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Instagram needs stars, and it’s built a team to find them

To ramp up IGTV, Instagram’s not betting on an algorithm. Its (literal) money is on old-fashioned talent scouting.

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Nobody knows what to call Justin Antony. Not Instagram influencers, not their managers. They’ve referred to him as a “doctor,” but he’s not an MD. They’ve also called him an “Instagram dad” (which is the “worst thing,” according to Antony). He’s more of a coach. But when asked to describe his role at Instagram, he can’t offer up a catchy one-liner. Sure, he picks the lucky, talented people out of the billion users and blasts them off to Instagram fame, but he still thinks of himself as “just a guy.”

“I don’t care what they call me as long as they keep calling me,” he says.

For the launch of IGTV, the company isn’t betting on an algorithm to discover talent to jump-start its long-form video competitor. Its money is on Antony, a man who came up in classic Hollywood fashion, making his name at Nickelodeon by scouting talent for the network and working alongside now-famous celebrities like Nick Cannon, Victoria Justice, and Kenan Thompson.

Justin Antony is in charge of the emerging talent team at Instagram.
Justin Antony is in charge of the emerging talent team at Instagram.

At Instagram, Antony finds the influencers most users don’t know about yet but who he believes are destined to be stars. He ushers them into the world of Instagram and makes sure they understand how to use the platform. That’s the idea, at least.

“We’re all like a family. We’re all making content.”

The creators and emerging talent partnerships team at Instagram is larger than just Antony. He works with three others to find emerging talent, but there are 40 employees in total, including people whose job it is to make sure that traditional celebrities get the support they need to create. All of these creators — or “managed partners,” as Instagram calls them — appreciate the hands-on help. In return, they churn out content, which is the thing Instagram needs most to make IGTV “the future of video.”

“We’re all in this together,” Antony says. “We’re all like a family. We’re all making content. I actually see these guys as changing the world, the face of media.”

IGTV is a major point of focus this year, and Instagram’s creators team, which is based in Los Angeles, has been tasked with not only identifying talent, but helping them create content on the platform, whether that’s by offering studio space or money to fund their shoots. They’ll support the creators, especially the ones they know make content that Instagram users will like and share. In return for taking a bet on IGTV, Instagram tells creators they’ll be ahead of everyone else when it becomes a massive success. The support doesn’t only extend to IGTV, but the partnerships team encourages creators to try it, especially because it’ll likely have ads soon, and there’s money to be made.

“We’ve always said that IGTV is going to be the first monetizable platform on Instagram. It’s just a matter of when, and I’m sure there’s more to come on that,” Antony says. “The creators that are really leaning into it, being native to it, creating an audience there, will be the stars of tomorrow.” Or so Instagram hopes.

Walking around Instagram’s Los Angeles campus is how I imagine a tour of a Hollywood film lot would have been in the 1940s — except, instead of bumping into Judy Garland, I meet internet celebrities.

During my visit, I run into dancer Kaycee Rice (1.9 million followers) and her parents, the manager of Jordyn Jones (5.5 million followers), and dancer Susie Meoww (351K followers). I planned to chat with comedian Adam Waheed (1.2 million followers), but following him around the office means constant 10-minute delays while Instagram employees stop him to say hi and chat about how things are going. I can see why creators like visiting the campus. It’s like Instagram employs people who want to talk to you all of the time but only about things you’ve made and how you’re feeling.

While platforms are often criticized for not caring about creators and treating them as expendable, Instagram’s working to keep them happy. Antony’s team alone works with up to 1,000 creators.

“I want to be the one that creates the data versus looking at the data.”

Fadia Kader, who manages partnerships with musicians, has a team that’s focused on helping musicians understand how to use Instagram. (She basically gives best practices for album releases or the Grammys.) She works with 50 to 100 artists at any given time. Antony’s team, on the other hand, supports more artists because, he explains, “some eggs take longer to hatch.”

Antony tells me he mostly scouts using his gut instinct and eye for talent, and he doesn’t rely on Instagram’s tech to tell him who’s destined to be a star. At a networking lunch months ago, he mentioned that he receives a printout of who’s trending. But when I ask about that during my most recent trip, he says it isn’t as special as it sounds. The team just uses publicly available software to track Instagram creators’ engagement, not some top-secret internal tool.

“Too much data only, and this is kind of an oxymoron, predicts the past. And I want to be on top of it and predicting the future,” he says. “So sometimes I want to be the one that creates the data versus looking at the data.”

Instead, Antony says he finds talent through agents, a more traditional talent-finding path, or through trusted creator recommendations. He met Waheed because another comedian, KingBach (17.8 million followers), passed his name along. Otherwise, Antony says he’ll see creators “pop” in the data, which means he’ll look at real-time engagement for creators using CrowdTangle, software that tracks online trends. He wants to see high engagement with their posts or that they’re punching above their weight. He also pays attention to “performance indicators.” The average engagement on a profile and its posts is 3 percent, he says, but Antony says a creator like Waheed gets seven times that amount. Meoww, the dancer, gets eight times that average.

Comedian Adam Waheed has more than a million followers and is going to start focusing on IGTV.
Comedian Adam Waheed has more than a million followers and is going to start focusing on IGTV.

Engagement is everything. The fact that a creator’s work showed up on Antony’s own Instagram feed is enough. In one case, his Explore page surfaced Jay Brewer, a Steve Irwin-esque reptile trainer, and he tapped through to find a star in the making. “My thing that I like is old school: just looking at the app,” Antony says. With how simple Antony makes this sound, you or I could be talent scouts, so long as we’ve trained our Instagram algorithm just right and have that gut instinct.

Other performance indicators include: some amount of following, mostly in the five-digit range, or the backing of a major network that guarantees some kind of exposure. The smallest creators he ever assisted were Olivia Rodrigo and Madison Hu from the Disney show Bizaardvark, who each had around 200 followers.

Waheed tells me that after their first meeting, Antony sent him an Instagram “bible” that he follows very strictly

“Disney brought them in and said, ‘These are going to be the next stars of Disney,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I can see that,’” he says. “We [thought], ‘Let’s help them out now, show them how to do Instagram right, so they don’t have to worry about Instagram and can concentrate on their acting.’ And now, one of them has passed a million [followers], and the other one has 800,000.”

Once talent has been scouted, Antony invites them to the LA office for a meeting where he asks them about their aspirations, analyzes data (like their engagement and where their followers are based), looks for improvement areas (like posting around the platform more), and gives them “best practices” (like “be authentic”). Then, of course, the creators take some photos or make content in the in-house studio.

Kader shows me an example of what she demos for musicians in their meetings. She holds her finger down on a photo that she’s going to post on Stories, and the whole screen turns one color. She then uses the eraser tool to preview what’s behind the color wall, which artists could use to tease an album cover or collaboration. It’s a neat party trick — if Instagram hacks impress you — but in some cases, creators don’t need tricks. What they need to learn is how to make the platform work for them and amplify their message.

Waheed tells me that after their first meeting, Antony sent him an Instagram “bible” that he follows very strictly. Waheed says his comedy videos were his top priority, but now he makes a point of posting photos to his feed, posting on Stories, going Live once a week, and experimenting with IGTV. (For now, his IGTV is mostly vertical cuts of his feed posts.) Even though it sounds like the bible just says to make more content, he credits Antony’s advice with helping his account gain more than half a million followers in six months. He’s adding around 100,000 per month now.

Cerny prefers sponsored content because she approves the brand deals herself and feels they match up with her values

“I’m sure [Antony] told me what he tells every other creative. I just applied every bit verbatim and stay consistent with it,” he says. “You obviously see the results.”

IGTV launched 10 months ago, and it’s yet to make a cultural dent. Meanwhile, TikTok, a short-form video app, has exploded in popularity over the last year, and YouTube has shown no sign of slowing down from its 1 billion hours per day of total watch time. For Instagram, making sure that creators are on the platform — and making things people actually want to watch — is critical to find success.

Waheed says his view numbers are still low on IGTV, although he isn’t taking full advantage of the platform yet. But another creator, actress Amanda Cerny (24.8 million followers), says she’s grown her IGTV views to match those on her grid. She’s averaging millions of viewers per video now and says she’s transitioning away from her YouTube channel, even though she monetizes it.

“I never know who I’m going to reach [on YouTube], when I’m going to have ads, when I’m not going to have ads,” she says. “It’s not very transparent, and I don’t really understand it fully. Even as one of their bigger creators on the platform, I’m still trying to understand the platform.”

While she can’t monetize her IGTV videos directly, Cerny says brands always look at her Instagram following first, and she can build sponsorship deals from that following. She prefers sponsored content because she approves the brand deals herself, and she feels they match up with her values. Brands haven’t started asking for sponsored IGTV segments yet, but Cerny could see that happening one day. Her incentives are aligned with Instagram’s: they both need IGTV to scale.

“What we’re trying to do, while we bridge to monetization, is not make talent go out of pocket.”

Cerny thinks her videos succeed because of the variety of original content and comedy she posts. That’s no accident. In addition to its white glove service, Antony and the creators team let certain creators expense the cost of their shoots. Cerny says she can send a budget with her needs for each video, and Instagram will cover the costs. For its part, Instagram says these expenses don’t reach even the five-figure range, and it typically involves paying for a videographer, editor, or camera, which are essentials for creating content.

“What we’re trying to do, while we bridge to monetization, is not make talent go out of pocket,” Antony says.

Dancer Susie Meoww uses an in-house studio while Antony revisits her dance videos.
Dancer Susie Meoww uses an in-house studio while Antony revisits her dance videos.

In addition to covering their expenses, Instagram has its own in-house studios and editors who can pitch in when needed. Dancer Meoww happened to be at Instagram on the day of my visit to take advantage of the studio space. She was producing an interview segment for news outlets abroad, and Facebook engineers manned the camera, read her the question prompts, and then later edited the footage for her to distribute. While it’s not a direct money exchange, the expertise is something Meoww wouldn’t have had access to without Antony taking her under his wing; she’s a college student at UCLA who makes K-pop dance videos and found viral success.

The questions are what you’d expect: When did you start dancing? What’s your favorite K-pop group? The whole time, Antony beams like a proud father. When Meoww answers some questions in Mandarin, Antony chimes in to say he’s been learning how to speak it, too. After all, he needs to speak the language of his talent.