In conversation: the influencers

By Melody Thomas
Photography by Anna Briggs
Hosted by Sunday Night Club

Featured in Capital #58
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The media landscape is changing. While a few of us still scour the paper every morning over breakfast, most people are now getting their information digitally.

But the digital market is crowded, and to make sense of it all consumers increasingly look to people they can trust for recommendations − be it for a product, a news source or even how to cast their vote. These people are the influencers.

Melody Thomas talks with two Wellingtonians-of-influence — Instagram fashionista Fernándo Suen and co-founder and co-director of creative agency Double Denim, Anna Dean.

On influence

Fernándo Suen is an Instagram influencer with nearly 20,000 followers, dealing in high fashion, lifestyle and beauty. Anna Dean’s influence is via several different mediums and sometimes makes itself felt in real life − like the time she got the Wellington sign changed to “Vellington” for the launch of vampire flick What We Do in The Shadows.

Melody: You’re both here under the guise of being “influencers” but I’m guessing you interpret that label differently. What defines an influencer and where you see yourself inside that?

Fernándo: I think it’s just helping companies getting the word out there. It’s quite hard for companies sometimes, so they want someone who already has a following in their market to spread the word for them.

Anna: My influence… cuts across the film industry, the business sector, music, art and increasingly the political realm. I don’t see myself as a social media influencer as such… I know how to make a bit of noise but I’m not so comfortable putting myself in the picture, I’m much better at engineering that for other people.

Fernándo: You’re behind the scenes.

Anna: Well… more pulling the strings (*Anna winks, everybody laughs).

Pulling the strings

Anna Dean wasn’t always a professional string-puller. After studying journalism at the New Zealand Broadcasting School she worked as a television reporter, magazine editor and band manager (among other things), eventually taking on her first role in marketing at the New Zealand Film Archive. On the side, Anna worked as an event planner and publicist for projects that excited her, and eventually this side-hustle became her main hustle when she set out on her own as a freelancer for five years. In 2015 she partnered with Angela Meyer to launch Double Denim − a creative agency and gender intelligence company aimed at unlocking the power of the female economy. They also support women through events organised under the banner of the Ace Lady Network.

Melody: A lot of the campaigns you do through Double Denim seem to be calls to action or to have a focus on creating social change. Why do you choose to focus on that work?

Anna: Because equality is the more worthy cause for getting up in the morning! We’re also motivated by helping corporates change their culture and for gender and diversity to be top of mind. Change is coming to the advertising and marketing industries. We live in an age where there has never been this many connected women online, harnessing the power of technology. We’re interested in helping this process along as the changes until now have been slow. We think it’s time to go faster.

While it’s increasingly common for someone to set out with the intention of “becoming an influencer” (the thousands of articles online outlining how to do this are testament to it), Fernándo’s rise to prominence was fairly organic. He began posting photos to Instagram four years ago as a way of dealing with the stress of university − and to this day sees it as a hobby. Something fun to do on the side of his job as a manager at Tom Ford.

Fernándo: [At uni] I started this series based on [Joan Rivers’ Fashion Police segment] “B**** Stole My Look”. I would pull photos of celebrities and just do my own version of it in the same clothing-styles − like a side to side look, and that got a lot of attention.
Melody: So if we go way back in your feed we’ll be able to see those?

Fernándo: No, I deleted them! Those old photos don’t go with the flow.

Anna: I wondered how you got all those followers with so few photos! Yeah you definitely have an aesthetic. I was like “Is this even Wellington?!” Is that on purpose?

Fernándo: Yeah it is… I’m originally from Hong Kong and I travel quite a bit and I want to be able to take photos of different places but still connect them together. The majority of my followers are from the States, then number two is the UK and especially London. Those countries have a massive following for luxury designers. Wellington is number five. Sometimes I’ll post something product-related and ladies will come in and say, “I’m looking for this”, and I’m like, “oh, that’s my photo!”

Anna: So you know it works! It really does. You know, I did journalism training almost 20 years ago, and the head of school at the time was saying journalists of the future or basically anyone operating in these roles will be content curators, and it’s exactly what you’re doing, you’re pointing people in a certain direction and being a good source of information. Once you find that good source you follow that, and that person does the hard work for you.

Connection v isolation

On the surface, social media is all about connecting people. And yet study after study claims to link social media use to everything from depression to jealousy, social isolation, low self-esteem and feelings of inferiority. But correlation does not equal causation. Too much time on Facebook might lead to feelings of loneliness, but equally somebody who’s feeling lonely might be more likely to seek out Facebook for solace.

Melody: I’m not sure where I fall on this one. I feel if millennials are depressed it’s just as likely to be because none of us can afford a home and our world’s about to end. But then I recently unfollowed a bunch of hot people on Instagram and felt like my mental health got instantly better! How do you see it?

Fernándo: You know I follow a lot of quite attractive people and I just don’t see it that way. I have a lot of guys on my following list who are quite buff and muscle-y because I want to get there, so it’s more like a motivation for me. I’ve always looked at it in a more positive way.

Anna: I’ve definitely developed more of a love-hate relationship with [social media]. I really appreciate the resource and the connectivity, it’s pretty much what led to #MeToo and #TimesUp and #BlackLivesMatter, all these massive movements of cultural change. However it’s really interesting because the latest Pew Research (from the first two quarters of this year) shows that social media uptake in the US is actually starting to plateau. So while numbers globally are still growing it’s only because the developing nations are catching up and getting smart phones, and actually a lot of the early adopters are starting to limit their time. Plus we’ve seen all these different issues with Facebook hacking and Cambridge Analytica. So people are feeling a bit more distrustful. I think people are realising there are different ways they could be spending their time, or that they need to take better care of their mental health like being outside in nature or going for a run. And also there’s this tendency towards bragging and too much comparison that goes on between people and it doesn’t make people happy.

Melody: Do you wake up in the morning, roll over, grab your phone and scroll?

Fernándo: Yes I actually do. I totally do do that.

Anna: I used to do that but I’ve definitely made conscious effort to try not to. I’ve been working in social media for 11 straight years, and often in charge of some pretty major feeds. They are the last thing you think of and the first thing you think of when you wake up. Recently this one guy who’s a social media manager for a boutique beer company came up to me in a car park in tears and said, “I’ve just had a new baby and I just don’t know how to limit my social time…” and I think lots of social media managers get to a point where they hit this incredible burnout, It’s really hard to cut off. It’s interesting because I stopped posting on Instagram for a bit and as soon as I started again I was back in there like, “how many likes”, “what kind of reaction” and “it’s been three hours I’ll just see if anyone’s liked that.” It’s like: “What the f***?!”

Fernándo: Or, like, every 10 minutes you’ll just check on your phone and see if there’s any new likes!

Anna: Yeah! That kind of stuff I think is scary.

Time well spent

The latest iPhone update includes an app called Screen Time, which tells a user how much time they’ve spent on social media over a given period. It breaks that time down into specific apps and gives you other handy (or scary, depending on your outlook) stats like “Pickups” (how many times you pick up your phone to check it) and “Notifications” (how many you get a day and from where).

(*After Anna brings it up, the pair compare their stats.)

Anna: So, the weekly total for me is 25 hours

Fernándo: Are you looking at this part here? (to Anna)

Anna: (helping) Yeah so, last seven days… Oh yeah, I’m more! Haha. But I know that’s because I spent almost four hours on messenger and emails … So if it’s just Instagram… (Anna checks Fernándo’s Instagram stats)… Oh, yeah, I’m more than you there too! Most of this is email and the Messenger use because I’m in a long-distance relationship, but I’m pretty scared by this Instagram amount. That is pretty terrifying.

Famous last words?

Anna: I think it’s interesting to point out that social media’s still in its teenage years and while there are lots of people who are really quick to write it off, it’s just going through different phases. The thing that I worry about is how much it costs now to promote things through these platforms. The number of people on them is in the billions so it’s been very effective, but if you don’t pay for your content to be seen no one sees it. That has big implications for NGOs, charities or smaller organisations − even the local coffee shop. Previously they would have put an ad in the Island Bay news and now that newspaper doesn’t exist.

Melody: When you think to the future of these technologies are you nervous or excited?

Fernándo: Yeah I’m quite excited actually

Anna: There was a big story recently where quite a few large Facebook pages and Instagram accounts just got deleted by the US government… They were agitators and they were completely wiped out in a systematic approach. Dissenting voices can get squashed, so I’m a bit nervous.


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