Racism in the Influencer Industry

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Black creators want transparency and equality within the multibillion-dollar influencer industry.

The killing of George Floyd and subsequent global protests have rocked virtually all industries, including the business of influencing. The relatively young field of influencer marketing, just over a decade old, is riddled with racism, say influencers and talent managers. Black influencers on marketing platforms, including Fohr, say they are paid less than white peers, overlooked for advertising campaigns, and unable to negotiate on offers and terms.

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The claims, highlighted in a number of Instagram accounts that have sprung up over the past month, portray the influencer industry as failing Black creators, and target what they see as companies’ hypocritical branding around authenticity and inclusivity.

One such account, @openfohr, has accused the agency Fohr of “exploitative and discriminatory practices,” according to a statement shared with WWD from Open Fohr’s eight founders, a group of Black models and influencers — Aïssata Diallo, Denisse Myrick, Valerie Eguavoen, Yvette Corinne, Marche Robinson, Aissatou Balde, Nasteha Yusuf and Nuni Yusuf.

“As the Black Lives Matter movement took center stage in the public discourse, Fohr paused its advertising, posted protest resources and even provided anti-racism resources on Instagram. Yet, many of the Black content creators who have worked with them are discriminated against and underpaid,” said the Open Fohr founders in a joint statement.

Fohr is an influencer marketing platform offering three services — subscription self-serve, managed campaigns and custom-built technology — to brands and agencies. Additionally, 100,000 influencers are on Fohr’s platform, where they have access to metrics and are able to book campaigns.

But the founders of Open Fohr said they were “being passed over for offers, receiving lowball offers, receiving gifting campaigns with no payment option, unwillingness to negotiate or simply ignoring follow-up questions and negotiations altogether.”

Even ostensible efforts by the platform to improve diversity only reinforced the mistreatment of Black models, they alleged. For instance, Fohr’s Freshman Class, a 2018 initiative meant to “help provide opportunities for underrepresented voices” and foster diversity by way of education and networking, according to a page on Fohr’s web site, required participants to provide free labor, some of the influencers said.

According to a statement from the Open Fohr founders, two of whom participated in the inaugural program, Freshman Class members were “required” to create free content for brands, despite not being “introduced to new brand partners as promised.”

Fohr’s Freshman Class was, in part, a response to that year’s #RevolveSoWhite controversy, in which e-tailer Revolve received backlash for a lack of racial and body-type inclusivity on its influencer trips.

Fohr has since acknowledged some of those criticisms. In a 54-page deck presented at a town hall held online on June 10 in response to the Open Fohr account, Fohr said the 2018 Freshman Class “fell short” due to “mismanaged expectations,” a “flawed selection process” and a “lack of dedicated resources” to the program.

But the agency said its own review last month of recent payouts to the influencers it represents shows no discernible trend of race disparity. In an interview with WWD, Fohr founder James Nord responded to Open Fohr’s allegations, including one specific claim of pay disparity. Open Fohr’s first Instagram post appears to show a nearly $6,000 difference in pay between a Black influencer and a “white-passing” influencer, both of whom received offers for the same campaign.

Nord said the main reason for the difference in pay was follower count.

“In that specific instance, the influencer who was paid more had a following of over 150,000 and was a luxury lifestyle male blogger,” Nord said. “There’s just not that many [luxury lifestyle male bloggers] and thus, historically, they’ve always cost a lot more to book.”

Nord said he and the Fohr team reviewed the company’s last $10 million of payouts “to show that there was essentially, for all intents and purposes, no difference between what we paid white and Black influencers.” According to Fohr’s deck, white influencers earn an average of $8.16 per 1,000 followers. Black and African American influencers earn, on average, $8.14 per 1,000 followers.

Over the past 12 months, 36 percent of Fohr’s payouts went to white influencers, while 23 percent went to Black and African American influencers. Just under 10 percent went to Asian influencers.

Fohr does not require its influencers to report their ethnicities, and nearly three-quarters of Fohr’s 100,000 influencers have not reported. Of those who have, 52 percent identify as white, 16 percent as Black and 32 percent as non-Black people of color.

In response to criticism of Fohr’s rates being low, Nord said he is “reevaluating” the equation the company uses to calculate rates. Fohr uses historical pricing data and the consideration of 10 factors — such as exclusivity, expertise and demand, volume of deliverables and prior performance — in calculating influencer rates, according to its deck.

“We’re also buying in bulk. It’s the difference between a Sam’s Club and your local grocery store,” Nord said. “We’re purchasing thousands of influencer posts a year. Thus, it should make sense that we would have the ability to buy those at a bit of a discount on behalf of our clients.”

Low offers seem to be common for influencers working with agencies, though agencies have a small hold on the influencer industry at large. According to a March 2020 Influencer Marketing Hub report, about 80 percent of companies surveyed said they ran their influencer campaigns in-house, with only 20 percent opting to work with agencies.

U.K.-based fashion and beauty influencer Shantel Rousseau said low rates are typical from agencies because they charge brands fees. Tasha James, a beauty and style blogger and photographer, said agencies are known to “withhold or take extra” from brands’ campaign budgets, which often leads to pay disparities.

In June, around the same time the Open Fohr account went live, another Instagram account sharing influencers’ firsthand experiences with pay disparity gained traction. The account, @influencerpaygap, was founded by Adesuwa Ajayi, a U.K.-based influencer manager who primarily works with Black talent.

“I felt a bit of frustration for a long while over the way Black influencers were treated across the board,” Ajayi said. “It seemed like it was proving a bit difficult for Black influencers to find out what everyone else was earning or charging — unless they had connections, a huge network or they were hyper-visible to leverage that network.”

Ajayi’s account already has nearly 30,000 followers and 300 posts, almost all of which are screenshots of direct messages from influencers. The messages generally include the influencer’s race, follower count, a description of the brand and campaign and the rate paid — or, in some cases, not paid.

Product as a form of payment is a common practice within the influencer industry, though the ethics are murky. Sources told WWD that luxury fashion brands are especially notorious for sending products in exchange for social media posts. Influencers with smaller followings are often on the receiving end of these kinds of offers.

James, who counts 9,000 Instagram followers, said in the six years she was part of Fohr’s influencer network, she was approached twice to receive free product in exchange for a post. She did not receive any paid campaign offers.

“As a smaller creator, and my other friends who are in that category, they’re often given free product in exchange for review or in exchange for a post — and the posts often come as part of the campaign,” James said. “It should be a paid campaign, but you’re only offered product in exchange.”

James and Rousseau said they have been approached by agencies and brands to accept free products in exchange for social media posts, with the expectation that the agency or brand will reach out again with a paid opportunity. That paid opportunity rarely materializes — a problem that affects influencers of other races, too, but may disproportionately impact Black influencers due to unconscious bias.

“There’s lots of different reasons why brands choose to pay people versus others, but I think the problem that a lot of Black influencers feel is that the specs are very narrow when brands decide who they want to spend their money on,” Rousseau said.

Pay disparity was a recurring theme during influencers’ interviews with WWD. Travel, fashion and beauty influencer Tanyka Renee said she created a second e-mail address under an “all-American name — if you were to look over it, you would assume she was white.” Using her second account to pitch brands, Renee quickly found that the rates her alias prompted were higher.

“A lot of the brands would say that the white counterpart ‘fit the aesthetic’ and that’s why the pay rate was higher,” Renee said.

She occasionally uses her second e-mail to pitch influencers “from all races,” acting as an agent for other influencers.

“I can see the difference in pay,” Renee said. “Brands think that [with] Black creators’ content, you don’t get a return on the dollar. [They] want to touch that market, but they don’t want to pay for it because they don’t see value in it. It’s evident on brands’ pages. If you’re not posting Black creators, you don’t value their content.”

One biracial influencer said she was once left on an e-mail chain that revealed a $1,500 pay disparity between her and another model hired for the same photo shoot. The other model, who is white, left the shoot early, according to the influencer, who wished to remain anonymous.

Renee said tokenism frequently occurs in influencer marketing, and she has been approached by brands “when they need to have that token Black girl or it’s February and it’s Black History Month.”

Influencer and model Marisa Bryant said she is often the only Black girl at brand events in New York City.

“This is a cultural mixing pot. Why am I the only person of color at this event?” she said.

In June, an account called @blackinfluencersmatter launched with the goal of raising awareness of the many Black influencers in the industry.

“We know, as Black influencers, that we’re not paid what white influencers are paid,” said one of Black Influencers Matter’s founders, who is an influencer and wished to remain anonymous. “Let’s say a brand you know is going out for press trips. You can see nine white influencers and one Black influencer. It relates to one thing: not being valued, not being paid the same thing, not being given the same opportunity. It shouldn’t be so.”

The influencer industry is expected to grow to nearly $10 billion this year, according to Influencer Marketing Hub’s March 2020 report. But just how much of that money is flowing to Black influencers is unknown.

Ajayi said in launching the Influencer Pay Gap account, she hopes to help Black influencers negotiate their rates with more clarity as to what influencers of other races and similar followings are earning.

“The influencer industry is very much in its infancy and very unregulated,” Ajayi said. “There’s no industry standard.”

There are some signs that these proliferating anecdotal accounts are leading to formal efforts toward change. The American Influencer Council launched in late June with the purpose of promoting consumer transparency, standardization and professional ethics. It is the only organization with these goals — other than the Federal Trade Commission, which has long struggled with enforcing and amending its influencer guidelines.

In his interview with WWD, Nord of Fohr recognized that change within the influencer industry is necessary, though he doesn’t “feel as a white man that I have the authenticity or personal experience to be the genesis of the solution and the champion.”

Fohr, Nord said, is 73 percent white. Of its last 20 hires, 50 percent are people of color. The company was expecting to hire 24 people in 2020, but issued a hiring freeze at the onset of the coronavirus.

Nord said he has since lifted that freeze to hire a community manager — a position Fohr has not previously had.

“We have 100,000 [influencers in Fohr’s books] and it’s clear that we’re not doing a great job listening and involving that community in these solutions,” Nord said. “That hire needs to happen and we’re committed to doing that.”

The company is also looking into changing seemingly neutral features that in reality may work against influencers seeking better terms. For instance, Fohr revealed recently via Instagram that it has removed the countdown feature –– which set a time limit on when influencers could accept or reject a job — that it believed caused influencers to feel pressure to accept a campaign sooner than they otherwise might — and, in some cases, discourage them from negotiating their rates. The company has also appointed Ernest James, founder and chief executive officer of Noire Management; DonYé Taylor, founder and ceo of The Digital Footprint; fashion and lifestyle photographer Justin Bridges and social entrepreneur Archel Bernard to its new Diversity Advisory Board.

It should be noted that the Open Fohr account remains active. The founders said in a statement that Nord reached out to them on June 8, but they have refused to engage in private conversations with him until Fohr is “willing to be transparent” about its practices.

“We have had private and public conversations with Fohr over the past two years and still see no changes,” the Open Fohr founders said. “At this moment, instead of responding to the demands of the Open Fohr campaign, they are using every tool they have for damage control. There can be no path forward or solutions if Fohr is not willing to admit the truth.

“They must realize that there is an unbreakable link between the fight for equal pay for influencers they work with, the fight against Fohr’s exploitative business practices, the fight for an anti-racist work environment at Fohr and the fight for anti-racist and ethical brand partnerships,” the statement continued. “We are not interested in making any backroom deals with Fohr or taking money to make this problem go away. We know they have been in discussion with several other folks who seek to capitalize on this moment.”

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in WWD’s ongoing feature Equal Measure, which will examine the issues of diversity, equality and the increasing movement for social change and how these impact the retail, beauty and fashion industries.

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