Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff might not have any endorsement deals with Bird scooters, but his cartoonish digital likeness does—the digital Goff recently appeared with the company’s latest Bird One model in an Instagram post to boost its launch.
The avatar was created by Bitmoji rival Genies for its new talent firm, Avatar Agency, which negotiates brand partnerships on behalf of these digital doubles of a roster of star musicians and athletes ranging from Cardi B and Blink 182 to basketball player Carmelo Anthony and former Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch.
Goff wasn’t the only celebrity clone tapped for the Bird campaign—avatars of Billy Ray Cyrus, Lil Nas X, baseball player Manny Machado and electronic musician Dillon Francis also pushed the new Bird One in a promotion that the company claims came together in just one day.
“The night before [Bird] was announcing the Bird One, they didn’t have a social media campaign ready, so they contacted our office,” said Genies co-founder and CEO Akash Nigam. “In the real world, if they wanted to do this with the exact same wide variety of tier-A talent, it would have taken probably eight to 12 months of planning and tens of millions of dollars. In the Genies world, it took us 24 hours and pennies on the dollar in comparison.”
The rise of “synthetic media”
This business model is part of a burgeoning economy of virtual influencers, anthropomorphic AI and other simulated personas that are blurring the lines between physical reality and online artifice. On the more fabulist end of the spectrum are stars like Lil Miquela, a CGI Instagram star made whole cloth by the enigmatic Los Angeles startup Brud, which has worked with brands like Google and Prada.
“The next big social network Facebook-type play is going to involve avatars in some format,” Nigam said. “You see startups trying their take on it, and then giants like Facebook and Google and Snapchat with their own take.”
Genies backer Rick Yang, a partner at venture firm New Enterprise Associates, said his firm has begun to think of this category as “synthetic media,” a broad space that spans all experimental technologies being used to create lifelike characters online.
“It also encompasses this idea of deepfakes and altering existing media to create the type of media that you want that could be used for positive—or nefarious—means,” Yang said.
Among Genies’ other backers are top Hollywood talent brokers Creative Artists Agency and Management 360, producer Thomas Tull and billionaire early Facebook funder Jim Breyer, as well as several celebrity investors including Shawn Mendes, 50 Cent, A$AP Rocky and The Chainsmokers.
The benefits of working with a digital celebrity
To celebrities, Genies bills Avatar Agency as a way for them to take on more advertising work than their hectic schedules would otherwise allow, while advertisers are offered quick production turnarounds free from the hassle of working around a star’s availability.
“It definitely helps free up some of my time,” said Miami Dolphins defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, who has also invested in Genies. “I’m always on the lookout for creative opportunities like this.”
Genies further streamlines the production process by employing about 25 artists to constantly add to a log of everyday props with which its avatars can interact.
“We have libraries and libraries of different assets—a chair a glass, whatever it may be,” Nigam said. “So if somebody comes to us and says, ‘Hey, I need Jared Goff walking across the stage doing this type of dance, Versace in the background, and pouring a glass of champagne’ … we can do it on an hour notice.”
Aside from its celebrity arm, the Genies app also allows anyone to create their own avatar, and the company claims more than 2 million people have done so to date. The avatars can integrate with most major social and messaging platforms, and the company advertises them as the most expressive and customizable avatars on the market.