TikTok Is Breaking the Traditional Digital Agency. Here’s How. – dot.LA

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Kristin Snyder is dot.LA's 2022/23 Editorial Fellow. She previously interned with Tiger Oak Media and led the arts section for UCLA's Daily Bruin.
Last year, TikTok made $4 billion in ad revenue. In 2022, that number is expected to jump to $11 billion. As companies like YouTube see their advertising earnings dwindle, TikTok’s ad revenue will account for 2.4% of this year’s total digital ad spend—up from 1% in 2021. The changing landscape coupled with TikTok’s ever-growing user base has forced digital marketing agencies to shift their strategies.

According to Ethan Curtis, the founder of TikTok marketing agency PushPlay, larger agencies are being forced to hire pre-existing teams dedicated to developing short-form content.
“These bigger agencies are slower because they're having to totally rehire the creative departments or acquire smaller agencies like mine,” Curtis says. Adding that much of the company’s early business consisted of completing projects for bloated agencies not yet familiar with the speed of TikTok trends.
To that end, Curtis says, says more traditional content approval methods—some of which involve multiple teams having to sign off on a piece of content which could take days—struggle to keep up with TikTok’s quick trend turnover. Adding that a song that trends one week can become irrelevant within the next, a reality most TikTok native creators already know.
Which is why some agencies are even hiring people just to consume content and assess trends.
“It is forcing brands to rethink their content approval and scheduling process—there needs to be room to just cut and post stuff on the fly,” Curtis says. “A lot of brands aren't set up that way.”
Kellis Landrum, co-founder of True North Social, says that while clients of his digital marketing agency aren’t turning away from platforms like Instagram, there’s a heightened awareness of TikTok—at least 70% of True North’s new business inquiries involve the short form video hosting service.
Though Landrum stipulates that, TikTok is “probably one of the most important things that we're working on right now.” True North hasn’t hired a team directly dedicated to the platform. Instead, the digital agency has incorporated TikTok production into its pre-existing social team. Part of this is due to TikTok’s rapid growth; TikTok lacks detailed data analytics and content scheduling tools that other platforms have. Because of this, Landrum says many agencies are still honing their strategies as the platform evolves.
True North has however reprioritized how it creates content for clients. On top of outsourcing some videos to influencers, he says one method involves producing longer videos that are then chopped up into smaller bits to be distributed on TikTok. He says the switch to video requires more effort than the early days of social media marketing—just a few years ago, one photo shoot could produce months of content for Instagram. Now, he says agencies have to put in more day-to-day production work as they create individual short-form videos.
Part of that production work includes trying to recreate the lo-fi aesthetic that comes from filming videos on a phone, that’s native to TikTok. But as more money is poured into TikTok marketing, Landrum also believes that ads will become more elaborate and have higher production value.
“Over the course of time, TikTok videos will start to become more produced as people can make more money off of them and the stakes get higher,” Landrum says.
Even as content becomes more produced, influencers remain at the core of many marketing agencies’ strategies. Aaron Cuker, CEO of digital marketing agency Cuker, says that since most of their clients view TikTok as a priority, his company integrated the platform into its pre-existing social team and expanded its influencer roster to include TikTok creators.
Part of TikTok’s marketing power is due to the platform’s algorithm, which Cuker says reaches a wider audience and increases conversion rates. Cuker says TikTok has reshaped the traditional path-to-purchase for customers as the algorithm exposes an extensive number of users to new brands and products.
“What once was a linear sales funnel, is now an infinite loop of consumers entering, exiting, and re-entering the sales journey based on various wants and needs,” Cuker says. “TikTok lies at the forefront of this new era for brand discovery and new customer acquisition.”
Kristin Snyder is dot.LA's 2022/23 Editorial Fellow. She previously interned with Tiger Oak Media and led the arts section for UCLA's Daily Bruin.
Kristin Snyder is dot.LA's 2022/23 Editorial Fellow. She previously interned with Tiger Oak Media and led the arts section for UCLA's Daily Bruin.
Influencer Niké Ojekunle was surprised when a young content creator reached out to ask her about her experience working with The Carter Agency. The content creator had apparently seen Ojekunle’s name on the agency’s roster and wanted to know how helpful they’d been in helping her navigate brand deals.
The problem was, Ojekunle, who has nearly half a million followers on TikTok, had never heard of The Carter Agency, let alone worked with them. So she sent them an email inquiring about why the agency had listed her name as one of their influencers.
She received a response from a person by the name of Ben Popkin who claimed to be the CEO of The Carter Agency that lists Netflix, Amazon, Disney and Prada as just a few of their “strategic partners.”
In the email, Popkin explained to Ojekunle that he had previously worked with her through a different PR agency and apologized for the mix-up. Then he pivoted to a new proposition: he could help her get two $5,000 brand partnership deals. Ojekunle agreed to the details of the agreement and completed two campaigns with Popkin as the middleman. A few weeks later, Popkin reached out again. This time it was with an offer from Clinique—a skincare brand Ojekunle had worked with in the past.
“In June, he wrote me and said Clinique offered me two campaigns for $1,900,” Ojekunle says. “I’ve been with Clinique for six years. Clinique knows not to put anything in front of me for less than $6,000.”
Not interested in lowering her standard rate for a product campaign, Ojekunle declined the deal and informed Popkin she no longer needed his assistance.
In subsequent months, however, Ojekunle noticed something was wrong: similar to the situation with Clinique, brands that had previously offered her campaigns worth thousands of dollars were offering her campaigns at significantly lower rates.
One of those brands was Naturiu, a skincare company run by Susan Yara, a friend of Ojekunle. When Ojekunle reached out to learn more about why the offer had been significantly lower than their past partnership deals, Yara informed Ojekunle, she too had never spoken to Popkin and was unaware any such offer had been issued.
The malpractice of influencer agencies has, of late, been well reported. In 2020, talent management firm Influences, came under fire over claims the company did not pay its clients. According to the New York Times, the firm owed dozens of creators thousands of dollars from brand deals. One of those influencers claimed the company withheld $23,683.82 from her. Influences' former owner is currently suing the New York Times over defamation.
In July, influencer Liv Reese called out Creative Culture Agency for not paying her after she made a video for one of the company’s advertising campaigns. According to its private Instagram page, Creative Culture Agency is “no longer available.”
And in 2020, 13 influencers paid talent management firm IQ Advantage a $299 deposit when they first signed with the company. But when IQ Advantage failed to secure them brand deals, the deposit was never returned and eight months later, once all the money had been collected, IQ Advantage conveniently shut down.
But Ojekunle’s experience with The Carter Agency shows signs of a different offense. “He’s [Popkin] telling the brand that he’s representing me, then he’s telling me he’s representing the brands,” Ojekunle says. “It's a very violating feeling and a very vulnerable feeling. You ask yourself, ‘how was I so stupid’ over and over.”
According to OpenCorporates.com, The Carter Agency LLC is registered to a person by the name of Josh Popkin — a former social media star who faced public backlash in 2020 after pouring cereal in a New York City subway as part of a prank. Ojekunle suspects Popkin took on a fake name (Ben Popkin) when reaching out to her in order to distance himself from his controversial reputation. The Carter Agency has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Like so many influencers who find themselves victims of unethical behavior, Ojekunle took her allegations straight to TikTok. In the first of five videos, the influencer claims that Popkin was not only pretending to be her manager, but had also been operating under a pseudonym.
Ben Carter = Ben Popkin = Josh Popkin. Carter Agency = Malibu Marketing Group = Jesse GreenSpun. A Complete Scam! #carteragency #benpopkin #joshpopkin #scammers
Jessy Grossman, co-founder of Women In Influencer Marketing, wasn’t surprised when people shared Ojekunle’s video in the company’s private Facebook group. She says reports of the Carter Agency’s misconduct had begun circling among the members as early as February—Ojekunle’s video was further evidence.
Soon after, Grossman began connecting with other influencers who were impacted by the company. And in recent weeks, ever since Ojekunle posted her videos, many brand managers have reached out to Grossman with claims that, despite Carter’s previous push to hire his influencers, he has since ceased all contact.
Grossman believes The Carter Agency is specifically targeting TikTokers not only because of the platform’s success but also because many of them are teens.
“Some are young and think that having management is the path to ‘making it,’” Grossman says. “You have to know the right questions to ask and industry standards, otherwise anyone can claim to be legitimate since there’s no regulatory body.”
Looking back on the low offers she had been accepting from brands, Ojekunle now believes Popkin was attempting to pocket the difference after sending only a portion of what the brands were really offering her.
“It was a predatory and well-calculated thing that he did,” Ojekunle says.
In total, The Carter Agency’s actions have affected more than 130 influencers, including those signed to Popkin’s company and those who he falsely claimed to represent. Ojekunle also claims The Carter Agency has potentially jeopardized nearly $60,000 in brand deals by pretending to represent her. She’s currently pursuing a civil lawsuit and has opened up a criminal investigation into the company.
“I have been doing this for 10 years, and I have built a name for myself,” Ojekunle says. “I'm not scared of him.”
Kristin Snyder is dot.LA's 2022/23 Editorial Fellow. She previously interned with Tiger Oak Media and led the arts section for UCLA's Daily Bruin.
Snap is the latest major tech company to bring the hammer down on remote work: CEO Evan Spiegel told employees this week that they will be expected to work from the office 80% of the time starting in February.
Per the announcement, the Santa Monica-based company’s full-time workers will be required to work from the office four or more days per week, though off-site client meetings would count towards their in-office time. This policy, which Spiegel dubbed “default together,” applies to employees in all 30 of the company's global offices, and the company is working on an exceptions process for those that wish to continue working remotely. Snap’s abrupt change follows other major tech firms, including Apple, which began its hybrid policy requiring employees to be in the office at least three days per week in September, and Twitter, which axed remote work completely after Elon Musk’s takeover (though he did temporarily close offices amid a slew of resignations in mid-November).
“After working remotely for so long we’re excited to get everyone back together next year with our new 80/20 hybrid model,” a Snap spokesperson said in a statement to dot.LA. “We believe that being together in person, while retaining flexibility for our team members, will enhance our ability to deliver on our strategic priorities of growing our community, driving revenue growth, and leading in AR.”
In a memo to employees, Spiegel said “spending more time together in person will help us to achieve our full potential,” Bloomberg reported. “What each of us may sacrifice in terms of our individual convenience, I believe we will reap in terms of our collective success.”
The move, however, is a complete 180 for Snap, which, like Twitter, once embraced a remote-first policy. And despite Spiegel’s rosy outlook that the change will bring increased productivity, it may have the opposite effect.
In a study of 2,300 full-time U.S. workers published in November by remote work hardware company Owl Labs, the company found employee interest for in-office work fell by 24% between 2021 and 2022. Interest in hybrid and remote work, meanwhile, jumped by 16% and 24%, respectively.
According to Owl Labs CEO Frank Weishaupt, complete overhauls of remote work policies could mar employee retention, trust and morale at tech companies.
“You take a position that you're looking to fill, you create a culture of accountability, and you hire someone to do a role,” Weishaupt said. “Are you hiring them to perform a role and the duties that you outlined? Or are you hiring them to watch them work? Anybody that answers the latter is not thinking about it the right way.”
Not to mention, employees also aren’t afraid to walk if they’re forced to return to their cubicles. The same study found that, if work-from-home flexibilities were taken away, two-thirds of workers would immediately begin searching for a new job, and nearly 40% reported they’d quit outright. At Twitter, for example, Elon Musk’s abrupt return-to-office demands — on top of requiring long hours and “extremely hardcore” work — sent hundreds of employees running for the hills. Though likely less severe than Twitter’s chaos, Snap may be in for a similar exodus, and re-upping its talent may prove difficult.
“It’s quite a(s)tonishing to see this joke of a company that can’t even plan 1 month ahead and won’t hesitate to mess up their employees’ lives,” One Snap employee wrote on Blind, an anonymous forum for verified tech workers.
Another wrote, “Can someone spare a referral, the last straw has been pulled at Snap.”
To that end, roughly 75% of the workers surveyed by Owl Labs said that working from home would make them feel more trusted by their company, and 86% said it would make them feel happier.
“Unhappy employees don't perform as well,” Weishaupt added. “If I came out with a notification to my organization that said ‘You're required to be in the office five days a week,’ I think that we would have a lot of unhappy employees that produce way less than they do right now.”
David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.
Last month, when dot.LA toured the Hexagon Purus facility in Ontario, California, multiple employees bemoaned the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) ruling on renewable natural gas (RNG) as a hindrance to decarbonizing trucking-haul trucking. They argued that keeping RNG classified as a “near-zero emission” fuel prevented companies using financial incentives like the Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project, which, as the name suggests, is only available to true zero-emission trucks. The effect, they said, was that the agency was missing an opportunity to accelerate the state’s transition away from diesel.
But over the weekend, Tesla CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter to announce that the EV company’s battery powered class 8 semi-truck had completed a 500-mile trip fully loaded (to the tune of 81,000 lbs). It now appears CARB’s refusal to classify renewable natural gas (RNG) as a zero-emission fuel source was ultimately the right decision.
Just two years ago Bill Gates famously declared that, “even with big breakthroughs in battery technology” electric vehicles were simply not ready to tackle long-haul trucking. If Tesla’s numbers hold up to scrutiny, it proves Gates and many other industry experts were likely wrong to suggest that “we need a different solution for heavy, long-haul vehicles.” And while 500 miles represents the lower limit for what’s necessary to transition long-haul transportation to battery power, Tesla’s announcement proves the tech is getting there.
What’s interesting is that the transportation sector saw the same arguments in the 2010s against passenger EVs. But then lithium-ion batteries underwent a small revolution where energy density gains outpaced even the most bullish predictions. And while such a surge in performance is unlikely to be repeated, even incremental gains on a truck with 500-mile range could cement the technology as the dominant energy source for the sector.
So what does this latest announcement mean for natural gas trucks?
As it currently stands, natural gas, in addition to hydrogen fuel cells, is still touted as a low- or even negative-carbon solution that could let the trucking industry slash emissions and get to net zero. In such a model, biowastes such as manure or plant scraps are harvested and converted into natural gas that can be combusted inside an engine. While this process does create CO2 as a byproduct, the amount of carbon saved by cleaning up the biowaste is often equal to or even greater than what’s created when the gas is burned. Industry insiders have often pointed to the fact that renewable natural gas can outperform alternatives from a greenhouse gas emissions perspective.
Tesla’s announcement also comes at a time when trucking giant Cummins recently showed off a new 15-liter natural gas engine design, which the company has advertised as a way for fleets to reduce their carbon usage and comply with California’s stricter nitrogen oxide emission requirements coming in 2024. Natural gas, the company has said, could once again be the “bridge fuel” that buys the industry time while hydrogen fuel cell and battery tech matured.
But outside of the trucking industry, environmental policy experts also seem increasingly confident that batteries represent the best chance for decarbonization. Colin Murphy, the deputy director of UC Davis' Policy Institute for Energy, Environment and the Economy, points to the fact that RNG is only carbon negative due to the credits it receives for reducing methane emissions.
Put another way, if California cleans up its methane problem anyway–as CARB has been proposing–there’s no sense in rewarding transportation companies for capturing and burning natural gas.
“If agriculture has to reduce their emissions in order to keep in line with the rest of the economy, they can't have this giant emission of methane out there that transportation is taking credit for,” says Murphy. “It's carbon negative for now, but it will not be carbon negative forever.”
Without the credit for capturing methane, burning natural gas is still 60% to 70% better than diesel in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but compared to a battery charged from a grid that’s increasingly powered by solar, wind and other zero-carbon renewables, natural gas quickly loses much of its luster.
The same logic applies to RNG’s benefits to nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions compared to diesel: They’re real, but they’re second best to actual zero-emissions tech like hydrogen and batteries. NOx pollution is generated in both diesel and natural gas engines and emitted at the tailpipe. While these chemicals don’t contribute as much to climate change as CO2, they create smog and air pollution that is a major health burden worldwide.
“These [natural gas] vehicles, they certainly are contributing to climate change, but they're much more closely tied to the local air quality,” says Patricio Portillo, a senior advocate for the NRDC’s Climate & Clean Energy Program. “And what we've seen, especially with natural gas vehicles, is that they don't really live up to the hype.”
Portillo notes that the vehicles receive their NOx ratings at the time they’re manufactured. But as the trucks age, components degrade and the actual amount of pollution they create increases.
“On the other hand, you are plugging into an increasingly clean grid with zero-emission vehicles,” he says. “So if anything, those things are just going to get cleaner over time, as the electricity grid continues to get cleaner.”
As CARB continues to drive policy with the state announcing a ban on new diesel truck sales by 2040, the transition to greener transportation will be a massive effort. To be clear, there is still a ton of work to do, on both the infrastructure side and on the supply chains needed to power such a massive undertaking. But at the moment, announcements like Tesla’s are increasingly looking like a signal that legacy truck makers and fleet owners would be wise to heed.
“If I'm a fleet looking at this, I think it's pretty clear that the writing's on the wall,” says Portillo. “It took some time for the technology to get there, but it's there now. It's not worth continuing to invest in second-best technology, because the result is going to be stranded assets for natural gas.”
David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.
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