Crystal Malachias, McCann: “Creators are opening up new forms of expression”

The Global Head of Influencer at McCann has witnessed the rise of social media from the beginning.

by Mark Tungate , AdForum


It’s easy to get the impression that most people who handle influencer marketing at agencies are only one job into their career. But Crystal Malachias has over 17 years’ experience to draw on in her current role. “Ten years ago influencers were deemed as an unknown, a risk, suitable only for fashion and beauty brands,” she recalls. “But I could see that they were only going to grow in power. It was like a rocket that wasn’t going to slow down.”

Her initial experience was in traditional publishing, on the sales side, for the chatty HELLO! Magazine in the UK, followed by the British branch of Hearst Magazines, and then ACP in Australia – think Cosmopolitan and House & Garden. She returned to Hearst in the UK, ten years later, as Digital Lead.

“After Hearst I took a bit of a break,” she explains. “I needed to step off the sales hamster wheel and decide what I really wanted to do. I wanted something that would really stimulate my brain again. I realised that I’m good at sales, but I’m also highly strategic. So that’s when I moved into a growth role agency side.”

Her new position was at ITB Worldwide, which had started out in 2006 as an agency linking brands with celebrities: Crystal notes that they connected Dior with Natalie Portman, a relationship that still exists today. By 2019, when Crystal arrived, the agency had moved into the influencer marketing field. “Brands were realising that there was a whole new generation of people who were having stronger and more authentic conversations with their customers.”

It was this move that led Crystal to McCann. A year before she joined, ITB had been acquired the Interpublic group.

“When I arrived at ITB, my role was to grow the celebrity and influencer business within Interpublic. The more agencies I got to work with at IPG, the more I could see the demand for influencer marketing end-to-end specialists growing. So, for the past four or five years I’ve been banging that drum across all our different agencies.”


Global strategy, local nuances


The noise was heard, because about a year ago the network began discussing ways of accelerating the growth of influencer marketing. In order to sit the discipline within a creative environment, ITB would be “housed” within McCann. This coincided with the creation of McCann Content Studios. As a result, Crystal now wears two hats: global head of influencer, as well as head of McCann Content Studios London. “In terms of what I do on a day-to-day basis, that means I’m sitting in both ‘social’ and ‘influencer’ and have an understanding of how the two are completely interconnected, which makes sense.”

While some brands still surprisingly see influencer marketing as “a bolt on”, she says, many are now taking a far more progressive approach. “They push the boundaries. They really allow us to help them understand how influencer and creator marketing should sit within their overarching brand strategy, how they should treat influencers as long-term ambassadors, how engagement and growth is measured, how to increase spends and how that gets signed off at a boardroom level.”

There’s been a trend for brands creating in-house influencer teams. But while they can handle casting and day-to-day management, they can rarely match McCann’s strategic savvy. “We can create an entire global influencer strategy for a brand, as well as a toolkit for respecting local nuances. In the past, it was easy for a global influencer marketing team to sit in New York or London. But that’s no longer the case. Brands want you to be in Dubai, Brazil, you name it. Because the way people interact with influencers in each market – and the creators who enthral them – is very different. Yet you still need a red thread of continuity and brand codes.”

Not only that, but Crystal’s team can ensure that a brand’s social media and influencer strategy is in tune with the creative work McCann Worldgroup is doing in other areas. “Ideally we want to integrate our thinking at the beginning of the creative process.”


From campaigns to storylines


Influencer marketing has taken off, she adds, because brands want to be part of culture. The challenge is that it’s becoming increasingly complex, with an exploding number of platforms, ever-changing algorithms, and a public that’s passionate yet wildly fragmented.

“As a brand you can’t just say, ‘I want to be in music’, any more. There are so many different types of music and communities that brands could potentially play a role in. We understand what brands mean and what they need, we see what’s happening with consumers, and we can bring them together to tell wonderful stories. We talk a lot about moving from campaigns to storylines. But you also have to understand the difference between telling on a story on, say, TikTok versus Instagram.”

Managing the relationship between influencers and brands is a whole other area of expertise. How will the brand be represented in a post or video? How transparent should that relationship be? While many countries now require disclosure by law, it’s by no means the case worldwide. Backlashes from  followers are not unheard of. Even the terminology can be confusing. At a very basic level, what’s the difference between an “influencer” and a “creator”?

“Influencers are traditionally people who’ve garnered a following and who can help inspire audiences to purchase. The content tends to be well-curated: for me they’re almost fulfilling the role of glossy magazines. Creators on TikTok, on the other hand, can be more authentic and innovative, which is why that platform is flying, especially among younger audiences.”

If influencers closed the gap between “celebrities” and fans, TikTok and YouTubers have bought them even closer, she suggests. “A video platform allows for even more creativity, I think. Creators are opening up new forms of expression and communication. There’s a lot of excitement about what they’re doing.”

For brands, the ability of creators to “collapse the funnel” between star and fan is a kind of superpower. “We can help them tap into that smartly and authentically, with a long-term approach and a real understanding of the power these creators have to affect change. Brands are keen to express their purpose and values – and handled properly, social is an ideal place to do that.”