Dossier 12: The Creator Economy

Behind the scenes of the creator economy with Cesar Majorana

Cesar Majorana is a writer, artist and host shows both online and on tv. He collaborated with us on the development of Hmmosphere earlier this year. Now we spoke to him about his career, embedded within the influencer world, and what goes on behind the scenes over there.

Cesar in the lab working on Hmmosphere.

Sjef van Beers: In which ways have you made money using social media?

Cesar Majorana: Oh, interesting question! I’ve never monetised, never made money by attracting viewers, which you then basically sell for ad revenue. There are, however, people who have made money off of videos in which I appear. The most notable example was when I was in a relationship with a vlogger. She was making these ‘a day in the life’ vlogs, which were her most popular videos. And I appeared in those—sometimes we were at my place or we would go out to lunch. And then I was paying for the lunch, when we weren’t in a relationship yet. And afterwards I thought: “Hey you made money off of that date with me.” And of course people found that incredibly interesting. I remember on the ELLEgirl forum there were complete threads about our relationship.

SvB: But didn’t you then get new followers because you appeared on those vlogs?

CM: Yes, that’s true. People also started speculating: “Who is this guy? Oh, this is him, I found him here.” So yeah, I did gain capital from it in the end. Kind of a bad way to think about relationships, but oh well.

I have done collaborations with brands. Back in the day I mostly was just getting products sent for free. Right now, when I get sent stuff for free I don’t feel any obligation to post about it. And when people want me to post about it, and I’m interested in posting about it too, then I need to get paid for that. 

There’s also a really big ecosystem of creators being asked by companies to brainstorm, think along with them, and come and give workshops as experts on social media. And that’s really in high demand. So then you can just end up at a local Rabobank talking about all the things you’re doing on social media. I often think the level of those gigs is pretty low. A lot of influencer friends of mine who do this, they just post and are very active online. And they sort of understand it and got a feeling for it, but they are not like the biggest SEO experts.

SvB: Right, because what exactly do you teach them during a workshop? How they can make fun content?

CM: Yes, a lot of times I’m just helping them come up with ideas for content for different platforms. I think the places where I enjoyed doing this the most are places where young people are working. For instance, where I used to go for my book reports back when I was in high school. Now every company is on social media, so they’ve all got video channels now too. And there are working young people, who go and learn to be a presenter. So then you go explain to them how you write a format for something like that, how long your videos need to be, when you’re going to upload them. I think a lot of people are also looking for some sort of secret formula for this. And for that, of course, they look at YouTubers that are trying everything to figure this out and can sort of sense what the algorithm is currently enforcing when it comes to upload moments or the length of videos.

SvB: So that’s really about sensing instinctively and doing some trial and error?

CM:I think you’re exchanging this knowledge all the time. Yesterday, I was at the YouTube Brandcast Day in Rotterdam. It was a big event, and I was there with a lot of YouTubers. At a certain moment we were talking about this and you could really notice that everyone was playing a completely different ball game. There was one person who used to upload all the time, more than two hundred videos per year, but is now working in a series format and doing twenty videos a year. And they thought it wouldn’t work at all for the algorithm, but it turns out it works as well. So the era of when you could sort of make sense of the algorithm is definitely over, because it’s so individualised now. For me it works to post in the afternoon, but maybe you have way more reach in the evening. The algorithm is now so complex, it’s not exact science anymore.

What YouTubers are now running into is that they’re not reaching their own audience anymore. Let’s say you have three hundred thousand subscribers, but when you upload a video you only get maybe a hundred thousand views, if you’re lucky. So you are constantly trying to get into the feed of people who have not only subscribed to your channel, but to thirty others as well. That’s the challenge now for creators.

But let’s get back to the ways I have made money. I got paid as a freelancer to do stuff on other people’s channels. I also got paid to come up with videos for a big YouTube channel. Then I was telling them “you could do this one prank, or you could pull this stunt”. And recently I was moving, so I sold a bunch of old clothes I had to get rid of to my followers and that was really easy.

SvB: How did you start to make money with social media? Were you picked up by an agency immediately or did you get DMs from companies wanting to work with you?

CM: I did get an agent really quick, but that happened partly because I became friends with her. So when she started her agency, it was very logical for me to join that. And that was relatively early in my career. But when I talk to creators that don’t have an agent yet I always try to motivate them to get one. Because it changes the way you work so much.

SvB: In what way?

CM: As a creator you represent yourself and you can end up in conflicting situations where you have to negotiate your own fee. And that’s very abject, because I want to walk into some office, or wherever I’m working that day, and be the best possible version of me that day. Even when I’m hungover or something. But you want to deliver something valuable in that moment and that is way harder to do when, in the back of your mind, there’s all the stuff about the money that is involved or that preceded this. So just for your creativity alone, it’s already so nice to have someone else take care of that. 

On top of that, with an agent you can say “yeah, I’m sorry, but Emily is just so strict about this”, even when it’s actually coming from you. So it’s also some kind of shield, because you cannot afford to be seen as arrogant or give the impression that you’re only after money. So you have to stay as far away from those conversations as possible. That’s the easiest way to sustain yourself in that harsh field of finances and economic transactions that need to take place.

SvB: Yeah, this really reminds me of the art world as well and doing freelance work—the way you’re perceived as a person and having the headspace to come up with ideas when you’re also busy doing emails and all that administrative work.

CM: Yes, I think as an artist in this day and age you are your own PR person, and your own social media marketeer, and your own agent, and your own dietician, and so on and so on. You are fulfilling all these roles at once, and just like being a creator that makes for a very vulnerable and heavy job. There’s this piece I wrote with Linda Duits a while ago. And especially around that time (now it’s not that intense anymore), creators were really looked down upon. While they are not the cultural elite of the country or something like that at all. They might be popular and seem powerful at the time, but they are people that are immensely afraid of losing all the capital they built.

SvB: And then an agent can function as some sort of lightning diverter or a shield?

CM: For sure, and also as someone who is constantly helping you take the next step in your career decisions and money-wise. For example, I thought it was just so magical when a company wanted to send me something. I remember I once got a package from the Zeeman, which I posted about. I thought it was just so cool that they sent me something. But then at a certain moment my agent was the first person to tell me: “Hey, you’re now getting a lot of packages. We’re going to tune it down, because this is not good for your credibility, and not for your price. Because when all those other companies see how you’re getting all these packages and post about it immediately they will keep sending you stuff and then you’ll never get honest pay for it, like other creators get.”

SvB: Similarly to the insight about the packages, did your agent also help you professionalise in other ways?

CM: I think the craft remained the same. I don’t think I’ve started doing completely different things from when I started my work as a presenter, but what has changed are the circumstances under which I do it. She knows really well that I don’t need to have five meetings in the run-up to a hosting gig at the film festival. She understands this and arranges that they can call with me for an hour beforehand, and that’s included in the fee. 

At the end of the day, what I do as a maker is to peddle new ideas. And with her I really learned to negotiate with, for example, the broadcasters. Negotiations about time-slots, money, the people you work with—an agent also helps you with those kinds of things if you have a good one.

SvB: I’d like to get back to the creator theme. You’re not busy with setting up a growth plan or stuff like that? Or do you know people who do so?

CM: Yeah, of course. She also does that for some people. For example, she’s got some people on her roster that participate in a TV show like Expeditie Robinson. Then she tells them: “Alright, I know Instagram isn’t really your thing, but this is an excellent opportunity to grow your Instagram. So make sure that each day you’re on TV you have a post ready about it.”

What a lot of creators have to deal with is that you’re constantly in a sort of battle to create new output all the time. So what an agent is really useful for as well, is that she works with a bunch of other talents that she can set you up with. It’s in that way that I’ve done a lot of collaborations via the agency. And you can see that with YouTubers as well, when they appear in each other’s videos, that’s just a barter deal. And often the management arranges this. They’re like: “We got this one audience, and this other audience, let’s try to merge them a little.” And because both parties profit from this, they can do this without having to pay each other.

SvB: Just like those TikTok collab mansions.

CM: Exactly. I wonder how those are doing now, with the current gas prices.

SvB: Are there other parties you have to deal with outside of your agency?

CM: You have to deal with a lot of PR agencies. You get familiar with them, know what brands they represent, and what partnerships they are interesting in doing with you. These are also nice people. The people who work at the positions that have contact with you are people that are often very nice. 

And also, like at the YouTube Brandcast day that I mentioned earlier, you deal with the ambassador of YouTube, who is also very involved in your growth. For instance, when you’re a YouTuber in the UK, you can visit YouTube’s offices where they have a studio for you to shoot your videos at. In The Netherlands they don’t have that, but I did have a session with them last week about the possibilities of YouTube Shorts since they now want to push creators to upload Shorts.

SvB: So it seems like they are really trying to support and steer creators that are already popular.

CM: Yes, and that’s necessary too, because at a certain moment you end up on a plateau. You’ve reached the maximum of what’s possible. And then they start helping you: “We see these things that are happening in other countries. Have you thought of trying that?”

Yesterday I met up with the team of Dylan Haegens, who was the biggest YouTuber of the Netherlands for a long time. But he has an entire empire. He for sure has the biggest brand amongst kids for school supplies. And a guy like him, of course, is a giant cash cow for YouTube. Advertisers work with YouTube as a platform because he is active on there and his audience is there. He reached one million subscribers at some point. But then to move from one million subscribers to two million subscribers is a way harder route. So for stuff like that YouTube starts helping you, like “what can we come up with?”. You have to do it yourself for the most part, but such a platform is also interested in the question “can we support someone in the Netherlands to reach two million subscribers?”.

SvB: Yeah, because at the end of the day it’s in their interest as well.

CM: Absolutely. At the YouTube Brandcast party you really recognised the people who are the corporate types that are at their desk all day. You can tell from their posture, those shoulders that look like they’ve been sitting in a Herman Miller desk chair for the entire week. But those folks actually are our biggest friends, of course. We were with a group of creators at a certain moment and we were like “wait a second, this party is not for us at all, it’s for the marketeers”.

Still from Vuilnis TV, VPRO

SvB: Exactly, and those folks are the people just behind the people with the friendly faces you usually get to deal with.

CM: Yeah, those are the people that are busy with the KPIs, with the metrics of the clicks and the advertisements. And that’s something you get to deal with as well as a creator: you constantly need to give insight into your numbers. You do a campaign and as soon as it’s over you get all these messages “Can we get your Instagram insights? Can we get a number of how many people saw your story?” They want to know all these kinds of things. And actually it was only recently that I started thinking—even though it’s mainly global target group data mostly about demographics—there’s a certain privacy element to it that doesn’t really sit right with me.

This is also one of the reasons those discount codes are set up the way they are, with people’s names. It is often joked about that every YouTuber has their own code. But the reason people started doing that—and this started in the world of beauty influencers but it’s also a big deal among gamers now—is because you can then measure exactly how much audience you brought to a webshop. And often you can even make a deal that from all the sales you generated you get half the profit. Or they might say: “We give you the code CESAR20 and for every sale you get a percentage.” Or you agree to post CESAR20 and you get a fixed fee, depending on what deal you set up.

However, the metrics people think are important, are not the most important. A lot of YouTubers are busy with how many subscribers they get, but your subscriber retention is much more interesting. How much of your subscribers come back to watch more videos? And that’s also what the people behind the scenes at the platforms are concerned with. Back in the day it was all about the views, but now there are way more complex questions behind the determination of one’s success. And creators have picked up on that as well, so they are not concerned about views as much as they are concerned with the click-through rate or stuff like that.

SvB: When we were emailing to set up this interview we were talking about ‘editing interns’—teenagers editing videos, often underpaid, for big creators or channels. Video editing once was a craft which you had to study in school, and now it’s easy to learn as an autodidact. Are there more jobs like this? Do they disrupt the market or work field in any way?

CM: Yes, I remember that for sure. For instance, I learned to edit videos from friends who were YouTubers. And I remember clearly, when I got to do items for TV for the first time and wanted to use the same methods for that, the editors over there were completely terrified of jump cuts. That was really not done. You learned in school that you should never use a jump cut. That was really unacceptable. And now all editors are using jump cuts, but I remember clearly that this ‘jump cut revolution’ didn’t go over smoothly. It really was met with resistance from exactly those classically schooled editors who wanted to uphold their craft. Even though I think now the craft is just whatever contributes to a good video. And that can be a jump cut as well. So now it’s been added to everyone’s palette of tools to use, except for maybe a small number of die hard TV editors, but they don’t make videos for YouTube anymore anyway.

SvB: I believe I once heard an editor of the NOS describe what they call the “tea cup shot”. When they want to make a cut in some footage of a person talking they use some b-roll, for example of a tea cup, to cover up the cut, so the viewers won’t notice it.

CM: Yeah, and what I think those people did not notice, is that creators, especially vloggers, are constantly filming themselves in such a way that they simultaneously shoot their own b-roll, if you watch closely. And that’s already in those jump cuts. They film in such a manner that you can always cut a few seconds into the future without completely derailing the video.

I’ve seen vloggers being paired with traditional video crews to film a ‘shoplog’, for example. So these juxtapositions happen in many ways, shapes, and forms. What I think works best, is when a creator and a videographer or editor team up early on and make a name for themselves together. Recently, for a gig I did we needed a videographer and I picked someone who works for a YouTuber, but is now a freelancer too.

SvB: So they got to piggyback off of their work with that YouTuber?

CM: Yes, you really win when you team along early on with a creator and you fanatically help them to grow. Then hopefully, if that person is somewhat mentally sane, that will be your success too later on. So you can see many of those duos are on the come-up. 

And sometimes the work of these editors and videographers is the less visible labour in the relationship . I can think of many examples, like Anna Nooshin for instance. She worked with this girl that eventually started her own channel and became a creator herself, because in the end she had her very own vision and was a little more alternative. You see those collaborations often result in these behind-the-scenes people making a name for themselves, which is necessary to keep getting gigs as a freelancer. 

And sometimes the labour is really invisible. An example of that are the vlogs from Boef. You’re always asking yourself: how did Boef do it, having such a tumultuous life, when he was basically the biggest name in Dutch rap and a notorious vlogger at the same time? How did he have enough hours in the day to do all that crazy shit and make vlogs of it too? Well, that happened via a guy he knew from his neighbourhood who did the editing. So the only thing Boef did was drop off the footage at a barber shop. He shot a lot of footage, and that kid didn’t even edit it that much, he just put it all together on a big desktop PC in the back of the barber shop. 

SvB: To wrap things up, what are, for you, the consequences of being financially dependent on social media, or at least having a financial interest in it?

CM: For me, I’m in somewhat of a funny position in that it’s mostly a leverage against the other things I do. For example, I wanted to do Vuilnis TV (Trash TV), a show about what we throw away and how we are reflected in what we throw away. I thought out the whole format and was going to do it myself, on my own channel, after sending it to the VPRO, who didn’t do much with the plan. But when they heard about that, they were like: “No, we do want to do this with you.” And a month later we were shooting. So in that sense I can use my social media presence to my advantage, but I don’t rely on it the way other people do.

But when I think about the dependency I see in others, I think that’s incredibly scary. Yesterday I spoke to a creator who is now doing an acting course and wants to expand on that, but their audience just expects them to make videos in their old style. And they don’t know how to switch it up to what they actually want to do, which is acting instead of vlogging. They were really in a crisis. So that’s what’s constantly corrupting you. It’s constantly putting you in this paradox between the audience’s expectations and what you actually want to go and do with your life. 

Because, when you start and you build an audience that grows along with you, that’s very romantic. That you start out as a teen vlogger, and end up as a mom vlogger, is a very common pipeline. But the pipeline to doing something completely different with your life, that’s being talked about way less. Again, we can take Boef as an example. He was the biggest vlogger for a while, and when he didn’t need it anymore he quit. And you notice that the career you have as a creator can be very vulnerable. It really has a beginning and an end. And it’s very rare that someone like NikkieTutorials can do one thing for such a long time and remain interested in it themselves. That’s a very rare quality that not many people possess. So you’re constantly vulnerable to changes, not just from the outside world, but within yourself. That you don’t feel like making three hundred videos a year again, because it is quite heavy work. Or with Dylan Haegens who, together with his girlfriend Marit Brugman, really built an empire. But all of a sudden he’s responsible for an entire company that needs to get orders for school agendas, needs to set up events at theatres, and on and on.

At some point, the stakes are so high and you have to keep cultivating. It’s somewhat like gardening. Everyone knows what happens to your plants at home when you leave for one or two weeks and don’t water them. And it’s the same with making content for a living. It’s really not that when you have built a following that that’s the end— that’s really more the start of things. Then you constantly have to engage that following and play a part in their lives. That’s the ongoing challenge.