By the time noon rolls around on a Wednesday in August, Alex Prushinski had already secured advertisements with a cosmetics brand for a local momfluencer, a Visit Valley Forge campaign for a travel creator, and a deal with a supplements company for a Netflix reality star. All of these ads will seamlessly slot into Instagram feeds, save for a couple of hashtag ad disclosures.
Prushinski is part of an an ecosystem of influencer talent managers and marketing agencies that work together to match creators with stuff they can get paid to sell to their followers — be it cold cuts, Anthropologie furniture, or Wawa catering.
Her company TwoOneFive Agency, a one-woman operation, is Philadelphia’s only talent management firm dedicated to representing influencers.
Prushinski, who grew up in Delaware and lives in Center City, started TwoOneFive in January, when she left her job at a start-up platform that matched creators with advertising campaigns. She represents about a dozen clients, most of whom are women, including cast members from Netflix’s Love is Blind and The Ultimatum, the wife of a Philadelphia Eagle, and Cass Matthews, the Philly-based lifestyle creator known Cass and The City on TikTok and Instagram.
“I love my creators,” Prushinski, 29, told The Inquirer. “I’m like their stage mom.”
Prushinski sees herself as a trumped-up cheerleader. Her job actually involves teaching a group of new professionals about an industry shrouded in secrecy.
Influencer marketing is worth about $21.1 billion, according to a report from market research firm Influencer Revenue Hub, but a search for information on how much influencers should charge for access to their following reveals a network of get-rich-quick schemes and paths to burnout.
Coaching young talent on how to handle the business of fame isn’t new: Rising rappers and athletes have long hired etiquette coaches to help them navigate stardom. But in a world where algorithms can take posters from obscurity to virality, many content creators become famous virtually overnight, thrusting them into something they can’t necessarily prepare for.
This creates a hierarchy where those who have the means to outsource the labor behind advertisements and partnerships rise to the top while those who don’t remain underpaid. The system disproportionately hurts women and people of color.
Matthews, aka Cass and The City, signed with Prushinski in February. She started uploading food and small business recommendations to TikTok in 2020 when the gymnastics gym she worked at closed. Her videos have proven invaluable for the businesses featured, but Matthews first struggled to monetize them.
“I was undercharging, but I also feel like brands were undervaluing me too,” said Matthews, 31, who claims her rates tripled since working with Prushinski. “Having a manager makes you look so much more professional.”
Underpaid and in over their heads
Most influencers start as their own managers out of necessity: A brand reaches out with free swag in exchange for a post, and suddenly they’re reading contracts, shooting advertisements, and sending invoices.
Prushinski believes influencers should only consider signing with a manager when the logistics behind posting content “feels like a full-time job,” but many end up doing so prematurely.
“Just because you’ve gone a little viral and have people in your DMs saying, ‘I can make you really rich,’ does not mean you need a manager or to sign with one of those people,” said Rebecca Jennings, a senior correspondent at Vox who covers the creator economy.
Matthews waited until 2022 before signing with her first agency (which she declined to name) since she’s a self-described “control freak.” She remembers spending 20 hours a week pitching herself to brands, and constantly running up against what she didn’t know.
“For every 100 pitches, you might get two to five responses,” said Matthews. “There isn’t a textbook on how to do any of the backend stuff.”
Bran Edelman, aka TikToker @bran_flakezz, recalled a similar experience when he left his corporate job at GoPuff to try content creation full-time in August 2022.
“I was undercharging, and brands were just letting me do that. I mean, why wouldn’t they?” said Edelman, 27, who signed with New York-based talent agency WHALAR last year.
Prushinski said this is common: 37% of content creators set their advertising rates by guessing, according to a survey from social media management platform Later.
“Mostly every single person who signed with me was undercharging,” said Prushinski. “My job is to make sure my creators don’t get taken advantage of.”
The influencer’s secret teacher
Beyond pitching brands and negotiating contracts, Prushinski’s days involve ad-hoc duties, like figuring out how to return a car borrowed for an ad campaign or finding a white dress for Dîner en Blanc after a client invited her at the last minute.
Managing influencers can be all encompassing: Those who work for Youtube’s biggest stars describe having to counsel their clients through breakups while teaching them email etiquette and the importance of deadlines.
Prushinski said she was also initially surprised at some of the skills she’s had to teach, like time management and consistent communication.
And yet, teaching is Prushinski’s favorite part of the job. She likes working with reality stars especially because she gets to guide them on how to build a brand.
“I love watching people grow,” Prushinski said. “I love helping someone learn what it’s like to exist in the real world with a following that most people dream of.”
From scams to working with dream brands
Prushinski’s expertise matters in an industry where scams are common. For fledgling influencers, it can be hard to decipher between a swindler and someone with good intentions.
Beginning in 2021, startup talent management firm the Carter Agency — which had an employee in the Philadelphia suburbs — scammed its slate of creators out of thousands of dollars by misrepresenting the final rates of brand deals. Other agencies have become notorious for forcing creators to pay deposits up front before delivering a single opportunity.
“For a lot of [influencers] these scammers are preying on, [the scammer’s messages with them] are likely the first sort of business correspondence they’ve seen in their lives,” said Jennings.
Still, Jennings acknowledged that “half the time someone is upset with their manager, it’s because they feel like they aren’t doing much.”
When Zanab Jaffrey, who lives in Dallas, signed with her first agency after appearing on Love is Blind season three, she felt like “just a number.”
“I didn’t go on the show to be an influencer,” said Jaffrey, 33, whom Prushinski started managing in February. “I was so lost when I came to Alex.”
Jaffrey said her old management team (who she declined to name) only secured a few brand deals for her during the four-month period she was signed with them. During a similar time span, Jaffrey said Prushinski helped her quintuple her output, securing collaborations with dream brands, such as the sports apparel line 47.
Matthews, Jaffrey, and Edelman recommend doing your due diligence before signing with any manager: speak to other clients on their roster, ask about their communication style, and never pay for representation up front.
For Prushinski’s part, she takes the industry standard 20% commission and includes an at-will clause in all of her contracts. Her creators can leave if the relationship stops feeling mutually beneficial.
“I’ve watched what happens when people feel trapped,” said Prushinski. “I don’t ever want them to feel like that.”
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