How The Hell Did TikTok Get So Big, So Quickly?

The talent agent for the world's biggest TikTok star, Charli D'Amelio, reflects on the stratospheric success of the app that is taking on Instagram and YouTube.
TikTok's growth is unprecedented, say Hollywood talent agents
TikTok's growth is unprecedented, say Hollywood talent agents

We’re often hesitant to embrace new apps.

Their intensity is criticised as bad for our mental health and with Instagram Stories and the grid a constant presence in our lives, shouldn’t we expand our real-life experiences by going outside more often, or doing exercise, instead of adding something else to our phones?

Yes. There’s no doubt that our hesitancy to lean into new apps is completely legitimate. So how come, in an age of mental exhaustion due to the virus, TikTok muscled its way onto 8.7% of British phone screens in such a short time?

The app’s success has even surprised Hollywood’s most clued-in talent agents.

“I’ve been in this space for twelve, fifteen years now,” reflects Greg Goodfried, talent agent, responsible for creating digital platforms for stars including Jennifer Lopez and Lauren Conrad.

“The first ten years YouTube was everything,” he tells HuffPost UK down the phone from his home office in LA. “Then for the last five I’ve been saying we live in a YouTube/Instagram world. I firmly believe we’re now in a YouTube/Instagram/TikTok world and I think we’re going to be in that for a very long time.”

Goodfried works at United Talent Agency managing social media stars including Charli D’Amelio, the world’s biggest TikTok star with 60 million followers, and has seen his workload dramatically change since TikTok blew up at the start of 2020.

The world's biggest TikTok star Charli D'Amelio during an interview on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
The world's biggest TikTok star Charli D'Amelio during an interview on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
NBC via Getty Images

Greg notes that the global nature of TikTok has contributed to its incredibly sharp rise. “We’ve never had a platform introduce itself with China too, so just the sheer numbers behind it, it has that weight and power behind it,” he says.

The app also resonates with our times. In a coronavirus world, the joyous, often comedic, defiantly silly 30 second videos shot on mobile phones and published by TikTok users provides the sort of light relief that Instagram can’t fathom.

Rather than promoting vain and wearisome selfies, TikTok’s raison d’etre is light heartedness.

With NHS staff singing songs from quarantine, A-List celebrities like Ariana Grande and Britney Spears recording videos from isolation and Gen-Z using it to recreate favourite memes IRL, the app is entertainment writ-large: its offer of escapism the perfect bedfellow for its users going through lockdown together.

And the platform is changing the way digital celebrities are made. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen a platform grow this fast,” reflects Greg. “This is happening at light speed where somebody can get famous in three or four months.”

As with any major social platform, sadly TikTok isn’t immune from the inevitable trolls, which have cohabited TikTok alongside the talent, but where isn’t there the need to be vigilant against online abuse?

Sadly it follows users all across the digital realm. “You’ve seen some of her tweets and Instagram posts calling out people, and that empowers her,” says Greg of D’Amelio’s approach to dealing with her instant fame.

Charli D’Amelio is a professional dancer and her TikToks are characterised by the 16-year-old performing impressive dance routines. Sometimes she’ll talk to the camera about her day, other times, she’ll perform a complex dance you might expect to see on a professional stage - while wearing joggers and a sweatshirt from home.

While she’s advised against warding off online abuse and managing thousands of commenters, one encouraging trope of Gen Z is that they seem kinder to one another, according to Greg, making TikTok a generally more pleasant place to be than some of its competitors.

“Boys say super complimentary things about boys, girls saying complimentary things about girls, that’s an incredible thing we’re finding from this younger generation”

- Greg Goodfried, UTA talent agent

“There’s so many more young people who are complimentary of each other,” he notices, “they’re like ‘Yeah you go, you’re fire,’ and boys say super complimentary things about boys, girls saying complimentary things about girls, that’s an incredible thing we’re finding from this younger generation.

“They’re focused on anti bullying and focused on positivity and a lot of them self police, if they see people piling onto a creator you’ll see a tonne of people pop up telling these commenters, ‘Hey we don’t need you here, go somewhere else.’”

Openness and honesty was also the selling point for YouTube when it first began in 2005, establishing homemade video creation as a legitimate form.

Since its inaugural videos were uploaded it has been the Everest for influencers and vloggers, ever since Tyler Oakley was the first to go stratospheric on the platform in 2007 while at university.

Reaching potentially millions of viewers and turning over vast profits, YouTube was the first and most obvious step towards TV and film contracts for the new realm of ‘content creator’ talent.

Now, around six months after it broadly took off, TikTok is a surprising and direct challenger to YouTube’s authority over video making, and has become the unlikely new gateway to TV and film for its users - even though the videos are only thirty seconds long.

TikTok is now equally as important as Instagram for content creators, says Greg Goodfried, UTA talent agent
TikTok is now equally as important as Instagram for content creators, says Greg Goodfried, UTA talent agent
SOPA Images via Getty Images

“We laugh about it internally,” says Greg. “It used to be YouTube was short form and it’d be, ‘How do you do something in long form?,’ meaning TV and film. Now TikTok is short form it’s, ‘How do I do something in long form,?’ meaning YouTube.”

With millions of eyeballs on content, TikTok is big money, much like YouTube. With sales to be made, brands are scrambling to assert themselves on the platform, and Greg and his colleague Ali Berman dispute the idea that cashing in on TikTok makes creators sellouts.

Much like on YouTube, earning money from your content is “the holy grail,” says Greg.

“Getting that brand deal, or launching a merch line, or recording a song - they’re rooting for the people they’re following to be able to do these commercial things,” he says.

““She’s a 16 year old CEO," laughs Greg”

- Greg Goodfried on his client, Charli D'Amelio

As for Charli, she’s heavily involved in all brand partnerships and decisions around marketing and business reflected on her platform.

“She’s a 16 year old CEO,” laughs Greg. “Charli has an amazing business sense of what she’s excited about, what brands she’s passionate about, what opportunities make sense for her.”

Cutting through the hype, he does have one fear. “The hard part for brands is going to be a year from now when they have all spent and experimented and it’s either going to have worked for them or it’s not going to have worked.”


🌸 dancing to my bae @shreksdumpster ‘s beautiful voice

♬ original sound - sunflower.....vibes

Regardless of which high-net-worth audiences may be watching Charli’s skillfully created videos, Greg is clear that TikTok has surpassed fad stage.

“One thing I think probably gets missed is it’s not all dancing content, and it’s not all lip syncing of popular movie clips from memes,” he asserts. “There is enormous TikTok around food and cooking, around fishing, sports, action sports…

“It’s much bigger than just the, ‘I’m a teenager dancing to a song,’” he reflects. “You’re seeing traditional entertainers flock to it, and even traditional communities and factors of entertainment making sure it’s a part of their strategy, whether it’s music or film marketing divisions.”

Having earned the interest of Gen-Z throughout the bizarre, empty months that have crept past under lockdown, TikTok is trickling down from the trend setters steadily into the handsets of more and more of us.

We’d better prepare to dance.


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