It’s a rapidly expanding industry worth billions but Scottish bloggers and social media influencers claim that Black influencers are paid less than their white counterparts.
They are speaking out after a new Instagram page was set up in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has exposed alleged discriminatory practices by companies against Black influencers.
Influencers are those who build a following and reputation online for their personality and area of expertise. They use their social media channels to create content which is followed by “engaged” fans, who like, share and comment on their posts. The brands’ aim is that those fans go on to consume their products.
Brands increasingly use influencers to connect with consumers on social media and the industry is expanding rapidly. There can be big money on offer – major brands are set to spend up to £11.6m on influencer marketing by 2022, according to Mediakix data.
In addition to celebrities with massive followings such as Kim Kardashian, brands are increasingly tapping other key influencer types, including “micro” and “nano” influencers – defined as having between 10-100k and 1-10k followers respectively – kidfluencers
(children who promote products online) and gaming influencers.
The Influencer Pay Gap page, which has gained more than 35,000 followers since it was set up on June 8, is calling for “more transparency, more accountability” in the way that influencers are paid.
Pay gaps are found across all sectors but with the influencer industry still in its infancy, it can be hard for people to know how much a post, picture or video is worth, therefore making it possible for brands to take advantage.
The Instagram Pay Gap page has been revelatory. By encouraging influencers to anonymously share their earnings for sponsored content, alongside their reach and ethnicity, the page has thrown up a number of discrepancies in pay cheques and opportunities offered to Black influencers, compared to their non-Black counterparts.
It was set up by Adesuwa Ajayi, who wanted to expose how “Black influencers are treated – be that how they are approached, to the kind of budget that is allocated to compensate them for the work that they bring to a campaign.”
The page has amassed over 370 entries so far, with influencers from across the world sharing their highest and lowest paid campaign.
In an effort to maintain a level of anonymity, most entries have avoided explicitly stating brand names. But this hasn’t stopped some household brands from being called out publicly.
The biggest pay gap revealed so far was for an ad campaign by a major beauty brand. According to one post, a Black influencer was paid £1,750 while a white influencer received £5,000 – despite subsequently not featuring in the campaign.
Another post claimed that a mixed race influencer was approached by an agency on behalf of Dove to create a TikTok video for $100, which the influencer claims was an “offensive rate” considering her engagement and following.
Dove has since reached out to the page to rectify the situation and ceased all outreach with the agency in question.
In a statement to The Ferret, a Dove spokesperson said: “We have investigated the concern raised and have found that one agency we have recently started working with did not follow our strict standards for paying and compensating advocates. The agency should not have approached advocates in this way and has stopped all further outreach.”
One of the most shocking posts, appears to show a leaked email from The Synergy Effect – which owns brands such as Flat Tummy Co and Coco White – allegedly telling staff to “stop using bloggers of colour” due to “very poor traffic and revenue results.”
According to Kumba Dauda, an Instagram influencer and fashion blogger originally from Glasgow, the Pay Gap page has laid bare “the extent to which pricing in this field fluctuates as there are no set benchmarks”.
The 27-year-old is one of the few influencers of colour from Scotland and would like to see “industry standards in a legal sense,” to protect influencers’ rights and “ensure we are not taken advantage of, as I see it far too often in this industry.”
She explains it is difficult to gauge what to charge – as a content creator as there are no standardised pricing structures.
Dauda also claims it feels like some brands have invited her to events solely down to the colour of her skin in an effort to “look more inclusive”. While she admits this has opened some doors of opportunity, she adds: “no one wants to be the ‘token black girl’.”
“Colourism” is a massive issue within the industry, she adds. “Being ‘mixed race’ is almost a trend right now and you see this with a number of influencers ‘black fishing’” – a recent phenomenon that has seen a number of white influencers being accused of pretending to be Black or mixed-race on social media,” Dauda says.
Dauda now lives in London and runs her own social media agency, Wholehearted Social, managing the accounts of established influencers, which, she says, has given her greater insight into how brands work and the industry as a whole.
When it came to establishing rates early on in her career, Dauda says that “chatting to more established influencers and making friends in the industry helped me as I had people that understood the world of influencer marketing and could answer my questions based on their experiences.”
However, Ajayi – who set up the Pay Gap page – points out that not everyone has access to these networks. She hopes that through her page, anyone regardless of their reach can “build up the confidence to negotiate [rates] on their own behalf.”
The industry is still largely unregulated when it comes to protecting the interest of influencers, who are either self-employed or contracted for sponsorships and collaborations. Although sometimes supported by agents, individual influencers are usually left to negotiate rates and deliverables with brands, which often exclude formal contracts.
It’s very frustrating when a company reaches out to you, and they say they want to work with you, and that they love your style, but not enough to want to pay you. Efia, Black Scottish influencer
Efia, 26, started her blog Effy Talks Life in 2012 but only started regularly creating sponsored content for brands two years ago. As an influencer with a small following on Instagram, Efia was “absolutely shocked” by some of the posts on the Influencer Pay Gap page.
“There’s an assumption that when you get to 10k or 20k [followers] that that’s when you’ll be able to make money so to see people who are at this level and not realising that they can be paid – that completely baffles me,” says the wellness and travel blogger from the Scottish Borders, who currently lives in Melbourne.
Efia – she declined to give a surname – was recently approached by a brand to do a promotional post on Instagram, only to be told they did not have the budget to pay her.
“It’s very frustrating when a company reaches out to you, and they say they want to work with you, and that they love your style, but not enough to want to pay you,” she said, claiming that other influencers approached by the brand were actually paid.
Efia was backed by Ajayi who said that not having a budget is an excuse that many Black influencers are often met with “upon making attempts to negotiate their worth or to steer requests for gifting into conversations about their rates.”
Gifting is when brands offer influencers products for free in exchange for promotion, rather than paying influencers for their advertising.
As a content creator trying to carve out a career online, Efia explains, this can have a huge impact on your ability to grow your platform. She adds: “White influencers have more opportunities to work with brands or may even have had the representation, to know they can negotiate and can ask for more. Black influencers from the outset don’t have access to the same resources that can help them determine their worth.”
Stephanie Gyasi, 19, is a hair and make-up influencer from Glasgow with over 22,000 followers on Instagram. Despite her reach, she is constantly approached on a gifting basis and continues to struggle to “get any type of payment from brands.”
Of the brand opportunities she does get, Gyasi says that most of the time “all companies want to send me is hair [wigs] because they can profit from the Black audience.” To her, it seems easier for white influencers to diversify outside of their niche into other product categories such as makeup, fashion and fitness, as they have “different types of companies contacting them.”
When the pandemic hit, Gyasi was met with another challenge. With the hair industry experiencing a shortage in the supply of wigs and weaves, which mainly come from China, she suddenly stopped receiving hair from brands completely. During this time, she felt that light-skinned influencers were being prioritised as they were still receiving hair from companies. For her, this “really showed who was most important to these brands.”
With the pressure to consistently churn out new looks and content, Gyasi has to work a full-time job outside the industry to afford the new hair and clothes that, she feels, are needed to continue growing her social media following.
It is much harder for Black influencers to get anywhere, to sustain their account. I’m constantly on the grind seven days a week. Stephanie Gyasi, Black Scottish influencer
This is not uncommon for Black influencers, according to Ajayi, who says: “More often than not, you’ll find that a lot of Black influencers actually don’t do this full-time. Especially if they are constantly dealing with constant low-balls.”
The discrepancies in opportunities and pay, Ajayi adds, can “definitely have an impact on the sustainability and the ability for Black influencers to take it full-time and actually make an entire career out of it.”
Attracted to the world of freebies, travel and endless opportunities – today, becoming a social media influencer is one of the top career aspirations for British children. Yet, in Scotland most of the top influencers are white, with the most influential being make-up artist, Jamie Genevieve.
While Gyasi knows lots of friends who are aspiring to become influencers, she says “a lot of them stop, they give up because it’s much harder than it should be. It is much harder for Black influencers to get anywhere, to sustain their account.”
“I’m constantly on the grind seven days a week with no breaks at all. For people who might not hundred per cent believe in themselves, it just seems unreachable, seems too hard, too difficult than it needs to be,” says Gyasi.
In recent months some brands posted black squares for Blackout Tuesday, coming out in support for the Black Lives Matter movement. But the motives of some brands has been called into question.
In an interview with the MOBO Awards, Love Island star Yewande Biala commented on how brands reacted, saying: “It’s just insulting … some of these brands I have had experiences with treat me horrendously and you just look at them and think ‘really?’.”
Campaigners claim it is clear there is still work to be done to address inequalities in the sector. For Efia, the Pay Gap page has shown “there is money out there and that there is money to be had,” giving those who are not sure “the ability to say – I know this is not what I should be getting.”
On what more needs to be done, Efia adds: “We really need the people who are already in their [social media or email] inboxes, in their DMs [direct messages] and already have relationships with these brands to speak up. We also need companies to be hiring Black people. It’s the stuff that people can’t see that will make the most and lasting change.”
Regardless of whether brands take note, influencers are now organising in unprecedented ways. In the UK, Ayaji is among a group of Instagrammers set to launch the first trade union for influencers. The Creator Union (TCU) is calling for “fair pay and inclusion within influencer and digital industries.”
Efia and Dauda believe that unionising will take the industry in the right direction. Efia believes it is the denial to recognise content creation as a job which “leads to brands taking advantage.”
She hopes the TCU will “hold brands accountable” but also provide support “especially in those cases where there is a clear disparity between pay and opportunities for non-white creators.”
According to Ajayi, it is this lack of support for influencers in the industry at present that has stopped many from speaking out in fear of being ostracised by agencies or brands. As a result, most of the posts on her Pay Gap page are anonymous but she hopes at some stage this will no longer be necessary.
Maddie Raedts, founder of marketing agency, IMA, believes that unionising can level the playing field and guarantee fairer rights for influencers, adding that while some brands and agencies focus on fairness, many still don’t.
“Payment in this industry should be defined on a number of items like reach, engagement, content, time, media spend and much more, but never on [skin] colour,” she says.
“These practices are unacceptable not only because they are unfair and undermine the occupation [of an] influencer, which should be treated as any other job, but also because they eventually hurt the industry as a whole, preventing it from evolving and moving forward.”
“In the long run, having more standards, guidelines, and regulations will benefit everyone involved, making the industry thrive,” says Raedts.
All companies named in this report were offered the chance to comment in response to the claims made against them.
Photos thanks to Kumba Dauda, Efia, and Stephanie Gyasi.