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The Influencer Who Didn’t Influence: Luka Sabbat and the Fame Economy of 2018

Earlier this year, the model-slash-artist-slash-creator was sued for failing to promote Snapchat Spectacles. Welcome to the brave new world of internet advertising.

Adam Villacin

Luka Sabbat, like so many of his peers, had a very photogenic 2018. The 21-year-old model-slash-actor-slash-creative wandered along train tracks in Costa Rica, cradled a rainbow umbrella in Tokyo, and wore a Greg Lauren x Moncler bomber jacket like a cape in Paris. He attended the Met Gala in a custom-made beaded silk bathrobe. He posed next to Paris Hilton in a T-shirt that read “I fucked Paris Hilton” at Coachella. He modeled for Evian billboards and paid partnerships with Diesel, 7 for All Mankind, Gillette, and Snapchat Spectacles. Asics and Footlocker turned him into a cartoon character in a short anime series about sneakers. On the ABC show Grown-ish, he played an artsy “Cal U” student named Luca Hall. “My character is basically me,” Luka told Teen Vogue in one of many interviews he gave this year.

Such an itinerary is exactly what allows Sabbat to simplify his multihyphenate lifestyle in one all-encompassing title: “influencer.” Over the past five or so years, that term has evolved from being the butt of Twitter jokes to describing a powerful workforce of people who are paid legitimate money to be places, try products, and wear things. Sabbat’s Instagram feed is both a confetti cannon of casual glamour and a compelling argument for this new advertising model. Whatever he comes into contact with is, by the associative property of his effortless mustachioed smirk, cool. “Being a kid there’s only two ways you can go,” he told Complex in 2015. “You’re either an influencer or you’re influenced.” You either get stopped by a model scout on your way to buy a video game or you don’t. You’re either the kin of well-connected fashion industry types or you’re the kin of Midwestern engineers. You either roll up to Diddy’s 49th birthday party in a Raf Simons vest from 2003 or have recently Googled Raf Simons.

Then Sabbat’s mysterious sphere of influence was abruptly punctured. On October 30, a public relations firm named PR Consulting Inc. sued him for failing to hold up his end of an “Influencer’s agreement” made to promote Snapchat Spectacles. The lawsuit laid plain the typically covert terms of the paid promotions that Sabbat so expertly sprinkles into his feed: In exchange for $60,000, he’d agreed to wear the camera-equipped sunglasses in at least four social media posts in September while attending Fashion Week shows and parties in New York, Paris, and Milan. Those posts, the firm claimed, needed to adhere to a labyrinth of specific requirements related to content, location, and the inclusion of “swipe up” links. Sabbat was also allegedly required to submit each post for approval, and provide analytics about their reach, comments, likes, and views to the public relations firm within 24 hours of their going live. According to the lawsuit, he did very few of those things but nevertheless pocketed a $45,000 advance. Sabbat, an influencer, failed to properly influence. And Snapchat wanted its money back. (Sabbat declined to participate in this story.)

Aside from spurring a string of entertaining headlines, the Sabbat saga was an important moment for an industry that is slowly but surely maturing. Despite tales of rogue Instagrammers demanding thousands of dollars’ worth of goods and services in exchange for one measly photo, influencers were being forced to adhere to the terms of their corporate overlords. Even major names like Sabbat can’t skate past on a half-hearted attempt at content.

“It is very much a sign that influencer marketing is growing up, and they’re really holding people accountable to the contracts they sign,” said Mae Karwowski, the CEO and founder of the influencer marketing firm Obviously. “A few years ago, you could give an influencer $5,000 and a really nice handbag, and maybe they wouldn’t post about it, and there wasn’t much that anyone was doing. Now they’re like, ‘Hey, actually, that’s a lot of money. We would have spent that money elsewhere. This is a marketing buy. This is a signed contract. We need to pursue action.’”

Though still an unwieldy and largely unregulated space, the fledgling influencer industry has begun to form its own business infrastructure. As major brands acquiesce to this branch of marketing, a slew of management firms has popped up to provide the communication, resources, rosters, and representation required to ensure a happy partnership between companies and influencers. For many years, being an influencer was just about tapping into the kind of mythic authenticity that somebody like Sabbat possesses. But now, with the introduction of detailed contracts and cold, hard metrics, the advertising industry has new ways to measure an online personality’s value and effectiveness. We are entering the era of influencer accountability.

If you trace a line back from Sabbat to the beginnings of influencer culture, you will eventually arrive at Joe Fernandez. In late 2007, the engineer had his jaw wired shut as a result of surgery, and was unable to speak for three months. He ate by blending soup, placing it in a syringe, and spraying it between his teeth. While he was holed up in his New York apartment on painkillers that winter, he looked to Facebook and Twitter for social interaction. “I just was, like, totally isolated,” he told me. “So I got obsessed with this idea that, for the first time, word of mouth was measurable.”

With plenty of time on his hands, Fernandez set out to prove his theory. He wrote a script to pull some data from Twitter’s API—which was then very open and very free—and plugged it into an Excel spreadsheet that contained individual users’ Twitter handles. He used that to generate a score out of 100 that measured a person’s influence. Midway into 2008, long after his jaw was unwired, he showed the prototype to some real-life friends.

“They were like, ‘This is the dumbest thing ever,’” said Fernandez, 41. “‘Who cares about Twitter? And what are you talking about influence?’ Influence was like the same as jealousy or love, just a super-vague thing that means something different to everyone. I kind of went, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to say this is the number, this is the standard for measuring it.’”

On Christmas Eve of 2008, he tweeted a link to his project to his estimated 100 followers: a program that would calculate a person’s influence via something he called a Klout score. The next day, Gawker tweeted about it, and from there the concept snowballed. First came a public presentation at a tech meetup in New York, then a sojourn to a Singaporean dev shop to shore up the product, then more press, users, and investors. The service’s numeric score was a lightning rod for people’s egos, a way for them to gauge their importance in one quick digestible number, much like the gimmicky BuzzFeed quizzes floating around at the time. And however inexact Klout’s scoring system, it was also a novel way to quantify an amorphous, but valuable, commodity.

“We are so trained to obsess on grades, money, anything that’s a score,” Fernandez said. “Especially when it’s tied to your influence or, somehow, to your self-worth.”

At its peak, Klout had about 20 million users, and earned revenue the same way influencer marketing firms do today. Brands paid Klout to connect it with specific people—say, women in Arizona who tweeted a lot about curly hair—and ship them free products. Its clients included Audi, Virgin America, Sony, Nike, and McDonald’s, among many others. The only difference was that, per Fernandez’s rules, his users could take whatever goods and services were offered to them with no obligation for coverage. “The bet we made was: We knew these people were really passionate about these topics,” he said. “If you put them in a situation to talk about those things they just will. But if you tried to make them talk about it specifically, they would just turn it to be dumb.”

Celebrities also eventually took notice of Klout. Fernandez said three representatives for Britney Spears once visited the company’s office to complain about her score. (Her publicist did not respond to a request for comment.) One Golden State Warriors player contacted Fernandez to say he’d lost a sponsorship over it. An email from Bill Gates eventually led to Microsoft investing in the company. Workaholics even did a bit on it. But Fernandez was most fascinated by the regular folks who’d benefited from the system he’d devised—the people whom agencies now hire in the hundreds and more commonly refer to as “nano-influencers.” He recalls one particularly influential user, a Los Angeles–based graphic designer and photographer named Calvin Lee, who became a darling of tech brands. LG Electronics flew him to Barcelona for the annual Mobile World Congress convention. Lenovo paid for his trip to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Windows gave him a free phone. Audi let him borrow a car for the weekend. All because he tweeted up to 45 times a day about technology, food, photography, cars, and social media.

“He is super, super nice,” Fernandez said. “But it’s hard to imagine a less charismatic person. He was able, because of Twitter and Instagram, to find this voice and do all these cool things. In his day-to-day life he worked for the city of L.A. as a web designer and lived at home. I really liked the idea that somebody, like a random person, could be influential.”

For the most part, Fernandez loathed managing the mini celebrities he’d helped create. And when it became clear that the company’s success would rely upon them, he sold the firm for $100 million to a social media software firm called Lithium Technologies. (He also concedes that the startup’s relative lack of success was related to management issues and major social media companies reining in access to user data.) This spring, more than a decade after Fernandez shared his theory of measurable online influence with the world, the company announced that it would shutter the site.

“Klout should have been a really, really big important company,” Fernandez said. “And it’s more a novelty company compared to the influencers out there today. It’s great that they’re making money but it’s funny to me there still is no way to really understand the impact of a person online.”

An influencer’s “impact” may forever be in the eye of the beholder, but these days, a handful of startups are trying their best to parse the data that’s available to them for proof that, at the very least, they’re not wasting a client’s money. Because Village Marketing’s Vickie Segar works closely with startups and e-commerce brands, she says the ability to measure the success of a campaign is more important than ever.

“Five years ago, there was sort of a different standard—we really did focus on reach and engagement,” said Segar, whose firm opened a $15,000-a-month Soho penthouse for the purpose of Instagram photoshoots this year. “We really focus a lot on conversion now.”

For a long time the best quantifiable reference points were a person’s follower count, likes, and number of comments. But more recently, social media platforms have built in features that have made it easier for influencers and their keepers to track conversion, otherwise known as the number of people who are converted from browsers to buyers. In 2013, Twitter introduced a native analytics tool that allows users to view the number of impressions on a specific post. “When the native analytics became public, I remember influencers turning white,” said Suzie McCarthy, a social strategy director at the social media management platform Sprinklr. “They were like, what is happening? I had 50,000 followers and I only got 1,000 reads on this post. So it all of a sudden showed the fact that even if you have a certain amount of followers, that doesn’t mean that they’re all seeing your post.”

In 2016, Instagram enabled its verified users to include “swipe-up” links in its Instagram Stories. Segar’s firm requires its influencers to tag those links with a URL that can track a user’s journey from an Instagram Story to a retailer’s website. They also measure a campaign’s success by assigning individual influencers unique promo codes to include in the captions of their static Instagram feed posts. “Instagram Stories introduced a new way of trackability,” Segar said. “It is because you are almost turning influencer marketing into a performance channel.” These tools allow companies to quantify influencers’ effect on their sales. Segar says her influencers’ conversion rates range from 5 to 15 percent of her clients’ overall revenue.

“We had an influencer go live on Saturday that converted over 760 new sales within hours, from an Instagram Story,” she told me in November.

Marketing firms use these metrics as a bargaining tool in influencer agreements. If an Instagram Story underperforms in comparison to an online personality’s average metrics, Segar will renegotiate for more posts. Frequently, the more powerful an influencer’s reach or engagement, the more creative freedom they can negotiate in their contracts. One of the most contested stipulations is a brand’s ability to review or revise an influencer’s content before it goes live. Like any creative, influencers who are large enough to have their own agents are able to negotiate more ownership over the content they create, or sometimes even get a portion of the revenue based on the sales they’re driving.

“You do have their legal team and the brand’s legal team really duking it out over some of the finer points,” Karwowski said. “Who owns the rights to that content after one year? Can a brand post that content on a billboard? Can they put it in a TV commercial? Does the brand have the right to edit or Photoshop that photo or video at all, if they’re gonna put it in additional placement elsewhere? It gets in the weeds. It is very similar to, say, a superstar athlete negotiating an endorsement deal with a brand.”

Raina Penchansky, the CEO of the influencer agency Digital Brand Architects, said that her company’s agreements with brands are always extremely specific.

“It’s when there’s ambiguity and when there’s gray area that you run into trouble,” she said. “For our clients, we really also delve into the … analytics side of it as well. So what does engagement look like? What does conversion look like? There is certain talent that’s amazing at driving people into a store for a personal appearance. And there are other people who have, you know, insanely high conversions, like north of 10 percent. It’s a matter of getting into a little bit more granular detail with a brand, to sort of figure out what they’re trying to achieve. It’s not like a one-size-fits-all thing.”

Sabbat is particularly in demand as an influencer because he checks off a handful of the requirements brands are looking for. Though PR Consulting Inc.’s lawsuit against him didn’t mention a desired conversion rate, a quick scroll through his 2018 paid promotions on Instagram shows his range. He has 1.5 million followers and his posts rake in tens of thousands of likes and comments (including from big names like Kourtney Kardashian, who he’s reportedly dating). In February, he drew fans to a live event at Diesel’s Broadway store, after posting a simple photo of him clutching his crotch on a bed. Sabbat’s name has become recognizable enough that both the designer Gianni Monini and the brand Related Garments collaborated with him on jewelry and clothing lines, respectively. A simple paid partnership with Sabbat is enough to earn dated brands like 7 for All Mankind or PacSun automatic press. And because of his family’s roots in fashion, he’s pretty skilled at styling and directing his own shoots. Sabbat may not have fully held up his end of the deal with Snapchat, but he did manage to make Spectacles—a product that was already considered a failure in 2017—look cool.

Seger also acknowledges that, as influencer contracts have become more closely tied to metrics, an enormous burden has been placed on those who are essentially single-person advertising agencies. “They’re the creative director, the producer, and the media channel. They’re all three of those things,” she said. “To only pay them based on the performance of their media channel just doesn’t, to me, seem fair. … But, speaking out of the other side of my mouth, influencers have to be held to some standard.”

It’s a confusing time for multihyphenates like Sabbat. But to his credit, he has taken inspiration from being the accidental poster boy of a new contract-and-statistics-driven era of his profession. He and photographer Noah Dillon are collaborating on a handful of creative projects under the title “Hot Mess” that offer commentary on the industry. At Art Basel, they sold framed $100 bills for anywhere between $1 and $30,000, and called it an “in-depth look at how capitalistic values are woven into the American cultural fabric.” They’ve also announced “FREE ADVERTISING,” a project in which Sabbat poses in fake ad campaigns for a handful of well-known brands and plasters them on billboards around the United States. In November, Sabbat posted an Instagram photo of himself standing in front of the project’s second installment, a large sign that read “Luka Sabbat Sued for Failure to Influence” under a handful of aggregated news stories about the incident. “Merch will be announced around next week,” he wrote. “More to come soon.”

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