In a small office in the center of Zaragoza, a group of 20-year-olds work daily to maintain a world of smoke and mirrors. They manage the accounts of social networks of characters that do not really exist: a fifty-year-old playboy businessman from Miami, a stunning Spanish actress who moves among Mexican high society … They have thousands of followers, just like real celebrities. They recommend fine lingerie, sportswear or luxury restaurants, as celebrities do. Their fans write messages to them and sometimes they even fall in love with them. They do not know they are interacting with virtual puppets.
"Many of these profiles receive more birthday congratulations than the same," says Idoya Barrabés, the team leader who feeds the fictitious accounts in the digital marketing agency 3lemon. At the head of the office is Fernando Monzón, a 49-year-old from Zaragoza who prides himself on doing things that others do not dare to do in the buoyant online advertising business. In his bio of Twitter he declares his convictions: "Doing the same thing as others is not very effective and also very boring".
The image of young people handling fake users on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram reminds the terrible news about bot farms in Russia, Mexico or China infesting the network of disinformation and hatred. But Monzón says that the creatures he feeds in his office in Zaragoza do not do evil. He calls his kabukis characters, a borrowed term from classical Japanese theater, in which female actors are played by men in disguise.
Their creations are much more sophisticated than the bots, false profiles that interact automatically. The bots, says Monzón, have become obsolete because they are easily detectable, while the kabukis, managed by humans, are indistinguishable from real accounts and resist sweeps of Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. "We have to go back to the origin, to Goebbles, to create content that entertains and provokes comments", espeta. Some of the kaleks of 3lemon, he says, have even held discussions with politicians or opinion leaders. "When fighting with them in the networks they give them credibility, as if they were people with DNI," he laughs.
What is the point of creating fictional characters? It is cheaper to hire an actor who lends his image and take care to give him a reputation than to get the services of an influencer who lives in a world of glamor. They are also more malleable and do not put conditions. Of course, its development requires a lot of work: photo sessions in which the model that lends its image to this fiction shows the type of life that supposedly leads; nourish their profiles with everyday images (they do not have to go out at all: it can be a dish in a fashionable restaurant, a supercar shop …); to write down the comments they make on networks and even their interactions with other kabukis.
The most select group of them, whom Monzón calls "los pata negra", sell luxury products. A firm of high-end briefs, for example, is promoted through one of these characters because it interests you to reach the 10,000 Instagram followers who follow their dream life, including galas, expensive restaurants and yacht rides. For brands, those 10,000 highly segmented profiles (in this case, people of medium / high purchasing power who identify with a successful man who has passed his fifties but leads the life of a young man) are pure gold. Some of his best creations, whose name we can not reveal without causing the collapse of the house of cards so carefully erected by the team of 3lemon, accumulate up to half a million followers.
Monzón's agency controls, feeds content and weaves the relations of almost 500 kabukis. The businessman from Zaragoza, who claims to have learned everything he knows about digital marketing when he was responsible for that area in Telepizza more than a decade ago, insists that there is nothing illegal in his work. "We make fiction profiles. We do not have IP delocalisers or anything like that. People tell me we cheat because what we tell is false. Does anyone think Superman flies even though he does it in the movies? "
Not everyone has the same opinion. "The profiles that these people start up are not real. That is as far as possible from a transparent practice of social networks, which is what should carry out a company, "explains Juan Luis Polo, founding partner of the digital marketing consultancy Good Rebels and president of Digital Agencies, the employer of the marketing and digital communication agencies. "I would never use a fiction profile due to the fact that it is not real. Sooner or later you realize that they have been deceiving you. But that's just my opinion, if a company works and your client is happy, go ahead with it, "he adds.
Idoya Barrabés, 31, leads a team of 15 young people with a marketing or advertising profile responsible for feeding the Kabukis with content. They prepare memes, videos and texts to give life to the accounts they cultivate. Among them are runners who prescribe content, models, gourmets, agitators … "Each member of the department is responsible for a certain number of these accounts. We have a manual with standards that specify what to publish and what not. There are things that can not be said. We also have confidentiality clauses and rules that make it clear, for example, that if a profile takes off you can not appropriate it, "explains Barrabés.
Another of the 3lemon departments deals with what they call active listening. "What we do is to see what is said on the Net and to gauge what is good, what is bad, what is relevant, what is generating engagement and what is not," explains Monzón. Beatriz Chaverri, 31, directs this area. "We have 50 programs that are dedicated to combing the internet to see who is talking about your brand. The idea is to listen to what is said and then create content to counteract the negative content, "he says. In that last phase the kabukis would enter.
Monzón employs other kabukis in brand protection campaigns because, according to him, there is a "very strong commercial war" in the networks. It promotes cybercombat for its clients, political parties and big brands. Not everyone is aware of the dangers to his reputation, he warns. He has written that "the problem of large corporations to make guerrilla strategy is that their members, especially those in management positions, lack the murderous instinct of the guerrilla."
In the digital marketing market, the kabukis of Monzón are one of many experiments that the agencies rehearse in a sector of rapid changes and fierce competition. Few speak of it as openly as he does, who explains that it is to his advantage that he has more independence than the big agencies of Madrid or Barcelona.
Several heads of networks of major brands and parties in Spain say they know the services provided by Monzón, whom they describe as an innovator without fear of transgression. "He offered us his services but we decided that it was not appropriate for our department stores," explains the former marketing director of one of the largest Spanish retail chains. Other sources in the sector describe a market in which certain types of services are kept secret to avoid ethical questioning. They say that demand explains those experiments. "In reality, it is the clients themselves who request this type of practice," says the CEO of the Rhy agency, Frank Machado.