The snow was falling as Jenny Quigley-Jones worked her way down the long queue of Syrian, Iraqi and Somali refugees at Christmas in 2015. She was volunteering for the UN in Lesbos, helping to check their paperwork and find blankets as they waited in the three-day-long queue.
One Yazidi Christian woman, weak and exhausted, handed Quigley-Jones her baby. “They were struggling to carry their kid. So I took the kid and started singing it Arabic songs and they were like ‘who is this girl?’”
The 28-year-old is used to raising eyebrows during a career that has seen the Warwick graduate make Harvard, land a top YouTube job and strike out alone.
She has created a marketing agency, with clients including Rolls-Royce, the RAF and Trainline, that links big brands with YouTube influencers.
The Londoner’s experiences in the Middle East underscore much of her outlook and are deep rooted: she spent five years in Kuwait as a child while her father worked as an accountant for an oil firm. “We were due to move to Pakistan on September 14, 2001. After 9/11 all flights were grounded and we came back to the UK,” she recalls.
“Everyone’s stereotypes then were that the Middle East must be full of terrorists, but my memories were nice people who pinched your cheeks in the supermarket,” she says when we meet in Digital Voices’ shared offices in a very unglamorous part of Holloway. (The inevitable switch to Shoreditch is next month).
Despite her grandiose sounding name, Quigley-Jones is from a relatively modest background: her Welsh father and Irish lawyer mother brought her up in Southgate, north London. She was the first Warwick graduate to gain a Harvard scholarship in 13 years when her undergraduate research on child torture in Syria turned heads.
She went on to intern in Washington DC and, as part of her dissertation studies, travelled in Lebanon and Jordan. “I wanted to go to Iraq but the uni stopped me so I had to do my interviews over Skype during a snowstorm in Jordan,” she says.
She originally had her eye on academia but, during a brief spell at Oxfam, she realised the power of video to tell stories. Her application to specialise in working with Middle Eastern YouTubers in 2015 was turned down, but she landed a gig with the Google-owned video platform nonetheless. Quigley-Jones was working with YouTube creators to team up with brands to make videos.
On a trip to Brussels a chance meeting with an executive from Starwood Hotels landed her some consulting work, and her business was born.
In the ensuing two years, Quigley-Jones has honed the focus of her agency to so-called Influencer Marketing. Her job is to connect companies with appropriate YouTubers, often with millions of subscribers, to help push their message or simply showcase interesting stuff as traditional TV adverts are increasingly skipped or ignored.
It’s a fairly new field but one that cuts through to its audience effectively as they feel close to the creator.
Digital Voices, she says, helps create videos that “speak to 13-year-olds who don’t have a teacher or friends to talk to about their specific interest” as well as older audiences.
She recalls a video her company worked on which saw YouTube creator Brian McManus of Real Engineering discuss the tyres Nasa uses on its Mars transport vehicles to promote an RAF competition for aspiring engineers. “People imagine only pranks and vloggers go viral but an engineer talking about properties for nine minutes got 2.8 million views with an average watch time of seven minutes.”
Specialised software is used to analyse creators’ influence and DV guarantees a certain number of views, spending a portion of its fees on new content if the target isn’t hit.
Influencers have become such big businesses that the Competition and Markets Authority is investigating how they endorse products and the role of social-media platforms.
Currently, 93% of spend on influencer marketing is on Instagram, where content is quicker and cheaper to make. But Quigley-Jones reckons users give video more attention and enthusiasm for the product is harder to fake.
“If they don’t really endorse it you can tell in their voice that they don’t really like the product,” she explains.
In future, the self-confessed “data geek” hopes to run the numbers on offices in New York and Dubai to work with local female YouTubers.