TikTok Creators Accuse Carter Agency of Withholding Money for Brand Deals

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 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.”

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.

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.

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