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Here's a look into the business of making Fido earn his keep
PET ownership comes with many perks. There's the unconditional love, the furry cuddles, the companionship. This year, it can also come with an added advantage that used to be relegated to dog-show folk and whose ubiquitousness is surely a sign of our times: making a nice income from them. The catch, of course, is that the pet has to be famous. Instagram-famous.
Today, there are tons of pets which have gained enough of a following on social media to earn the coveted title "pet influencer", and they can command tens of thousands of dollars creating content for brands. And it's not just pet-food companies and vacuum-cleaner makers; fashion brands like Ralph Lauren and upscale hotel chains have written cheques for pets to appear in their marketing too.
As the pet influencers field has become crowded, a cottage industry has sprung up to help pets - or their owners, at least - manage their newfound marketability. Loni Edwards is one such entrepreneur: For the past three years, she's been running her talent management firm, the Dog Agency, working with "the most influential animals in the world".
Edwards - whose dog, known on Instagram as Chloe the Mini Frenchie, amassed so many followers that her death last year made local news - knows that striking the jackpot in the pet influencer space isn't as simple as just creating an Instagram account for your photogenic Labradoodle. I sat down with her to talk about the business of being a pet influencer.
Chavie Lieber: First and foremost, how on earth did you get into this type of business?
Loni Edwards: I used to be a lawyer and was pretty unhappy. I quit my job and started a company making handbags that had phone-charging capabilities. Being an entrepreneur is pretty lonely, and so about five years ago, I got a dog to keep me company. Chloe was the cutest thing I'd ever seen, and I decided to start her own account so that I wouldn't bombard people with photos of her five times a day.
She quickly amassed this large following. Within six months, she had thousands of followers. People really liked her personality because I dressed her up and had her sitting next to me in business meetings. She was always smiling and was a sweet, adorable ball of love, and her personality translated through the photos and by the way I wrote the copy.
Soon, pet brands like PetSmart and Purina were reaching out to send us stuff and invite us to parties. I started meeting other pet owners, and realised there's this new and growing pet influencer world. Every time I meet someone behind a celebrity pet and they'd hear I was a lawyer, they'd ask me for help on the contracts, to read over the terms and agreements they had to sign from brands. It seemed like this was a perfect way to match my legal training and my love for animals.
CL: What are your daily tasks as a celebrity pet manager?
LE: I help grow a brand, whether it's in deciding if they should write a book or branching out in terms of content. I also connect them to the right companies and people. A lot of it is acting on behalf of owners. Brands used to DM pet owners, who have full-time jobs and couldn't coordinate details. Some couldn't negotiate rates or read a contract. Now I have relationships with both clients and the brands and I take commission.
CL: Do you help pets become famous?
LE: No. We're super selective as to who we take up as a client, so they have to have a large following, they have to have really good engagement, and they have to have good-quality content. We take an influencer that has already proven themselves.
CL: Can you give me some example of these pet personalities?
LE: Ella Bean is basically a dog fashion blogger. The fashion community loves her. Popeye the Foodie is LA's hottest foodie, who takes photos in front of amazing dishes. Food bloggers love him. Harlow and Sage, who are these dogs that just cuddle all the time. Wolfgang is a guy that takes in senior pets and is the sweetest guy to follow. We just signed this cat, Bruno, who went viral because he is really fat.
CL: Do you work with other animals other than cats and dogs?
LE: Yes, we work with pigs, monkeys, hedgehogs.
CL: What are some challenges you think people in the pet-influencer space face?
LE: Pets can't work as many hours as a human. They need breaks, they get tired, and so we have to explain that to brands all the time. "No, the dog can't do a five-hour meet-and-greet!" Sometimes, it also takes longer to create content because you can't communicate with the dog to tilt their head this way. They're not as human as we think.
CL: What was it like to get brands on board?
LE: Human-facing brands totally didn't get it. When I started the agency, my first big focus was meeting with brands and convincing them that working with pet influencers made sense. I got a lot of looks. But Chloe would come to all the meetings, and so she helped sell the idea. They looked at her and felt a connection.
The first brand I worked with was Dyson. I had to convince them, but it totally made sense for me because dogs shed, and we clean up after them. I had similar pitches when I went to the Body Shop and Urban Decay. These are brands that don't test on animals, so why wouldn't they work with pets?
Same with Ritz-Carlton, since they are pet-friendly - of course, they should want pet influencers staying at their hotels in Aruba and Puerto Rico, showing followers that it's a pet-friendly hotel chain. We also work with Sony, Coke, Ralph Lauren, Barneys and Neiman Marcus.
CL: What are the prices for a pet to land in a brand campaign?
LE: The price varies and is usually tied to your follower numbers, where a scale of, say, 100,000 followers will get you a few hundred dollars and up. I have clients who have a few million followers and are getting US$15,000 per post. There are a few variables to factor in, like if they're creating video, because that's a higher cost. People also make money off book deals and merch.
CL: Why are they this valuable?
LE: People like to look at pets on social media. Pets raise endorphins and make people feel happy. They are adorable to look at and are easier to connect with than human influencers. There's no barrier like jealousy. You can gush, "Oh, my god, you're the cutest little terrier," in a comment without feeling weird. We've evolved so that we now think of our pets as our children. They're such an important part of our lives, and that also has helped this become such a huge and important space. Human-facing brands want to work with pet influencers because they want to show that they align on the values of their consumer, and their consumer loves pets.
CL: Do you find that people are buying animals specifically to make money off them on Instagram?
LE: I do get a lot of requests from people who ask me to help get their pet famous. I get inquiries about what type of dogs people should buy, based on what is most likely to become an influencer and make money. They want to know, "I get a dog that's missing an eye, will they become an influencer?"
CL: Do you think it's wrong to want to make money off your pet?
LE: It's not wrong if you want to make money; it's wrong to be in it if your pet doesn't want to do it and you're forcing them. Some dogs just want to be dogs. And at the end of the day, it has to be a good experience for the pet too. It can't be about being forced to act and perform so you can buy more clothes.
CL: What's some advice you would give to someone who has a pet with a following and wants to monetise?
LE: You want to be consistent and find the one thing that stands out about them, whether it's if the dog is really funny or you are really funny but the dog is cute. Anyone can take photos and put them on the Internet; it takes effort to develop a strong brand and to consistently engage with people and be the front of that community. A consistent brand voice is the most important. VOX