EXCLUSIVE | Dharika Merchant, WORD & Alchemy Group: A humane approach to influencer marketing

image-exclusive-dharika-merchant-word-alchemy-group-mediabrief.pngDharika Merchant, Chief Operating Officer, WORD & Alchemy Group, speaks about how Alchemy Group and its verticals have been innovating organic & branded content and how WORD has adapted to the fast-changing influencer marketing landscape. She also discusses how ASCI’s guidelines will help in regulating the industry, the influencers’ stance on it, the role talent managers will play and how consumers’ content consumption patterns will evolve.

Dharika has more than 10 years of experience in Business development, PNL management, operations, product development across various verticals in digital media ranging from PPC, display, rich media, and social media marketing. At Alchemy Group, she is at the forefront of driving the strategic goals of the business by expanding its operations.

How has Alchemy Group’s journey been so far? How has the group fared during the lockdown?

Alchemy Group was started with the vision to create new-age solutions by being digital-first. The company, today, caters to over 700+ large-scale advertiser and media publication clients globally. Before the pandemic hit, we started our year on a very strong note- we were on track to a 300 percent year-on-year growth.

When the pandemic hit, it was imperative to lay down a strategy for the next 6 months that would accommodate unpredictability. At that time, the company took the stand to double down on everything from people, offerings to product development.

Our strategy and consistent efforts to create an organizational system that puts the teams’ best food forward has helped us not just thrive during the pandemic, but also grow. We saw revenue growth, onboarded 50+ new clients, ensured zero layoffs and doubled our workforce. 

What are the different verticals of Alchemy Group and what differentiates them from its competitors?

Alchemy Group has four businesses under its umbrella – WORD, AndBeyond.Media, Localyze, and OneLoop.

WORD, is a full-service influencer marketing agency that is aimed at professionalizing the space, building connections with original talent and helping brands tell stories that deliver measurable impact. Along with the state-of-the-art robust technology and data, the business strongly believes in a human-first approach to talent identification and high-touch service.

Since 2018, the journey at WORD has been an exciting one, having executed 1000+ campaigns for 150+ brands and handpicked and managed over 30,000 influencers. The in-house team of specialists includes strategists, producers, influencer project managers, designers, developers, digital marketing analysts and social media experts to support a brand’s journey right from defining goals and objectives to complete campaign execution.

AndBeyond.Media is a global SSP that caters to brands, media publications & content creators globally offering new age programmatic advertising solutions (automated set-up for media buying) with technology at its epicenter. They work with over 500 publishers spread across India, Middle East, SEA and the US.

Their offices are located in Mumbai, New York, Dubai and Singapore. AndBeyond.Media technology was developed to understand context, determine intent and auction ad space via programmatic channels using RTB platforms.

Localyze offers a complete, 360 marketing solution to brands looking to expand their marketing communication to regional markets. The goal is to enable our partners to provide a unified, holistic experience to their customers and employees. It facilitates transcreation and dissemination of the message via our network of top multilingual publishers, allowing brands to reach existing users in their native language.

And finally, OneLoop. OneLoop sets the precedent in the digital audio industry by creating limitless opportunities for artists, labels, digital streaming platforms and brands from around the world, enabled by domain expertise and an innovative tech-enabled marketplace.

OneLoop is the result of the coming together of Alchemy Group and N N Sippy Productions. We combine our Ad Tech and Intellectual Property Rights expertise with innovative technology to make audio content more profitable for content owners, publishers and brands.

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How did the pandemic impact influencer marketing and how has it changed the content consumption pattern of audiences?

Content consumption patterns have entirely changed owing to the pandemic. Consumers are now turning to their screens more than ever, and consuming content faster than ever before. During these times, it has become increasingly important to make sure content is authentic, organic and creative.

Luckily, most brands have been onboard this approach. Brands are taking a more humane approach to influencer marketing now. They are collaborating with influencers for next-gen branded content & innovating marketing solutions. As budget allotment towards online/digital increases, campaigns are being curated keeping creative storytelling, impact and influencer niche in mind.

Brands are now looking at influencer marketing with more importance and working with influencers to create the perfect blend of intriguing content for a successful campaign. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the consumption patterns of consumers, which has inadvertently pushed businesses to re-evaluate their marketing strategies.

What is the current size of the influencer market in India and globally? And will there be a boom in the influencer economy in the upcoming years?

The current market size of the influencer market, globally, according to Statista, is at USD 13.8 billion. According to MarketsandMarkets, the global influencer marketing platform market size is expected to grow from USD 6.0 billion in 2020 to USD 24.1 billion by 2025, at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 32.0% during the forecast period.

The industry will definitely boom in the coming years. Brands are now allocating specific marketing budgets for influencer marketing owing to the impact branded content has on marketing plans.

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As more and more influencers are taking the market by the storm. How does one ensure that the excitement during influencer engagement does not fade away?

The key is to constantly innovate; for both brands and influencers. When we, at WORD, work on a client pitch we encourage storytelling instead of pushing out content that looks like a blatant advertisement.

This encourages excitement, not just for the brands and influencers but also for the audience. The idea behind influencer marketing since the very start has been to creatively showcase a product, and as long as that is being done the excitement won’t fade away. 

Inevitably, a lull may appear every now and then, but constant innovation, creative storytelling and targeting the right niche is the way out.

What are your thoughts on the recent ASCI guidelines for influencer advertising? 

The guidelines issued by ASCI are a positive step towards regulating the industry, since these directives will primarily require all promotional posts to be more transparent. The guidelines clearly mention ‘disclosure label options’ that not only protect the consumer but also give clarity on how brands and influencers can disclose branded content.

The guidelines are extremely clear in definitions, how to disclose for different platforms and different kinds of content etc. With a rise in the number of influencers, these guidelines will enable consumers to easily identify between an advertisement or organic & editorial content.

We welcome this change and are excited to see how this transforms the industry for good. That said, we hope these guidelines are also updated with time, as this a very dynamic industry. These guidelines could in turn encourage both brands and influencers to now work more creatively to produce content and focus on storytelling that helps the brand and the audience.

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As a firm that closely works with influencers, what is the general response of influences on the guidelines?

Most influencers have had a positive response towards these guidelines, since the final draft was released. Our recently launched vertical, WORD Talent manages exclusive influencer talent and thereby we interact and work not only with influencers for branded content but also represent our own exclusive talent.

Almost all influencers onboard have also had a welcoming response to the ASCI guidelines, as they feel this will ensure more clarity on disclosing branded content, which earlier had no restrictions.

The influencers, however, did show little concern in how brands might react to these guidelines. That said, so far, the response has been positive even from the brands’ point of view. 

Will the roll-out of these guidelines change how people consume branded content?

We are hopeful that audiences will embrace these guidelines as positively as the industry has. One primary aim of these guidelines is to disclose branded content and provide more transparency to consumers when it comes to content. The challenge now for creators will be to ensure more creativity in content creation in order for the audience to stay glued. 

That said, we’re also looking forward to see how people embrace these guidelines for sure, and how it changes consumption (if any).

Post the execution of the guidelines, what role would agencies, influencer talent managers play in the creation and execution of branded content?

We, as an agency and as talent managers, now not just act as the link between brands, but also take care of everything at the backend, from A-Z. These experts are a storehouse of skills; starting from brand outreach and branded content, to final content creation, and managing finances, to name a few.

As these guidelines are put into effect, the challenge to now create organic yet branded content, and keep up with these guidelines is something the industry will struggle with in the beginning. Here is again, where talent managers will come into the picture. From understanding the very requirements of the guidelines to ensuring it is followed by their talent is something that will be of key importance.

Additionally, talent managers and agencies will now play a pivotal role in making brands understand the importance of following these guidelines, and how to follow them without having a negative effect on the final content.

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How do you see the landscape of influencer marketing changing in the coming years?

As mentioned above, we are expecting the industry to drastically rise in the coming years. With brands now specifically allocating marketing budgets for influencer marketing, we see the landscape shift to more branded content but executed more creatively. 

The landscape will see more clever and innovative usage of platforms available, along with an emphasis on captivating editing ideas to make content more fun and consumable. 

Anything else you would like to add?

The pandemic has altered a lot of things, from how businesses function to our content consumption patterns. However, the one thing that has been the key to any business success stayed the same- Innovation.

We must continue to innovate and work creatively, from organic content to branded content, to how brands push out their marketing strategies via influencers- innovation is the ultimate key to success.