The Creator Whisperer
Ian Borthwick’s secrets of influencer marketing
From Ninja and Red Bull to Addison Rae and American Eagle, brands are turning their backs on traditional advertising to capitalize on the trust creators and influencers have built with their fans.
It’s not hard to understand why influencer marketing works—authenticity is the new authority—but big brands often miss out on the how. Influencer deals aren’t magic, they’re strategy, and advertisers need to be thoughtful about how they seek out opportunities within the ever-expanding creator economy. From creative control to contracts, there are secrets to doing this right. And if there’s anyone who knows, it’s Ian Borthwick.
Better known as “Ian from SeatGeek,” his partnerships with now-iconic creators like David Dobrik have made SeatGeek, a mobile ticketing platform, one of the premier brands for creator deals, and fundamentally upended the advertising industry. Borthwick’s work with influencers is not only noteworthy for its undeniable success, but for its ingenuity. He made influencer marketing what it is.
In this interview, Borthwick uncovers some of the secrets of influencer marketing, tells the story of how he came to be the influencer’s influencer, and shares examples of the future of advertising done well...
Ian Introduces Himself
I’m the Senior Director of Influencer Marketing at SeatGeek, where we’ve partnered with creators such as David Dobrik (18.4M YouTube subs), Casey Neistat (12.2M subs), and Lilly Singh (14.9M subs). We’ve also done work with podcasts like Pardon My Take, Pat McAfee, and The Bill Simmons Show. All together we’ve done over 3.5K creator integrations, across 1K creators that have generated 2.5B+ views.
When I joined SeatGeek in 2015, it was originally for college sports sponsorships. In my previous job I did work across event, sponsorship, and athlete marketing, so it seemed like a great fit. Little did I know the work I would do there would be nothing like I expected when I first came on board.
The whole initial plan fell apart relatively fast. We had a contract fall through, and we had to decide what our new approach was going to be. It started with us becoming one of the first big podcast sponsors. We saw the growth of podcasts from a macro perspective and realized the trust between the creators and their audience was genuine, and one that could be tapped into by brands. People were easier to activate when they were seeing authentic messages from creators they liked. Plus, we didn’t have the budget for expensive TV campaigns. The logical next step from my perspective was for SeatGeek to dive into a creator space, specifically on Youtube, that was growing rapidly, knowing our initial campaigns were very successful. Once we had that initial evidence that it was viable, I fell into the influencer marketing rabbit hole.
Influencer marketing was still largely nascent at this point five years ago, but we saw the growth and the genuine connections these creators had with their viewers, and that led us to believe that partnering with creators could be mutually beneficial and more authentic than traditional advertising. While with a traditional advertisement is when a viewer might pick up their phone or focus their attention elsewhere, influencer marketing embeds the advertisement in the entertainment itself. You inherently have the attention of your desired audience built upon their trust in the creator. It’s much harder to get that with a cut to a mid-roll ad.
We started out with NBA 2K content creators. NBA 2K gamers and SeatGeek makes sense, because there is synergy between the audiences—people who play 2K and watch others play the game are the audience that is likely to attend NBA games. Those campaigns did well, and we slowly expanded from there. Moved onto sneaker heads, then family vloggers, then lifestyle vloggers. That slow progression allowed us to refine our pitch and build trust with prospective partners, and ultimately to ladder-up to the creators with the biggest audiences.
From there, I’ve gotten to work with creators like David and Casey and become synonymous with the influencer marketing space broadly. Now, working with creators is becoming one of the main ways companies market their product, and SeatGeek has gotten to be at the cutting edge of that trend.
That said, I’ve taken a lot of credit for truly a team effort. Pre-COVID, we had a four-person internal team executing more than 150 influencer integrations a month. Big shoutout to the team: Greg Hempenius, Jeremy Barbara and Shannon Manley.
The Three Levels of Influencer Marketing
There are three levels of influencer marketing.
The most basic form of influencer marketing is partnering with a creator and telling them exactly what to say, like a banner ad on the internet. It performs okay, but most people tune it out. When the ad read doesn’t sound like something the creator would say, people approach it like it’s any other advertisement, and that fundamentally means it performs like traditional ads. There’s little authenticity, and it just sounds like brand-speak. This level is mostly just traditional advertising dressed up a little bit, and most verbatim ad reads fall into this camp.
The next step you get is a brand that is presented by the influencer in a cool and authentic way, but they haven’t figured out how to intertwine their product, the creator, and their community. It is just a “brand deal” and doesn’t drive obvious action. To reach the third level, the viewer needs to be able to hear the message and want to buy the product in a linear way. If the product, influencer, and community aren’t authentically connected, then it doesn’t matter how cool your company is—it won’t drive that next level response.
Most companies get stuck in this second level, where a brand is culturally relevant, but they struggle to tie their integrations with direct sales. Brick-and-mortar has especially struggled to tie the two together; Target is a great example. Target does influencer promos, and they’re great, but they have to back into all of this through brand lift or views, versus a direct action (new account, sale, etc).
What you very rarely see is the third level, where the product, creator, and community are all intertwined. This is extremely rare, and the bigger the brand gets, the more layers of approval and management they add, the more rare it is to see.
A good example of the third level is Chipotle. For National Burrito day, Chipotle launched the “Dobrik Burrito”. David's fans know he's been a long-time Chipotle fan, so the authenticity was already there. Since it was a digital exclusive, Chipotle could easily track sales and return on ad spend. The campaign ended up being one of most downloaded days in the Chipotle app’s history.
If there is no specific product or service that’s being promoted, it’s difficult to track. G-Fuel runs campaigns centered around a specific flavor of their drink, for example, so they can just track the sales of that specific product to know how well their campaigns are performing. The integration between product and marketing is crystal clear, and that means there is an understanding of its effectiveness.
How to get started with influencer marketing
Millions of people create some sort of content, and that means there are plenty of options for niche companies who want to partner with a creator who is relevant to their product. As I mentioned previously, when we began diving into influencer marketing, we began with 2K gamers, and had them vlog entry to NBA games. For them, it was providing them their next video, and for us, it was putting our name in front of an audience that was likely to use our product. While they weren’t the biggest creators, audience-wise, there were synergies between their content and our brand, which meant it worked really well. These niche creators have driven the rise of influencer marketing, because it’s widely available to companies of all sizes who are willing to dig into finding creators who have audiences with similarities to theirs.
Once you get started with smaller creators, the scale of the partnerships grow as your brand grows. Ninja has partnerships or endorsements with Red Bull and Adidas, David works with us at SeatGeek regularly, and multiple creators have signature lines with G-Fuel. When a creator wants to expand their revenue streams and are unlikely to launch a standalone company in that space, they often take equity stakes in companies, such as MrBeast and Backbone or Charli D’Amelio and Step. Some have even taken official roles in the company, like Josh Richards at Triller. This builds on the core authenticity component by more closely working with a creator and leveraging their influence to activate potential consumers.
Creators are becoming even more active ambassadors of brands in official and unofficial roles, and as both influencer marketing and content creation grow, it creates a unique opportunity for marketers to work with relevant creators to build a more authentic and intimate relationship with consumers.
How the David Dobrik partnership came together
The two creators I had most wanted to work with for a long time were David Dobrik and Casey Neistat. Neither of them had been receptive to a partnership initially.
Luckily for us, that changed when David wanted to get World Series tickets for a friend in 2016. His agent reached out and informed my team that David wanted to work with us and I knew this was a big moment for SeatGeek. We sent over some talking points that we wanted him to read as a part of the video. The problem was, he said he wouldn’t read them. So we could either choose not to work with David and miss a massive opportunity, or give up control.
Thankfully, David made a point that made me confident in his ability to tell our brand story authentically, and we made the choice to give him control.
He told us that he didn’t want to talk about the product, and while he was sure it was great, his audience didn’t care. What they cared about was David, surprising his friend with World Series tickets. Where SeatGeek fit into that and what would resonate with viewers was that we were behind that surprise. That was a big shift for us in the creator space: we would lean more into the creator and less into the product.
That specific campaign killed it, I kept my job, and we’ve ended up doing 30+ videos with David, resulting in about 250M views. We embraced a model thought to have high liability, especially in the World Series campaign, and came out on the other side with a wildly successful campaign.
It seemed, and may still seem, counterintuitive, but the best way to get outsized return on your ad spend with creators is to cede control.
Of course, this is easier said than done. It’s not just about putting your product in someone’s video; it’s what the viewer does after seeing the video that’s important. There needs to be a core action for viewers to take—buying a product, or promoting the brand by participating in a challenge. When running a campaign on TikTok, for example, the goal is to get viewers to upload their own videos and build on the virality of the campaign. And no one is doing a challenge out of fun; they’re doing it for attention, or for the off-chance they’ll win some sort of sweepstakes.
With the #ChipotleLidFlip Challenge, it was actually a fun thing to do. I saw it naturally on TikTok. It was a challenge that worked. Typically, you see challenger brands—smaller or newer brands trying to make space for themselves in the market—pull that off because they’re more nimble. For a bigger brand like Chipotle to pull that off blew me away.
Why Larger Companies Struggle
Typical endorser-focused marketing campaigns are completely scripted and tightly controlled by the company. There are specific talking points where they have to do things like show the app on screen, go through the flow, and underline how good features and value proposition are. Those points are remnants of traditional advertising, where the ad-reads would be word-for-word what was read on the TV, radio, or print ad. The endorser was simply a vehicle to deliver a message completely crafted by the company.
There’s this mentality where traditional advertising is based on control, and the problem is, in order to be successful in this new world where creators are more important than media brands, you have to release control to some degree. You have to let the creator own it, for two reasons.
First, they’re the ones with the power. So, for any of these partnerships, previous marketing concepts will say “we want the influencer to do it exactly this way because that’s how we did our TV, Facebook, and Instagram ads.” And the influencer won’t want to do it, because they know it’ll lose them credibility with their audience.
But second, you have to cede control because that control actually undercuts the authenticity you’re trying to buy. You’re quite literally undercutting the whole reason you’re doing influencer marketing.
Brands are very scared of giving up that control, and I think companies that offer a lot of creative liberties are the ones that will succeed in these partnerships. It’s difficult because there are so many people that want to weigh in.
For any sort of influencer campaign, there are normally a lot of people in the room. When we work with David, it’s usually me and my team’s decision, and I lean in to what the creators want to do. But usually, you get these influencer captions where you can tell it’s gone through multiple revisions, a lawyer has rewritten it before it was posted, and that they’ve watered down the language so much that it’s all brand-talk. With challenges like the #ChipotleLidFlip, they leaned in to what the agency recommended, and didn’t add a bunch of layers to the sweepstakes. They just made it about that fun moment, and that’s something that a lot of brands wouldn’t do.
Leaning into the creator or the simplicity of the moment is a prerequisite for the campaign to be worth it. That’s probably the biggest lesson bigger companies need to learn.
How Contracts Are Structured
Another great example of where companies struggle in their partnerships is in the way that partnership is structured. Typically, the agreement is a one-off where the product is mentioned in one video and then the deal is done. The problem is, it’s longer-term deals that work best, and they’re typically cheaper per video, as the spot rate agreed upon is generally much lower when there is longer-term income. Creators aren’t living month-to-month.
We usually start with a two-video test to see how the videos do. Typically, the second video does better because there’s some familiarity from the audience, and the creator has a better understanding of how to integrate the marketing into their content. From there, the goal is to execute a six-month to year-long partnership. Those deals have more upside, as you’re locked in at a lower spot rate. If that creator explodes, and you’re locked in at that rate, the return on your ad spend is far higher than a simple one-off campaign would allow for.
From a content perspective, we like longform. It allows the creator to more seamlessly tell the brand story, and it’s an easier format to build trust with their audience. Video inclusion is always preferable to a dedicated video, for a number of reasons. You’ll lose full control but the video will be cheaper. For that loss of control, you get more authenticity at ten times less cost. The only time a dedicated video is a preferred avenue is for a campaign with an evergreen message and a long-tail. The trust factor behind video inclusion is a core component of good influencer marketing.
Who’s Doing It Well
There are a number of companies doing influencer marketing incredibly well.
Chipotle, like I previously mentioned, is one. They worked with David Dobrik when they launched online delivery. He loves burritos, so it made sense. They did a big campaign around his specific burrito. To leverage the inside joke around his burrito, to build on that, to make it a part of your product, and to drive business results all at the same was impressive. That campaign did fantastic. Some companies do influencer marketing and just get impressions—ten million people saw it, but did you actually move your business forward? Chipotle offering specific products tied to creators like David Dobrik or Nadeshot create a real authentic relationship with consumers, and for a company at that scale, it’s really impressive. This is a massive company that was able to track the effect of an influencer and largely credit them with the success they’ve had in whatever they were promoting, which in the Dobrik case was the online delivery service.
Similarly, Dunkin’ is really leaning in. Charli D’Amelio is a massive Dunkin Donuts fan, so they launched “The Charli”, her signature drink. Current (a modern bank) is doing a great job with David Dobrik. G-Fuel (an energy drink company) have specific product lines designed with creators. Their partnerships consist of spot rates for media and royalties for each signature line. They’ve done this with creators like Dobrik and with gaming organizations like FaZe.
I think you are going to see something really big in the FinTech space. Specifically, financial products geared to Gen Z, but personalized to an influencer.
It’s the brands that lean in to influencers and allow them to guide the narrative in a way that’s authentic that are going to succeed. What’s ultimately important is recognizing who holds the power, and that’s the creator. When brands accept that, the benefits are enormous.
If you want to hear more from Ian, he recently launched a podcast called “The Business Side”, an interview series on the businesses these entrepreneur creators are building. He is also very active on Twitter.