Influencers say a talent management firm run by a 21-year-old took hundreds of dollars from them but failed to deliver on promises. When we started asking questions, it shut down.

  • 13 influencers said the talent management firm IQ Advantage took their money but failed to deliver on its promises to help grow their Instagram followings and get them brand deals.
  • IQ Advantage required them to pay a $299 deposit when they signed contracts but either refused to give it back or never responded to requests to do so, the influencers said.
  • Industry experts said this type of deposit isn't standard and should be a red flag for any influencer looking into representation.
  • Many of the influencers with whom Business Insider spoke also said IQ Advantage didn't get them a single brand deal and that they doubted it was actually working on their behalf.
  • In November, IQ Advantage's US founder confirmed to Business Insider that the company was shutting down.
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For Zoe Nazarian, it started with an unsolicited but flattering email pitch.

Nazarian, 19, had been building an influencer career over six years. She focused on beauty and lifestyle content, and had amassed 25,000 Instagram followers and another 15,000 on YouTube.

In March, she received an email from a woman who identified herself as a talent manager for an advertising and talent management agency called IQ Advantage.

"I have been keeping an eye on your online presence for the past month, and believe you have a super interesting identity," the email said. "In my opinion, you may be a fantastic fit for our team, which is why I am reaching out to you for our Instagram influencer management program." 

It felt like perfect timing for Nazarian.

"I was at a point where I was really ready for a next step," she told Business Insider.

But there was a catch. To move forward with any services, Nazarian would have to pay IQ Advantage a deposit of $299. But she could get it back if things didn't work out, she thought.

A draft contract from IQ Advantage reviewed by Business Insider said that "in case the profit or campaign value of $299USD is not achieved within the timeframe of the agreement, XX will be fully re-imbursed by IQ Advantage." 

Six IQ Advantage contracts sent by influencers to Business Insider contained similar clauses.

Nazarian said she was under the impression that if IQ Advantage didn't get her any brand deals, she would get her $299 deposit back.

Now, looking back, Nazarian said the $299 deposit should've been a red flag. Six industry experts who spoke with Business Insider agreed, characterizing the pay-to-play deposit as highly unusual and advising influencers not to accept similar terms from a talent manager or agent.

21-year-old Jackson Reding, who said he founded the US division of IQ Advantage, pushed back in an interview with Business Insider in November. He defended the use of the deposit and said it prevented influencers from cutting the agency out of deals it had worked to help secure.

At the time Nazarian was pitched, she was convinced by IQ Advantage's explanation of the deposit, and was excited to have a talent manager to help her land brand sponsorships and grow her business. She signed the contract.

But, Nazarian said, the brand deals never came. At first, she thought it was the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which had hit the ad industry hard. But brands were still reaching out to her directly and she saw other influencers posting sponsored content. Then her manager stopped responding to her altogether.

In June, after three months had passed and, Nazarian said, IQ Advantage hadn't secured any brand deals for her, she began asking for her $299 refund. She asked again in July. Then in August. IQ Advantage didn't respond, she said.

At the end of August, Nazarian left a negative review of the company on TrustPilot.com — a consumer reviews website — and disputed the PayPal payment for the deposit she had made (which can be done within 180 days, per PayPal policy).

That's when she said she finally heard back.

"We respect you were not satisfied with the partnership, however, making fraudulent accusations in terms of haven't [sic] received a refund is illegal," the agency commented on her TrustPilot post.

Nazarian said she then got an email from Kristoffer Forby, one of the people at IQ Advantage whom she'd been in contact with. He told her that in order to receive her refund, she would need to change her review on TrustPilot that called the agency a "scam," or he would "get legal involved." 

She changed the review but ended up getting the refund when PayPal approved her dispute of the charge.

Nazarian may have been one of the lucky ones. 

Ten other influencers who said they'd signed with IQ Advantage told Business Insider they had not received any brand deals and weren't refunded the $299 deposit when they asked. 

Reding had an explanation for this, too. 

He said that certain work IQ Advantage did for an influencer, like putting them in "engagement groups," counted toward the value of the deposit, and that this was spelled out clearly in their contracts. (These "engagement groups," also known as "engagement pods," are group chats of influencers who like and comment on each other's posts to inflate engagement stats.)

"Every contract will have the engagement groups from the very start," Reding said, adding that they were "listed in the contract itself."

"These are priced at a thousand dollars for overall marketing value," he said of the engagement groups.

But none of the six IQ Advantage contracts sent by influencers to Business Insider included specific language about engagement groups counting toward the deposit, and 13 influencers (including Nazarian) said they were under the impression they would get their money back if IQ Advantage did not get them $299 in brand deals.

Reding said those contracts must have been "older," but did not provide Business Insider an updated contract, and didn't respond to requests for further explanations of the deposit.

Like Nazarian, many of the IQ Advantage clients were "micro" influencers — with between 10,000 and 100,000 followers — who were looking to break out in the industry. They were impressed by the roster of influencers and brands that IQ Advantage claimed to have worked with. 

But some of those bona fides seem questionable. Three brands that IQ Advantage said it had worked with on its website or pitch materials — Revolve, Pretty Little Thing, and Asos — told Business Insider they had never heard of the agency. Others listed on the website declined to comment or did not respond.

Then again, even among our sources, IQ Advantage does seem to have landed some brand deals. Two influencers said the agency had brought them work. But one of those influencers, Marre Gómez, was a reference that IQ Advantage would send to prospective clients and was included in the pitch deck it sent to influencers. (She denied being an employee of the agency or receiving compensation for serving as a reference.)

Still, a dozen influencers Business Insider spoke with who had contact with the agency said that it made a big pitch to help creators grow their careers and then faded into silence (or a vague threat of bringing legal action), and failed to deliver the services or give the deposit refunds they felt it had promised.

In early October, when Business Insider began speaking with influencers who had signed with the agency, IQ Advantage shut down its website and Instagram. 

Reding confirmed in the November interview that the agency was dissolving, saying "COVID really, really took a toll."

But industry insiders said it won't be the last dubious agency to focus on micro influencers as the category continues to gain prominence.

Micro influencers have become valuable to brands, with about 70% of Instagram brand deals involving creators with fewer than 50,000 followers, according to recent data from Socialbakers, a social-media marketing company. But with influencers able to make money earlier in their careers, it also presents opportunities for people to take advantage of their inexperience.

"I just think that influencers are legitimately in this sort of vulnerable place," said Lynsey Eaton, the cofounder of the influencer talent agency Estate Five.

Selling a dream, IQ Advantage presented itself as a growth machine

When IQ Advantage was up and running, its website had little information about Reding or the other people behind it.

Reding, who is from Texas and is currently based in Los Angeles, said IQ Advantage had started in Europe and he founded the US division and talent management department.

When Business Insider spoke with influencers about IQ Advantage, two other names kept coming up in connection with the company: Kristoffer Forby and Tobias Strøm, both from Denmark.

Influencers characterized Forby and Strøm as talent managers with IQ Advantage.

Several influencers said that when IQ Advantage reached out to them, it felt real and promising. IQ Advantage came prepared with a capabilities deck, success stories, draft contracts — and even set up introductory phone calls with creators.

"I was really surprised they were actually interested in me," said Sofia Solis, another influencer who signed with IQ Advantage in early 2020. "I was just happy that they thought I had the potential to grow into something more."

"And since they had mentioned that they were going to refund [the $299] after my first sponsorship with them, I thought it was a good deal," Solis added.

Solis was not alone. Five other influencers said they signed the contract and paid the initial deposit because of the potential refund.

The services IQ Advantage purported to provide were simple and echoed industry standards: IQ Advantage would help create a media kit for the influencer and pitch the talent out to brands for sponsorship opportunities. 

"Various marketing projects will be presented for you, alongside with how we can grow your account," the agency wrote in an overview document. 

They promised influencers that they were reaching out to brands, but some doubted they were.

When Nikki Grace Bearman, a UK-based influencer, signed with the agency in 2019, she was told to provide a few brands she'd like to work with and was assured that her manager would reach out to these brands, she said.

"I never saw a single email go out," she said. At times, IQ Advantage would respond to inbound emails on Bearman's behalf, she added, but nothing came of these.

"It was just a bit of a dead end for most brands when they did reach out," she continued.

IQ Advantage did, however, add creators like Bearman into engagement pods. This was part of the "growth tactic" IQ Advantage sold to creators, Bearman said.

Both Reding and Forby confirmed that IQ Advantage put influencers into engagement pods. Forby added that when he had a larger follower base on Instagram, he'd also used these to grow his own engagement. 

But multiple industry experts told Business Insider they would advise against using these kinds of pods, since they artificially inflate engagement statistics and can lead to blacklisting by brands.

"Pods are a huge problem and we blacklist people all the time when we find out they're in pods," said Brian Freeman, the CEO of Heartbeat, a platform that connects influencers with brands.

Instagram declined to comment on engagement pods.

And then, there was the media kit development. Although IQ Advantage did create media kits for some influencers, a few said they were not impressed.

Solis said her media kit inaccurately presented her as a "model" and "travel blogger," and also misspelled her name. 

Three other influencers said they waited for a media kit and never received one.

Reding acknowledged that some influencers had not received the media kits they were promised and said if they hadn't, they would be entitled to a refund of their $299 deposit. 

But those three influencers who said they didn't get media kits were also among those who said they had asked for a deposit refund and didn't get one.

After a few weeks of big talk, sources say the agency would go silent

After a contract was signed, IQ Advantage would move the communications off of email and onto WhatsApp, connecting the influencer with their "talent manager."

And after a few weeks of communication, IQ Advantage would slowly slip away, four influencers said.

"All of a sudden, one week it just stopped," Solis said of her communication with the agency. After her manager didn't respond to emails for a few weeks, the agency told her he had caught COVID-19 and that she was being assigned a new manager. That supposed manager never got in contact.

"I just felt left in the dark," she said.

Bearman said she would receive long-winded excuses for why she hadn't seen any incoming brand deals, or why she hadn't heard from Forby (her assigned manager) in days, sometimes weeks. The reasons ranged from experiencing difficulties with customs to a break-in at Reding's home in California, where he was staying.

Other influencers said the excuses they received weren't as extreme, but the silence was recurring. 

LA-based influencer Claire Lejeune signed with IQ Advantage in May and said she was mostly in communication with Tobias Strøm.

"At first, Tobias is like WhatsApping me and everything was fine," she said. "And then I noticed that he kept switching WhatsApp accounts."

Finally, Strøm had a potential paid brand deal for Lejeune: a model casting for a "new fashion company," she said. Lejeune responded asking for the brand, budget, and location. 

"And then I literally never heard back from him again," she said. Lejeune wrote Strøm and IQ Advantage in August requesting her refund, but still heard nothing. 

"I've probably hit them up like three or four times since, just asking for the money back," she said. 

Strøm did not respond to a request for comment from Business Insider.

Kate Sheehy, another influencer and content creator, said she signed with IQ Advantage in June 2020. After she paid the $299, Sheehy said she heard little from her manager and when she'd try to get in touch with IQ Advantage, was told that a new manager would be assigned to her. 

However, the pattern continued, and Sheehy never saw any brand deals come to fruition.

"I believe I got scammed," she told Business Insider.

Some influencers who did hear back from IQ Advantage after requesting a refund, like Nazarian and Bearman, said it became a battle.

While Bearman continued to follow up with IQ Advantage about her refund, she took to a WhatsApp group chat and warned others about the agency. 

After someone apparently sent Forby screenshots from the group chat, Bearman said he sent her another voice note telling her that he was planning on getting lawyers involved, and then told her that because he placed her in engagement pods, she lost her deposit.

"I actually just apologized because I was a bit scared that they were going to sue me," she said. She gave up on getting the $299 back, she said.

When asked about IQ Advantage threatening legal action, Reding and Forby both characterized their behavior as reactive, saying they were responding in kind to perceived legal threats by influencers.

IQ Advantage's former website.Screenshot of iq-advantage.com

The red flags of a dubious agency and what influencers need to look out for 

Influencer industry experts said the upfront fee of $299 that IQ Advantage charged was the first red flag.

"You're never asked to pay a deposit," said Erin Cutler, talent manager and founder of the influencer talent agency Neon Rose. Instead, managers typically charge based on commission, which is usually between 10% and 20%. 

Reputable agencies and management firms also usually don't send out mass emails like these, Cutler said.

"It's not a transactional process," said James Nord, the founder and CEO of Fohr, an influencer-marketing platform that connects brands and creators. "It's a courtship. This person is essentially becoming part of your team." 

When influencers are signing with a manager, it will usually entail several conversations between the influencer and the manager. On those calls, or in-person meetings, the manager demonstrates what they can do for the influencer, and the influencer demonstrates that they have the ability to convert for brands. 

Estate Five's Eaton said micro influencers should also generally be wary of signing with a manager too early in their careers.

"We tell people all the time, you need to be working pretty heavily before, or at least significant enough to warrant an agent or a manager," Eaton said.

There are also ways to protect yourself and steps influencers should take before signing any contract or paying any money. References are important, Nord said.

And Qianna Smith Bruneteau, the founder of the influencer trade organization the American Influencer Council, advised influencers to get as much banking information as possible rather than going through PayPal or CashApp. That way, if needed, they can pursue action through small claims court.

But in the case of IQ Advantage, not all influencers knew these industry norms and precautions. They didn't know the deposit was abnormal and how to react when they didn't get the refund.

"I think the thing that [IQ Advantage] benefited from the most was me, and probably a lot of other people, not really having a clue what you can do," Bearman said.

"What can you do, as an influencer?" she said. "I don't want to spend hundreds of thousands on a lawyer."

For their part, IQ Advantage's leaders seem to have also moved on.

Reding, Forby, and Strøm have launched a new consulting and marketing agency called Vertex Consulting Group in the last few weeks, according to their Instagram bios.

For more stories about the influencer industry, check out these Business Insider articles:

  • 6 Instagram micro influencers explain how much money they charge brands for sponsorships

  • An Amazon warehouse worker explains how he became a TikTok star by secretly filming his job and what happened when HR found out
  • EXCLUSIVE: An interactive database of the top talent managers and agents for influencers and who they represent

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