Jul 21, 2020

An Instagram account is exposing influencer inequality

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Black influencers tend to be paid less than white influencers, and it has nothing to do with follower counts.

Talking about how much you’re paid can make for an awkward conversation, but Adesuwa Ajayi is asking just that of social media influencers. They can have followings of tens or hundreds of thousands and companies will pay them for promotions. Ajayi started the Influencer Pay Gap account on Instagram to highlight the fact that Black influencers are routinely paid less than white influencers, even when they have similar numbers of followers or the same reach. The account lets people share stories anonymously and learn from other people’s experiences about what a fair payment is for a particular job or endorsement.   

I spoke with Ajayi, whose day job is managing influencers at the talent agency AGM. She said she’s been collecting hundreds of stories. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Adesuwa Ajayi (Photo courtesy of Ajayi)

Adesuwa Ajayi: One of the most interesting ones actually was a campaign an influencer was participating in. This was a white influencer. And she was approached last-minute by a beauty brand with the expectation that she was going to replace a celebrity. She was pitched £5,000 to be paid for that campaign. She turned up, but then realized that the celebrity that apparently wasn’t going to turn up actually did turn up. So, there was no need for her to be there. And she was still paid that £5,000. Whereas a Black influencer, who actually participated in the campaign, was paid around £1,700. And it had nothing to do with their influence and following.

Jack Stewart: It is one thing in a job where people get paid a salary and you can be fairly transparent about it or at least force that transparency. But with influencers, where there’s kind of just not that overall body, there’s not a union, there’s really no way, is there, to dig in and figure out what these differences are? It really lets you hide things quite easily.

Ajayi: One hundred percent, especially as there are different parties involved. You have the brands, but you also have the agencies, and agencies are often given big budgets from brands. And there’s no level of transparency, whereby if a brand gives an agency around £10,000, who’s to say the agency doesn’t cut off £5,000 for themselves and intentionally lowball influencers? I think there are so many things at play here. There are so many people involved in different ways, and each industry, each niche, there are different behaviors that are a lot more common within certain niches than others. So it’s a bit of a mess, to a degree.

Stewart: You work at a talent agency. Is there anything you can think of that would help fix this problem? Is there a way to structure pay? Is there a way for influencers to work together or form a union?

Ajayi: I am working hand in hand with a union that has actually been set up. They are working towards opportunities for advocacy when it comes to influencers in this space and creators in general, where people feel OK to discuss the ways in which they have been treated. I think reinvigorating influencers in the sense that where they feel a lot more confident, and a lot more, almost, heard, in the grand scheme of things is really important.

Stewart: Have you heard anything from brands either talking to you personally or speaking out publicly about the inequality issue?

Ajayi: There are some Black influencers who kind of feel a way about some of the posts that have been made by certain brands. Especially brands that have a habit of picking and choosing what they like from Black culture, but completely ostracizing Black influencers from their campaigns. And I think there is constantly, right now, a conversation around seeing Black influencers and Black creators as worthy of a level of respect. It shouldn’t be anything somewhat shallow because you’re scared of any repercussions.

Stewart: What do you hope changes as a result of this page and the work that you’re doing?

Ajayi: I would really love for it to create a space whereby people feel like they can be truly honest and they feel that they’ll be heard. And not only heard, but, based upon the feedback, brands will take steps to do what they know they should do. So that’s one thing. I would also say, just the sense of community has been amazing and just seeing influencers help one another. An influencer with a million [followers] can seem so far-fetched to an influencer who has 5,000. But on the page, it sort of brings people together and gives them an understanding of what different spaces are like and the things that other people go through. And so I’d love for a kind of close-knit way of people kind of advocating for one another. It also required people to use their privilege and also use their insight to help one another. And I think that is what has been really, really amazing about the page, and I think it will only continue to get even bigger and better in that sense.

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Related links: More insight from Jack Stewart

You can read some of the stories people have shared on the Influencer Pay Gap account for yourself. 

Being an influencer has only recently been recognized as a real job, and for some people it can be a very lucrative one. Your Kardashians or Jenners can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars for a sponsored post or other endorsement. For others, it’s much harder to make anything approaching a living. And while people were spending more time online during the pandemic, marketing budgets dried up, meaning less money to go around. Back in May, Instagram announced some new features so that people could keep making money, like putting ads on Instagram TV and sharing the revenue, something other platforms like YouTube have been doing for years.

Instagram is feeling the pressure of competition from TikTok, another favorite among the short-form video set. Despite calls to ban it, and concerns over its possible links to the Chinese government, more than 300 million people downloaded the TikTok app in the first quarter of this year, taking the total to something around 2 billion.

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