The Influencers: A Tragedy | Brunswick Group
Brunswick Review The Integrity Issue

The Influencers: A Tragedy

The boom of digital influencer marketing is headed toward a predictably bad end, says Brunswick’s Marshall Manson.

In 1833, oxford economist William Forster Lloyd first explored the idea of the “Tragedy of the Commons.” Lloyd used the cattle of England to illustrate the concept.

Cows grazed on private land tended to be healthy and well cared for. Cows grazed on shared land—held “in common” in the parlance of English property lawyers—were “puny and stunted.” So he wondered, “Why is the common itself so bare-worn, and cropped so differently from the adjoining enclosures?”

The answer is simple: When it comes to common assets or shared opportunities, it’s in everyone’s individual interest to take as much as possible from the common and minimize the amount of time and resource they invest in maintaining it.

Communications and marketing professionals face their own tragedy of the commons, and the outcome depends on our ability to exercise a collective integrity across a range of individual and institutional actors, many of whom are exceedingly hard to corral.


Working with influencers is in vogue at the moment, across all sorts of businesses, consumer-facing and B2B.

In the last few years, we have seen digital influencer engagement programs to further objectives in obvious areas like corporate reputation and marketing as well as less straightforward situations like litigation communications. Indeed, 93 percent of marketers say that they are using influencer marketing and 84 percent believe it to be effective.

The problem, however, is a classic tragedy of the commons: Brands and businesses are over-grazing on the opportunity without regard to the future of the shared resource.

Digital influencer engagement has experienced recurring waves of interest over the years. It started years ago with blogging. Then attention turned to Twitter. Now YouTube and Instagram have made digital influence hot again. After all, real co-creation with influencers can bring big benefits, often among audiences otherwise hard to reach.

But influencer engagement only works when it’s authentic. When influencers are paid to endorse a product and express an opinion, the audience is usually tolerant for a while. But when an influencer veers toward shill too often, credibility loss and audience erosion are sure to follow.

Over time, this threatens to disrupt the opportunity for everyone as audiences question the credibility not just of individual influencers, but of the whole medium.

And we have seen countless examples of this in recent months. In one case, scrutiny turned to an influencer who was caught staging a “surprise” wedding proposal.

With attention and buzz comes a lot of nonsense and too many bad actors. The industrialization of influencer engagement—through agents and budgets that are too big in comparison to the potential for impact—only makes the problem worse.

Going forward, influencer engagement will continue to grow and evolve, as it should. Instagram and YouTube will likely define this era of communications in the way that television defined the last one. Brilliant creative minds are inventing new ways to tell stories and have conversations that audiences love.

Brands and businesses must embrace new methods and new forms of creativity. Start with this premise: If it’s not a little uncomfortable, it’s probably too conventional.

To succeed, brands and businesses today must embrace new methods and new forms of creativity. Start with this premise: If it’s not a little uncomfortable, it’s probably too conventional.

And then practice some simple rules:

1. Compensate, don’t over-pay. Influencers deserve to be compensated for their time and trouble, the same as any partner. But avoid the ridiculous. Too much cash distorts the value for everyone.

2. Follow the rules and ensure transparency. Most countries now have requirements that influencers include “ad” tags. Do this.

3. Protect authenticity at all costs. If you can’t come up with a concept that’s authentic for both business and influencer, don’t go forward.

4. Remember: Co-create, don’t instruct. Be ready to hand over creative control to the influencer. You picked them because you loved what they were doing and, more importantly, so does their audience. Trust them to create something that will work.

Don’t contribute to turning the influencer engagement opportunity into a tragedy of the commons.

Marshall Manson is a Partner in Brunswick’s London office. He leads the firm’s digital offer in the UK, Europe and other key markets.

Illustration: Tomasz Walenta

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