Stories

Our Wild Abandon: How a New Kind of Freelancer Is Taking Over Instagram

By Danielle Elliot November 20th, 2015

It all started with an ending: a pair of endings, really.

Kyla Tretheway and Jill Mann broke up with their boyfriends the same week in February 2013. The girls knew each other through their exes but had never really made an effort to be friends, even though they had even been on vacations together. After the breakups, it only took a week for that to change.

First, they made plans to walk Jill’s dog, Dingus. But as Kyla was about to pick up her new friend, a jar of salt on a shelf caught her eye. Collected from the Salt Flats of Utah five years earlier, it was just sitting there—until suddenly it was setting them on a wildly different path.

Kyla sent Jill a text asking if she wanted to drive 16 hours to Utah on a whim and watch the sunrise. Jill responded immediately, with one word: “Yes.” They left Vancouver in sundresses. They brought Dingus and a Polaroid camera. By the time they got to Utah they were freezing, but inspired.

“That was what really started it, as far as making dumb decisions and being really impulsive,” Jill said.

While those decisions may have been impulsive, they also launched a new career for both as Instagram photographers. (You can see their work @ourwildabandon.) Today, the pair how has more than 136,000 followers, U.S. work visas, and a photo agent. They’re part of a community of freelance digital nomads that has emerged with the rise of platforms like Instagram and YouTube—and through their work, they’re changing the way brands advertise on social media.

A photo posted by @ourwildabandon on

Within four months of that first impulsive trip, Jill and Kyla had sold all of their furniture and quit their jobs. Jill left her gig at a photo studio, where she had mostly handled test shoots, and her side job at a burrito joint. Kyla left her position at a high-end real estate firm, where the only photos she took were for listings.

“I had like five blazers. I was doing what I was supposed to be doing,” Kyla deadpanned.

They bought a trailer on Craigslist for $1,600 and took it to a music festival in San Diego. They knew they could stay in the country on a tourist visa for six months, but that was as far as their plan went.

“Then we sort of just didn’t want to come home,” Jill said.

When their engine seized in Utah, they no longer had a choice. They had to figure something out. “We didn’t have anything left to sell at that point,” Jill said.”The only thing that we did have was photos.”

They made a website in less than 24 hours, listing several of their photos as postcards for $3 each, and after one week, they’d sold enough to pay for a new engine.

Up to that point, they had just been posting photos to Instagram—they thought of the app as a photo dump, not a potential career path. The postcard sale taught them otherwise, as did the fellow photographers they started meeting through the platform. When a few mentioned that they were represented by an agency named Tinker Street, one of the first firms to focus on Instagram photographers, Jill and Kyla shot off an email to an agent.

“We didn’t want to be the types of people who would post a selfie and sell a product and have that be it,” Kyla said. “It was nice to find a place where Instagram was important, but creating work that you were proud of is just as important.”

A month passed with no response from Tinker Street. “I had no idea how it worked; I’d never had a photo agent before,” Jill said, laughing at how naive she was when sent that email.

Heading North #morningwood

A photo posted by @ourwildabandon on

They were embarrassed, feeling like they had come off as cocky in the email. But right before Christmas, only about three months after they had left Vancouver in 2013, Tinker Street responded with an offer. The representation has helped the duo bring in new clients such as T-Mobile, Travel New Orleans, and HTC, but it has not changed Our Wild Abandon. Kyla and Jill say they continue to concentrate on telling their own story as much as possible, working with brands that share their values and aesthetic; in other words, minimal selfies and no product shots.

Tinker Street isn’t the only Instagram agency. Other agencies have since emerged, including Instabrand and smaller boutiques. They are all vying for an ever-growing pot of advertising budgets dedicated to social media platforms as brands realize that the ROI of influencer posts on social media is higher than that of traditional print and even web ads.

One recent study showed an average return on investment (ROI) of $9.60 per dollar spent on social media influencer advertising, with some brands reporting an ROI of up to $20 per dollar. The packaged food and travel industries are seeing the most benefits, followed by beauty, alcohol and beverages, and grocery. AdWeek analyzed a campaign in which an individual influencer, model and Instagram celebrity Mariano di Vaio, was paid $10,000 to post to his account—a solid investment for the company since a final evaluation showed that the campaign was worth nearly $40,000.

These talent agencies alike are one of the main reasons that brands have started to take Instagram photographers seriously. When Jill and Kyla sent that introductory email in the fall of 2013, rates were nowhere near their current level. They did not disclose exact figures, but after interviewing nearly a dozen influencers, it seems that rates range from $2,000 to $15,000 for a single post. Longer campaigns can garner much higher paychecks. Influencers also have alternate revenue streams, such as social media consulting.

Despite the rapid success, Jill and Kyla still haven’t had the easiest last two years. Until they secured visas last month, they had to fly back to Canada regularly. Dating is nearly impossible, though they’ve both tried it at times. Even maintaining friendships with anyone besides each other can be difficult with their nomadic lifestyle. The tradeoff is that they’re living a life in which they’re connecting with new people, providing inspiration, and sharing their story.

“We are incredibly lucky to be able to do what we do, and we get paid more than we would if we were just doing product shots,” Jill said.

“It feels special to be sought after for your story as much as your work,” Kyla added.

Some large brands still approach Kyla and Jill directly, to skirt agent fees, but the two said that for the most part, brands treat influencers like they would more traditional talent. Some can’t afford to hire social media influencers outright, so they purchase the usage rights to photos instead. Others offer experiences that even influencers could never create on their own, and in these cases, it makes sense to take the offer.

I first met Jill and Kyla in early September, when all of us were selected to travel across the country on a trip called the Passport Express. There was a dual purpose: On the one hand, it was a marketing campaign for Amtrak, but it was also a chance to bring writers, photographers, and other creatives together to inspire each other. Other than having travel expenses compensated, no one was paid to be there. But it was a rare enough opportunity that the experience alone was a form of payment. It was that same desire to travel that sparked Jill and Kyla’s entire journey.

Now that they have taken care of the paperwork to secure U.S. work visas, they’re getting back on the road. They’re planning to make more dumb and impulsive decisions than ever—but now those dumb decisions are sustaining a new freelance lifestyle.

“When we leave on December 1, we’ll be back where we started, free and not limited by anything,” Kyla said. “That’s when we create our best work, when it’s the two of us moving without a destination.”

And this time, it’ll start with a beginning.

Image by NickOmanPhoto
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