Despite the reputation modeling agents often get as the “bottom feeders” of the fashion game, up until now they have at least been a necessary evil.

Without them, new faces would have a pretty tricky time making their way into the industry, and we might’ve missed out on some of the greatest talents of recent times. Yet, with the way things are going, the days of the traditional modeling agent could be numbered.

At the very least, the old ways model scouts have been doing business are on the way out, and their profession appears to be changing for good. Exactly how you feel about that probably depends on your opinion of the old-school fashion industry, but it’s pretty safe to say there are going to be some winners and some losers...

But why the sudden change? One word: Instagram. The next wave is a digital native generation of tech-savvy, iPhone-loving, selfie-sharing picture takers, 32% of whom believe that Instagram is now the “most important social media network” in the world. As a result, the modeling industry has shifted indelibly. New talent is no longer found on the streets of trendy city districts, but via the comments and hashtags of your daily feed.

Like so many other professions, scouting is increasingly a digital-only practice, with people whose entire job it is to sit and trawl the ‘gram for prospective new accounts. In December 2014 fashion behemoth IMG Models even launched a talent scouting campaign called We Love Your Genes, where young girls could post selfies using their hashtag to make the scouting job easier. As of today, it has been used almost 75,000 times.

These days, not only has Instagram become an extension of a model’s portfolio, but also their social influence. The number of Instagram followers a person has, and the number of comments/likes they receive per post, is now one of the most influential factors in getting booked. A strong portfolio is only half the answer.

Even more pervasive is how the form of Instagram itself – traditionally a square photo-format with an established set of stock poses – has started informing how brands approach their photography and branding. This so-called “Instagram effect” refers to a shift in both art direction and marketing strategy away from the exclusive and other-worldy feel of traditional fashion advertising, towards a more normal and supposedly “authentic” look.

But that’s not the only way Instagram has changed the modeling industry. The effects go far deeper indeed…

1. Scouting the New

Instagram has rapidly evolved into an interactive digital lookbook for aspiring models. These days many brands and agencies see it as a much more “natural” insight into not only a person’s appearance, but their everyday lifestyle as well.

With just a few taps, a scout can see the way you looked at your sister’s wedding, check you out tanning by the pool or find out what you wore while partying at a music festival. Instagram’s voyeuristic nature, where nobody really knows who is looking at or watching whom, takes the conventional covert model search and amps it up considerably, allowing brands to know huge amounts about their prospective talent before even meeting them.

IMG has already signed 27 models via their #WLYG campaign hashtag, and top models Matthew Noszka, Gizele Oliveira and Ben Nordberg each landed huge fashion campaigns after being scouted via their Instagram accounts. In fact, Noszka was working in construction posting topless selfies before Wilhelmina agent Luke Simone stumbled across his Instagram account, and Nordberg was a pro skateboarder living in Britain who became the face of DKNY virtually overnight.


Kevin Systrom, one of Instagram’s founders, argues that Instagram is about turning “ordinary, everyday scenes into magical moments captured in digital form.” Yet, in between “ordinary” and “magical” is a dizzying array of post-processing and photo editing (the very least of which are Instagram’s own filters). Apps like Facetune offer many of the retouching services that are a staple of modern fashion photography, including skin smoothing, teeth whitening and blemish removal.

The level of attention that goes into selfie culture these days often undermines the notion of authenticity that Instagram once built itself on. As stated by journalist Jerry Saltz, “whether carefully staged or completely casual, any selfie that you see had to be approved by the sender before being embedded into a network.”

As such, a model scout like Aly El, who has been working for the past 11-years, explains “you just have to be diligent in figuring out what they really look like… this means closely examining photos for sought-after traits like height and a symmetrical face.”

The number one thing to remember about Instagram? Nothing is ever what it seems.

2. Global Reach

One of Instagram's most revolutionary traits is its ability to transcend global borders.

With more than 75% of its users coming from outside of the United States, Instagram's global reach means model scouts no longer need to fly across the world and wander the streets of a country when looking for new talent. What’s more, Instagram is available in 25 languages, and is one of the very few apps allowed behind China’s infamous Great Firewall, giving it an even greater scope of possibility.

Noah Shelley, a top casting director at Dazed and Confused, believes “street-casting” has become less and less effective. He argues, “In New York, it’s very difficult. If you’re attractive, if you’re cool and you’re scouted in Soho by someone from my team, then you're probably already a model… it’s very hard to discover raw talent on the street anymore. I find that my time is better used if I actually spend four or five hours on the internet or on Instagram than spending four or five hours walking around in the snow.”

Marc Jacobs was one of the first brands to really make use of this shift, when it used Instagram as the means to cast its Spring/Summer 2015 campaign. Nadia Rahmat, a Singaporean with Arab and Indian heritage, won the contest and was chosen out of 50,000 people.

Rahmat has since spoken out on how social media is breaking down international boundaries that were previously almost impenetrable, telling the AFP in February, “I don't think I would have received the opportunity if not for social media. It is a revolutionary platform."

3. The Power of Product

But if you think Instagram has only been good for the professional fashion circuit, then think again. Terms like “Instagirls,” “Instagram Models” and “Instafame” don’t only apply to budding catwalk stars, but also to those lesser known, but no less influential, models and bloggers making millions from sponsored Instagram posts and brand collaborations.

Names like Rumi Neely, Chiara Ferragni, Andreas Wijk and Margaret Zhang all found huge fame in this way.

These men and women are paid by brands to promote products to their huge online following, using their image and their online presence to push a dizzying array of items and services. From Balenciaga boots, sunglasses and Chanel handbags, to obscure websites and upcoming restaurants, Instagram allows these individuals to market items that would never appear so glamorous in a traditional format.

Just like those aspiring models retouching their selfies, these lifestyle ambassadors stage and edit their images so meticulously that supposedly ordinary moments become truly extraordinary. The existence they present to the world is deliberately designed to feel at once both aspirational and attainable, and for that service brands are willing to pay them handsomely. Even among relatively unknown figures in the wider world, fees can run anywhere between $2,000-$15,000 for a single post.

One such Instagirl is fashion influencer, Margaret Zhang. Zhang takes self-portraits and other snapshots of her glamorous life and shares them with more than 745K followers. In regards to new marketing opportunities, she has stated that “you don’t necessarily have to follow the structure that generations ahead have set, because the environment has changed so much, digital has changed so much. It’s really necessary to carve your own path and your own way.”

4. The Girl Behind The Picture

Up until recently, Kendall Jenner held the record for the most liked photo on Instagram (although she was recently dethroned by Justin Bieber), with some 3.5 million likes.

The strength of her personal brand and her connection with her followers is why brands will do anything to hitch themselves to Jenner's image. Brands know that if they secure the use of models like her — a relative newcomer in the grand scheme of things — they also secure millions of potential customers eager to follow her lead.

Yet, while the use of popular spokespeople to push product is hardly new, Jenner and other A-list Insta-talent like Gigi Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, Hailey Baldwin and Cara Delevingne have reinvented the practice in a whole new way.

By sharing everyday aspects of their lives — everything from “woke up like this” morning shots to the scruffy realities of airline travel and hanging out with friends — as well as their more showbiz moments, these girls invite their audiences “behind the scenes” like never before. In doing so, they increases their charm and appeal in a way traditional supermodels never could. They become both normal and superhuman at once.

Yet, as “normal” as these images purport to be, the truth is that they are often every bit as staged, scripted and unnatural as anything you’ll find in a glossy magazine. Instagram photos don’t just create themselves, and when you get to the big leagues it’s not uncommon to find a string of paid professionals “art directing” each shot. In doing so, they create an artificial sense of reality that is so effective at enticing audiences that it can earn top-tier celebrities anywhere between $125,000 and $300,00 for a single post.

In fact, when Estée Lauder cast Kendell Jenner as their lead face last November — one of the most prestigious bookings in the whole 500 billion USD global beauty industry — they were very upfront about the reason why: her social media audience. That’s not surprising when research by top marketing agencies suggests the per-follower engagement rate of Instagram is 58x higher than Facebook (and 120x higher than on Twitter).

After all, modeling today doesn’t stop at the image.

5. Inviting You In

At the core of every fashion designer’s campaign is a desire to relate to their audience (however small or niche that may be). After all, if you don’t relate, you don’t sell. Yet the dawn of social media has allowed brands to measure exactly how much they relate in real time, and Instagram has taken that practice even further.

Calvin Klein achieved a flawless example this spring with their typically sexual #mycalvins campaign. Shot by Tyrone Lebon, the campaign images were intimate and eye-catching, and were predominately rolled out directly via the Instagram accounts of the people starring in it themselves.

The campaign’s strapline — “I _____ in #mycalvins” (with a different word filling the blank each time) — is an absolute textbook example of a creative idea that would never have existed before Instagram came to power. There are now over 179,000 photos on Instagram tagged #MyCalvins, proving a level of brand relatability that’s a traditional marketer’s wet dream.

As such, it’s not uncommon to now find brands planning their creative with Instagram leading the way as the primary mode of consumption. Such a state of affairs would have been unthinkable just five years ago, illustrating just how fast the digital world moves today.

The Pushback

Yet, with such rapid success inevitably comes some level of backlash, and its not surprising that the notion of finding and using “real people” in campaigns is already showing some signs of cliché. Insta-hottie Ben Nordberg, the pro skateboarder turned model who landed the huge DKNY campaign last year, is now known as the “skateboard kid,” and scores of other brands have fallen in line to ape his success.

You also may have heard of the model Essena O’Neill. Her name is now synonymous with the accusations of Instagram not being “real life,” but rather a platform that, according to research conducted by the Oxford Internet Institute, makes users feel “11% worse about their lives compared to all other social media platforms.”

Former Instagram Model O’Neill gained infamy throughout the internet and beyond after she amended the captions on various images exposing the grim and less-than-glamorous reality behind them, before quitting the industry altogether. On a beach photo showing her in a meditation-like pose, she commented “there is nothing zen about trying to look zen, taking a photo of you trying to be zen and proving your zen on Instagram."

This notion of contrived perfection as a means of personal validation is, justifiably, one of Instagram’s most common criticisms — a level of scrutiny that traditional advertising often escapes. And therein lies perhaps one of the biggest ways the social network has changed the modeling industry: somewhere along the line, people now expect fashion advertising to be real, and that makes it both a powerful and very dangerous medium.

That said, neither this problematic sense of veracity nor the threat of oversaturated cliché look like they’ll be threatening Instagram's supremacy any time soon. No matter where it goes in future, the social network seems to have fundamentally reshaped the landscape of both marketing and fashion modeling, and its knock-on effects will doubtless be felt for many years to come.

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