Pete Borum, 33, and Benjamin Williams, 38, are masters in the art of the tricky conversation. Their influencer marketing company, Reelio, was one of the first to plant a flag in what’s now a multibillion-dollar industry. To convince skeptical marketing and advertising veterans that the ground had shifted beneath their feet a few years ago, Borum and Williams relied on a Jedilike technique: They told the execs to ask their own children to name their favorite celebrities. Guess what? Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie didn’t rate—kids today follow YouTube and Instagram stars like Bethany Mota and Markiplier, who command loyal audiences of millions that most cable networks can’t dream of attracting. When companies accept that they have to find new ways of reaching people or risk falling behind, Borum and Williams step in.
Reelio bills itself as an expert matchmaker for brands and social media creators of all sizes. Since raising more than $1.2 million in initial seed funding back in 2014, the company has seen successes pile up rapidly; with 50-some employees and growing, their offices in New York and Los Angeles represent A-list clients including Mercedes-Benz, Verizon, and Target.
Borum, Reelio’s CEO, and Williams, the COO, started workshopping their idea for the business while they were still studying at Wharton. “We were sitting in class, asking very specific questions that were aligned to our business,” laughs Williams. “Even in between classes, we’d be pitching our classmates. A lot of our early investors were our classmates.”
Social media ecosystems were evolving at a breakneck pace, but there wasn’t much of an agreed-upon middle ground for brands or creators. “No creator knew what they were worth, no brand knew what they should pay, and neither knew how to measure success or what it meant,” Williams says.
“Ad buyers would say, ‘I spend a billion dollars on TV every year, and I control every pixel of every frame. You want me to take that brand and entrust it to a teenager who makes cat videos?’” says Borum. “But if you work with a dozen online celebrities, every time they upload a video, they have millions of subscribers who receive a notification and see it. That’s far more efficient.”
Reelio analyzes metadata and audience analytics to find solutions that make sense, even for companies that offer products you wouldn’t associate with social media, like income tax preparers. At the core of the business is understanding what resonates with people and why. Borum cites a campaign Reelio worked on in 2015 with Visa, Taco Bell, and YouTube star BigDawsTv as one of his favorites. The premise was simple enough: Taco Bell app users would receive half off their orders if they used Visa Checkout. But in the hands of BigDawsTv, who has close to three million YouTube subscribers, the idea was fodder for a funny two-minute video of people offering halfway hugs to bewildered passersby. The video attracted 250,000 views in just four days and drove 50,000 people to download Taco Bell’s app.
“We envision a day when a kid with a creative idea picks up a camera and puts it on Instagram and Facebook, and we’ll be able to identify the advertisers and creators you should be working with based on who’s watching and for how long,” Borum says. “And it’ll happen wherever somebody has inherent talent, whether in New York or Nairobi.”—David Gambacorta