Rachel Duah realised she was being short-changed because of an admin error. A PR agency contacted her to offer gifted products, asking Duah to create a range of content for them in exchange. The model enquired about payment – the work being asked of her would have taken an entire day, far too much effort for freebies to cover. But there was none, she was told. Duah politely declined the opportunity. Moments later, though, she received an email, addressed to a different influencer but on behalf of the same brand and product. This time, there was a fee offered for the work. “When I checked who that influencer was, they didn’t have as many followers or such high engagement as me,” Duah explains. “And they were noticeably from a different demographic.” In short: they were white. And Duah? Duah is Black.
As a content creator, Duah was no ingenue influencer; she cut her teeth on blogging site Tumblr, racking up a sizeable following by the time she migrated to Instagram in 2011.
It took a further six years until Duah was able to monetise the luxury fashion and beauty content she produced under the handle @cocoaama. Now, her community of around 25,000 followers eagerly engage with her high-end shoots.
But after that first incident, Duah noticed it everywhere. The clue was in the hashtags. She would track “brand activations” (marketing speak for campaigns to raise awareness of a brand or product) and realised Black influencers were tagging posts as “#gifted”. Yet white and light-skinned mixed-race influencers who were part of the same campaigns added the tell-tale “#ad” (required by the Advertising Standards Authority for advertisements) to their uploads, showing the latter group had been paid for the same work.
Duah had stumbled upon an ugly truth: the racial pay gap that is dividing the influencer marketing industry.
Exposing the disparity
Within nine days of setting up @influencerpaygap, Adesuwa Ajayi had 20,000 followers. Her phone buzzed constantly and was red-hot to touch. As senior talent and partnerships lead at Black-owned management agency AGM Talent, she handled a client roster of almost exclusively Black content creators, and witnessed how they were all consistently being “lowballed”. So she created the Instagram account with one aim in mind: to expose the disparate industry rates that seemed to disproportionately leave Black influencers out of pocket.
A slew of submissions came in, showing that this was a problem across the industry. Some stories were shocking, like that of the white influencer who alleged they were paid £5,000 for a beauty brand’s campaign they ultimately did not appear in. A now-deleted comment on the post, left by a Black influencer, who was part of the final campaign, said she had received just £1,000. Another Black influencer provided the page with screenshots of an interaction that saw a global brand with 8 million social media followers claim they couldn’t remunerate her for two permanent posts, citing her engagement rates as not high enough – an incredible 15%. Meanwhile, a different post saw a white influencer with 9.8% engagement report being able to charge nearly £3,000 for a similar project (albeit, with a different brand). And some posts didn’t recount specific grievances, but instead begged for guidance in understanding basic industry norms – a telling plea.
In starting the @influencerpaygap account, what Ajayi had done was blow open an industry secret. If you ask creators of colour at the sharp end, they’ll tell you this isn’t a new conversation. But like #metoo, the whisper network once confined to those within the industry has gone public, spurred on by the ripples of movements like Black Lives Matter, which prompted soul-searching across the board. Emerging from Ajayi’s endeavour was the messy picture of a nascent industry in barely ordered chaos.
An emergent industry
Starting at the curve of her cheek, a pink, white and green Monet-esque flowerbed blossom trails upwards towards her eyebrow. In another shot, her face is transformed into an ice-blue, heart-shaped canvas, peppered with glittering crimson teardrops, her lips painted ina vinyl gloss to match. Under the moniker @bemusebybetty, make-up artist Betty Traore creates vivid, avant-garde make-up looks. Although her 8,000 followers put her in the “micro-influencer” category, Traore’s artistry is already attracting attention from beauty businesses, which has necessitated her learning the ropes of the influencer industry – and quickly. Suddenly, brands are taking note – and testing boundaries.
“Brands say to me, ‘Hey, we’ve got this huge campaign and [in exchange for content] we’ll give you an eyeshadow palette and exposure,’” Traore explains. “But then I’ll see a paid collab on another influencer’s page for the same amount of work.”
“When I started out, I didn’t know what to charge,” she says. “I thought you had to have 300,000 followers to make money, but already things have taken off to the point that I’ve been paid to do videos. A lot of people – like me – don’t know how to read a contract properly or know not to sign it unless you understand what you’re getting into”. What Traore describes is the “knowledge gap” that permeates the influencer industry and means influencers being lowballed are either unaware or, worse, grateful to be receiving any sort of compensation for their work at all.
Influencer marketing as we know it emerged with the rise of sites like Instagram – launched only a decade ago, and official advertising regulations for content creators only came into force two years ago. Every few months, it seems the boundaries shift, and a new social-media platform or type of content emerges: see TikTok and Instagram Reels. As a result, the influencer industry is an ever-evolving space. Many who find themselves carving out a living within it are learning as they go. While this brings great success for some, others – who already face the disadvantage of systemic racial bias – are having to fight longer and harder for a smaller piece of a large pie.
Ronke Lawal, a communications consultant and founder of Ariatu PR, has been peeking behind the corporate curtain in the influencer industry for a long time. Lawal’s work with lifestyle brands means she’s up to date on standard business practices... where they exist, that is. “Certain brands have a clear budget. Others don’t. There are a lot of slapdash approaches – if certain agencies and brands can get past official regulations, they might try to.” When you drill into this, it gets more complicated. Size of following is a factor when it comes to who’s deemed worthy of divvying out payment to. But that’s just one aspect to consider; influencers now come in a range of shapes and sizes, from giant Kim K-adjacent accounts with millions of followers to micro-influencers with under 10,000 followers, offering individual engagement and trusting communities.
Within this delicate ecosystem there’s no one-size-fits-all rule; a small brand may genuinely have no budget and be trying to increase its presence by building long-term relationships with influencers. Gifted products could be all that the company is initially able to offer. Equally, as Lawal points out, if an in-demand brand like Beyoncé’s Ivy Park sends an influencer a box of goodies, but does not offer any payment, the creator is unlikely to not post its haul, or demand a fee. After all, it’s Beyoncé.
A lack of hard-and-fast rules, plus the individual nature of influencing, means that it’s even harder to identify discrimination. How can you ask for what you’re worth if you’re not sure of that yourself? Third parties can make all the difference and bridge the knowledge gap, as Duah can attest to. Although she doesn’t have an official agent, she has a contact in an agency who regularly represents her when brands get in touch. An agent’s involvement changes the tone; brands no longer view Duah as a lone individual in a sea of content creators, but a professional who requires payment for her work.
The ugly truth
But it can’t just fall on minority ethnic influencers alone to right the wrongs of the industry they’re working in – especially when what they’re facing is plain old institutional racism. Change from the top is desperately needed, but senior managers at big brands tend to hold their positions for a long time, says Daniel Ayim, founder of AGM Talent. The result is a whitewash: unrepresentative top dogs who fail to recognise the value of fully diverse creators and pay them in kind. “If you’re a 29-year-old Black brand manager at Nike or Adidas, you’ll make decisions about which influencers to work with based on your cultural understanding,” says Ayim.“But if you’re a 48-year-old white man, you might not understand a Nella Rose. It’s an unconscious bias, which we all have, but it’s prevalent [in influencer marketing] too. Their perception of a white influencer doing the same thing [as a Black one] is they assume [the white] value is higher.”
What marketers and advertisers fail to realise, explains fashion blogger Nicole Ocran (@nicoleocran), is how much unconscious bias is at play within the entire influencer industry. A biracial creator who blogs about all things style to 28,000 followers, Ocran spent years in influencer marketing before turning the grid into her full-time gig. Her experience means that she’s been able to see how insidious racism colours so many decisions in the industry – and reject attempts by brands to lowball. That doesn’t mean she receives equal treatment though.
“[White influencers] are also afforded an opportunity to negotiate that [Black and brown] influencers aren’t,” says Ocran. “If I were a white influencer pushing back on a fee or a point in a contract, I wouldn’t get the [resistance] that I – as a biracial woman – receive.” Ocran says she’s spotted lots of ways in which ethnic minority influencers are treated differently to their white counterparts, from the gifting she and other influencers of colour receive, to the trips they’re pointedly not invited on. All too often, she says, brands hide behind influencer metrics to excuse pay disparities, without acknowledging the inequality that can cause those numbers to be different in the first place. “I’ve been on shoots where I know I’m being paid less than – sometimes half of – what a white influencer is getting,” she adds. “People tell me it’s because I don’t have the numbers [of] those other people but, at the end of the day, we’re all doing the same thing.”
Losing out financially isn’t all minority ethnic influencers suffer from, either; the racial pay gap has a strenuous mental impact too. “People say to me, ‘I want to pack this up and be done with it,’” recalls Deborah Adelabu, the founder of Behynd Agency, a consultancy that counts Black influencers among its clientele. Outlining her duties, Adelabu describes a role that seems to comprise consultant and therapist in one, as she explains she’s seen industry racism push clients to breaking point.
“They start to pick themselves [apart] on a personal level, telling themselves they need to change,” she says.“Part of my job is [to] spend time encouraging them to recognise that they can’t allow what society says about them to turn off who they are.” Adelabu peaks of having to convey a “harsh truth” to her Black clients: that the industry does not love them. While there are brands making the effort to reach out to influencers of colour, the demoralising effect of having to be twice as good to get half as much recognition can leave people “broken”, says Adelabu, her voice wavering.
The racial pay gap among influencers does, of course, sit within the context of a wider pay gap, which affects all minority ethnic workers. On average, a white British worker earns 3.8% more than someone belonging to an ethnic minority group. For workers of Bangladeshi origin, the pay gap widens to as much as 20%. British-born Black African employees can also expect to earn around 7.7% less than white British counterparts – even if they’re performing similar roles and have comparable education.
With the odds stacked against them, future social-media stars can see that they need to take a different tack. Collective power is what has driven Ocran to formalise these conversations in the shape of The Creator Union, which aims to represent content creators across digital platforms. Although still in development, 300 influencers have already registered their interest. Traore says pages like @influencerpaygap have prompted her to think about bias within the industry and namechecks @editorialblk, a page run by make-up artist Wendy Asumadu, which highlights the work of Black creators specialising in beauty. She says pages like this one give visibility that creators might not otherwise get, making it more likely that brands – and social- media users – will pay attention.
Because here’s the key: if users don’t support them, brands won’t take notice, either. Bias isn’t only prevalent in brand managers and marketeers, “it’s also within consumers”, observes Ocran. And while some may view the plight of these creators as trivial, thanks to the public perception of influencers as glossy freeloaders, to do so further enables the apathy that allows racism to flourish.
So what can scrollers do to support creators of colour? For a start, follow them. They don’t want your pity-likes, but they recognise that audiences may have to go one step further than their Explore page to find their work. A difficult analysis of the diversity of your feed might be in order. “If it just has one type of person and no Black [or brown] content creators, why is that?” asks Betty Traore. To tackle the pay gap, we need inclusion higher up, and a collective grassroots effort. It’s time to think more intentionally about how we divvy out those double taps.
This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Cosmopolitan UK.
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Photographer: Sarah Brick, Hair and Make up: Thembi Mkandla at Creatives Agency using NARS and L'Oreal Professional, Sarah Connell at Nevs and Paige at Nevs, Styling: Maddy Alford. Pictures posed by models, featuring Banov Coffee Cup with lid and non-slip sleeve, Amazon. With thanks to Wayfair.co.uk.
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