about him personally.

- Alex

Yes. The first time I read that, I'm very middle aged, and so way past this, way beyond those that have come and gone, but we did an event with British Airways where we flew a whole lot of influencers to New Orleans for an amazing five days of Mardi Gras. It was really fun. And we were finding people to go. The trigger was that Nicole Scherzinger was doing a party in the sky, and she was singing on the plane as she went.

- Alex

So we went to a few of these YouTubers, and said, "There's a really great opportunity here, would you like to go on this trip, et cetera, and Nicole Scherzinger is singing."

- Alex

And they came, I think they put us onto an agent, the agent said, "You've got this completely wrong. This isn't about my client coming to sing with Nicole Scherzinger. This is about Nicole Scherzinger getting time to spend with my client."

- Alex

I was like, "What? Your client's a YouTuber."

- Alex

They're like, "Yes, and that is where the power now is."

Alex:

And it has been extraordinary to watch almost how this sort of, the mainstream talent are aligning themselves with these unbelievable audiences, and the power that they now have and handle.

- Sara M                       

Yes, definitely. But I think it's because those people, those big YouTubers, who, they were really clever, they adopted the platform early. They've never stopped creating content. They have such a close relationship with their audience, and I think that regardless of how you feel about influencers, and this entire industry, I think that that is incredible, and it's commendable, their commitment to their channels. It's absolutely unbelievable. It's so hard to gain traction on these channels.

- Sara M

I actually ran two influencer Instagram accounts at one point, and it doesn't happen overnight. It does take a lot of perseverance, and especially, you look at these people, they were doing it independently, basically when they were very, very young, and to continue through, I think, is incredible. But I think that's the thing, and that's why celebrities are aligning with them, because they have this audience that's so wrapped.

- Sara M

But I think at the same time, the really interesting thing is how those people have developed. I think what Zoe Sugg has done in the past year is so compelling. I think launching her app, Filmm, I think inviting her followers to her smear test, she has developed in way that nobody really saw coming. And I think the businesses that she has built are incredible. I think a lot of businesses are very, sort of, a derivative of her brand, actually.

- Alex

Can I just quickly ask as well? So the Sunday Times incident, when you- [crosstalk]

- Bronagh:                    

Incident.

- Alex                             

We can call it that. But when you said, "Oh you know, there was a lot of opinion, who would've thought there would be opinion around social media, et cetera."

- Alex

How did you find that, personally? As someone who sort of analyzes the landscape, to suddenly find yourself taking quite of bit of that on yourself?

- Sara M

I didn't like it. I didn't really answer back a lot of the criticism, because I actually think CORQ's a really discreet business. We work behind the scenes with a lot of brands. We do that research. We never take ownership of anything, and actually I don't think my clients want to see me arguing online. I think that really changes who we are, and I don't want to get drawn into things. And a lot of the criticism was from my competitors. Several who said, "If the Sunday Times wants to do this again, then we'll do it with them."

- Sara M

You know, and I thought-

- Bronagh                   

Sales opportunity.

- Sara M                   

I know. I was just like, "My God."

- Sara M                       

But I did answer one person, Ben Jeffries, who's the CEO of Influencer, because the Sunday Times asked me to, and we flagged his comment to me. It was clear that he hadn't read the feature, which contextualized the list, and you know and I said, "Why don't we talk about it?"

- Sara M

No response.

-Bronagh                    

No response.

- Alex                           

You're kidding.

- Sara M

Yes. No response. And the thing is, I actually interviewed him for my book, so he has my contact details anyway. So if he was confused, he could've reached out. But instead, it's this thing of, people want to do things, make the statement publicly, which is fine, everyone's entitled to their opinion. But we actually got in touch with several people who were like, "How did this list come together? I don't understand it. There's no methodology."

- Sara M

Of course there was. Nobody, nobody has got back to us. So I kind of wonder if people just get caught up in the noise, and don't necessarily want to have the conversation.

- Alex

We should just very quickly say, Ben, if you ever listen to this, and you want to come on, and have a proper discussion, the chair is always available.

- Bronagh

Absolutely.

- Alex

We'd welcome you back, Sara.

- Bronagh

I was going to say, I think it's because LinkedIn is a new social media platform for business influencers, and I think it's a channel that a lot people get very sucked in to. I find LinkedIn fascinating.

- Sara M

Yes, I think [crosstalk] There's a lot of ego in business, you know, and I think that in this space as well, people are really trying to build things quite quickly, and a lot of us who work in the space are start ups, so we're on this kind of like, everybody's got a runway where you need to meet certain targets by. You're trying to get more investment, everybody's competing for the same things, in a way. So I think that sort of fuels this idea that you have to have a voice in all of it.

- Sara M

But actually the position I've always taken with CORQ is we're kind of like the invisible thing that works underneath, and we help our clients through brands and agencies, and we don't really get involved in that stuff. But this time, I was sort of obliged to come back, and I just tried to do so with as little aggression as possible.

- Alex

It's interesting, your position is very similar to ours, which his that we don't really want to be known, spoken about, very discreet. For the first two years of our existence, our homepage was literally a keyhole, which is our logo, and login, and apply button. There's no information about it. We were only would pass through person, to person. And I think there is a growing element of that in this space now there is sort of a discretion that is becoming increasingly valuable that in a way that at the start it was just, shout as loud as you can. Make as much noise in order to grow your presence. And I think that's a maturity that's sort of coming into the space.

- Sara M

Yes, yes, well I think, like I'm 36. I've got two kids. I don't really have time to go online and fight with people, and I have no desire to. And I think that discretion is something that's quite rare these days, and I think it's valuable. I don't ever want to take credit for anything that any of our clients do. We just want to do a good job and help them. That's really, that's the only thing that I want to do. And I think it just depends on your temperament. I found the whole Sunday Times backlash very stressful.

- Alex                  

Did you?

- Sara M

Yes, yes, yes. So for me-

- Bronagh

Because it's so close to you.

- Alex

Yes.

- Sara M

It's really close to me. I think as well, it was just kind of like, please read the article that accompanies the list.

- Alex                           

But it comes back to what we said, there's no reasoned debate anymore. It's a snap opinion based on left or right, and that's it. But it's really interesting that it affected you, given that 20 minutes ago you were saying these things blow up and they move on so quickly. So you know how it works. Everyone who's written to you, can't even be bothered to follow up the conversation on a point of debate, because they've moved on to the next thing. [crosstalk]

- Sara M

Oh yes, completely.

- Alex

And yet, it's like a typhoon, it's like the damage just sort of has to be rebuilt when everyone else has moved on, kind of thing.

- Sara M

Yes, and I think you do feel quite winded by it, because, I think as well, because I don't really go to industry events, and I don't really, I don't know personally most other people working in the space. It didn't actually occur to me that the list would cause so much controversy. I just kind of set out to do something that was truthful.

- Alex

Have you seen, or what impact has it had on business? Have you had a spike in inquiries?

- Sara M

Yes.

- Alex                           

I bet, yes. So ultimately it worked.

-  Sara M                     

Yes, yes, of course. Yes, no. We're having a good month. Correct. Which is great, but the thing is, I just think that the more people have real information in this space, the better off the space becomes. It's been great. It's been really good from that-

- Alex                             

You have to give him that information in 140 characters or less [inaudible 00:51:06].

- Sara M                       

I know, exactly. I'll do it in a meme.

- Alex                           

Yes, exactly. That'll be a great Tripwire.

- Bronagh                      

It's how people speak now.

- Bronagh

So to round up, I'd love to hear who you feel at the moment is most influential, or a kind of number of people who you think we should our eye on.

- Sara M

So I think it's really interesting that Dominique Davey has started a YouTube channel. So she is All That She ... is it All That She? Or All [inaudible] or something like that on Instagram, and she produces these really beautiful pictures with her daughters, and they're very kind of surreal and magical. And her content there is beautiful, and she's also a blogger, and now she started YouTube. And I wonder if we'll see more people who have launched their careers from Instagram, looking YouTube and saying, "Okay, what can I do here?"

-  Sara M

There is a desire for things of more substance. And then I think as well, I mean, I'm a huge fan of Nathan Zed, the YouTuber from America. I just think his content is fantastic. I think when he does commercial partnerships, they're so brilliant. He's so funny. He's so charismatic.

- Sara M

One of the people I interviewed for the book was Taha Khan-

- Bronagh                   

I know Taha Khan. Lovely guy.

- Sara M

And I just, I love his content. I think that he's really funny. I think he's really on the nose with some of the commentary he makes. Yes, there's a lot of people I would say who are sort of the younger generation coming up, I think are very interesting. I think it will be interesting to see how they shape these platforms, because I don't think it's going to be anything like their-

- Bronagh               

Predecessors.

- Sara M

Yes, their predecessors.

- Bronagh                   

Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Sara.

- Sara M

Thank you.

- Alex:                           

Thank you. It was fabulous.

 

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