Updated: Apr 28, 2022
The word "influencer" might be new, but the concept of influencer marketing might be older than Rome. How did people in the age of no internet, no television, no radio, and digital advertising spread their ideas to a viral degree, sometimes in just a day, and is there something we can learn from them?
Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" is a manual of sorts for understanding virality in general, but briefly said, one of the core aspects of virality was, you guessed it, influencers. Granted, influencers in the past preferred wigs, knee breeches, and not so inconspicuous hats to selfies and breakfast photos, they are still as similar to modern dwellers as peanut butter and jelly, in a sense that the two work for a common end.
Even before American colonies started relying on newspapers as the primary source of information, something familiar to all of us - Word of Mouth (WOM) was the king. The delivery of WOM may have changed the medium and delved into texting, commenting, and sharing in the digital space but the idea of people sharing information with each other stayed the same. We don't send pigeons but we do tweet.
Some people are information and network pillars. This is also why only six degrees of separation/connection exist. These people are light guards who are in charge of spreading information and they are the nodes of a network with the most connections, but the viral spread of information is not only about the network.
During ancient monarchies, a ruler would say something and instantly majority of the population in the city would be aware of the information. Let's dissect. 1) First, he is a ruler and a ruler has followers, not unlike followers on Instagram or Facebook, the bigger the ruler the bigger the following. 2) Second, the ruler has a castle, A.K.A. a platform, a limited platform gives credibility (Verified Account) to someone that uses it, and based on the occasion, instantly directs attention towards a speaker. 3) The ruler has a message, if the ruler says something it must be pretty damn important, otherwise, they wouldn't bother, so the people in town better be all ears and not miss the news, unless they want to die because singing just became illegal (it is true that some songs in Rome were punishable by death under the Law of Twelve Tablets).
4) Barons and Lords would especially want to hear what he/she has to say, just like people trading stocks are analyzing the impact of Elon's appearances. 5) Infrastructure of the empire, the ease of sharing (made the difference between fast and slow empires, successful and unsuccessful rulers, today it is just a click).
In short, what constituted the successful spread of information was the network of followers, the platform and the credibility of the person delivering the message, the nature of the message, the quality of the network of those who received it, and distribution channels.
So in a sense, kings, philosophers, musicians, painters, were all influencers. They pretty much ticked every box:
Verified profiles/accounts (the more followers the better)
Sticky messages (just like memes and eyesores people share today)
Following of other high-follow accounts (that's why just having bots is not really a solution)
Ease of sharing
Now that we have established that influencers were always there, let's see who was the first to really start influencer marketing.
One of the first could have been Romans. Romans created the first correspondence system, largely used by the government, this allowed them to distribute information to individuals that were addressed in correspondence but also to those "influencers" that they knew would be useful for distributing information or disinformation to the masses. It is quite interesting that initially, emperors wouldn't be very fond of the printing press, and later technology, because, with it, they largely lost control over the flow of information. I would go as far as to argue that influencer marketing is also the reason philosophy and art exist in the current form. Not necessarily deliberate marketing, but the result of influencer hubs and the way they facilitated the spread of information, knowingly or unknowingly. Think of a later golden age or painting, 19th century, and a famous painter from that age. Chances are, you were thinking of Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir, Pissaro, Cezanne, Matisse, Morisot, Sisley, Mondrian, (arguably Van Gogh). You could have been thinking of Picasso, Kandinsky, Munch, or Klimt as well, but for the sake of argument. Let's say that there is a high probability that you were thinking of the former.
What did the first group have in common? The question is answered in its asking. They were a group. A group of rejects started the impressionist Saloon. Realism was mainstream during the time and they were mostly laughed at, so how are their names so familiar to us after all that time? The question is complex and could have many answers, but one of them is the following:
They were a group of creators that were producing content, as the group became a media machine of sorts, producing larger and larger volumes of content, more people became followers, initial rejects became the leaders of the movement, and eventually, they became influencers, not unlike influencers of modern platforms. It is part of the cycle that first internet creators, YouTubers, Instagramers, and recently Tiktokers are laughed at, but eventually, after the content machine starts spinning wheels they become influencers.
So the key idea I wanted to bring forward; Everybody gets that they were influencers, but what does influencer marketing have to do with it. Well, the fact that they became influencers individually, naturally created a campaign.
An influencer Marketing Campaign for Impressionism
An influencer marketing campaign, with an increasingly large volume of content that was growing awareness and as a result, we might not know of the names of all the painters, we don't know all the styles of painting, I might not have guessed the name of the painter you were thinking of, but if you're reading this, it is almost certain that you have heard or know what impressionism is. I would argue that a similar effect popularized ancient greek philosophy, Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato were all teacher-students and created an influencer/content hub of sorts that allowed them to engrain their name in history. There was even a name for dedicated followers spreading and developing Aristotelian methods - Peripatetics. There were thousands of philosophers on this planet but this is one of the reasons why three of them stand out so much, and every other philosopher (who arguably might have better theories about knowledge, property rights, etc) is lost in their shadows.
Finally time for Rennaisance
Well, Rennaisance is a little bit strange, and it is difficult to use the influencer theory to explain the success of artists from this period, but let me bring it full circle to the idea we have discussed. Rennaisance was a very specific period. Just like NFTs artworks were used to "show off." If you wanted to be an artist during that time, you needed to have a studio and a lot of assistants. Because the bigger, more majestic, mindblowing, gigantic, the artwork was, the better commissioners would be able to show it off. Who was the largest commissioner of the time? - Medici Family and the Catholic church (to which Medici family had strong ties). Dukes and rich merchants were also very active but the magnitude of Medici dwarfed them. Well, one thing we discussed above was the similarities between a ruler and an influencer, so there we go. Medici family was the largest influencer, who instead of flexing on the internet decided to use art as the medium for flexing in a physical world. Through this, they maintained their status and the image of being invulnerable. Every piece was a message, a message about the greatness of the Medici family. Unlike artists who had organic views. Medici pretty much used a mix of organic and paid media strategies. Just like Spotify paid creators such as Rogan to shift platforms and use the content to grow the platform itself. Medici family commissioned prominent painters which in terms were influencers with their own studios and followers to create one of the first content marketing strategies to grow the awareness of the "brand," together with the church they arguably coined the culture of art that eventually became known as Rennaisance.
A little more obnoxious title for the article that would highlight the importance of Medici in that time could have been: "Rennaisance a Content Marketing Campaign of the Medici," or "Flexing Culture that Gave Birth to Rennaisance," but I think, for now, something less controversial like Influencer Marketing of Renaissance works.
N.G. P.S. All of the artwork is available for purchase on Opensea: https://opensea.io/collection/nikoloz-g-collection For those who saw similarities between the NFT culture and the way Medici used the art world, check out a meme goodie (which is also purchasable on Opensea) below: