The word millions is impossible to avoid when reading about the YouTube famous. The video platform’s best-known (and lately most hated) vlogger, Logan Paul, is one such case: He boasts more than 3 billion views and nearly 16 million subscribers* and, according to one of those shady “net worth” sites, is worth $6 million—or at least he was until YouTube saw fit to punish him last week for doing something monumentally inhumane and stupid. But that inescapable figure belies an unsurprising reality: “It’s very, very, very hard to make a living on YouTube,” says talent manager Josh Zimmerman, a former “personal intern” to Ryan Seacrest who now makes his bones repping professional YouTubers. The 33-year-old Los Angeles–based Seattle native was somewhat cagey about how many clients he reps—“7–10,” he said, ranging in age from 21–45—but he does what he can to ensure that they’re all able to make videos full time. So what does it take for performers like his clients to strike gold by vlogging?
A promotion from production assistant into rights and clearances at E! eventually led Zimmerman to behind-the-scenes work at YouTube Nation, the defunct daily video series spotlighting great content on the platform. After building a massive networking base through the digital clip show, he realized the great need for guidance by creators at VidCon, the vlogging conference, when six different creators came up to him in one day to ask him to be their manager. He started JZ Management a year and a half ago and currently works on behalf of clients who vlog about food, travel, exercise, and cinematography. (His highest-profile client is Trevor James, aka the Food Ranger.)
I spoke to Zimmerman the week that Paul ticked off the entire internet by vlogging about finding a body in a Japanese “suicide forest,” making the topic of entrepreneurial YouTube celebrities and their potential for unmediated success of sudden and particular interest. Video makers who want to convert their (incredibly time-consuming) hobby into their primary source of income should be prepared, warns Zimmerman, for fickle fans, clueless advertisers, and poor support from YouTube. In our interview, which has been edited for clarity and concision, we discussed those obstacles as well as the difficulties of bridging digital and more traditional entertainment and what corporate sponsorships on YouTube are really worth.
I understand you’re biased, but why would a YouTube creator benefit from hiring a manager?
When you start to grow your channel and really gain traction, it’s really important to understand not only the YouTube side of it but also the business side of it. And the more popular you become, the more people want your attention, right? The manager’s job is to advise and consult with the creator and give advice on the best strategy for the channel, their brand, and their IP. And [for creators] to have someone to lean on, who has been in the industry, has connections in the digital and traditional entertainment fields, and really understands the bigger picture.
As a creator, it’s very easy to get wrapped up in what I call the vacuum: recording your content, editing, commenting, just being on that hamster wheel. It’s very hard to take a step back and look at how to grow across many platforms. You’ll be relevant on YouTube for a certain amount of time before your time is up. So you want to make sure you have as much exposure and as many different opportunities while you are popular on YouTube. [It’s important] to diversify your portfolio of businesses so that if and when your career on YouTube comes to an end, [you can] move on and capitalize on what you’ve done.
A lot of times, people will say, “Hey, I want to start a YouTube channel!” and I’ll say, “OK.” I lay out everything that they’re up against, and they may change their mind. There’s so much that is out of your control, as a creator, about the money that’s brought in. You should probably not get into being a creator for the money, because most of the time, it is extremely rare to actually make it on YouTube and be able to sustain a living on YouTube. So that’s where you see merchandising, different brand deals, and integrations, and trips and retreats and subscriptions supplement that income.
In addition to creator burnout, which you’ve written about, what are some other reasons why YouTube careers come with an expiration date?
What creators need to realize is that, just as they themselves grow up, so does their audience, which means that their interests change. So you have to continue to create content that your viewers want to watch and create content for new viewers, who might be of a younger age.
What kinds of dollar amounts are we talking about when it comes to a sponsorship or a brand deal?
It really varies. This is one of the things that the industry is really grappling with right now. And I have a very strong opinion on that: I don’t think that brands understand the worth of a sponsorship or a shoutout from a creator. Therefore, [they] balk at what a creator would ask for when it comes to sponsorships and/or brand deals.
If you are doing a normal ad campaign for TV or radio, it may be a 30-day run, right? And you may spend 1 million dollars on the production and the adspend to go across a couple television networks running X amount of times during the day. And after that 30-day campaign, it’s over, right? You spent your money. That’s it.
What I explain to brands is, if you pay a creator even $50,000–$200,000—a fraction of what you [paid] for a 30-day campaign—your content is not going anywhere. That creator is not gonna to take down that video, because the algorithm does not like it when you delete content. So, if somebody does a video with your brand or product in it, that video doesn’t live just for 30 days. It lives in perpetuity on that channel. It is years and years of eyeballs and brand recognition and hearing the brand name all over the world.
And the authenticity from the creator reaching out to their audience, saying, “I trust this brand,” or, “This video was brought to you by X brand,” is one that is much stronger, in my opinion, than a TV commercial, because the creator is speaking to their fans, and the fans trust that creator.
Sponsorships can range anywhere from $500 into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. I haven’t heard of anyone doing a million-dollar sponsorship, but I’m sure it’s out there. But again, it’s a massive scale, and it really depends on the brand and the creator. I’ve seen and heard of deals that are for 100 bucks, or, you know, $250,000.
That’s too bad.
If they want the hundred bucks, if they [just] want the free product, they can do it. [But] I would probably advise against it. Free stuff is great, but it then hurts the ecosystem of creators actually being able to make money. If brands think they can just give out stuff for free—and this has happened to me—a brand will want to give something to one of my creators for free, and I’ll say, “No, that’s not how it works.” And they’ll say, “Well, X creator did it, so why don’t you?”
What’s surprised you about working with YouTube creators?
The amount of confusion and chaos in the creator world. They are so exposed and are inundated so much. So they’re pretty protective of their privacy and [wary of] who they let into their group or their life.
What’s your impression of the support that YouTube provides creators?
I wish it was more. There are so many people out there making so much content. It’s very hard for the partner managers on the YouTube side to keep up with all of the inbound requests, like monetization issues, copyright claims, new features, general questions about their channel and how to improve, just to name a few things. I think that YouTube is continuing to try to improve the response rate, adding more information online and hopefully continuing to add more partner managers to support the ever increasing amount of creators and channels. YouTube is trying. I would like to see them move in the right direction a little quicker, but I think that they realize that this is a major pain point for them.
Do any of your clients want to go into TV or other traditional entertainment media?
Yeah. Some of them do, and some of them don’t. It is a completely different format; TV is a completely different beast. What I mean by that is, as [a YouTube] creator, you’re used to controlling everything. And in TV, for the most part, you aren’t. You are talent that shows up on set at a certain time, you say certain lines, you get paid, and you go home.
I’ve simplified it, because it’s much more complex than that. But a lot of creators really struggle with saying things when it’s not their words and [are] concerned that that is not how they represented themselves to their audience. “This isn’t authentic. This is not who I am.”
It’s very important for creators to know that if they do want to make that transition, it is a completely different platform with different expectations and that they have to be willing to alter, for the most part, and give up creative control.
If a creator does want to go to TV, what kind of positions are they seeking?
It really is up to each individual creator. Some want to be hosts. Some want to be actors and actresses. Some want to be motivational speakers. Some want to have their own TV show just to have their own TV show.
Is there a lot of movement of talent from film and television to digital?
I think we’re seeing people attempt it but not with a lot of success, in my opinion. The Rock has done a phenomenal job. Will Smith has started. Kevin Hart, Amy Poehler, a few others. It’s few and far between. The issue, in my opinion, is that these are two different forms of content and consumption. TV is very passive; TV and film stars don’t really break the fourth wall. Whereas [with] creators, most of their content is straight-to-camera content, which makes for a much more inclusive and personal experience, especially if you are watching on a small screen that you are holding close to your face.
At what level of a creator’s success would you say is a good time for a manager to come in?
I manage a creator—his name is James Rath. He’s a legally blind filmmaker—really fascinating guy. He’s all about accessibility in technology. When I signed him, he had 9 or 10,000 subscribers. My largest client—Trevor James, the Food Ranger—when I met him at the beginning of 2017, he had 100,000, and now he’s at 1.2 million. He’s had a meteoric rise. And then there’s people in between.
But when it comes to someone like James Rath, even though he has a small channel, he has a lot of influence and clout. I really like him, and I think he makes really great content. We clicked. He wanted help, and I wanted to help him. So it really depends on where the creator is at in their channel and in their growth. I’ve turned down creators that have 700,000 subscribers because I don’t feel it’s the right fit. I don’t get the content, or I don’t think the channel’s going to grow anymore, and I’m very honest with them about that. You need a manager when you need help managing things is really the best answer.
*Correction, Jan. 16, 2018: This article originally said Logan Paul’s YouTube page boasts more than 356 million views and 4 million subscribers. It has 3 billion views and nearly 16 million subscribers.