interview by JANA LETONJA

Jessica Henig is the founder and CEO of Unlocked Branding, a premier management agency for up and coming digital talent across the Netherlands and the globe. Jessica’s unique talent management approach nurtures young digital talent, from as early as 16-years old to full-time content creators, working with namesake brands such as Prada, YSL Beauty, Charlotte Tilbury, Google, SKIMS and Nike, to name a few.

Jessica has built an entirely women owned and operated company, representing the ‘it-girl’ talent taking the digital world by storm in fashion, beauty, music, sports and beyond. With presence across the United States, United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates and most recently the Netherlands, her approach is unmatched in developing sustainable careers and long-lasting personal brands for leading digital talent.

Tell us about your impressive background working in music, sports and now representing the internet’s ‘it-girls’. Did you always know you wanted to be a talent manager and run your own agency?
From a young age, I knew I wanted to be in the entertainment industry, but had no idea what it exactly consisted of or how many avenues were available. Early on in my career, I didn’t imagine I could have my own business nor did I have aspirations to do so. After many years of working in the industry I realised there was a gap for a new-age hybrid way of working in the music, entertainment and social media industries. I knew I could bring a millennial, female-led perspective to talent management and marketing. My experience managing celebrities, musicians and athletes allowed me to be ahead of the curve and ultimately recognise digital talent before the word ‘influencer’ was coined. 

You have created long-term, hugely successful careers for talent as young as 16. How do you nurture them through the transition from school-girl to high-earning professional creators in a matter of years?
I use the phrase ‘Social Media University’ to describe the similarities between building a long-term career in the digital creator industry and building a traditional career. We work to guide and nurture these young women in building their careers from the ground up in a fast-paced industry. Being that some of them are still in school when we sign them, naturally a lot of their parents are involved as well. We are guiding and developing them day-to-day with advice, industry understanding, educating on work ethic and other skills a young person needs. The parallels to university are discipline, new friendships, learning and life experience, all while getting a head start on their introduction to the working world and earning potential. For each of our talent there is a clear strategy that we work towards everyday. It’s hard work to maintain interest, quality and results. Our talent has to have an understanding of the business behind the industry and the politics of it even at a young age, so they can be consistently evolving into the best possible creators and business people. 

Your agency Unlocked Branding offers services beyond talent management. Your music marketing arm of the business has worked on major campaigns for the industry’s top players including Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Post Malone and more. Can you tell us more about how you merge marketing with music?
Due to my previous experience in the music industry, I was one of the first to manage influencer talent in the UK, before the word was coined. I was able to connect the dots between music and influencers pretty early on by realising shared audiences. I began working with my talent to create innovative music content to showcase the impact that digital creators can have on marketing music across platforms. 

I worked hard to build relationships and provide value to everyone I worked with from the start of my career, from interning at MTV at 18 to working with Jurgen Grebner, the VP of International at Interscope Records. I was approached by Virgin EMI who created a role for me based on my unique combination of experiences. I signed a three-year deal to come on as their Head of Influencer Marketing and Lifestyle. It was a great experience, very high-pressure, but also incredibly rewarding to be at the number one label in the country. In my role, I worked directly with many artists and their management to educate on the importance of social strategy and curate social led campaigns and activations. I worked on a talent campaign for Queen’s album featuring Adam Lambert, which went to number one. I was also a part of the marketing behind Russ’ ‘Gun Lean’, which became the first Drill track to reach the top 10 in the UK. I worked with talent such as Anthony Joshua, Jesse Lingard and many others that pushed the record from chart position 34 to 9 within a week, which showed the power of social media. This was all five years ago and since then music marketing has developed so much further. I have recently been working with select artists on artist development in-person and for their online presence and position. 

Overall, when starting Unlocked Branding, I had built a solid rolodex of music industry relationships from years previous. Now, I work on music campaigns with talent on our roster. I create briefs related to the artist and develop unique activations and strategies to amplify their numbers. Just recently, I took my talent to meet Post Malone backstage at his Madison Square Garden show, in a collaboration with the opening of The Hard Rock Hotel in NYC and the tequila brand Don Londres. These activations are unique in the space and I really love pulling them off as it’s a priceless experience for our talent. We created many assets for both the hotel group and Post Malone’s team to utilise and use in perpetuity. It was a beneficial experience for all parties involved. 

With your creative direction branch of the agency you have an impressive track record of directing brand campaigns for the likes of Jack Wills, Charlotte Tilbury and Victoria’s Secret. Can we expect to see more of this in 2024?
Absolutely, I am very passionate about bringing a creative idea to life. That’s what this industry is about to me, the magic. We recently launched Unlocked Creative Agency to serve as a sister company to Unlocked Branding. My decade-long experience of working directly with brands has helped inform trust, reputation, vision and aims for success. That goes hand in hand with years of studying and analysing audiences on social media through managing Olympic, football, celebrity and influencer talent. Unlocked Creative is a place for my team and I to marry and incorporate our varied experience and insights to fill gaps in the market. 

Unlocked Branding recently expanded to the Netherlands. What spurred this expansion to the Netherlands and what can we expect to see here?
I have infiltrated markets where business is, which develops an overall global view for us of happenings on the ground. I have a staff member who is from and lives in Amsterdam. After many trips there and seeing the growth in talent and brand led events, I naturally wanted to open an office there. The competition is less than the UK or US and our way of millennial working and development of talent is not standard there. We can connect the dots globally and have the insight to forecast ahead. For example, London and the US usually activate campaigns before The Netherlands. There’s also work and brands that are only based in this region, which adds a territory to our understanding. We have 10 signed talents in the Netherlands as of last year. We are super specific and detailed when it comes to who we represent. These clients have opportunities across music, social media, modeling and broadcast. We’ve already worked on exciting campaigns in the Netherlands, including Samsung, L’Oreal, Lays, Viktor & Rolf and Nivea among others. 

Being a young, female founder, how do you advocate for yourself in business? What major challenges or setbacks have you faced throughout your career?
Word of mouth and a positive reputation has always been my main source of business. I pride myself and my team on it. I’ve had to bite my tongue and smile through a lot of challenges and setbacks. Personally, I choose what battles to fight and opt to take the high road. However, mostly you’ll find that your work is all the proof you need. I’m very grateful to have people I can trust and lean on for advice and empowerment over the years. Ted Cockle, former Virgin EMI/Universal president, has been a great mentor and friend to this day. Ted has always backed my ideas, recognised my work ethic and trusted my approach to talent marketing before it was mainstream. Rich Paul, CEO of Klutch Sports Group, is a mentor of 14 years. I’ve seen his growth and he’s seen my consistency. Unbiased criticism or direction is really important for growth. I like to learn from people that are vulnerable and honest with their own journeys. 

What is one thing you would tell someone who underestimates the validity of a social media career?
There will always be naysayers with anything in life. When I first started managing Instagram creators, I got told that they were talentless. When I started managing TikTok talent, I was told it wouldn’t last. Both of these are untrue. If done strategically and mindfully, being a digital creator can be a long-term career and move you up the ladder quickly in regards to income, investments and other interests. Every day is different, with endless opportunities, which makes it a very exciting space to be a part of. 

What kinds of projects can we expect to see from Unlocked Branding in 2024?
We have recently begun to represent a wider variety of creatives who will sit under Unlocked Creative Agency. We have exciting brand collaborations in the works for this branch of business. Of course, we will continue global campaigns for our talent across the Netherlands, UK, US and UAE. For me personally, I am definitely focusing on continuing to mentor female executives. There’s one big project in the works, but I can’t speak on that just yet. 

all photography by UNLOCKED BRANDING