When Michael Rotimi first launched talent agency Offshore in 2017, his vision to empower and promote models with a striking point of view — and a striking image — was ahead of the curve. The industry wasn’t ready.
“It was really, really slow probably because of the unconventional models that I represented,” said Rotimi.
The agency initially scraped by with a commercial job coming through every other month. But gradually, things started to pick up. In a saturated market, brands started looking for ambassadors with a strong and loyal audience to help them stand out and resonate with young, values-driven consumers. Offshore, whose roster includes a diverse group of models with strong personalities and vocal platforms on issues ranging from sustainability to social justice, was well positioned to service the trend.
Now the agency regularly books 15 to 20 campaigns a month and Rotimi’s client list has expanded from brands with a streetwear focus, like Nike or Converse, to include companies like Sephora, Jacquemus and H&M. Offshore model Tara Thomas, a vegan chef who campaigns for food equality, has featured on the front cover of Vogue Italia. Sienna Miles Fekete, also an Offshore model and co-founder of creative studio Chroma, has partnered with New York-based apparel brand Awake to design and model a series of slogan T-shirts in support of charities offering aid to immigrants at the US-Mexico border and the migrant LGBTQIA+ community in Tijuana, Mexico.
The agency’s success reflects a wider market shift. As consumers seek out companies that speak to their beliefs or market a deeper sense of meaning, marketers are seeking out models who represent a particular message, as well as a specific look. The rise of social media has also changed the dynamic between brands and models, with labels looking to leverage influencers’ followings to sell products. That doesn’t have to relate to any form of advocacy, but the political and cultural upheaval of the last year has made such messaging particularly compelling to a cohort of young consumers, and increased pressure on brands to demonstrate how they are aligned with the values of their audience.
Brands are increasingly seeking models who are advocates first.
“Just being beautiful is done, it’s over,” said IMG executive Jeni Rose. Now, models have to have a story to tell. “A model that doesn’t have something to bring forth as a person is going to be a very difficult model to make a career for,” she said.
The power of advocacy to sell sneakers, yoga pants or skincare reflects prevailing cultural, political and social trends, but it’s a dramatic departure from just a few years ago.
Nike’s 2018 Dream Crazy campaign starring Colin Kaepernick stands out as a turning point. It was wildly successful, adding an estimated $6 billion to Nike’s market value — and equally controversial. The campaign launched amid a firestorm over the former NFL player and civil rights campaigner’s refusal to stand during the national anthem in protest against police brutality and racial injustice.
At the time, it was groundbreaking. Now, it’s table stakes.
“Brands and companies have realised they can tell more genuine and authentic stories by partnering with talent that advocates for [a distinct] cause,” said Offshore’s Rotimi.
Just being beautiful is done, it’s over.
Gap’s latest campaign features transgender youth activist Rebekah Bruesehoff and clean water campaigner and philanthropist Mari Copeny. Stella McCartney’s newest collaboration with Adidas starred sustainable-farming advocate Yuri Hibon, as well as model and mental health activist Georgia Moot. Tommy Hilfiger’s Spring 2021 campaign featured within its cast the model, actor and trans activist Indya Moore, among other celebrity advocates. The company also recently partnered with online learning platform Future Learn to launch an educational initiative in collaboration with body positivity campaigner Jameela Jamil and French singer and LGBTQIA+ rights activist Kiddy Smile.
“Working with activists who champion our values helps further support the causes that matter most to us and allows us to connect with consumers in a deeper, authentic and impactful way,” Hilfiger said.
Meaning What You Market
But while activism is becoming an increasingly prolific branding strategy, doing it right can be tricky to master and the stakes are high.
Brands that fall short of the ideals they’re selling risk reputational damage that can alienate the very consumers they were initially hoping to attract.
For instance, L’Oréal faced a public backlash last June when activist and model Munroe Bergdorf called out the company’s public support of the Black Lives Matter movement, contrasting it with the beauty brand’s decision to fire her from a campaign three years ago for speaking out against white supremacy and racism. Bergdorf’s post received over 110,000 likes on Instagram and was widely shared. L’Oréal has since apologised and named Bergdorf a member of its diversity and inclusion advisory board.
Meanwhile, campaigners and advocates may find their reputation tarnished if they put their face and name to brands that don’t match their values. For agencies, it is crucial that development strategies for model advocates help them better identify what brands can yield effective partnerships as well as refining their knowledge on the causes they align themselves with.
“Our development processes are really long and really rich,” said IMG’s Rose. “It’s not just about walking onto a set. It’s about knowing who you work with. What else do they do? Who else did they work with? We ask the girls all the time to Google who they are working with.”
For those that get it right, new opportunities and forms of collaboration are emerging.
Rather than simply promoting collections, brands are beginning to bring ambassadors into their creative boardrooms to participate in design and production.
Model and environmental advocate Arizona Muse has launched her own consultancy and previously designed eco-friendly garments for labels like Blazé Milano, as well as developing a sustainable capsule collection made out of natural materials and organic fibres in collaboration with Olistic the Label last year.
Equally, companies are increasingly seeking to leverage their ambassadors’ individual expertise. In-bound inquiries around advocacy work are increasingly accompanied by requests models consult brands and provide guidance on internal business practices as well as booking them for big public-facing campaigns, according to Tyler Stafford, co-founder of mission-driven modelling agency Hyphenate.
“Models are more vocal than ever. They’re encouraged to be more vocal,” said Hyphenate co-founder Amber Alston. “Brands are looking for that as well — people who are really passionate about things — to drive their business.”