Finding a voice: The secret lives of modern influencers –


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Auckland’s Jess Molina, at 30, considers herself to be a “grandma influencer”.


Auckland’s Jess Molina, at 30, considers herself to be a “grandma influencer”.

A new and discerning generation of spenders is more likely to be inspired to buy from the parents and social justice entrepreneurs they see online than from celebrities in a glossy magazine. Who, then, are the modern influencers? Kelly Dennett reports.

In the week that an Atlanta, US, man opened fire and killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women, half a world away in Auckland, Jess Molina opened her Instagram and wrote, “The fact that the women murdered existed in so many intersections of marginalization – women, working class, minority, immigrant – is felt deeply. I don’t know how else to make people understand the connectedness of it all.”

At the ripe old age of 29, Molina says she is a grandma in influencer years, but rather than retiring, she’s hitting her stride. This year Molina quit her corporate marketing job to throw herself into the business of Instagram. Molina is not what you would expect of an influencer industry that’s gained a reputation for being a one-size-fits-all blonde-haired, blue-eyed community that’s out to bleed your wallets.

Molina lives at home with her supportive family, is softly spoken, down-to earth, and practically pinching herself as she talks excitedly about how the nearly 8000-strong community she’s grown online, through talking about issues that matter to her, has landed her in a position many dream of: to work for yourself.


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She jokes that her job is mostly over-sharing on the internet, but says in reality it involves careful staging and photography, vetting brands, scouring fine print in contracts, being her own accountant, researching products and brands, and most importantly, creating content for, and engaging directly with, her followers in the same kind of way a shop assistant would help a customer pick out a product.

“I think there is this perception that this industry is not real work,” she says. “People don’t see my Instagram as a legitimate channel. I’ve had people talk to me in a really condescending way, (asking), ‘What are you actually influencing?’ and it’s a question I ask myself all the time.’”

What is the answer?

Molina pauses. “I’m influencing the world to be a little better,” she says, “And a little kinder, and a little more aware of what’s happening.”

Advertising is a $2 billion industry and while traditional media has long been left in the dust, Covid-19 has hurried brands into engaging with their audiences directly. During lockdown people turned to their devices, streaming and plugging into their social networks more frequently. Nielsen doesn’t collect data on brands’ spending on social media, but figures show digital marketing spend is expected to reach 55 per cent of total advertising spend in 2021. Globally the influencer market alone is worth billions. Influencers are paid anywhere between $50 and thousands to post about a product or service, depending on how many followers they have. (A macro influencer with more than 20,000 followers can command the bigger bucks.)

It’s not just the aesthetic fitness and beauty brands carving out a social media budget. The likes of Microsoft, New World, cereal brands and food delivery services are using influencers, as is the government, which spent $12m on influencers between 2012 and 2019. More recently the Health Promotion Agency teamed up with athletes Ruby Tui and Kayla Imrie to talk about mental health in its campaign The Lowdown.

But in the carefully curated world of filtering and branding the influencer industry hasn’t enjoyed its own press.

From September last year the Advertising Standards Authority ruled influencers must clearly identify posts as advertising, after complaints about the posts of Simone Anderson, who has 312,000 followers, raising questions about transparency. Influencers are accused of doing anything for a buck. Some Stuff contacted refused to be interviewed, primarily for fear of drawing attention to the fact they were paid to promote, or because they were worried about being portrayed negatively.

Brooke Howard-Smith and partner Amber Peebles, an influencer.

Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Brooke Howard-Smith and partner Amber Peebles, an influencer.

“In all honesty, when people are attacking it, it’s often not understanding that most people involved with it are sole traders, trying to feed a family, that have found an opportunity,” says WeAreTenzing talent agency CEO Brooke Howard-Smith. “No-one is getting crazy rich from it and what I often find – this is going to sound controversial – is the people who help fuel those attacks are from traditional media where sales are being eroded by small entrepreneurs.”

He names YouTuber Jordan Watson, of How-to Dad fame, as one of New Zealand’s most successful influencers who manages to nail it without his credibility being questioned. Watson’s channel has more than 1 million subscribers, his Instagram page 211,000. Alongside videos of his parenting hacks Watson promotes charities like KidsCan; and businesses like HelloFresh.

“What’s really exciting is… the ability for anyone to have a phone that can create a video, to inspire someone to want to watch their next video, has lead to the democratisation of entrepreneurialism.

“This isn’t new, people have built para-social relationships with people they follow for decades. In the [time of] 1980s’ home shopping networks people were able to call on their phones and build a connection. That relationship is deeply embedded in us as human beings and social networks have amplified that.”

Jordan Watson has a following of more than 1 million people.

Lawrence Smith/Stuff

Jordan Watson has a following of more than 1 million people.

His agency worked with 130 brands and agencies last year, with “very small to very large” budgets, some centring around campaigns costing hundreds of thousands. “[But] any sized budget you have, there is someone who has a community that fits that budget. If you want to reach an audience of mums who lived within 100km of Upper Hutt, there will be a wonderful mum engaging with her community in Upper Hutt. She might only have 500 followers, but she’s talking to the right people.”

Growing up in the Philippines, Jess Molina was a voracious blogger . Come 2012, Instagram became a “game changer”. By then Molina was well into her communications degree and being able to post snapshots of her life and having real-time interaction with her followers was gratifying. By this time last year she was talking about the Black Lives Matter movement, body positivity, and Auckland’s water crises. Her follower count increased. This wasn’t strategic. “It’s me over-sharing and finding people who feel the same way.”

When brands started approaching Molina – hotels and a local skincare company initially – Molina was bewildered, but realised she could use her social power to hold brands to account and recommend the ones she truly believed in.

“When a brand approaches me wanting to send products I try it out before I even post about it. Skincare, I will give it three weeks before I can be comfortable talking about it. I like to check, especially if it’s part of a bigger campaign, who is involved. I want to make sure I’m not the only person of colour there,So often brands… focus on looking like they’re diverse without actually being diverse. It’s great you have an Asian model or a Māori model, or some other people of colour modelling your products but are you working with influencers of colour, are you paying them?”

Influencer Christen Oliveira.


Influencer Christen Oliveira.

Nano influencer (someone with followers numbering 1-5000) Christen Oliveira lives in a central Auckland flat, loves going to the gym, and by day works as a marketing assistant. Outside hours, she’s an influencer, using her platform to talk about her curly mane, her Keyloid scar, and social issues. She’s built a small, but highly engaged community of people who directly message her asking about products or brands she uses, even the ones she’s not advertising.

“I didn’t set out to be an influencer, people just kind of found my content relatable I guess,” she says.“I wanted to use my platform to inspire and have some sort of an impact. I feel like, on Instagram everything is ‘diversity, diversity, diversity,’ but I usually feel it’s ethnic or body shape. I wanted to be the face of scarring. You never really see models with scars or tumours like the one I have.”

Her first brand offer came from a local restaurant, and since then has worked with collagen brand Jeuneora and athletic gear companies. Aged 25, she also calls herself an ‘older’ influencer, and says it’s the teens on TikTok who are breaking new ground with influencing.

“Those who keep up and are willing to adapt and change as quickly as the platforms change will be the ones who make their bank.”

‘It used to be the wild west with guns for hire,’ says Deborah Pead.


‘It used to be the wild west with guns for hire,’ says Deborah Pead.

PR boss Deborah Pead says the genuine voices in the influencer game will rise to the top.

“A few years ago it used to be the Wild West with guns for hire, literally pay and display. If [a brand] had some influencer money you sort of checked it out to see who wanted to promote X, Y, Z, and there would be a whole lot that put their hands up. A lot of those guns for hire have gone because, I guess, to be successful they have to rebuild their profile with a purpose.”

Social media has made it more transparent who is genuinely using a product, and who is flogging it. (Will anyone ever really know if George Clooney really uses instant coffee pods?) Likewise, Pead says brands need to be seen to be selective about the influencers they work with. No longer would you simply go for the celebrities with the biggest clout.

“If you have a chemical-free body lotion that you are trying to promote, you would seek out those influencers who are fully chemical-free, who have chosen to pursue a chemical-free lifestyle, they are upskilled in it, they know which ingredients get a clear tick, they’re really smart about their category knowledge, and they share that with their audience.”

Melanie Spencer, Co-CEO of Socialites Group and The Social Club, an agency that connects the brands with influencers.

Abigail Dougherty/Stuff

Melanie Spencer, Co-CEO of Socialites Group and The Social Club, an agency that connects the brands with influencers.

Socialites group co-CEO Melanie Spencer has written a phrase down on a piece of paper and repeats it over Zoom.

“One of my favourite sayings is, ‘one thing that’s true in today’s society: once brands were powerful, and people were grateful…now people are powerful and brands are grateful.”

Socialites was launched to create online communities for big brands like The Warehouse and Mitre 10. Last year it acquired The Social Club, an influencer marketing agency with 12,000 names on its database. Together they link brands with influencers.

Spencer says the power dynamic has shifted as consumers have taken control in keeping brands honest. Now, anyone can call out brands publicly for concerns increasingly belonging to a more discerning audience: whether its staff are paid properly, if they operate sustainably, if there’s diversity in its branding. Where once our litmus test of what was cool or beautiful came from celebrities, now we’re just as likely to be taking health and fitness tips from the rural mum of four who’s amassed a few thousand followers. This in turn has given small brands a chance to thrive.

“You think of the days where you had the Nike shoe and the brand was so powerful you saw a Nike shop and you’d go straight in,” says Spencer, “but now (social media) has given these cult, niche brands a voice, and a space to be seen and be heard but also, consumers will tell us what’s cool and what they want, and brands have to listen.”

Photographer Angela Pan, a former Aucklander now based in Australia, prefers to think of herself as a digital creator, and says her audience, now 9000-strong, has grown from people who followed her as she once travelled the world, to who she believes will watch her journey as she marries and becomes a mum. Initially receiving offers from hotels, she now markets for beauty and lifestyle brands, ranging from skincare to cleaning products. Her photos are polished thanks to her photography work.

Money has not always been a driver for her, though she learned not to work for free once the glow of being asked to market in exchange for product wore off. “Once you’re in it, you’re like, let’s build this, let’s turn it into a career, even if it’s not a full-time career, it’s a side hustle, so that we make it worth our time to get something out of it, whether its to help others, or give advice… having a purpose is really important. That’s why I decided to carry on.”

Unlike Pan’s picture-perfect image-driven photography, in Wanaka, former Heartbreak Island contestant Gennady Sharpe is more word-focussed, like Molina, using her 18,000-strong following to talk about body positivity, mental health and domestic violence, alongside featuring clothing and active-wear labels. Her following grew after being criticised for her figure on TV, and deciding to speak about it.

“What I really try to get through to people is what I write in the captions. I might wake up in the middle of the night and think, ‘I want to talk about this,’ and write a note on my phone. Every caption I put a huge amount of time into it, and it really comes from the heart, a picture is just a picture to go with it. A lot of people will go out and get all these pictures and then post a caption to go with it, mine is definitely the other way around.”

Sharpe, who works full-time in health and safety management, says she’s learned to become picky about the brands she works with, admitting she once said yes to a waist trainer she wouldn’t typically use. “As I have grown, and my brand and social media has grown, I’m very particular with who I work with. I have to know quite a bit about the brand. There will be a huge email trail… making sure it’s right for me.” That includes investigating whether it tests on animals, and if they donate to causes important to her.

“There’s a lot of misconception around influencers in general [but] I’ve been in the industry for three years now, and the people that I follow or surround myself with are all doing amazing things. One is talking about sustainability, another is talking about C-sections and scarring, another has Tourette’s. All these amazing people are building awareness around so many different topics. Everyone is out there raising the flag for their own battle.”

University of Auckland marketing lecturer Dr Sommer Kapitan says just a few years ago the title ‘influencer’ wasn’t even common vernacular. “In 2016 we didn’t even know what to call them. I think I used the term ‘digital media endorser’, that’s how fast this has happened.”

She remembers the days when Britney Spears was once the person to be influenced by. Now, our role models are all around us, she says.

“In that space where media previously anointed the chosen ones, we’re now anointing our own. If you compare Jennifer Aniston and Maybelline – there’s no way in my heart I think she actually wears that mascara but [if] Shannon Harris here in New Zealand with her million followers is putting on this mascara, is actually using it and evaluating it, negative and positive, it’s much more believable. The influencer wave is just as good at selling stuff.”

Kapitan sees this becoming an issue when it relates to influencing outside the scope of marketing, when people with large followings cross-pollinate posts about their lives with musings about topics like public health and vaccinations. Over lockdown Kapitan observed influencers musing about the merits of mask-wearing, for example.

”What I’m worried about is when misinformation is spread, we don’t have any mechanism to say that’s incorrect, or challenging the outlandish statements,” she says. “If Donald Trump can create a world where his world is the truth, a powerful influencer can do the same.”

Brooke Howard-Smith says the future of influencing in New Zealand lies in the ability to buy direct from influencers through social media channels. In China this has been the case for many years, and says we’re far behind other countries when it comes to our social media marketing. Instagram has begun trialling it here, but internationally there are hundreds of apps that offer in-app purchasing.

“When you want to buy your next iPhone 13 it is likely the place you’ll see it is on Instagram. You won’t see it on TV first.”


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