Interview: Adesuwa from The Influencer Pay Gap

November 10, 2020

As part of our commitment as an agency to showcase and spotlight Black creators, thinkers, and influencers, we wanted to speak to someone who could help identify how brands can improve their partnerships with Black creatives in the industry. Mc&T had the pleasure of interviewing Adesuwa, the brains behind the instagram page that is unveiling the ever illusive world of brand and influencer partnerships - The Influencer Pay Gap. Adesuwa who has a background in influencer marketing was inspired to create the page to allow influencers of colour to share their experiences and treatment in a safe space, whilst arming others in the industry with more information as to how to navigate the space.

What inspired you to create the influencer pay gap? 

I've been present in the space both professionally, as well a hobby. I've worked on management of the influencers, and the brand side of things such as developing and pitching campaigns. It had been apparent for many years, the differences in the way I felt that Black influencers were being treated within the space. As well as the varied treatment such as the ways in which they're approached by brands and agencies, and even the way that they are paid. 

I felt that everyone knew about this variance in treatment especially when it came to money, but very few openly discussed it. There was this overarching sense of “We don’t talk about money”, something I think is apparent in a number of industries. Unless you had direct access to influencer data - such as PRs or a group of fellow influencers who would be open and honest about their fees, most new influencers basically had to ‘wing it’. 

Many brands would use what the low rates they paid other influencers as a means of justifying why they would not pay another influencer a higher amount. Many Black Influencers feared pushing back due to fear of losing the opportunity to another willing to take less, even though the fee proposed didn’t consider the time and effort a content creator would put into the campaign. 

Based on this knowledge, I just wanted to create a page where a group of people within the influencer space could privately submit their highest paid campaigns and build a safe space for black influencers to be able to see what other people were earning across a variety of demographics. So, I decided to create this space myself and the Influencer pay gap was born. 

Mc&T: Amazing - so what happened next? 

I didn't expect it to blow up the way that it has. From initially suspecting that it may not go down that well with brands etc, it has in fact exceeded my expectations. I didn’t realise just how many people were frustrated with the lack of transparency within the influencer space, not just when it comes to payments but also other issues. It made it even more apparent why change felt slow to occur, as many felt so scared to publicly speak out about their experiences - there is an unwritten ‘code of silence’ expected by the brands and agencies..

Mc&T: Code of Silence? We can certainly see that...

There's this whole sense of ‘if you speak out, you'll be blacklisted, you’ll rob yourself of opportunities..’.  Which is why I felt it was necessary to have the anonymity on the channel. I wanted a space where people can speak on their experiences,  how they have been treated by brands and for professional influencers to offer their experiences and insight. 

In America, there have been a lot more discussions happening. I find that there's this kind of gaslighting here in the UK when black Influencers try to have this discussion. It feels that when we request that Black talent get treated adequately, there appears to be shock amongst the brands and PRs about where this discontent has come from. Almost like it’s something people have just ‘pulled out of thin air’ to be upset about when in fact it’s been more ‘let's pretend that it's not a thing’. I as a professional in this space just wanted to bring these issues to the forefront and advocate and create a space for people to help one another. 

Mc&T: Do you feel times may be changing? 

You only have to look at the recent outcry about ‘Black Fishing’ and the way in which those discussions are had. It was almost as if Black people were making it up. 

White girls if you want to pass as Black, how about using your platforms to address the injustices and discrimation actual Black people face. Don't just appropriate, Appreciate the people you are imitating #emmahallberg

— Niccole Nero Gaines (@2CsNiccole) November 19, 2018

Constantly, we see people afforded the right to capitalise upon and exploit Black culture or likeness and be platformed or incorporated within campaigns. Then we try to talk about it and the response to an obvious issue is that it's ‘it’s just another thing’ that the community is complaining about rather than addressing the actual point that we are making. 

Mc&T: Do you feel that some brands have been able to hide behind grey areas when it comes to diversity in campaigns? For example they can hide behind the response ‘We used an agency for this localised event and they selected on based on their budget thus way this influencer got paid less than xxx’. 

Yeah, given the infancy of this space, there's a lot of loopholes that businesses can exploit and they do. Depending on the niche, there's this attitude presented to influencers of a particular standing by PRs and agencies working on behalf of the brands of ‘You're lucky to be aligned with us’. I see this in fashion a lot, especially fast fashion. Outreach tends to push this idea that just an alignment with them shows you’ve ‘made it’ and that the collaboration will open doors to working with other brands and they very much exploit that.

Many influencers start out as solo practitioners with little guidance,  so they get caught up in the perception of what it means to be seen as a talent working with these brands. It isn’t until later they begin to think ‘I’d like to be compensated fairly for my time as well’ that they witness brands go to another newer influencer and the exploitation cycle continues. 

It’s not just influencer naivety, it’s also down to the brands too. If you work with an agency that has little diversity on their staff, then that agency's approach is going to have less cultural awareness in how they outreach and who they use. They create a cultural bubble and see their worlds through that lense. Again, as the industry is still in its infancy there are many moving pieces in this space that need to be addressed, the lack of regulation for a start. There’s very little protection especially when it comes to areas such as paid ADs and #hashtags guidelines, which can get an influencer in a lot of trouble if not followed. Many PR’s will sneakily try to get the influencers not to include them if they aren’t  AD savvy yet.

Mc&T: So what are the biggest financial discrepancies and trends in poor conduct that you’ve learned via your account and professional work? 

I’ve received so many... 

One example is a very well known brand left an agency due to their team outreaching and offering the financial incentive to influencers via direct message rather than email.  ‘Direct messaging’ (Doing formal business via social media chat and messaging functions)  in the influencer industry is a big no-no as it prevents a paper trail and leaves too much room for overfamiliarity, which often leads to ‘low ball’ offers. Once the brand found this out they contacted the influencer to apologise for their treatment making it clear that wasn’t what they were about as a brand - this isn’t always the case with other brands. 

Another situation was a well known beauty brand where a white influencer was hired last minute to replace a celebrity who cancelled on a campaign. They had agreed around 5k to work with this influencer. The celebrity then turns up at the shoot and so they no longer had a use for this influencer but still paid her the 5k fee. This seems fair until you realise that they worked with a Black influencer on this campaign with similar influence to said white influencer and they only paid her 1.5k.

I certainly believe this is an example of Black Influencers being afraid to speak out on being undervalued and feeling they have less opportunity if they do. Along with the agencies reliance on them being afraid of speaking about money and sharing fees with one another. 

Brands, agencies, whomever, know that a lot of people don’t like speaking about money so the ‘code of silence’ is almost engineered around this. Over here, generally speaking,  you’ll find that people are really wary, and afraid to talk about money due to the potential judgement. Every industry exploits this. 

On the flip side, I’ve had influencers say to me once they learned what others were making 

 ‘Oh, wow. You know, I've been low balled severely. And I had no idea, I thought we were making a ridiculously high amount!”  There's so many sides to it.

Mc&T: Do you think that the influencer pay gap mimics broader societal trends e.g. gender/race/disability? 

When it comes to issues within companies, I don't think they tend to start with incumbents. There are these issues that permeate the company, and then they thrive because the company upholds them.

Now this can be created actively, consciously or through what they call unconscious bias. However, I don't think we can rely on ‘unconscious bias’ in many of these cases. If you speak to most Black people within certain organisations, they'll tell you some of the experiences that they’ve been subjected to felt very conscious, and very intentional -  there was nothing unconscious about it, these were very intentional ways of undermining them. So I definitely believe that these issues are societal issues that permeate workplace environments and industries as a whole. I also think it has a lot to do with a willingness to be self aware, to challenge yourself and actually listen

Certainly highlighted from running the page is the lack of opportunity for the influencers to give genuine, honest feedback to the brands and for it to be taken seriously. There is no direct line to be heard so it’s no shock that they will leverage social media to speak openly about the ways in which they're being treated. As a brand you can't say that your company is ‘open to hearing people's opinions’ if you make the process of giving an opinion, and feedback, so hard to do.

Mc&T: What do you think about influencers unionising and creating a more central network? 

I believe it's necessary, even if it isn't through the format of a union, as one thing that is as clear as day is that there needs to be a form of standardising within this space. 

Many people are just tired of the constant mistreatment and erasure of underrepresented influencers such as black influencers but also disabled influencers. 

I’ve had conversations with these people about how they feel invisible. How brands just assume, because they are disabled, that everything they do should be purely on a gifting basis and with no pay and it’s just so sad to hear.  So when it comes to unionising, as long as there's genuine intent and underrepresented folks aren’t overlooked, then it's a positive change that is necessary.

Mc&T: Do you believe that many brands and agencies use gifting and coupons rather than monetary incentives as the influencer space has been - and in some cases still not seen as an actual profession?

Yes, definitely. There are so many, there're so many stereotypes when it comes to influencers. If you ask the average person what they envision when asked to think of an ‘influencer’ they probably aren’t thinking of thought leaders within various niches. They’ll think of the fast fashion, brand deals, lifestyle influencers and the negative connotations many have about influencers.

I’ll be honest, the influencer industry has its’ shallow side, however I believe that is an extension  of the creative industry and celebrity culture as a whole, as someone who has navigated the creative industry for a long while I can confidently say that is not limited to the influencer space. Authentic human beings who create amazing, thoughtful content and who are not toxic or self-obsessed exist.

Many Influencers start from being generally passionate about something and sharing that passion with the world, and becoming a thought leader in the process thus earning their ‘influence’. There is no problem with people aspiring to be an influencer. There's a huge taboo when it comes to influencing, that if you see it as a viable career, then you're either entitled or not being realistic but I just don’t see why. How is wanting to make a career out of something you're passionate about doing that could potentially lead to you being a thought leader and even working with brands, bad

Mc&T: For sure when people even hear the word ‘Influencer’ you can see it their faces ‘oh here we go again’ 

If I am being honest when there are discussions around the wording it’s mainly down the fact that people see many who refer to themselves an ‘Influencers’, in their opinion, as people who don’t have any actual influence or don’t have any ‘positive influence’. Whilst there are valid criticism of this space as a whole, as well as influencers, as with any industry there are some that are genuine and some who are not. One influencer is not representative of everyone.

On that point, I recently made a post on the channel about someone saying that they believe the ways in which Black influencers can get more gigs, were if they were to ‘whiten’ their audience base. Now, I strongly disagree with that, why does anyone need to have a wide base of white followers to be seen as a viable talent to work with? 

They informed me that they did an experiment where they used Black influencers and a white influencer with exactly the same metrics, same followers, the same level of engagement etc. They said that the return on investment with the black influencer was lower. 

Now my issue is - If a campaign isn’t as successful why is there no internal thought process along the lines of ‘where did we go wrong? Did we hire the right influencer? Did we do our research on how whatever campaign we are working on can best translate to that audience?’ It’s just always ‘This person didn’t perform’ and they immediately decide ‘okay, we're not working with Black influencers anymore’  

A real world example of this is when the Flat Tummy Tea Exec said in an leaked internal email to ‘only work with White influencers for their next product launch as only they could bring the ROI for the campaign’

If a white influencer underperforms there aren’t emails going out saying ‘we aren’t working with whit influencers anymore’. No, they think about their strategy. They think about how, what and where did we go wrong? Were the expectations too high given the deliverables? Did they do their research? But when it’s one black influencer who they placed these expectations on that didn’t quite meet the expectations, they use it as a blanket example for all black influencers. 


How can brands work better with influencers? And what are the main misconceptions that brands have at various degrees and levels, within their regard and their approach?

On the most basic level, to look at their internal structure. What has been put in place to make sure that they really reach out to a diverse range of people? Is there a diverse range of voices at the planning stages -  If not then they shouldn’t be ashamed to outsource that, to bring in new voices to educate the team. 

The same goes for outsourcing, make sure that they have the same ethics and the same kind of mindset of the brand. Quite often it’s actually not the brands but the external people they hire which create the issues and in that sense, they do have a sense of responsibility. 

Again, the access for feedback between brands and influencers is important as you will never see change if people are afraid to speak up. How welcoming as a brand are they for genuine and honest feedback? To me, there is nothing as powerful as feedback generated growth. It’s authentic, and a lot of the best brands have done this exercise and grown from listening to the communities stating what they need changed.

How do you think BAME influencers have impacted the off-line world? 

Beauty influencer Jackie Aina and Uoma Beauty founder Sharon Chuter’s #pullupforchange campaign. That was powerful.

Influencers even on a micro-level genuinely just speaking out about the ways in which they've been treated, has definitely caused a lot of shifting behind the scenes.  This has definitely been a time where the brand's protective mask has now gone, and conversations have had to happen.


I am not saying that many of these changes are genuine and I don’t believe that some are but certainly the ability to hide is over. Now, it's just a matter of time to see whether the impact of the influencers speaking out has created long term change. 

It's not just influencers, but also normal people online speaking out and sharing their experiences as well, and how they felt about a lot of discriminatory ways that they have been treated by brands, platforms, and whatever. I know a couple of UK influencers recently spoke out about just the ways in which one of these health sports brands were late on payment for their work.

From this, it turns out that they had paid all their white influencers, but the black influencers hadn't yet been paid for gigs from years before! 

This honesty and call for change is just so powerful and this is really a time where the voice of influencers really does have a huge impact both on and offline.

I do think it's not gonna stop,  I think people are just tired. I think there's a sense of let's just cut all of this pretence, and let's just get down to the facts of the matter and move beyond that, you know?