New Fame, Age-Old Exploitation
When Celeste Polanco amassed 100,000 followers on TikTok, she started thinking about money.
“I knew I was in the position to get brand deals,” said Ms. Polanco, a lifestyle content creator in Brooklyn. “I just didn’t know anything about the business side of things.”
So Ms. Polanco, 30, was intrigued when a representative of the Carter Agency, a talent agency for TikTok creators, contacted her in 2021. She liked the energy she got from Ben Popkin, an agency representative, during their first meeting, which was via video. “I told him my boundaries and how much I think I am of value as an influencer new in the space,” Ms. Polanco said, adding that Mr. Popkin indicated her value was higher than what she thought.
She signed a contract.
Ms. Polanco’s story is not uncommon for many people who have embraced TikTok in the last few years and found themselves blessed by the mysterious algorithm that serves up their videos to vast numbers of users. The path from fame to fortune on the platform is being charted in real time, often on TikTok itself. Most users make no money; the ones who do typically earn it by promoting brands and products. Talent agencies can help negotiate those deals.
Now, more than a year after signing with the Carter Agency, Ms. Polanco says it never paid her for several deals she completed while working with the agency. According to documents provided to The New York Times, the Carter Agency negotiated deals on her behalf for at least $10,000, none of which, Ms. Polanco said, she has received. Ms. Polanco is one of two dozen creators who recounted similar allegations against the agency to The Times, including withholding money and concealing the rates of brand deals.
The Times attempted to contact the Carter Agency through emails, texts and phone calls for a response to these accusations, but the agency did not respond.
Niké Ojekunle was among the first creators to speak out about the agency, on TikTok and on the podcast “Women in Influencer Marketing” in November.
On TikTok, Ms. Ojekunle accused the agency of claiming to represent her in an attempt to sign another creator. She said she has never signed with any manager in her decade in the influencer business.
From Pranks to Profits
The Carter Agency was founded by Josh Popkin, who worked with Ben Popkin, his brother, and a handful of other managers. They represented dozens of TikTokers, and an archived version of the agency’s since deleted website lists “strategic partners” including Netflix, Amazon, McDonald’s and the N.F.L. (A representative for Amazon denied that it was ever a “strategic partner” of the agency. The other companies did not respond to requests for comment.)
Before starting the agency, Josh Popkin was a TikTok creator. His account, which had more than three million followers, made headlines in the spring of 2020 for a video in which he dumped a tub of cereal and milk on the floor of a New York City subway car.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority called the stunt “despicable,” citing its impact on essential workers keeping the subways running as the pandemic raged. Mr. Popkin apologized in a now private video on his YouTube channel; he also deleted the TikTok account where the video originally appeared.
Managers with the agency would frequently send their clients a statement of work after securing a brand deal. These documents, common in the industry, detailed project deadlines, pay rates and the type of videos the creators were required to make.
Agencies, like the Carter Agency, make money by taking a percentage of creators’ earnings. Documents reviewed by The Times indicated that creators typically agreed to the agency taking 20 percent to 30 percent, with the rest going to the creator. But many said they received far less, or weren’t paid at all.
Timisola Ogunleye, a 27-year-old creator who signed with the agency in 2021, said it brought her deals with Clean & Clear and Neutrogena, among other brands. She accepted the agency’s 30 percent fee, but the rate felt high to Ms. Ogunleye, who also works in casting and production. “I still have a career that I’m focusing on,” she said. “So it was either they take 30 percent or I get nothing at all.”
Riri Bichri, a creator best known for her 2000s nostalgia parody videos, joined the agency in 2022. She said that she hoped she “signed a decent contract, which I didn’t, and I was hoping that I was working with generally honest people, which I wasn’t.” The experience, she said, “made me realize that it was very easy to do so because it’s so new, it’s so unregulated.”
Arielle Fodor, 30, a kindergarten teacher turned TikTok star better known as Mrs. Frazzled, has been using a spreadsheet to track the money she said she is owed by the agency. According to emails provided to The Times, one brand told Ms. Fodor it had already paid the Carter Agency, six months earlier, for her work. Ms. Fodor showed The Times contracts that stated she was to be paid $28,000 for that deal. She said she had not seen a dime.
Other creators interviewed for this article, including Ms. Bichri, provided documentation showing the agency had negotiated deals on their behalf, for which they said they were never paid.
Ms. Fodor said the agency first contacted her in October 2021. The relief of having someone navigate the deals — she was in her first trimester of pregnancy — was worth the 30 percent commission, she said: “It’s overwhelming, you know, when you’re getting influencer deals for the first time.”
Multiple creators have also accused the Carter Agency of preying on creators of color.
Domenica Comai, a creator in Los Angeles who worked with the agency for more than a year beginning in 2021 said she thought Josh Popkin “was mainly targeting Black people, people of color, and I think, in general, maybe also people that were more vulnerable.”
Ms. Comai started a group chat in November 2022 with about a dozen creators who say they were also exploited by the Carter Agency. All the chat members are women, including Ms. Ogunleye, Ms. Bichri and Ms. Fodor. A majority of the group members are women of color. (A majority of the people who spoke with The Times for this article are also creators of color.)
Crystal Scruggs, a creator in Houston, said Ben Popkin had cited the struggles of Black creators while trying to sell her on joining the agency when he called her in August 2022. “When we talked that day on the phone, he was just saying, you know, like, ‘Being a Black creator, you all deserve this,’ and, like, ‘I want to make sure that people are equally being compensated correctly in the influencer world.’”
Ms. Scruggs, who, along with Ms. Ojekunle, previously spoke with Fast Company about her experience. She said she completed only one deal while working with the agency.
Peter Rodriguez, a 27-year-old creator in Tampa, Fla., makes TikToks with his twin brother, also named Peter Rodriguez. (Their father and a third brother also share the same name.)
The Rodriguez brothers began working with the Carter Agency at the beginning of 2022. Mr. Rodriguez said the pay they received was far from the $18,000 to $25,000 for a single TikTok post that Ben Popkin described in one of his initial emails. (The email was reviewed by The Times.)
Despite this, Mr. Rodriguez was excited to be getting paid anything, he said, because he usually did videos for free. He said he dreamed of earning enough to quit his day job and focus on TikTok.
In September 2022, the brothers received a statement of work from the agency for a deal with a deodorant brand. The rate, according to a document provided to The Times, was $350 for three TikTok videos.
The brothers later signed a new contract directly with the brand: $16,000 for two videos, according to a contract reviewed by The Times.
And while stories of agencies swooping in to sign young, often inexperienced talents are familiar — the music industry, for one, is littered with contract-related lawsuits — the newness of TikTok and the opacity of the influencer economy make people like Mr. Rodriguez particularly susceptible.
Alexis Farkas, 28, said she worked for the agency for two months in 2022 doing influencer scouting. Josh Popkin emphasized finding creators without managers, said Ms. Farkas, who lives in Newtown, Pa.
A TikTok Warning
Last November, Ms. Ojekunle, a popular creator known online as Specs & Blazers, posted a video in which she accused the Carter Agency of numerous wrongdoings.
She was not the first. In January 2021, Stephen Odea, known online as Stephen Alexander, created a TikTok account called @TheCarterAgency and posted two videos; in one of them he wrote that the agency took advantage of clients.
Ms. Ojekunle’s video, and her subsequent videos, have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. In one, she described her surprise when a creator contacted her in the fall of 2021 asking if she liked being represented by the Carter Agency. Ms. Ojekunle had worked with the agency on individual deals but said she had never signed a contract for the agency to manage her. She believes the agency was using her name to recruit others.
In the fall of 2022, Ms. Ojekunle received an email from Jesse Greenspun at Malibu Marketing Group, another business started by Josh Popkin. In the email, which was reviewed by The Times, Mr. Greenspun said he was working with the skin care brand Naturium and had a potential business opportunity for her.
Ms. Ojekunle said she later spoke with Susan Yara, the founder of Naturium. Ms. Yara said Mr. Greenspun had identified himself to Naturium as Ms. Ojekunle’s manager.
“I worked for the Carter Agency and Malibu Marketing Group as an hourly contractor but left in November,” Mr. Greenspun wrote in an email to The Times. He denied representing himself as Ms. Ojekunle’s manager.
After Ms. Ojekunle’s video gained traction, Ben Popkin sent an email to Carter Agency clients. In it, he called her statements “inaccurate” and wrote that Ms. Ojekunle had been signed by the agency but was dropped for being “unprofessional” and failing to deliver materials. Ms. Ojekunle denied these claims.
The email spurred some creators who had worked with the agency to pore over their own contracts. Many creators contacted brands to learn if they had been paid correctly for their work. Eric Fishbin, Ms. Scruggs’s former manager, quit after seeing the video, according to an email provided to The Times. “I never knowingly provided inaccurate information to a client,” he wrote in an email.
Some brands won’t discuss deal terms with the creators, and others, while sympathetic, say they have already paid the agency and can’t compel it to pay their clients.
An Unclear Path
“It’s good to just have a group that fully understands what’s going on,” Yasmine Sahid, a 26-year-old creator in Los Angeles, said of Ms. Comai’s group chat. She had a lawyer send a letter to the agency in January demanding almost $50,000 in outstanding payments and asking for proof of a talent agency license.
The agency has not responded.
Deciding what to do next is complicated. Ms. Fodor contacted the Federal Trade Commission and said the man who answered the phone recognized her voice from social media and talked with her about his wife, who also worked in education. “And then he was like, ‘This isn’t the right person to call. Sorry!’” Ms. Fodor said. She eventually found a lawyer, who is now working with some members of Ms. Comai’s group chat.
Some creators, like Kaity Dennis, are frustrated but aren’t sure if the cost of legal action will cancel out any money they might recoup.
In November, Jahnesha Standley, a parenting influencer and former client in Jacksonville, Fla., texted Ben Popkin pretending to be interested in signing a new contract.
Ms. Standley, 28, had left the agency after a three-month trial earlier in 2022. She had recently learned that her former manager there appeared to have misrepresented the rate of a deal she had turned down. She didn’t really want to sign a new contract. She wanted answers.
Three days after Christmas, Ben Popkin got in touch.
“Hi Jahnesha,” he wrote in an email provided to The Times. “You sent me a text message previously regarding completing additional campaigns — are you interested in more collaborations? Thanks, Ben.”
Ms. Standley said she didn’t hold back in her response. “I went off.”
Callie Holtermann contributed reporting.