By 2044, people of color will make up the majority of the U.S. population. Naturally, there’s a resulting urgency for more diverse representation in marketing. Yet even with diversity on everyone’s table, influencers hired to check that box aren’t always eating. Most of us are giving away our talents and skills for free, getting paid with “exposure.” This devalues our work and denies us an equal seat at that table, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
I started modeling after I was street cast by a large American clothing company, which used my image in their stores and digital marketing all around the world. After not seeing payment, I reached out and was told my compensation was exposure—that the “opportunity” would help me. Confused, I consulted a fashion photographer I know in New York City to get his opinion. “At a minimum, you should be paid six Gs,” he said. “That’s the average rate for that caliber of job.” Needless to say, I felt used and a little embarrassed.
I’m now seeing a similar problem in the outdoor industry.
I’ve recently been contacted by outdoor brands wanting me in their ambassador programs. One offered me two apparel items. In return, I would have to send them three to five photos of each product to be shared on social media, plus email, website, and promotional use.
My agent (yes, I now have an agent) also recently found a client offering $2,000 for the use of my image. The contrast in opportunities is striking.
So, with frustrated poise, I responded to that outdoor brand: “Do you have any paid opportunities? If so, I would love to pursue that.”
The (actually pretty empathetic) marketing coordinator explained that this is an opportunity they give influencers to build their portfolio, and noted that paid opportunities may arise after “testing the waters.” Sigh.
The crazy thing? I understand. It makes business sense to test the waters, and for the right person, it’s a great opportunity to be associated with a popular brand. And it can lead to larger projects, or to fruitful referrals that can launch you to the next level.
But exposure still doesn’t pay the bills—especially considering that some studies pin influencer marketing as having 11 times the ROI of traditional advertising. Influencers, here’s my advice:
Always ask for paid opps. This sets the precedent for all future conversations. If they don’t have the money, say no and move on. Only work with brands for free if you see a mutual benefit and are having a transparent conversation.
Negotiate image usage. Always ask and understand how the images will be used. I once received this: “All images in exchange for the product will be used in social media, website, email, and promotional material.” I said social media only, and they obliged. Usage beyond social is exploitative (including promotional ads on social media). Companies have marketing budgets and pay models for these channels.
Do your research. Know what you’re supporting. Does the brand appropriate indigenous cultures’ designs? Tout U.S.-made but manufacture in Sri Lanka? Push diversity in campaigns, but not in their workplace? It’s up to you to decide where your personal brand intersects with a potential client’s—and only you should draw the lines.
The table is set. Let’s all eat.