It’s noon, a breezy 24 degrees on the roof of St Kilda’s swank Circa restaurant, and the launch of the Winner’s Circle – one of the Spring Racing Carnival’s fanciest lunches – is almost under way.
Early guests pluck flutes of Moet & Chandon from a conga line of wait staff beside an indoor pool, then mill in chummy clusters – media here, racing industry there – near tables set with starched white linen, glinting silver and lush sprays of flowers.
So far, so elegant, so uneventful.
And then. Squadrons of impeccably groomed young women in racewear lace, fluttering florals and crownlet headbands begin to arrive. Many skirt the wait staff and make a business-like beeline for the “media wall”, a flowery backdrop branded with the logo of The Deck (the name of Circa’s rooftop space) , before fanning onto the terrace, where exotic white silk sails snap in the stiff breeze – a glorious backdrop for a postable selfie.
Among them is 25-year-old journalism graduate/model/Geelong radio-starlet Sarah Czarnuch, stripling slim in a fluted buttercup lace Mossman frock. Later, Sarah will clock 2255 likes and 83 “Love!” “Amazing!” “Gorgeous” comments from her 77,000 Instagram followers for her post of the day, carefully tagged with every brand of every component of fashion she’s wearing. Health blogger/model Tess Shanahan, 23, sleek and chic in powder blue Country Road mesh bodice and matching calf-skimmer skirt, is here too. She will run up 1900 likes and 50 “Stunning!” etceteras, from her 36,000 Instagram fans for a similar post.
This is an excellent party; gorgeous, memorably luxurious, and on track to meet all its KPIs (key performance indicators).
The buzz and decibels kick up across the airy room and older glances flick back and forth from truffled mushroom canapes and elderflower gin oysters to Sarah and Tess and their bright young colleagues, jostling like so many flamingos, posing for The Deck’s official photographer, posing for media, posing for each other. Posing, and posting, because that’s the loaded price for this lucky life they lead of swish brunches, luxury lunches and dinners, trips away, cool parties and free frocks.
“We’re lucky and we know it,” Tess says. “We network, support each other. It’s like hanging out with your friends but, technically, it’s still work. I feel very blessed.”
Sarah says she “gets about four or five invitations a day”. “But I cap it at, max, going to three a week. And I’m always very grateful. We all are. I’ve been to some incredible events and I know 10 years ago this [kind of life] wouldn’t have even been possible.”
Despite their humility, these are the princesses and princes, the “influencers” of a new social order based on branded parties to which only the right people with the right numbers of the right social media followers are invited.
“The whole influencer thing has really changed the [public relations] landscape just in the past five years,” says Sarah Gale, managing director of top Melbourne PR agency AMPR. “It’s constantly evolving. Credible influencers play a really important role for brands now.”
For the influencers, success depends on the brands they attract, and evolves from gifts and invitations, to payments for single posts ranging from $400 up to $2000, and more by negotiation.
But the numbers have to be big, and highly engaged with a stream of comments and shares after every post. Fledgling influencers dream of luring follower numbers like Nadia Bartel’s 388K, fashion commentator and photographer Margaret Zhang’s 902K, fashion blogger Nicole Warne’s 1.7M, or model and fitness guru Stephanie Smith’s 1.2 million.
They’re all considered top gun influencers but still rate as peppercorn players on the global field, where a handful of mega-celebrities, notably the infamous Kardashians – Kim (103M followers), Khloe (69M ) and Kourtney (59M) – can command $US300,000 for a single sponsored Instagram post.
Pitching brand stories to traditional media is a waning trade, according to Sarah Gale; the new PR is wooing popular young women and men with “free” products, cash for posts, and invitations to parties.
Back at the Winner’s Circle lunch, for example, the room is sparkling and organisers begin to relax; everything is going according to plan.
“They’re gorgeous, very feminine, very spring and girly,” says Rachel Hayes of her agency’s (OneTwo) carefully picked mix of party guests. “We have to be very selective; who we invite and why is very important.”
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Brand events, Rachel says, are complex social jigsaws with “return on investment” always crucial.
“Everything has to be right to represent the brand,” Tessa-Jay Slight says. She started OneTwo with Rachel barely 12 months ago, quickly building it into the hottest young event and PR agency in Melbourne.
“We think everything through; the venue, the menu, the media wall, the lighting – it has to work for Instagrammable moments – even the colours, the decals on the floor, all the suppliers, the florists, the hashtags, the …”
The guest mix. It’s the trickiest to nail; part intuition, part accounting and commercial cunning.
At today’s heavily logo-ed lunch, for instance, one of dozens of social events hosted daily by Melbourne’s PR and event agencies with budgets from $5000 to $200,000 and up, Tessa-Jay and Rachel blended some of the weightiest names in racing (including a couple of Melbourne Cup trainers and Victoria Racing Club chair Amanda Elliot) with influencers who infused the room with a little joyful youth and fresh fashion.
Most importantly, The Deck’s logo and Winner’s Circle flashed, via their posts, into the right demographic of social media’s vast pool of followers.
“We’re always researching [influencers] on Instagram,” Tessa-Jay says. “We’re looking at their pages, what are they posting, who’s following who, what’s the demographic, who’s new and up and coming, who’s getting the engagement [comments] when they post, because it’s not always better to have more followers if you’re not getting the engagement.”
The right Instagram Insights can clinch an agency or brands’ attention and genuinely change an ordinary life into one of celebrity and privilege. Charlotte Marks of talent agency The Co. Collective, for example, manages a stable of influencers including Roberto Malizia, 26, a heavily tattooed, disarmingly charming man who moved here from Rome six years ago with no English, a penchant for luxury menswear, and a yen to re-invent himself.
Which is precisely what he did, by accumulating bankable numbers of social media followers.
“The best thing about Roberto is his originality, his authenticity,” Charlotte says. “He was discovered as a barista, and now wants to be the No. 1 male influencer in Australia, and he definitely could be.”
Roberto, nudging 50,000 Instagram followers, has flown to fashion weeks in Milan and Paris, posted for brands such as Diesel and Mont Blanc, and is an ambassador for luxury department store Harrolds. The flood of party invitations swells weekly.
“I try to attend as many [branded parties] as possible,” Roberto says. “It’s work, but fashion is my life and dressing up, for me, is a good time.”
As Sarah Czarnuch says: “The great, powerful thing about social media and this influencer industry is you have the ability to shape yourself and your persona. To be who you want to be.”