In Conversation with… Harry Hugo, Co-Founder of The Goat Agency

October 24, 2019

It’s all about data! You need to understand what’s happened and worked in the past through that process of trial and error to predict how successful influencers will be.

Over the last five years or so, influencer marketing has grown from unfamiliar term to global phenomenon, with marketing budgets across every industry pouring into the practice at an astonishing pace. This year, 65% of marketing influencer budgets have risen, up from 29% in 2018. And today, 17% of marketing teams spend more than half their budget on influencer marketing.

Leading the charge is The Goat Agency, the world’s largest influencer agency, and 24-year-old serial entrepreneur Harry Hugo who co-founded the business in 2015.

I visited Goat’s London office to chat to Harry and find out more about his journey, what influencer marketing looks like today and how it’s going to be disrupted in the future.

Caitlin: You’ve had a very interesting career for someone who’s just 24! Can you tell us about how you started your journey to founding Goat?

Harry: When I was 16, I set up a football journalism platform after I was told by a load of newspapers that I was too young to be a part of a newspaper (and despite my arrogant belief that I was better than all the journalists that were there!). I decided to build a journalism product around football, and within 18 months we’d scaled to 500 writers worldwide writing 350 articles a day. 

A year later I was the youngest-ever sports writer for The Times despite being rejected the year back (now that was very satisfying!).

Caitlin: And you had another venture before you started Goat?

Harry: Before I went on to co-found Goat, three of us started a company called Sportlobster which effectively tried to take on Facebook and Twitter to become the sports social network. Unfortunately, this was during their absolute peak in 2012–2014 so it didn’t last. But we raised £17m investment in two years and went from five people in a room in London Bridge to 17. I was 18 when we started this venture, and it really was an amazing journey!

Caitlin: After these ventures, how did you get into influencer marketing?

Harry: We started getting into influencer marketing at Sportlobster actually, but that was before it became the practice it is today. 

Our number one business objective at that time was to drive new acquisition of users to the app. And that meant that we had to find the marketing channel that was the most effective at driving those acquisitions for the cheapest price with the best quality users. And we tried everything. We sponsored the NFL response to the NBA. We had Christiano Ronaldo as our headline ambassador. We bought ads on train carriages, TV, radio, billboards, paper and print – everywhere we could. And then one day I asked one of my friends who had a base of 100,000 followers on Twitter to share a post about us. It generated 2,000 downloads overnight.

So we decided to repeat the experiment with Christiano Ronaldo who had about 120 million followers on Twitter – and he got just 2,000 downloads as well. There didn’t seem to be much correlation between number of followers and downloads, so we ran the test across different accounts, with anything from 100–100,000 followers, and about 80% of them didn’t deliver the results, while 20% did. 

We realised there wasn’t a blueprint on how to drum up engagement using these influencers. It was a case of understanding audience loyalty, something which has so many different variables and requires trial and error to understand. But when you get it right, it’s the most effective channel for engagement, so we decided to dedicate much of our marketing efforts to fine-tuning influencer marketing.

Caitlin: Do you use data to understand how much engagement your influencers can create?

Harry: It’s all about data! You need to understand what’s happened and worked in the past through that process of trial and error to predict how successful influencers will be.

Caitlin: So when did you decide to set up Goat?

Harry: Because our team was so focused on influencer marketing internally, we ended up doing it on a bigger scale than anywhere else in the UK – and doing it the most effectively. We realised that the work we were doing was a better business proposition than the rest of Sportlobster. So when the business ended, we set up Goat in mid-2015 to focus purely on influencer marketing.  

Caitlin: How has influencer marketing changed in the five years since you started using it?

Harry: It’s changed a lot – there’s just been so many shifts in how platforms work and the features they have. For example, it was all about Snapchat in 2016, then marketers were really focused on Facebook. Then Instagram stories were particularly disruptive… And today, Tik Tok’s become a really big thing that everyone’s trying to monetise. 

All this change means that we can’t get precious and we can’t get biased about what approach or platform or feature we use, because that’s how you end up becoming redundant. You’ve got to welcome that change in this industry. 

Caitlin: Speaking of new things in the influencer marketing space: what’s your opinion of virtual influencers like Lil Miquela and Margot?

Harry: I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I get it! 

I think virtual influencers thrive off of human curiosity because we’re so weirded out we want to see what happens – meaning they drive a lot of interest. I do question how much brand loyalty they have though. Influencer marketing is all about authenticity and virtual influencers are just about the least authentic thing in the world. 

Having said that, what I do like about them is that they’re so scalable. If they have the longevity that some people believe they do, then they’re potentially the most scalable way of doing influencer marketing. You simply build a virtual influencer, create a perfect story, a perfect niche… Like the dawn of the Facebook page, you could build a specific community around that ‘person’. 

Caitlin: How about AI and influencer marketing? Do you think it’s going to change things?

Harry: At the moment, we use AI to source influencers and map out how good we think they’re going to be. But it’s not something I expect is going to be particularly disruptive to influencer marketing at the moment. 

AI is going to help us get better at sourcing influencers and picking out the best content to use

I think AI is going to help us get better at sourcing influencers and picking out the best content to use, but influencer marketing is about human understanding and human interaction. That’s not just choosing the best content, it’s also about empathising and managing those influencers as people as well.

Caitlin: What trends do you see impacting social media and influencer marketing most in the future?

Harry: What’s going to change is how and where people communicate with each other. 

Word-of-mouth has always been the best way of referring customers. But the places where these conversations happen is always changing. 

It used to be that word-of-mouth recommendations happened ‘down the pub’, then it was on the phone, then it moved to the internet and social media platforms. Today, people are moving to more private conversations on messaging apps like WhatsApp, what we call ‘dark social’. 

People are having these conversations still, they just ‘hang out’ in different places. The challenge has always been the same: reaching them to start that conversation.