The business of being Alfie Deyes: ‘I’ll still be a YouTuber when I’m 40’ | Technology

Who is Alfie Deyes? “That’s a tricky one,” he – Deyes – says. Not because he doesn’t know who he is, but because I’ve told him I’m asking on behalf of my mum, who’s never heard of him: how would he explain his job to her? “I think I’ll just say: ‘I’m a 25-year-old content creator who loves making things happen, whether that’s things that people expect, or things people don’t expect.’”

I say I’m asking for my mum, but if I’m honest I wasn’t 100% sure who he was myself; and if you’re over 35, chances are you don’t know, either. It’s not hard to get up to speed with his work, though, and by the time we meet I feel I know Deyes pretty well. I’ve shared some of the lovely life he has with his lovely girlfriend Zoe, also a content creator. I’ve met some of their lovely friends, their dog Nala, a black pug (no lovely for you, Nala, I’m afraid), and the lovely orange Aga in the kitchen of their lovely home. I know that Alfie won’t be working out until the summer this year, just doing a bit of bouldering at the local climbing centre. I know he used to have a special place under the mattress where he stuffed his bogeys, and that he wees sitting down.

Deyes in the offices of A-Z Creative, the agency he set up with his girlfriend, Zoe Sugg, AKA YouTuber Zoella.

Deyes in the offices of A-Z Creative, the agency he set up with his girlfriend, Zoe Sugg, AKA YouTuber Zoella. Photograph: Alex Lake/The Guardian

I know all this because Alfie Deyes is a YouTuber, a vlogger, which means his whole life is pretty much laid bare on the internet. He started posting videos 10 years ago, when he was still at school in Brighton. “I just picked up my little family holiday camera, put it on a stack of books, made a couple of videos, didn’t tell any of my friends – and over six months, I grew an audience of 1,000 or so.” One day he was at the cinema with friends, and some boys came over and asked if they could get a picture with him. “My friends were like, why? And I’m like, super excited.”

Now, a decade on, Deyes is YouTube royalty and an A-list influencer: 11 million subscribers, 5.4 million Twitter followers, 4.3 million on Instagram. My then 17-year-old niece, I discover, once stalked Deyes around New York. The teenage daughter of a friend got a selfie with him in Amsterdam. The teenage son of another friend says he’s “moist”, which I think is not good.

And now Deyes is branching out, no longer just vlogging about his beautiful life. At 25, he needs to think about his future, his next phase, and so he’s expanding into new projects, ones he’s also super-excited about. This is why he has reached out to the Guardian, inviting me to spend the afternoon with him in his new offices in Brighton, where he still lives and works. Deyes does a lot of reaching out. He also says “literally” every other word, almost literally. (It must get complicated at the climbing centre, bouldering, when he is, like, literally reaching out.)

In person, Deyes is tall, welcoming, smiley. His teeth are so perfect, I try not to stare. The offices – let’s call it an innovative hub – are on the fourth floor of an unassuming block not far from… well, I’m not actually allowed to say where, for fear that my niece and others will set up camp outside. Alex, our photographer, is asked to disguise the skyline if it appears in any pictures, in case a determined fan has advanced navigation skills and manages to pinpoint the location. Deyes and Zoe used to live in Brighton town centre, but it got too much with all the hordes outside, so they moved to a seven-bedroom house somewhere… well, I’m not even allowed to know where that is, and they’ve managed to keep it secret. This is impressive when you consider how well we (I now consider myself a follower) know it on the inside.

Deyes roadtests new, better quality merchandise for the vlog: ‘I want it to mature with me,’ he says.

Deyes roadtests new, better quality merchandise for the vlog: ‘I want it to mature with me,’ he says. Photograph: Alex Lake/The Guardian

Zoe – Zoe Sugg AKA Zoella – is also a YouTuber, fashion vlogger, influencer, novelist and more, as well as the sister of Joe Sugg, the YouTuber and Strictly Come Dancing finalist. Deyes’ sister Poppy’s at it too, they’re a social media mafia. Sugg has a bigger audience even than Deyes: nearly 12 million subscribers, 12.8 million Twitter followers, 10.2 million Instagram followers. Even I had heard of her (though I doubt my mum has). When they together launched a pop-up clothes shop in London, so many people turned up they had to leave because of security fears. Are they their generation’s Posh’n’Becks? “No!” protests Deyes. Brighton’s Kim and Kanye? “No, I’m just a normal 25-year-old, no way. If you said to Kanye he was like anyone else, he would be upset.”

Anyway they are, Deyes says, “like, very like, individuals. Our YouTube channels are very separate. We’ve always had our own platforms doing very different things, before we even met.” They do share the office hub, though, as well as the house and the pug, but today, Deyes tells me, Sugg is in meetings all afternoon.

Alfie Deyes and his team shot at A-Z Creatives offices in Brighton in Jan 2019 by Alex Lake

Photograph: Alex Lake/The Guardian

Oh! This is odd: I was warned in advance that Sugg was away this week and would not be able to speak to me. There was a chance she might answer some questions by email. It’s probably just a mix-up: Sugg and Deyes are, after all, represented by different PR companies. Nothing says individual like a separate PR company.

The office space of the couple’s new shared creative agency, A-Z Creatives (even their initials are perfect; Z rhymes with bee here, by the way, not bed), is exactly what you’d hope it to be. The walls are painted fashionable greys and oranges, there are exposed ventilation pipes, meeting rooms, hubs within hubs, a studio, a kitchen that is designed more for photography than actual cooking, a Brighton theme with nods to city landmarks, a couple of break-out areas modelled on beach huts. (Deyes’ parents have a real one, on the beach, which you may or may not be able to see from the window.) The agency offers brand partnerships, creative producers, social-media managers and in-house legal and finance teams.

I’m offered a canned cucumber water from the fridge. Perfect, thank you. Cucumber water is what they drink in Pls Like, Liam Williams’s BBC Three mockumentary about YouTubers, or “self-manipulating content puppets”, as he calls them. The show focuses on the careers of vlogger Charlie South Mouth, who is maddeningly rich, happy and popular – but not as popular as his girlfriend, Millipede, who vlogs about beauty and fashion. They aren’t a million views away from Deyes and Sugg. Williams, who wrote and stars in Pls Like, won’t go so far as to say the characters are based on them, but admits he watched Deyes and Zoella’s channels while doing his research.

Deyes has never heard of Pls Like, so I show him a bit in which Millipede gives Charlie a fun little quiz about herself, with questions such as “What’s my blood group?”, for her vlog. Deyes watches and says he doesn’t mind people taking the piss: “I take the piss out of myself half the time.” And if Charlie is based on him, that’s fine – “I mean, he’s a good-looking guy, so that’s a compliment.”

Alfie Deyes and his team shot at A-Z Creatives offices in Brighton in Jan 2019 by Alex Lake

Photograph: Alex Lake/The Guardian

Our first meeting of the afternoon is a merchandising one, with merchandising manager Sofia. Under discussion is a new range that will reflect the new brand. I’m not allowed to know what the brand is called, or see the logo, but I will get my scoop, you’ll see – even if it is a spoon-fed one. Deyes tries on hoodies in front of a full-length mirror, while Sofia comments on the size and cut and colour. Deyes takes photographs of himself to send to the merch WhatsApp group, because Lottie, another important member of the team, is on holiday. Plus he’s filming the whole thing, because this meeting will probably end up in a vlog one day, in time-lapse, to show the fans the whole process. Once a merchandise garment has been decided on, Deyes will roadtest it on his vlogs, before branding it up and dropping it on to the website.

Deyes explains the effect this stealth approach can have. “Like, when we released this backpack. I was testing that backpack for so long no one even noticed, because it doesn’t have a logo on. Then I released it and everyone in my comments was like, ‘Oh shit, you’ve literally been using that for ages!’” Sometimes it works the other way, his audience getting very excited when there’s nothing to get excited about. “Literally. Like I’ve had a non-branded item, and they’re like: can’t wait for you to drop those socks. I’m like no, no, no, they’re literally just my socks.”

Throughout the merch meeting, Nala is snuffling around under the table, hoovering up dropped shards of mini-poppadoms. She does well out of this, judging by her girth, if I’m allowed to say that of a pug.

With Sugg and their Madame Tussauds wax heads.

With Sugg and their Madame Tussauds wax heads. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

The new range is going to be better quality and more expensive than the stuff Deyes currently sells as PBmerch (PB stands for Pointless Blog, the name of his main YouTube channel). He’s comfortable raising the prices. “I just want it to mature and fit with me now: 25-year-old Alfie,” says 25-year-old Alfie.

Another thing this more mature, 25-year-old Alfie is doing less of is the PointlessBlogVlogs about his life, and Sugg, and his friends, and Nala, and what sweets they’re eating or where they’re going for coffee. Instead of every day, he’ll make just a couple a week. He’s also getting into longer-form content. There have been a couple of interviews, one with a former London gang leader, Karl Lokko, which is actually frank and pretty revealing, but at 1 hour 41 minutes baggier than an XXL hoodie. Another, a conversation with a flat earther, you might argue doesn’t merit 53 seconds, let alone 53 minutes, but Deyes pretty much runs with it. Hey, maybe the earth is flat.

There’s also a new series, The Secret’s Out, in which he and other YouTubers – Sugg and her brother Joe, Mark Ferris, the gang – sit around the table and discuss secrets sent in anonymously by fans, as well as chucking in a few of their own. That’s how I know about the sit-down weeing and where Deyes used to smear his bogeys. OK, it’s not exactly Newsnight, but it’s more highly produced than Deyes’ other vlogs, with episodes lasting on average around 40 minutes. The first episode of The Secret’s Out has had, at the time of writing, 981,155 views. Newsnight, with average viewing figures of 350,000, would kill for 981,155 views.

That’s what it’s all about: views. More viewers for your video means more ads being seen, means the more you earn. Different types of video can do better than others, so a beauty channel (Sugg’s, say) could earn more than one with a less obvious focus like Deyes’s; if you’re watching a makeup tutorial you’re quite likely to click on a makeup advert, and the share of the pie is bigger. Longer videos can run more ads, increasing the potential for clicks if the viewer sticks with it. Then there are multi-channel networks (MCNs), third-party service providers that will target and bring in higher-paid ads. But broadly speaking, views are good. Deyes gets a lot of them, even if he won’t say what his monthly YouTube cheque is.

Fans at an event.

Fans at an event. Photograph:

There are other ways YouTubers can earn. Deyes will be launching a membership button soon: you pay £5.99 a month for exclusive content, early access, livestreams, the ability to get closer to the man himself. Then, especially for influencers, there are the paid partnerships, which is what our next meeting is about, with Alan, the brands partnerships manager.

Audi has reached out and invited Deyes to an event in Marbella, driving a new model. It would like Deyes to take over its social media while he’s out there. Contract-wise, there are no set deliverables yet, says Alan, but Audi is coming in next Tuesday and this is all about developing a long-term relationship. Audi is a perfect fit: it’s aspirational, and Deyes loves the brand. The event is on the 13 and 14 February, but he’s already spoken to Sugg about celebrating Valentine’s Day another time.

There’s an email from Grenade, which makes fitness products, bars and protein powders. They – Deyes and Alan – originally reached out (brand management is where all the reaching out goes on) to Grenade, said Deyes loved the products, but Grenade wasn’t exploring any commercial opportunities at the time. Now it’s looking for a “brand ambassador”. I picture one of Deyes’ ambassador receptions, noted in influencer society for their exquisite taste, a waiter coming in with a pyramid of fitness bars on a silver platter…

But I keep this thought to myself. Deyes is too young to remember a Ferrero Rocher campaign. He’s excited because Grenade has previously worked only with fitness influencers, and now it is reaching out to him, a lifestyle influencer. “That’s brave – I like that,” he says. He might have to start working out again, he says. “I haven’t gymmed since Christmas.”

Dave comes on the phone, and Deyes loudspeakers the call for my benefit. Dave is the business manager, and has been part of the whole journey of growing and building the team. Deyes wants to talk to him about a workshop event he’s planning, here in Brighton, for about 40 or 50 people, in which he and others can share some of the things they’ve learned: for instance, how to hire a team, get good lawyers, file a tax return, not give away where you live. “I want it to be really mind-opening to anybody that is in this space, who is thinking inside of the current box that they’re in, and helping them see outside of the box,” he says, to clarify.

A fan takes a selfie with Deyes.

A fan takes a selfie with Deyes. Photograph:

Dave’s totally on board. “I think the day will not just open their minds but also open their hearts,” he summarises. Deyes wants to help because when he was starting out, 10 years ago, there was no one who had done it before to guide him. Does he feel the stress, the constant pressure to produce new content, in order to keep up the views, that you hear about from so many YouTubers? “There is, for sure, pressure,” he says. “But my audience know me as an individual, not as a presenter. They know me so well that if I’m, like, tired and having a week off and can’t be making videos, they know me well enough to know there’s a solid reason as to why.” So they are loyal and won’t abandon him. Maybe uploading his entire life is less self-manipulating content puppetry and more of a cunning strategy. Or an insurance against burnout.

Deyes has business interests away from the social-media bubble, anyway. He’s building a property empire; as well as the seven-bedroom house he shares with Sugg and Nala, he owns a few flats he rents to students. They don’t know that Alfie Deyes is their landlord; his parents look after that side of things. How many flats? “A couple.” A couple’s two, so two then? “A bit more than two.” Between two and six, that’s as narrow as we get. My niece, the former stalker, is now a student in Brighton; I wonder if she is his tenant.

“Another thing that we’re working on that is not public, you guys have got the first on this…” he begins, then pauses, as if he’s having second thoughts about letting it out. He’s opening a bar. Alfie Deyes: pub landlord, that’s my Guardian scoop. Perhaps he should have saved it for The Secret’s Out, on the membership button. There’s no name yet, or location; Brighton, obviously. Deyes is “very, very optimistic that it’s going to be really, really cool”. I worry about crowd control and traffic jams after the pop-up adventure.

We’re wandering round the hub now, doing the tour, the beach huts, chilling areas, a display of magazines, one – Blogosphere – with Deyes on the cover, lots featuring Sugg. Are they competitive with each other? No, he says. Even though she has more followers? “I’m happy for her – that’s awesome. But again, we both do very different stuff.”

And here is Zoe! Not at all away but very much here, in the flesh, doing her very different stuff, in a huddle with her own team. She’s preparing for a product meeting with a retailer tomorrow, so it’s a meeting about a meeting. What’s it like, living and working in the same space as Deyes, I ask her. “Horrible,” is the answer, but not from her – one of the others chips in. They laugh. I feel like I’ve literally reached out and been left dangling and rejected. I really don’t think Sugg wants to speak to me.

Back to Deyes. I’ve enjoyed my afternoon with him, his energy and industry as well as his teeth. If he makes a mistake, he learns from it, like the time he made a crass video about living on £1 a day and was, quite rightly, crucified for it. Do all these other projects mean he’s preparing for life after YouTube? “No. I love YouTube more than ever at the moment, especially now I’ve started creating different styles of video.” Will he still be doing it at 40? “I hope so. I’d like to think there’ll be a video style that I enjoy making.”

What about the influencers’ influence? Once children dreamed of being astronauts, ballet dancers, pop stars and footballers; now they want to be vloggers and YouTubers, if they aren’t already. “Isn’t that insane,” he says. “It makes me definitely proud, the amount of years I’ve had YouTube as my job and people have gone: ‘How’s that a job? That’s not a job’. And now people are like ‘OK, it’s a job.’ People finally understand and I like that.” If he’d been born 10 years earlier he would have gone into dentistry (of course!), or eco science, or perhaps accounting. But because of YouTube he’s a multimillionaire who causes traffic jams.

Does he want kids? “Definitely, at some point. Not like soon soon, like ‘this year’ kind of vibe. But I definitely want kids in the future.” Do you hear that Nala? Your days may be numbered. But Nala has snuffled off to join Sugg’s team.

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