Digital talent agency Season25 founder Jessica Joseph: “Diverse is not just having one Black creator on a campaign”

Posted by Emilie McMeekan in Analysis

7 months ago

Jessica Joseph is a powerhouse. There’s no other word for it. Her digital talent agency, Season25, was founded during the Covid-19 pandemic and a time of seismic shifts for the Black community. It now represents ten of the hottest influencers and creator families working in the space: her roster includes The Kabs Family and newly-signed Victor Kunda. She’s passionate about pioneering for diversity within the sector as well as engineering an environment of care and compassion at the heart of everything she does. Culturally and ethically driven, dedicated to representing the under-represented, and all with a relaxed charm that belies the seriousness of her mission. Season25 is named for the seasoning, the missing ingredient that she felt was absent from the mainstream influencer economy. It’s “25” because that’s how old she was when she started the company. She’s now 28.

But Joseph has always had impressive clarity. When she was 14, growing up in Bradford, she Googled “How to Do A French Plait” and found a girl on YouTube doing her hair. She remembers saying to her mother: “Look at this girl speaking to camera, how bizarre”. Joseph then “fell down a YouTube rabbit hole and found this girl called Zoella and then realised that her and her friends had all these followers and the obsession grew from there”. She also clocked that this group of UK YouTubers had a management company – and so began her Gleam dream, which she pursued with relentless exactness. In her third year of a fashion communication degree, she took a module that made her print off her dream role. She had already been on the Gleam website every day, thinking “when am I going to get this job?” She wrote her thesis on “Are YouTubers the New Type of Celebrity and Are They Better Role Models For Young People?” She began working at Gleam a year after graduating.

Thrown in at the deep end, she worked on the emerging talent roster – the company signed Anna Whitehouse, AKA Mother Pukka, who only had 20,000 followers at the time but knew what she wanted to do. Joseph says: “Watching her have this tremendous growth and be everywhere was amazing.” She worked with the likes of Caroline Hirons and Samantha Maria and inhaled everything there was to know about working with digital creators. But she says: “It was very white and middle class and, in a very honest way, Gleam knew that as well and I was keen to help diversify the roster. And obviously, as somebody who was young and new in the industry, I could say it but whether it was actioned was a different thing.”

When she realised that change was not going to happen at her pace, she was realistic: “It doesn’t always happen the way you want it to.” So she left after two-and-a-half years for Whalar to help build the influencer marketing platform’s talent arm. There she was able to create a roster from scratch, and that’s where she reached out to creators like The Kabs Family for the first time, as well as Melissa’s Wardrobe, Adanna Steinacker and Onyi Moss.

But then lockdown and the murder of George Floyd happened, and Joseph felt that she was lacking purpose. “I thought, what could I be doing? Obviously, this industry is hugely valuable and making a real change in people’s lives. But how can I make sure that what I’m doing has a real purpose? If I want to stay in this industry, I have to be doing something that I feel really passionate about.” So Season25 was born, supported by The Kabs Family, Steinacker and Moss, who all went with her. Joseph says: “Having worked for two big global companies,I wanted to have that small business feeling where you’re supporting people. We were born out of that need to focus on Black creators, to empower the voices of those underrepresented communities.”

At just 25-years-old, Joseph decided that the first year was going to be about setting out the company values through a small but perfectly formed talent roster. The talent embodies everything she believes in for her business: that they are good people. She wants to work with great brands but only if they align with those values – that they care about those people and the communities that support them. She says: “We’re not churning out brand partnerships just to make revenue. The business has never been built in mind of ‘we must hit these targets’.” Next, Joseph, armed with all her contacts from four years in the business, went to the agencies, “to speak our mission with the people on those teams. To say ‘outside of Black History Month, there are still Black creators to work with’. And actually, diverse is not just having one Black creator on a campaign.”

When Joseph says she’s advocating for Black creators, she doesn’t just mean in front of the camera – she recalls a memorable meeting with 3 Monkeys Zeno when Season25 went in to talk about the business and working with diverse talent across different verticals. When they began to talk about diversity within 3 Monkeys Zeno itself, she ended up sending “specific job boards that I know that are hiring diverse people”. It makes sense, she says, rather than just relying on businesses like Season25: “Hire diverse talent within your workforce with an informed outlook, and they’re bringing that to you before you come to us.”

Her ambition is community-wide and she loves nothing better than bringing more people to the table. “I’ve always tried to put multiple talent on campaigns. If we’re pitching to a brand, we have a briefing. We also then have not just our exclusive roster, we’ve got loads of friends in the industry, and if they’re not the right fit, we still want to make sure that they’re working with diverse creators, so we’re going to recommend someone else.”

This diligence, this focus, means she has a nose for when her talent is approached as a box-ticking exercise. So do your homework, because Joseph already has. “From the offset, the key is to understand who else is working on that campaign. It’s always important for our talent to know who they might be stitched together in a video with. We like to know who those people are and whether it’s going to be blatantly obvious like “quick, let’s put that Black family in the middle of this campaign’.”

But Joseph is pragmatic rather than reactive – everything about her approach is about activating meaningful change. She tells CORQ: “It might be that you’ve made that baby step into working with a Black creator, how can we ensure that you continue to do that? Actually, it’s kind of our job to ensure that we continue building on partnerships, so they’re not a one-off, they’re not transactional, and that they continue to support the talent.” With characteristic understatement she adds: “Yeah, we’ve done that quite successfully. We’ve got loads of long-term partnerships and ambassadorships this year.”

I ask her about the future for her clients as the relentless social media machine rolls on, as platforms multiply and attention spans deplete. She admits she’s had honest conversations with some of her talent this year, saying: “Is there an exit strategy? You might not even want to be on the internet in five years.” As she says, “the long-term goal is always diversifying revenue streams”. In concert, Season25 is also evolving, looking at producing music, broadcast, podcasts and more. But Joseph, channelling the same hunch that saw her notice the professionalisation of the space when she was just 14-years-old, thinks that there’s going to be a “flip back to long-form content. I think people are actually going to invest more of their time into quality content and YouTube. I think we’ll have the 360.”

Before I let her go and change the world one meeting at a time, I ask her about red flags when agencies and brands approach her talent. She will not work with a brand partner who asks for guaranteed performance. “We can’t control Instagram,” she says. Neither does she have any patience with bigger agencies who have set rates and fees based on standard equations. Her creators have families, have unique time pressures: “If you’re working with The Kabs Family and you are asking for children to be in content, that’s taken up their whole Saturday. It’s not the same as somebody who’s doing that same campaign who has two hours in the day to do it because they have no children.”

And lastly, she believes that everyone has something to learn: “Whatever level of seniority you are, don’t think that you know best already. The more you open your doors to people who are doing great things and listen to them, the better that outcome will be.” Ladies and gentlemen: Jessica Joseph. You know where to find her.

By Emilie McMeekan, CORQ features director. Picture credit: Jessica Joseph via Instagram