Julia Haghjoo

LONDON —  Influencing via nothing but selfies and #OOTDs — or outfits of the day — is getting old, and the influencers that are now standing out in a saturated market are the ones offering a broader skill set.

Art direction is proving to be the next big thing and more influencers are now getting behind the camera and art-directing digital campaigns for a host of luxury brands, leveraging the skills they’ve honed creating visuals for social platforms or building personal brands online.

They’re using their Instagram feeds to showcase their skills, and going the extra mile to produce high-quality, editorial-style imagery, raising the bar on the quality of content shared.

The Athens-based influencer Evangelie Smyrniotaki, also known as @styleheroine, is a prime example of an influencer turned art director, having produced campaigns for brands including The Attico, Reformation, Bulgari and Bergdorf Goodman, all in the last year. Interest from these brands came quickly, she said, as she was set on sharing editorial imagery that could compete with any professional publication from the get-go, even though that might have meant slower growth on Instagram.

“I think the artistic approach on Instagram doesn’t always work, you grow a smaller following because people love to watch reality. I believe that my audience is slightly different — they are quite loyal and have very trained eyes,” said Smyrniotaki, who studied the likes of Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Harri Peccinotti, Norman Parkinson and Guy Bourdin and has aimed to channel the same approach that “beauty is everywhere” with her otherworldly imagery that plays with pops of bright color and has tinges of old-school glamour. “My approach toward photography and production has always been of professional [standard]. Consistency is everything when it comes to establishing a trustworthy name in the market.”

Sisters Julia and Sylvia Haghjoo have adopted a similar attitude when it comes to the content they share on social media — most often intimate portraits or black-and-white scenic shots. They found that growing a niche, dedicated following can work better than mass appeal.

“It depends on the direction you want to take. For us, for example, it makes no sense to post a selfie, that’s not something the brands are looking for. They are looking for an artistic vision,” Sylvia said. “What we do is quite niche, so it might not be for everyone but you can grow a dedicated following of people who are interested in arts, interiors or fine jewelry and are looking for a little fashion-related inspiration. I don’t think the people who follow us are interested in our private lives.”

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Brands such as Chanel, Barrie and German luxury fashion retailer Unger have previously commissioned the Haghjoo sisters to produce editorial shoots for them. The sisters have now also moved beyond Instagram with the launch of an online journal dubbed hug-you.com that features imagery they have produced and that can double as a portfolio.

“Brands have often come to us because they like our aesthetic and ask us to consult them on the direction of their own campaigns or look book shoots. So we are creating this journal like a portfolio for brands to see what we’re able to create. We want to move away from social media a bit and put all our creative vision and stories on this web site, which will be almost like an online art gallery,” added Julia.

An art direction project by the Haghjoo sisters

An art direction project by the Haghjoo sisters  Courtesy Photo

Moving beyond the traditional dressing or product placement opportunities and asking the right influencers for behind-the-scenes help makes sense for brands, too, as they continue the race to refresh their image and stand out online, while audiences across the globe are getting more wary of superficial paid partnerships.

“Simply going to an influencer for influencing’s sake is now I believe decreasing because their audience is not stupid, they know that they are simply selling for the sake of selling and that’s not very attractive. The next level is to reach out to influencers who sell a talent or a skill,” said Shini Park, who started blogging as early as 2008 and went on to start her own business that offers creative solutions to brands, across art direction, photography or graphic design, following consistent interest for her to lend her creative skills to them.

“At a certain point there were opportunities where my blogging was creative enough, so brands would come and ask for help in areas like web design, graphic design or photography,” added Park, pointing to the beauty, alcohol and mobile phone industries as among the most open to use influencers in new ways such as art direction, from earlier on.

Fashion woke up to the opportunity more recently, but now brands are increasingly looking to engage influencers for “360 solutions.”

“The fashion industry were a little bit confused about what influencing is. There’s still quite a narrow point of view on what it is, as it’s the nature of the industry to put people in boxes; if you are an editor you can’t be a photographer, for instance,” Park said. “But it has now caught up and currently our main clients are brands like Salvatore Ferragamo, for whom I do the art direction for all their social media during fashion week. We also do 360 degree sort of ambassadorships, where as the influencer I might wear Breitling but I’ll also produce content for Breitling as a company.”

By broadening the scope of their partnerships, brands have been able to enable new careers for influencers who might not have had a previous background in art direction — and build more genuine relationships, too, that make for a better sell to the savvier online consumer.

“People from the social media age understand what a younger generation wants, so you’re merging the knowledge of a heritage brand with some fresher energy that they might have been missing out,” the Haghjoo sisters said.

“It’s just like going to a celebrity who can hold up a shampoo bottle versus an artist who can interpret this shampoo bottle into some kind of a lifestyle; it’s a very different approach. You need both, that’s definitely the truth. You need the salesmen but you also need the creatives. This landscape has matured enough to open up space for all these different characters and these different ways of communicating with an audience,” added Park.

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There’s another simple benefit for brands in this case: reduced costs. Just like most digital-natives, influencers started off with a test-and-learn approach and can wear many hats, from art director to photographer, stylist and model.

“By having an influencer responsible for the production, too, automatically cuts costs, making the budget more attractive to the brand,” said Smyrniotaki. “[That’s why] brands are now looking more into total solutions, instead of assigning a project to multiple companies.”

For Park, it’s about building a tight team that can fulfill multiple roles and filling in the gap between a freelancer, who might not be able to provide a multi-disciplinary approach on their own, and a big agency, where the hierarchy and processes in place make the work flow slower. “We have the experience, we know the parameters that make a successful campaign and the most hassle-free, shortest time possible. It’s all about digital,” she said.

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