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Fixing the Whitewashed Influencer Economy

BoF breaks down the system of pay gaps, racist exclusion and algorithms that keep black influencers from excelling — and what needs to happen to make it stop.
(L-R) Tamu McPherson, Erika Boldrin and Linda Tol outside the Hugo Boss show during Milan Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2020 | Source: Getty Images

NEW YORK, United States — Tamu McPherson entered the influencer space when digital disruptors were still called bloggers, starting out as a street style photographer following the lead of Scott Schuman and Tommy Ton, before moving in front of the camera herself. One of McPherson’s first luxury fashion show invites came from Gucci in 2011, when the brand was still under the creative direction of Frida Giannini.

In the near decade since, McPherson's seen little progress when it comes to luxury brands working with more than a handful of influencers of colour, something she said frustrates and disappoints her, and ultimately contributes to the lack of visibility around black creative talent in the influencer space.

"When a luxury brand works with you, other brands are more inclined to follow if they don't have an in-house policy where they avoid working with talents who work with competitors," McPherson said. "The more partnerships you are able to acquire, the more opportunities arise for you and you are able to truly build your brand as a business and amplify your reach."

While McPherson's career has been characterised by relationships with the most recognisable luxury brands, like Valentino and Louis Vuitton, her reach on Instagram is only around 285,000 followers — sizeable to some but relatively small compared to someone like Chiara Ferragni, who has more than 20 million followers and entered the influencer space around the same time as McPherson.

The whitewashing in influencer marketing is systemic.

It may seem impossible to account for the variables that propel one influencer to stratospheric levels, if not for the systemic barriers that continually keep black creators from growing in the ways their peers do. In fact, the idea that social media and the internet have democratised fashion is hardly the case, and the influencer marketing economy is no exception.

It’s not that there aren’t talented black creators at all tier levels and on every platform, but that their visibility relative to non-black and white peers is limited. As such, the whitewashing in influencer marketing is systemic, caused by a handful of variables operating simultaneously. Everything from fashion brands that insist black creators don’t fit the luxury “aesthetic,” to influencer marketing platforms that claim to match brands with talent at fair market rates, to social media platform algorithms, work in tandem to make it twice as difficult for a black influencer to break into the space in a significant way.

“Before the influencers are even contacted, decisions are being made from behind closed doors that prioritise one influencer over another, especially with black influencers,” said Adesuwa Ajayi, senior talent and partnerships lead at AGM Talent, a UK-based influencer agency. “It’s time to knock down those doors to enable [black influencers] to have the same opportunities.”

For Fashion Brands, Inclusiveness Is Limited

Despite strides in making runways more diverse, fashion brands still fall short when it comes to working with more diverse influencers in digital campaigns.

"I once consulted on an editorial partnership where the project leader went through a list of black talent to make sure I understood the type of black girl the client was looking for," McPherson said in a June 8 letter on her website, All the Pretty Birds, titled "Luxury Brands Should Work with Black Creators." "It was an exercise to reduce the range of blackness presented into white society's perception of acceptable blackness. It was an insulting experience, but it is fairly common in the system. Most of the time individuals are so deep in their bias that they don't even realise how they are perpetuating these practices."

The perennial outrage over an all-white influencer trip or brand campaign has yet to persuade the majority of fashion brands to make paradigm-shifting changes to their influencer marketing campaigns. McPherson, in her letter to the luxury industry, recommends that brands and agencies that create influencer campaigns rethink how they work with black creators, urging them to work with talent outside of “friends of the brand” and avoid tokenism.

It's time to knock down those doors to enable [black influencers] to have the same opportunities.

“At a certain point, it's a deliberate decision [for brands] to whitewash and not to bring voices in that reflect the world that we live in,” said Callia Hargrove, founder of brand consultancy Backstory. Hargrove created a diversity database for brands and agencies working with her firm to find new and diverse talent. “Certain brands are not equipped to [find diverse creators], and that's just the reality of the situation... It's not wrong to say that you don't know and that's a big piece of advice that I've been kind of giving brands. You have to really do the work to see where your blind spots are and where you messed up in the past.”

The Influencer Pay Gap Is One Black Creators Know All Too Well

When brands do reach out to black creators, many offer lower compensation to black influencers than they would white counterparts, black influencers say.

Consider when bohemian-leaning brand Anthropologie reached out to Lydia Okello, an influencer with 32,000 followers on Instagram who has worked with brands including Premme and Eileen Fisher. An Anthropologie employee messaged Okello to ask if they would like to participate in its upcoming Pride month campaign in exchange for a free outfit, to which Okello replied with their branded content rates. Although brands frequently offer influencers products in exchange for content, many of the influencers with whom BoF spoke for this piece said they have witnessed their white counterparts, often with less engaged audiences, being compensated monetarily rather than with product.

"There is nothing wrong with gifted product," Okello told BoF. "I have happily posted gifted product I enjoy in the past. What was frustrating in this scenario was an expectation of work in exchange, and to capitalise on my identity. To me, a gift with strings attached isn't a present. It's a work request. To those who think that gifts are equal to pay: I will believe gifted product is payment when my landlord accepts gifted product as payment for my rent."

In response to the exchange, Anthropologie Group Global President Hillary Super sent Okello a letter apologising and noted, “I respect your business decision to demand compensation, and that decision should have been graciously and clearly acknowledged.” In a statement to BoF, Anthropologie said the brand is “reviewing internal training to ensure future interactions with influencers are conducted with more transparency and respect. We will also be providing more compensation clarity for our influencer programs going forward.”

To be sure, instances of pay inequality are more than a recurring glitch in the system — they’re part of it. Though typically a taboo topic among influencers, whisper networks like The Glow Up, a private Facebook group that Shannae Ingleton Smith and Tania Cascilla created for black creators to share information about rates, projects and industry experiences, have emerged to prevent influencers of colour from earning less than their white counterparts.

(L) Tania Cascilla attends the launch of the DSW VIP rewards program at Root NYC in 2018 (R) Shannae Ingleton Smith attends 'The Lion King' Canadian Premiere in 2019 | Source: Getty Images

The Glow Up currently has around 250 members and a 500-person wait list. (Ingleton Smith and Cascilla prefer to keep the group small to protect members when they share sensitive or confidential information, they say.) Often, many of the influencers in that group are offered deals with the same brands, which they then discuss as a group to negotiate better deals for everyone.

Meanwhile, AGM Talent’s Ajayi recently created the Instagram account “Influencer Pay Gap,” which publishes what influencers (whose identities remain anonymous in public posts) across all tiers are paid for brand deals, according to their race, niche and engagement. The account has attracted 18,000 followers in one week.

“A lot of creators are tired of being low-balled, and a lot of black creators are tired of being asked to do unpaid opportunities,” Cascilla said.

How Platforms and Agencies Can Create More Inefficiencies Than They Solve

Although brands may offer influencers branded content deals directly, they're not solely responsible for whitewashed influencer campaigns and lower pay. Brands also work with third-party influencer marketing platforms and agencies that have emerged in the last decade, and handle brand-influencer matchmaking and outreach.

From the outset, however, many of those platforms were flawed.

James Nord, founder of the influencer marketing platform Fohr, first addressed problems with his platform’s approach to diversity and inclusion in 2018, when he made “offensive statements” about how Fohr approaches diversity and inclusion, according to a group of influencers that started the #OpenFohr campaign. In response, Fohr launched a mentoring program called Freshman Class, meant to support 10 underrepresented content creators in a pool of more than 1,600 applicants.

In June, the group of black creators — including Aissata T. Diallo, Denisse Myrick, Valerie Eguavoen, Yvette Corinne, Marche Robinson, Aissatou Balde, Nasteha Yusuf, and Nuni Yusuf — posted an #OpenFohr letter, claiming that Fohr failed to uphold commitments it made to its first Freshman Class creators, in addition to enacting little change elsewhere in the company.

In particular, the #OpenFohr group said that Fohr implements fear tactics when it comes to influencer rate negotiating, giving content creators “very little time to accept or counter offers” using a chronological clock and a “percentage full” tracker on their offer landing page. In the group’s statement to BoF, one of the #OpenFohr group members, Marche Robinson, said she would accept low offers because a campaign was close to full, and she didn’t want to miss out on branded deals because there was no time to negotiate. This happened again, Robinson said, except she did counter the deal with her standard rate, and the brand let the clock run out on the deal.

Many influencer marketing and talent agencies lack internal employee diversity.

In response, Fohr announced they would remove the time tracker from their platform, and the company held a public virtual town hall session on June 10 to address its issues. Fohr’s 35-person team oversees a platform with more than 100,000 influencers, and Nord said that the team has struggled to keep up with the platform’s growth. As such, Fohr said it relies heavily on influencers with whom the team has already worked, and outlined plans to re-train its staff towards discovering new talent and ensuring the negotiation process becomes fairer, in part by publishing quarterly rate data.

Fohr is only one example of an influencer marketing platform where attempts at weeding out market inefficiencies and discrimination have fallen short. Additionally, many influencer marketing and talent agencies lack internal employee diversity, both in junior and senior management positions.

Some influencers who work with Socialyte, an influencer marketing agency that represents 140 creators in its talent department and also runs a brand partnerships division, have approached the firm’s founder, Beca Alexander, with concerns about the team’s internal makeup. In many cases, the influencers said they would feel more comfortable with the option of working with talent managers who better understood the nuances of working with black creators and frankly, looked more like them.

In response, Socialyte posted a six-point action plan to its Instagram page, addressing everything from pay transparency to brand partner accountability. Alexander told BoF that while Socialyte employs people of colour, it currently has no black women on its team, and said she takes full responsibility for this. Among Socialyte’s commitments to its creators, Alexander said she has been actively interviewing diversity coaches for months, and intends to hire someone who can train staff on how to understand and speak to diversity issues and rework how Socialyte recruits and hires diverse talent. (One commenter on Socialyte’s Instagram post wrote, “I stand with the ex employees who were POC such as myself and helped shape the culture at Socialyte tremendously. Diversity was never at the forefront of this agency’s strategy for both the brand partnerships and talent management team so acknowledging the above is an amazing first step.”)

Rather than wait for existing influencer marketing platforms and agencies to hire more black employees, some professionals in the space launched their own firms. Ingleton Smith started Kensington Grey and Daniel Ayim founded AGM Talent, both with the expressed intent to advocate for underrepresented voices in the influencer community.

While influencer marketing platforms and agencies have work to do when it comes to hiring, they also must do more to support their creators contractually. Many influencers may not have experience analysing contracts or negotiating, for which they rely upon their managers and teams. But beyond negotiating rates, there are ways in which the industry skews in favour of brands.

For example, brand content deals often include non-disparagement clauses, where influencers may not publicly criticise a brand with which it works, and other clauses that require talent to complete a content deal despite allowing a brand to cancel a contract with an influencer at any time. Alexander said these are two areas her team is addressing to help tip the scales in favour of influencer talent.

Inclusivity riders are another tool some influencers and their agencies are beginning to implement in order to hold brands to account and help address some of the causes of the influencer pay gap.

Actor Frances McDormand accepts Best Actress for 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' onstage during the 90th Annual Academy Awards, in which the she promoted “inclusion riders” in Hollywood to address the same issues plaguing the movie business | Source: Getty Images

In early 2020, Hitha Palepu, a lifestyle influencer with 42,000 Instagram followers who said she is used to being the “token minority” in a campaign, drafted an inclusivity rider contract clause that would require brands to meet a certain level of diversity in its influencer campaigns (Palepu thought of Frances McDormand’s 2018 Oscar’s speech, in which the actress promoted “inclusion riders” in Hollywood to address the same issues plaguing the movie business. Stacy Smith, founder of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California, originally explored the idea in 2016.)

In Palepu’s proposal, 50 percent of influencers working on a given brand campaign have to be people of colour, and within that, 30 percent have to be black.

“I’ve had a lot of brands who just flat out refused to do it, and so I've said, ‘Thank you for reaching out, but now I can't work with you unless you're willing to talk about how would you cast this campaign or who else is included,” Palepu said. “It [becomes] very clear to me in this process that I have been the one cast last because they realised they needed a woman of colour, which is why the pay is lower — the budget has been occupied by the white influencers, who are getting paid more on average.”

Hargrove, the brand consultant, said the inclusivity rider is a step forward, but remains skeptical that it may breed complacency on the part of brands towards simply reaching their quotas without challenging themselves to find new faces altogether.

“I also don't want to see other groups that are people of colour not be represented,” Hargrove said of the proposed rider. “As much as this is a black issue, it's also an issue across different people of colour... people from the LGBTQ community, or disabled people. I hope that would be sort of incorporated in those numbers that still kind of feels to me like, okay, we just need like three black people you know like it doesn't feel like a real change.”

(In a note to BoF sent after this story first published, Hargrove clarified that she believes the inclusivity rider Palepu proposed is a step towards change.)

It’s worth noting that Palepu, who created the rider, is Indian American, given that the common refrain among the black creators with whom BoF spoke is that they don’t feel supported by their white peers, either on their social media or at brand activation events.

“I've had white creators follow me and post me like, ‘Here are some of my favourite black accounts,’ and it's like, but you just started following me one minute ago,” Cascilla said. “It's kind of uncomfortable when that happens, and some of those [influencers] aren't even following me at all. It’s like being used as a prop.”

What’s even perhaps worse than performative allyship is when white creators use or exploit black culture for their own content. Instagram models and celebrities alike have been caught “blackfishing” — using anything from makeup to hairstyles to clothing that reflect black culture — in what Amira Rasool, founder of online concept store The Folklore described in Teen Vogue as “a contemporary form of blackface.”

Krystal Bick, a white fashion influencer with 139,000 Instagram followers, said that when she creates group content for her Instagram feed — a relative rarity in the influencer space, with feeds primarily dominated by photos of the influencer themselves — she has tried to be inclusive in the past. In addition to adopting the inclusivity rider in her forthcoming contracts, she said she can do more to diversify her own feed.

“In the influencer space, when you flip through a feed, it feels like it's just photos of that individual person, which is, by and large true, and I'm guilty of that,” Bick said. “I try to collaborate with other people, and I try to make sure that there is a representation, so it doesn't feel like you're seeing the same faces over and over. These are people that I consider first and foremost friends and artists who I admire, and yes, they happen to be of colour, but I want my audience to fall in love with them for the reasons that I fall in love with them. They have a unique voice, they have a unique perspective.”

At the Root of It All Is Flawed Algorithms

While non-black influencers are not exempt from responsibility when it comes to the lack of visibility for black creators on social media, their work to make the space more inclusive can only be fruitful if the social media platforms themselves address their own biases.

The problems surrounding tech bias in the social media space have been well documented. In 2019, Paper magazine created a composite image of the top 100 influencers on Instagram — the result being a young, thin, white woman — meant to illustrate just how platforms contribute to discrimination against black influencers and people of colour.

Instances of discrimination proliferated through social media algorithms has been somewhat of a recurring theme. Although tech companies resist the term "shadowbanning" — restricting content from reaching a wider audience based on an algorithm determination that the content is inappropriate or dangerous — it is often the reality experienced by black creators.

The social media platforms themselves address their own biases.

In February, the Huffington Post outlined how Instagram's technology kept content from marginalised communities muted on the platform. That same month, Marc Faddoul, an AI researcher at the University of California's Berkeley School of Information, noted that TikTok's recommendation tool for discovering new accounts created a feedback loop, in which users are fed new creators based on physiognomic characteristics — that is, how the original profile creator looks, down to skin colour, hair style, body type and age.

These biases are one culprit brands and influencer marketing agencies claim make it difficult to find new black influencers for campaigns. The risk for brands in reusing the same influencers goes beyond excluding new faces — they also risk losing out on new customers altogether, who may not see their content because they failed to include diverse faces.

“When you start looking at other types of content that are not typical of your current behaviour, you actually have this opportunity to game the system to bring you new content,” said Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee, a Brookings Institute fellow in the Governance Program’s Centre for Technology Innovation. “The challenge with that is, all you're doing is gaming the system, and you're not necessarily creating the dialogue or the exchange with that content, you’re keeping it at a very transactional level.”

For example, Instagram’s feed is determined by machine learning, and factors in signals including the likelihood you’ll be interested in content based on a user’s previous engagement, and a user’s relationship to the person posting based on your existing network. But all of that reinforces a user’s existing worldview.

The real change must come from the platforms themselves, Turner-Lee said, in how they address their own blindspots when developing recommendation-based algorithms.

The three major social media platforms to whom BoF spoke for this story — YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram — said they are implementing new and reinforcing existing measures to highlight black creators on their platforms, but did not offer specifics for how they would address algorithmic bias. TikTok is establishing a creator diversity council and empowering the company's internal diversity task force to analyse how its products and policies can better serve its users of all backgrounds; YouTube Chief Executive Susan Wojcicki announced a multi-year $100 million fund dedicated to amplifying the voices of black creators; Instagram announced a bevy of hashtags and partnerships, including its #ShareBlackStories campaign launched in 2019, to amplify diversity on the platform.

As it stands, the perfect storm of variables that works to keep black influencers hidden remains: Brands do not work with them, tacitly withholding endorsement; their highly visible white peers do not uplift them; and at the crux of it all, algorithmic bias on social media makes it more difficult for new audiences to find their content.

“It's going to take a conscious recognition from the white people who run this industry [to change],” said Palepu. “It has to be a widespread recognition of the way we did things was inherently racist one.”

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