Credit: WHE Agency
Tracy Willis, co-founder of Willis Henmen Entertainment (or the WHE Agency) runs a different kind of talent agency. She honed her skills while worked with top talent representation firms, and now works with some of the most influential digital stars, some of whose platforms reach millions of people per video. In this interview, The Sophia News discussed Willis’ background, what her agency does, her philanthropy, and more.
This interview was conducted via e-mail.
Sophia News: Please explain the evolution of your interest and career path.
Tracy Willis: I first became interested in social media marketing while taking a course in business school. It was very early on but it hit me that this was to be the replacement for traditional media advertising and I knew that I wanted to be a part of it. I had been working in public relations for several years at the time and saw the vast opportunity for brands to connect with their audience on a much more engaging and intimate level through influencers, rather than casting a wide net across various demographics and platforms.
SN: When did you know you wanted to become an agent and open your own agency?
TW: I was helping Benji and Judy Travis from ItsJudyTime with PR for their annual charity event, Dancember, and met several influencers who inspired me to become more involved. At the time, they were managed by a former high school friend, Kenn Henman, who owned a small agency called Ufluencers. He saw that I had a knack for working with talent and convinced me to give it a try. At the time I was working a full time job and finishing my MBA, so I started out really slowly, working with a couple influencers as a side gig, but I instantly knew I had found my calling. I learned from the ground up, basically interning after working for over 20 years at an executive level, but it was worth it! After I began working for an agency full time, I knew that I needed to go out on my own and do things differently so that I could do my best work possible for my clients as well as brand partners.
SN: Who were some of your inspirations (or mentors) that inspired you along the way as your career developed?
TW: I learned different values and methodology from a variety of people. Kenn was my first mentor, and he taught me to be fearless and bold. Josh Butowsky, who owns Influencer Response (a brand agency) was the first person I ever worked with on a deal and we’ve worked closely ever since. He taught me the importance of not just representing the influencers but also keeping the brands’ best interests at heart as well. Finding the balance between the two is crucial for success in this industry. My greatest influencers, ironically, were the influencers themselves. They have been the constant source of the joy I find in this industry. We have grown far past our business relationships and I am inspired every day to work hard for them, as they do for me.
SN: What are some of the more profound changes in the industry since your early days of agenting?
TW: In the beginning, this industry was truly the wild west in terms of both regulatory compliance, pricing and demographic targeting. Without historical data to set metrics by, brands were, in essence, throwing darts at a board and hoping for high ROI. Over time, metrics have become more refined and brands of all sizes are getting into the game. In the beginning I was doing almost all YouTube integrations, but now, since the launch of Instagram stories, it’s about a 50/50 split. Other trends have come and gone (advertising on Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, etc.) but YouTube, Instagram and now TikTok are becoming the preferred platforms for advertising. Another huge change has been in the rise and fall of the MCN’s. There are still a few around but most of the talent I work with has stopped working with them, as their value has diminished. Finally, there has been a significant shift from brands working directly with influencers to contracting through third party brand agencies.
SN: How is Willis Henman Entertainment unique from other talent agencies in your area?
TW: We started this company with a very clear vision of focusing on family influencers, but we wanted a way to both honor their value and strengthen our relationships. We decided to offer equity shares to influencers, so that they have ownership in the agency along with us. We are also committed to the idea of being “a family of families” so we generally add new talent on a referral basis only. Occasionally we will see someone as a good fit, but always seek the stamp of approval from our existing talent, to ensure a positive culture fit.
I get so much feedback all the time from my clients that they feel like they couldn’t do this without us. To me, that means everything. It means that I am doing more than ticking boxes and taking a commission. I literally have office hours from 10 pm until 1 am every night so I can talk with the moms after they put their kids to bed. I am here 24/7 for everything, both personal and professional.
SN: What types of people and talents do you represent?
TW: We are dedicated to working with family vloggers and family friendly lifestyle vloggers.
SN: How is COVID-19 impacting the business for your clients, and your company as a whole?
TW: At first it was a little terrifying, as brands were cancelling deals left and right during the early months of the pandemic, but we got right to work to make sure we kept everyone working. It was more challenging to find the brands that were “pandemic-friendly” but we made lists and reached out tirelessly until we got things rolling. We are now busier than ever and don’t see an end in sight!
SN: What role does philanthropy play in your life, as well as in the life of your agency?
TW: I have always been very active in philanthropy and have been mentor for the public school district, served on the United Way board, as well as the Board of Directors for Rotary International. I have also volunteered for the Humane Society, Convoy of Hope fundraisers and the hospital foundation. Recently I have been working on a BLM project and donating what I can to other BLM organizations.
WHE Agency also values philanthropy. When brands come to us with campaigns that have a charitable component, we waive or reduce or commission to make it more affordable for them. We also encourage talent to choose selective non gratis projects to work on. I research organizations and send a synopsis of their work along with preferred hashtags to our clients to make it easier for them to post about charities and causes that are important to them.
When the travel restrictions are lifted, we are partnering with Convoy of Hope to take influencers (JesssFam and Britney and Baby) to Tanzania with Convoy of Hope so that they can spread awareness of poverty related issues in that region.
SN: What advice do you have for young people today trying to break into the industry?
TW: I get asked a lot about how to break into the influencer industry by people who are just starting out. My answer is two-fold: Be yourself and be consistent. Nobody wants to see a clone of someone who is already out there, they want to see YOU! And once you start establishing your audience base, you can’t become someone else or you will lose followers. You also have to be consistent with your posting schedule or you won’t be able to gain traction. You should have enough content to post regularly. The worst thing that could happen is to have a viral video and then lose your audience because you don’t have a follow up video or post. Overall, you have to treat this position as a public figure less as a hobby and more like a job. To succeed in any career, you have to work hard and break out of your comfort zone again and again.
SN: What do you know about the industry now that you wish you could have told yourself when you first started?
TW: Relationships are everything and professional relationships need to be nurtured and valued just as they do in your personal life. Like most industries, influencer management is a small world and reputation is everything. It’s crazy to see and hear about some of the bad behavior by managers and brands in this business. I mean honestly, do you really want to mess with someone who has a million followers? If you don’t vibe with a client or brand because of conflicting values, personalities or whatever, it’s better to respectfully end the arrangement than to have conflict. I am surrounded by people who make me the best at what I do – to me, that is the recipe for success.