Ketchum’s Vik Khagram on influencer marketing in 2023: “We’re in the Moneyball era”

Posted by Emilie McMeekan in News

1 year ago

During a panel discussion at the Influencer Marketing Show 2022, Vik Khagram stood out. The senior account director at global public relations firm Ketchum doesn’t believe in the metaverse yet – more on this later – and he’s suspicious of data. In fact, he told a packed audience: “We’re in the Moneyball era of influencer marketing.”

Khagram is a man with an abundance of experience. Back in the heady 2010s, when digital influencing was in its infancy, he worked as the social media manager for cult food venue Hot Box. “I met a lot of influencers at inception and watched them and the industry grow at the same time. It was fascinating seeing people go from 5,000 to 50,000 followers in the space of ten months.”

Since those early Wild West days, the industry has become vastly more professional – but in Khagram’s opinion, this has come at a price. He believes we are at a juncture which means to make influencer marketing more measurable – more accountable – the industry is becoming over-reliant on data. With professionalism has come depersonalisation, and this brings us to Khagram’s Moneyball allegory.

You may remember the book (by Michael Lewis) and then the film (starring Brad Pitt) where a struggling baseball team manager hires a Harvard data expert to restore the fortunes of his team through statistics. This works briefly, only for the team to become mired again in all the things that data doesn’t show.

The problem with this approach is the measuring tools don’t account for human behaviour, and that popularity doesn’t necessarily translate to influence. “The industry is getting all of these big shiny numbers and they are trying to show what these numbers mean, without truly understanding what influence is,” says Khagram.

Popularity is data’s pitfall, he says. “You still need experts and specialists to do a deep dive into whether those on the machine-generated influencer lists ‘actually’ have influence and the ability to change other people’s behaviour.”

He says: “It still takes the human eye to find out if influence is actually within that person’s wheelhouse and what within their wheelhouse is making them influential.” As a result, the dependency on numbers leads to a “whole cycle of bad decisions that come from having access to data too quick. At Ketchum we are in a unique position to have experienced practitioners who understand influence, and a great research and analytics team who understand the numbers.”

So Khagram has another approach. He picks up the phone to influencers – all the ones he knows from a career working with clients like Colgate-Palmolive, Unilever, Nike, Diageo, Samsung and P&G. He discusses what they’re working on and what’s important to them, continually getting a feel for what’s happening in the landscape from the ground up.

We talk about Candice Brathwaite’s October post airing her frustrations about how brands and businesses are getting their influencer briefs wrong. She said if marketing teams “employ people for their reach but don’t want their personalities, the ad is automatically going to be a flop”. She added in the caption: “If you don’t like it, hire actors and do ads the old-fashioned way.”

“That’s something I’ve been preaching for the last four years,” says Khagram. But the balance between getting the brand messaging right and getting the influencer’s personality through is always going to be a challenge. So I ask him for examples of successful influencer campaigns that have changed the game.

Khagram is typically generous. He likes the way FootAsylum is working with influencers on its YouTube channel, where it’s not about the product at all. “It’s more around knowing what their audience like and engage with,” he says. “It’s how brands can be intertwined within content that is entertaining for the audience. It’s not a hard sell.” Having the confidence, as a brand, to know who you are speaking to and what that audience enjoys paid off for FootAsylum – it saw  3,000% subscriber growth in 2020.

He cites the Olay and Amelia Dimoldenberg relationship as a fantastic example of the way that brands and influencers can each be opened up to new audiences when working together. “It broke new ground in the beauty and skincare space. This long-term relationship between Olay and Amelia is where true influence was researched, recognised and packaged together to deliver a campaign that was authentic to the brand and also the creator. It achieved a huge amount of brand love for Olay, with it being named the third most-loved brand in the UK in a Talkwalker study and also the third  favourite skincare brand of Gen Z in a beauty report by Kyra.”

We also discuss TikTok and the collaboration between Hugo Boss and Khaby Lame, as an excellent example of how brands can work with TikTok influencers – with heavy caveats. “Hugo Boss watched Khaby grow, they watched his influence continue to grow, they saw that he was still generating the engagement. They took their time before they decided to work with him. I think that’s something that needs to be looked at and applauded because TikTok is just so reactive. You can jump into a trend with an influencer who may not be a content creator and may not actually have the longevity to last in the game.”


@khaby.lame coming through: all doors open to this BOSS of style #BeYourOwnBOSS

♬ original sound – BOSS

Don’t get Khagram wrong, he believes in the metrics. But when you have a talent shortlist, you need to observe the influencers. “Watch their content over a period of time – maybe a week. Spend time really understanding how they’re engaging with their audience on a day-to-day basis. What content are they producing? How do they speak to the audience? What tone are they using?” When working with influencers, he is interested in all the things you can’t put a number on. And then? “Build a long-term relationship with the influencer to help them achieve their goals and be an amazing ambassador for your brand.”

Otherwise, Khagram thinks, brands are missing out. “We see a lot of influencers who are now building their own products and they’re pulling in huge numbers. They are doing it because they had many doors shut in their face, from brands who didn’t see the potential of what they were going to do.”

The other pitfall of the algorithms is that the tools using AI will usually include unconscious bias and you will not easily generate influencers from diverse areas or diverse communities. Khagram works closely with talent agencies representing creators from different backgrounds – like Jessica Joseph who founded Season 25, and Chloë Downes at SHFT. He says it’s imperative when putting together campaigns that marketing teams should “look for agencies representing underrepresented talent and bring the outside in. We cannot be speaking to the public without speaking to everyone”.

As our interview draws to a close, I ask Khagram what’s next on the social media landscape. He thinks TikTok and Instagram will swallow anything that bubbles up, until “another game changer comes along”. He is also keeping an eye on the metaverse – but “not investing in it yet, because no one is in it”. There is always the possibility, he says, “that there may be a metaverse competitor coming, who will push it to greater heights. And then we’ll see a different era of the internet”.

Until then, we need to navigate the Moneyball era.

By Emilie McMeekan, features director of CORQ.