Addison Easterling, a 19-year-old TikTok star with more than 30.6 million followers, had never shot an acting a reel or auditioned for a big role. But after finding huge success on TikTok, which she joined just last summer, top talent agents in Los Angeles began to reach out.
In December, she moved from Baton Rouge, La., to Los Angeles. In January, she signed with William Morris Endeavor, a major Hollywood talent agency.
“When WME said they wanted to sign me, I couldn’t wrap my head around it,” she said. “Just the opportunity to talk with one of these big agencies is a big deal.”
“This all came out of something I did for fun,” she said. “I was like, ‘Is this a real thing?’”
For those in entertainment, signing with an elite talent agency has long been a status symbol. But the fame landscape is shifting, and big agencies have realigned their businesses to focus on a new generation of talent: influencers.
“The next wave of talent, all future waves of talent, aren’t going to come from traditional places,” said Jad Dayeh, co-head of digital at WME. “The younger generation creates, self-broadcasts and shares it with the world. They don’t wait to get their audition shot and wait for someone to discover them.”
“It used to be, I want to get famous on YouTube or Vine, so I can have a career in traditional entertainment. Now, this is a career,” said Greg Goodfried, co-head of digital talent at United Talent Agency.
Because they grew their audience organically, many Gen Z stars don’t need agents to help them get gigs. But, as Parker Pannell, a 16-year-old TikToker, put it: “It’s a major flex to tell your friends you’re with CAA, WME or UTA.”
The New Money Makers
Digital talent departments at many large agencies aren’t new, but the money pouring into the space has exploded in recent years. The influencer marketing industry is set to top more than $15 billion by 2022, up from nearly $8 billion in 2019, according to a 2019 research report by Business Insider Intelligence using data from Mediakix. This, of course, could change with the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, those figures don’t even capture many of the successful products and businesses influencers have launched, including makeup and clothing lines.
It used to be that digital talent agents were ancillary to the business of big agencies, Mr. Dayeh said. But “in the last two years, digital has become the primary touchpoint for talent with the public.”
To that point, when Bret Weinstein of UTA launched the agency’s digital arm in 2006, initially called UTA Online, he was scouring YouTube and other web platforms for obscure talent. Today, he is the UTA’s chief innovation officer.
Other big talent houses had digital media divisions in the early aughts, too. But at the time, most agencies were focused on bringing celebrities from traditional Hollywood onto then-new platforms like Twitter, rather than building businesses around the ever-growing number of internet-native stars.
“There wasn’t a lot of money going around, it was really early days,” said Alec Shankman, a comanaging partner at A3 Artists Agency, formerly known as Abrams. Now, the dozens of TikTokers the agency has signed, Mr. Shankman said, have “become a really important part of our business.”
That’s partially because influencers are often successful at generating the thing agencies care most about: cash. “Frankly, we’re in a very for-profit business,” said Andrew Graham, an agent in Creative Artists Agency’s digital department. “So when brands started calling and saying, ‘Hey, do you have an influencer for this campaign?’ the agency’s ears perked up.”
‘Pioneering It As We Go’
To get deals for their clients, digital agents must remain current on technology shifts and the ever-evolving ways to structure deals. These include merch drops that never see a retail store; business decisions vetted by Instagram followers; meet-and-greets via FaceTime; and an endless churn of new digital platforms.
“It’s the Wild West,” said Alison Berman, co-head of digital talent at UTA. “There are some templates in place for some of the deals we do, but our area of business certainly isn’t templatized.”
Literary and film departments have “unions that are setting rates” and “there’s certain deals broken up into certain payment schedules,” she said. “They’re plug and play, whereas ours are entrepreneurial and we’re pioneering it as we go.”
In practice, it means that the big agencies have to keep up with the breakneck pace of their young clients, and woo them in new ways too.
Cosette Rinab, a 20-year-old TikToker, said that seeing UTA sign a major TikTok star like Charli D’Amelio (who signed along with the rest of her family) gave her respect for the agency. (Other members of the Hype House, a TikTok star collective, have signed with WME and A3 Artists Agency.)
“In my eyes, it gave UTA a little bit more relevance,” Mr. Rinab said. “It gave me a feeling of, ‘Oh, UTA is really keeping up with this.’”