Watching the World-Changers: The Rise of Influence in Plain Sight
In advance of TEDx: LA this December 3rd, Social Media Super Influencer Jérôme Jarre talks with me about how to make the world a better place.
He’s been called the ‘Unofficial King of Vine”. His vine project ‘Humans’ captured, according to some commentators, “humanity at its best”.
Comedian, entrepreneur and (with 15 million digital followers) social media ‘super influencer’, Jérôme Jarre has drawn the likes of Michelle Obama, Robert De Niro, Pharrell Williams, Ashton Kutcher, Ben Stiller, and Kristen Bell into his world of short-form digital content-making.
Certainly anyone who can harness social media to “restore your faith” in the human condition has an inside track perspective that the rest of us can surely benefit from.
Only – pause the drum roll – because before jumping in and talking to Jérôme, it’s important to set some context.
Jérôme Jarre is a vivid illustration that contributes to the bigger cultural picture; a picture where the face – indeed, ‘faces’ – of ‘cultural influence’ is changing radically.
With the speed of fibre optic, out-of-nowhere names are becoming ‘household’ overnight. Content creators like Jarre have become ‘The New Influencers’, more trusted, followed, more credible than the vast majority of media and consumer brands.
Once upon a time, in those ever-distant days of analogue, the power of ‘mass influence’ sat in the hands of political leaders and immemorial institutions, the Fourth Estate and ‘Mass Media’, and Silver Screen celebrity.
Today, mass media lies fragmented on the floor, crunching under foot as unintentionally trampled by names like Zoella, Rémi Gaillard, Casey Nesitat, KSI and PewDiePie. Where the UK’s Guardian newspaper has a daily print circulation of around 158,000, and a readership of 835,000, Zoella has an aggregated social reach of 30.9m.
In the face of such socio-cultural change, clear and present questions arise. Where the role of the Fourth Estate was to police and regulate the behaviour of political parties, and in turn, the mass media was itself regulated through counter-balancing editorial perspectives, what are the ‘checks & measures’ by which social influencers are guided? And indeed, should there be any, given the Internet’s open-source origins birthed a ‘Digital State’ of self-regulation?
Playing to the maxim, “with great power comes great responsibility”, do this generation of ‘New Influencers’ recognise their responsibility? Such questions also draw easy parallels to former paranoia’s, stepping us briefly into the time tunnel.
It was in 1957 that Vance Packard’s seminal ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ first hit the shelves, serving up a tequila slam of consumer paranoia to everyone’s rolling bar tab of conspicuous consumption.
The madmen were getting in our heads, suggested social critic Packard. They’d started talking to psychologists, and then without any Hippocratic oath to honour, had gone to the cognitive dark side, wielding the subtle knife of psychological manipulation in order to direct our material desires. This was ‘persuasion’ of the hidden kind.
Just imagine: being in a state of wanting without knowing why?
While little more than the evolution of advertising as a discipline, ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ was billed a kind of McCarthyism meets The Manchurian Candidate in the pay of Mamon – simply meaning Packard was onto a winner and bestseller. If you haven’t read it, you really should. It’s a seriously good read, though one from the vaults, that reminds that 1957 is one of those foreign countries where things are done very differently.
Of course 1957 to 2017 is a 60 year stretch where the world’s gonna turn enough for progress to make the present resemble what we thought living in the future would look like, and for the past to look provincial and outmoded.
As we reach 2016’s swan song, we only have to look at the numbers and chart the line graph. 2017 is looking like the ‘Year of the Crossover’, when ‘Millennials’ will be watching more YouTube than straight, linear TV.
As Broadcasting’s shoulders increasingly narrow, it’s the vloggers with multi-million followers and posted content watched by tens of millions, who are becoming the new mass media. With fame and ‘quantifiable’ following, there are young, ambitious, idealistic individuals walking around who – with one upload from their phone – can reach audiences tens of times the reach of most national newspapers. Simply put: they are influence in plain sight. While one can only imagine what Vance Packard would write by way of sequel, we are in a position to go direct to source.
DRUM ROLL PLEASE
With the big picture now painted, our context now our backdrop, it’s time to populate the stage.
I see Jérôme Jarre as part of the digital new wave, a change-maker with a world stage on which to play his part – but I also wonder, does he consider himself a “persuader in plain sight”?
When I ask him, he puts it simply, pointedly: “I am obsessed with how influencers can leverage their social media power to change things in the world.”
This notion of “social media power” raises obvious questions. What of the responsibility that comes with having millions and millions of followers? To what extent does one ‘make’ content purposefully for your audience? Or is it closer to the way that writers write for themselves, writing the kind of thing they want to read?
“Let me answer it like this”, Jérôme volunteers. “There’s a ‘fusional relationship’ between the creator and their audience. It may not be the conventional relationship of a ‘friendship’, but it’s very close to it. Most of the people that follow me know more about me than some people that have known me for 10 years. It’s personal, it’s consensual, and it’s without any filter on. At least for me. You know when you are alone in the shower and you sing? Where nobody is judging you. That’s this exact moment I aim to share online.”
“So it’s about total honesty then, creating a virtual intimacy albeit at a physical distance?” I suggest.
“Absolutely. The relationship is two-way. Anything you post online should intentionally involve the audience somehow,” Jérôme explains. “I never want the audience to be passive. And the old mediums are passive: TV, radio, print. Social is different: you can make people feel like they are part of it. They are the content, they are the idea, they are the movement. And if you want to change the world, you’ve got a chance to convince millions of people to change the world with you. Powerful stuff.”
“And what about brands?” I prompt. “How and where do they fit into the mix?”
“If brands want to join the ‘fusional relationship’, they have to emotionally and financially commit. Of course there is a room for them – but only if they are willing to align to the purpose of the creator and his community. For example, I’m interested in kindness between humans, in love on planet earth, and in fixing things around the world that shouldn’t be broken. If a brand is interested in helping my community and me with that, then we have a shot at doing something good together.”
The idea of brands representing not just ‘Big Ideas’ but ‘Big Ideals’ is something former P&G CMO Jim Stengel proposed a few years back. Does Jérôme agree that brand’s have the potential to step-up and be something more and different to people? How ‘High Order’ can brands go?
“It’s my vision and I believe it’s possible”, he answers, with a conviction that’s convincing. “If we truly believe the world could be a better place then everyone has to play his role in it. Brands too.”
“What of those brands you’ve worked with?”, I ask.
“Let me give you an example of a brand I didn’t initially respect, but that has earned my respect through working together…
Pepsi. They wanted to work with me so I encouraged them to donate $1m to ‘Liter of light’, a Filipino NGO that focuses on bringing solar light to people around the world. Not only do they do that, but they also teach people how to make and fix those lights with material you can find locally. It’s a game-changer. We don’t talk about it enough, but there are at least 1 billion people suffering from light poverty. That’s not ok. And if we all try to fix it we will. But if nobody cares, or all we do is talk about it, then nothing will change. I don’t believe in just bringing awareness. I believe in action.
So here you have a brand – in this case a soft drink – that with a little guidance and an enlightened mind-set can literally bring light to corner of the world that would otherwise still be in darkness.”
Where Jérôme points out that “many companies still need to grow up, be more courageous, and realize the role they can be play in society”, the Liter of Light initiative provides heart-warming counterpoint. As PepsiCo CMO Seth Kaufman also recently put it, “We have a responsibility to make sure that we’re changing as the world is changing in front of us.”
Pepsi develops influencer activations based on its LATTE model, where the idea (and execution) only makes the grade if it’s Local, Authentic, Transparent, Traceable and Ethical.
LATTE isn’t the only model Jérôme is understandably interested in. There are also commercial realities to which brands need to be realistic. Simply, pursuing ‘Big Ideals’ still needs to pay the bills and put food on the table.
“And at the end of the that type of mission”, Jérôme offers by way of parenthesis, “we are able to generate some profit too. Which then allowed us to create more missions. It’s a beautiful snowball effect. Because I don’t believe in having to chose between doing good and generating revenue. I believe we can find a business model behind doing good, and that will attract more people to do it. And I didn’t invent that. Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize winner did. He invented micro-credit and helped millions of people get out of poverty. He doesn’t believe in non-profit, and neither do I.”
I FIND THIS SHIT FASCINATING
You see, I find all this fascinating, because I’ve spent 20 years in the ad business. I’ve worked with and helped build some of the world’s most famous brands, considering how they may excite, compel and motivate people into buying them. How can a brand draw people close, then closer, and ideally never let them go?
In the name of capitalism and consumerism – of wealth creation through want creation – I’ve plied the dark art and delicate science of influence and persuasion. Sometimes it’s worked. Sometimes it’s tanked. What I’ve learned is that bandwagon jumping and derivative, unoriginal thinking is typically met with the disdain it deserves – and when advertising works at its best, it stops being ‘advertising’. Meaning that it stops being about ‘push messaging’ and unwelcome intrusion in people’s everyday lives. Meaning too that it stops wielding all the welcome charm of a snake oil salesman, jam-packed with ulterior motive and veiled agenda, and it starts being about brands offering up the kind of thing people naturally like and want to see, read and watch. None of this is new news to the New Influencers of our digital world.
Brands with something to say will always do a truckload better than brands with only themselves to sell, and people like Jérôme give brands something to say. What I find refreshing and inspiring when talking to influencers like Jérôme is that he refuses to recognise the limitations of advertising. Instead, like it’s the most natural thing in the playbook, he invites brands to help fund initiatives that help make our world a better one.
“This Summer my friends and I took 100 kids from the favelas of Rio to the Olympics”, Jérôme mentions. “All of this was funded by a brand, by Getty Images.”
It very much feels however that this new world order – where brands genuinely give a damn and care enough to show it – is only just taking shape. Jérôme warms to this idea.
“There’s a remarkable but still quite small group of brands able to rethink ROI in terms of positive impact on the world. We need more courageous marketers in the business of wanting to leaves a legacy. The considerably less courageous marketers struggle to see beyond the immediacy of quarterly product sales.”
Jerome pauses, clearly reflecting on the influencer-brand dynamic, before adding: “Of course, marketing budgets aren’t the only source of funding for cause-related projects. Alternative and emerging financial support means that influencers are less dependent on brands than, say 3 years ago. It’s a good thing. They are starting to respect us more and listen – because we know what we are doing.”
WHEN BRANDS STEP UP & GOOD MEN DO SOMETHING
It doesn’t take much for evil to triumph. In fact, it takes nothing at all. As the parliamentarian Edmund Burke, back in the 18th Century, nailed it: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The same can also be said of ‘Good Brands’ and ‘Good Influencers’.
Whether through apathy and indifference, or purposeful ‘keep your head down’ silence, the net societal outcome of doing nothing is far from rosy – but there’s a cheerful flipside to this hardboiled reality.
We live in a Digital Age: an Age that gives us all voice and potential means. Technology has enabled and equipped us, meaning rather than keeping our heads down we can stand up and stand out. That is, should we choose to.
When any technological progress truly takes hold, it ceases to be ‘technology’. It crosses the divide, ceases to be a thing in and of itself, and becomes the trigger for cultural change. The printing press, light bulb, the telephone, jet propulsion: a quick-fire 5 that stop being just inventions and become world-changers. The same is true of ‘digital technologies’, of social media and social influencers.
Where we all carry supercomputers and mini-TV screens around in our pocket, social media is the delivery mechanism to mass influence. One post can become that first pebble to break the water, triggering in consequence physical and global-reaching ripples. Guys like Jérôme Jarre know this all too well. And they know what do about it. We have reason to watch, reason to follow, reason to do something, to join in and add our voice, and yes, growing reason to feel good about it.