In 2014, IMG Models introduced We Love Your Genes. It's an Instagram account, a hashtag, a scouting program and a broader strategy the agency created to discover fresh faces that it can develop and eventually add to its roster, all rolled into one. And it's had success stories — from Diana Silvers (a break-out in 2019's "Booksmart") to runway regulars like Lameka Fox and Gizele Oliveira.
A lot about social media has changed since then, from the way it looks to how we use it to what the big platforms are. Jeni Rose, SVP at IMG Models, tells Fashionista that the agency had built out a team that works on finding talent on Instagram over the past few years. (By its estimate, a fourth of its recruitment has been done through social media over the last five years.) And it was one of them that brought up TikTok as an opportunity.
"[They] said 'You know, I really think we should start looking at TikTok, because that truly is the demographic and Instagram has gotten so curated that it doesn't look the way it [did] give years ago, when we began scouting there,'" she remembers. "All of us thought, 'We're too old for TikTok. How does that work?'"
As IMG Models began having these conversations internally, the coronavirus pandemic continued to spread globally and agents scrapped their scouting trips across different markets, typically slated for post-fashion month. It fast-tracked their plans to explore TikTok.
"For people who are used to being on an airplane and scouting talent from around the world, it's sort of like, 'How long is this going to be for?' What we decided to do is to turn ourselves inward and learn how to scout on TikTok," Rose says. "We all become experts really quickly on how to function and maneuver around on TikTok. Not being 14 years old, that's not something that comes easily."
Still, the team quickly found many positives to the platform — namely, how they could easily connect with young people across the globe and how it allowed them to see a less-filtered version of potential talent than might not be Instagram Feed-worthy in 2020. "It really reminded me of the early days on Instagram, when we were seeing very genuine content and not a lot of stuff that looked idyllic and probably isn't the real world," says Rose. Plus, with many young people staying home from school with a clear social calendar, there's a lot of activity on TikTok.
"You get to see a lot of personality. When you're looking at a video it's so different [than a picture]," Rose continues. "It's so funny, I remember 20 years ago when I started using video I thought, 'How did I ever scout using just Polaroids?' With video, you see it all. You get to see how somebody is."
Though usually, social media is the domain for a specific subsection of IMG Models' scouts, Rose says that, given the circumstances, "every person that's been scouting worldwide has been working on social media scouting... Now, it's sort of all eyes on TikTok." Right now, the agency has nine scouts dedicated to looking for talent on the platform.
Once an IMG Models agent finds someone they're interested in on TikTok, they'll see if they have a linked Instagram account to send a direct message to, using one of its verified accounts. (It also has a verified account on TikTok, but you can't message someone through the app unless they follow you.) Then, they'll talk to the person's parents.
"When you do scouting by social media, nine times out of ten, these are people who never even thought to do this," Rose explains. "There's a lot of education that goes into a first meeting because you're trying to explain what this job means, how it works, what's the timeline, how it evolves... There's so much mystique around our business that people don't really have any idea how it works. When you find somebody on Instagram or TikTok or any sort of social media, you're explaining how the business works and how it will work for their child."
Normally, that conversation would be followed by an in-person meeting. Since that's not possible at the moment, Rose says IMG Models has been hosting virtual ones with potential talent and their guardians. ("We've never really done that before," she notes.) They'll make a few different members of the team available to answer questions about the agency, the process and the industry, since "a lot of times, you're talking to people [for whom] this is something totally foreign... especially when it's someone whose child is in high school. It's really important for them to understand that it's really a hobby until they finish school."
If all goes well, IMG Models will have the person send through additional materials, for the agency to make a decision on whether or not to bring them on. So far, it has signed four people from TikTok, from the U.S., France and Russia; it's talking to another 30. By the time the industry resumes operating with some semblance of normalcy, "we're going to have a whole crew of homegrown IMG talent," Rose says.
This new process, however, isn't going anywhere: "I don't think that when things go back to normal this will change for us, because we've been able to connect with people that [we] would never have been able to before," Rose explains. "I love the genuineness of TikTok, and I hope it doesn't change because it used to be like that on Instagram, too, and it's not anymore.I really love that kids [are] creating content on their own that doesn't have to be beautiful and perfect and filtered. It's just them having fun."