A few months ago I created a graphic that struck a nerve. It said, “in case it isn’t clear – free product doesn’t pay rent, bills, or buy food for our families. Black creators need to make a living the same way others do.” In industry after industry, we’re watching companies and brands being taken to task for their lack of equitable and equal treatment of Black people. From the reckoning at Bon Appetit, when it was uncovered that the non-white test kitchen personalities were not being paid. To the call for influencer marketing company, Fohr, to open up about their practices. We’re witnessing the result of years of mistreatment and unfair payment at the hands of white gatekeepers.
Since 2009 I have encountered and worked with many brands and it’s brought me here. Finally ready to say no to unpaid influencer campaigns. Have you been toying with whether or not you should accept free product? Participate in an affiliate program? Or take a gift in exchange for a post? It’s a place many of us begin but it isn’t a station we should take up residence. In today’s post I’m going to pull back the curtain on why I stopped participating in unpaid influencer campaigns, in the hopes that you can become empowered to do the same. This industry needs a change and I’m ready to make it.
When I began blogging most people had no idea what “style blogging” was. Many were familiar with personal websites like Xanga, BlackPlanet, or LiveJournal. Yet, the development of blogs dedicated to style and taking a look at the fashion industry from the outside, was largely unknown. Years later that’s transitioned into an industry rife with white women making hand over fist in brand endorsement deals like top tiered athletes. Young women going from obscurity to seated front row at some of fashion’s biggest events of the year. While the blogging landscape has significantly changed with the advent of social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and more. Plus the range of topics what has not, is who is at the top.
Black influencers work twice as hard…
With over 1 billion users on Instagram there is a treasure trove of money to be made. However that treasure, like everything else, only seems available to white or non-black influencers. Campaigns like #OpenFohr, a move forcing James Nord, founder of Fohr; to be more transparent about the allocation and payments of campaigns to Black influencers vs white or non-black influencers, have been mounting. Drawing eyes to the disparities in this industry and making the participants face their roles in keeping it alive. That campaign called on Fohr to be honest about the huge pay gap between Black influencers and others. It showed how Black influencers were paid nearly 2.5x less than their white or non-black counterparts. Consistently.
Is it because our work isn’t creative or professional? Hardly. In fact it is known, especially within the Black community, that we must work twice as hard to get half of what our white or non-black peers are getting. What’s more frustrating is watching these communities perpetuate our culture and be paid for it while were offered next to nothing. Rap lyrics as captions, big gold hoop earrings, and piles of chains is suddenly en vogue for these audiences. While they are hitting a payday Black creators are being asked to take small tokens in exchange for their labor. What’s the deal with that?!
Why I Say No
Almost daily my inbox has some form of an email with a request. That request, typically from brands large and small, inquire if I would be willing to share their product or service with my audience. Whether here on the blog or on Instagram, where I reach over 12K people daily. Those asks for content in the form of in-feed posts, story mentions with swipe up links to their sites, sometimes video, or more. What doesn’t differ much from request to request is the audacity of these companies to request this work for free.
I minored in advertising in college and majored in public relations, after switching my major from pre-law. That said, you are likely not going to get one over on me. I’m familiar with the landscape of this business; know how budgets work and how campaigns come to life. Understanding that photography, videography, writing copy, creating moodboards, etc all are talents that require time and skill. And we all know, time is money. As the influencer business has exploded brands and companies have recognized that they can get the advertisement they need for a fraction of the cost. So they’ve begun to take advantage. Campaigns and product launches that typically cost upwards of $10K+ are being done cheaper and more efficiently. But that’s not always for the better.
Knowing that a photographer can begin charging upwards of $170 per image, it’s audacious of companies to request influencers to take 5-7, high res images of free product they sent over for no payment. Then ask for a catchy, sticky caption otherwise known in advertising as copy, when copywriters make approximately $50K a year. In exchange for what may amount to $500 in products doesn’t seem like a fair trade to me. Not to mention scout a great location for those photos, edit them appropriately, turn them over and perhaps release them for use in perpetuity? Meaning for life, for nothing? Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?
Free Products Don’t Pay Bills
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never paid for my groceries or rent with bottles of soap. I haven’t gone to Target and told them I’d like to use my box of gifted jeans to pay for my basket full of household necessities. You get my drift. What’s most infuriating and intriguing is department heads making the requests for work in exchange for products are being paid in dollars to do their jobs. As they implore creators to accept boxes of conditioner, snacks, or workout sets in exchange for a “few kind fun words”; they’re being paid bi-weekly. In actual currency. What needs to be understood is if influencer marketing is the go to market strategy it is going to cost you. Nothing comes for free and Black influencers shouldn’t be made to feel that their work isn’t worth payment.
The disparity in wealth between Black and white women in America is vast. Black women only make 21% of what white women make in the workforce. Working for oneself, in an industry that is changing daily and quickly, only makes those disparities even greater. Black women not earning what is standard pay for white women thrusts us further into poverty, debt, and creates stress in our lives. Reports show that white influencers are making 2.5x to 10x what Black influencers and creators are paid. Much of this is due to the hush hush nature of the business but it’s also because companies have gotten away with it.
Now many companies are aiming to work around having to pay influencers by creating “affiliate programs.” These programs are based on the model of the creative making content that promotes and pushes sales to a brand’s site and making a small commission off of each sale. Many of these programs are tiered and ultimately aren’t worth the trouble. Having to sell 10 boxes or bottles of something to make $20 is hardly a fair exchange. The emails make the business sound amazing, above board, and like an easy way to rake in cash. The truth is it begins to take a toll on you. Having to ensure your content includes advertisements so you can hopefully make money for the month as opposed to simply being paid is a trap. And I refuse to be caught and it’s why I’m not participating anymore in non-paid campaigns.
Knowing Your Worth
The most difficult part of being a person with influence is understanding how to charge for it. It took me three years of active, consistent posting and content creation to finally surpass the 10K follower mark on Instagram. I’ve never bought followers, never participated in a loop giveaway, or otherwise. Each person that has decided to follow along on my journey has done so because I’m offering something they enjoy. When companies and brands take notice of the authentic community and rapport I’ve built with my following – it’s natural to want in on the action. What is also natural is wanting people to appreciate the work you’ve put in and participate in building it further.
For a long time I was okay with being sent products to try or test out in exchange for my endorsement. As my platform and reach has grown ultimately my endorsement is worth more too. I’ll be honest I have downplayed that for a long time. When I spoke to my therapist about this, she said, “Leslie, if you’re not being paid for your work, it’s a hobby. Stop letting people make your work a hobby.” That stopped me in my tracks. Checked me. Gathered me. Whatever you want to call it, it made me realize that I had been accepting it.
The lack of payment wasn’t wholly my fault but it was my choice whether or not it continued. I speak about getting paid often, I even wrote a book about it. Imagine teaching folks about getting paid but still accepting lackluster payment myself. That’s cancelled. No more. Moving forward I am acknowledging my worth, respecting what I’ve done to get where I am. I refuse to keep giving access to multi-million dollar corporations, funded startups, or companies with advertising budgets for nothing. I’m urging you to also say no to unpaid campaigns it doesn’t benefit you.
outfit details: | shorts – vintage Levi’s | boots – Louis Vuitton | Sweatshirt – ASOS | Sunnies – Celine | Bumbag – Louis Vuitton |
Saying No Gracefully
You may be wondering how you can gracefully turn down a request, I can assist. It is totally reasonable to have the worry or fear that if you say no to the free that the paid won’t show up. However I can assure you, that more often than not money isn’t being offered because it isn’t being required. As I say in my ebook, “everyone wants to make more money, but few can prove why they’re worth it.” The name of the game here is value, the power to being able to decline an opportunity is understanding your value. If you’re writing blog posts consistently, have gained a following through your social media presence, earned a degree in your field? That’s value.
Another way to gracefully say no, is to provide information or statistical knowledge as to why working with you would be beneficial for the company. For instance, Latino buying power sits at 1.7 trillion dollars in the US, meaning working with Latinx creatives could help tap into that market. Combined with the fact that nearly 41% of millennials get their spending cues from social media that is a hell of a reason to engage with influencers. Information like this is what can boost your chances of closing a deal that pays instead of accepting free jeans — again.
Understanding that the influencer marketing business is set to be worth $15 billion dollars by 2022. Trust me when I say there is money to be made and spent. Saying no to unpaid campaigns isn’t something you need to be afraid to do. It is what must to be done to ensure equity in the space. If Black creatives continue to say yes to the minuscule perks that are being offered, nothing else will be given. BIPOC must ban together and start requiring brands and companies to treat all quality influencers equally.
Photography: Kaye McCoy
All in all, unpaid campaigns don’t benefit anyone. Not the creative or the brand, because ultimately we’re all looking for the best return on investment. When you’re doing for free it may not be your best because you don’t feel valued. Which snowballs into the company not getting what they desired. For this business work well, best practices must include paying the workers who you need to get the job done. Creatives, start saying no more you’re worth it.
That said, let’s get this money. It’s that simple.