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DEfy Social: “Working with diverse influencers is a celebration of unique voices and perspectives. It’s not a checkbox.”

Founded in 2020 at the height of the #BlackLivesMatter movement against racism and discrimination, UK influencer and PR agency DEfy Social is on a mission to help brands develop inclusive communications strategies. The agency represents content creators of all stripes, be they culturally diverse, disabled, neurodiverse, non-binary, or just different. In this interview conducted at IMS Europe in London last month, DEfy Social Co-founder Destiny York outlines the challenges her unique agency faces from current conditions in influencer marketing.

destiny york de chez DEfy
destiny york de chez DEfy

How would you describe the influence landscape for diverse and minority groups at present?

It’s very difficult and it’s very competitive. When we started the business in 2020, the #BlackLivesMatter movement was trending on social media and we saw an influx of brands wanting to use diverse — specifically black, talent — within their marketing mix and within their content creation. Over the past three years, we’ve seen a significant decline of the use of people within that space. It’s become less of a trend and is less sought after. What we’re finding within our pitching is that rather than it just being accepted as ‘yes, definitely we need a diverse selection of on-screen talent’, it’s more of a negotiation. We have to really prove why diverse talent sells.

With the cost of living crisis, brands are hesitant to invest into larger marketing budgets because of a lack of consumer spending. We have noticed that using minority influencers has become more of a gamble for brands, and they’re more hesitant because they’re not sure they’re going to see the return on investment; which isn’t true because we have the case studies to prove that diverse influencers deliver solid ROI. But unfortunately, brands are going backwards to pre-2020 and using older strategies and more well-known influencers and talent who are recognized, rather than being willing to invest in smaller and minority talent.

What do you think is driving that? Is it just a question of budget or is there also a lack of understanding of the value of diverse talent?

There are a few reasons, with one definitely being budget limitations. Many brands still allocate their resources to more traditional advertising channels, and diverse influencer marketing might be perceived as an additional cost. There can also be a lack of understanding within some marketing teams about the value that diverse talent brings. This can often stem from traditional marketing strategies that have not fully adapted to the changing demographics of audiences.

We’ve found that the advertising industry can be slow to change. Traditional norms and historical approaches to marketing may still dominate decision-making, hindering a more inclusive approach. Because of this, some brands might be hesitant to embrace diversity due to the fear of potential backlash or negative reactions. This fear may stem from a lack of understanding about the positive impact that diverse representation can have.

It’s crucial for brands to recognise the value of diversity not only from an ethical standpoint, but also as a strategic business move. Diverse content creators often bring unique perspectives that resonate with a broader audience, leading to increased brand authenticity and relevance. Brands can benefit from investing in education, diversifying their influencer networks, and adopting a more inclusive marketing strategy that aligns with the evolving demographics of their target audience.

So brands haven't made the leap to understanding that just because somebody is different doesn’t mean others won’t be inspired by them?

From 2020 to 2022, we saw our larger creators, who have millions of followers, getting significant work, through TV and brand deals. Recently, we’ve been pitching them in rooms and the responses are very unsure. The thought is that they’re “a little bit too niche”. Yet they weren’t niche in 2022 and it’s the same creators that have worked with those brands before. We’re also able to provide data from previous campaigns to prove these creators can generate sales, however, they are still considered a risk.

How much do questions around influencer performance, specifically on Instagram, play into that hesitancy?

The fact that Instagram is constantly making changes to their algorithm to try and compete with TikTok is having a significant impact on all creators. Our creators who have had high engagement and reach over a long period of time, are now noticing their engagement rates are decreasing. The question is, why is it happening? Their followers love them but aren’t able to engage with their content because Instagram has changed to a platform that feeds content and pages to people who don’t know them, and have not chosen to view their content, leading to less engagement. It’s very difficult because nobody wants to just regurgitate content. You’re not going to use the same strategy on TikTok as you are on Instagram. So we’re constantly chasing our tail as to how we integrate with this and ensure our creators are staying authentic to themselves rather than creating content to jump on a trend.

What’s your view on how influence on TikTok is running at the moment?

Running campaigns, I would rather run them on TikTok at the moment where I know that everything is going to be similar and there’s not going to be massive change mid campaign. TikTok is also great because as a business, they work a lot more closely with their creators and with the agencies. They are much easier to get in touch with, you can meet their staff and the people who are working behind the scenes. Whereas Instagram/Meta, it’s almost like The Wizard of Oz. You never know what’s going on.

Are diverse creators also under pressure from audiences over questions of authenticity?

Creators know their content and what their audience wants to see. We work with creators who are very real. That’s one of our straight lines, we represent the real. We’ve never worked with creators that personify a false life. Our creators have always created content similar to what today we call UGC. Every one of our influencers is relatable; they’re normal people. They’re just activism based. They’re all fighting to try and change the world and to change something they see is wrong. The influx of UGC means that brands want to work with real creators who showcase the realities of their lives rather than typical creators that project a famous, rich life that people just can’t achieve.

What’s your top tip for working with diverse and minority creators?

When working with diverse and minority creators, the key is to prioritize authenticity, respect, and inclusivity. Authenticity is paramount. Understand that diversity is not just a checkbox but a celebration of unique voices and perspectives. Engage in meaningful conversations, learn about the creator’s background, and genuinely appreciate their individuality. Avoid tokenism and ensure that collaborations reflect a sincere commitment to diversity, not just a momentary trend. Authenticity fosters trust, respect, and genuine connections, creating impactful and lasting collaborations.

It’s also important to analyze their data. They all have different types of audiences and will give brands access to a target group they are not necessarily speaking to at the moment. That’s why it’s beneficial to work with them.

You also have experience working in the US market; what are the key differentiators between the US and UK markets?

The US market has more legislation than we do, which helps because you’re working within clearer guidelines. As a creator and an agency, it makes you feel a lot safer to work within those guidelines. It’s a lot more transparent throughout the Influencer marketing industry.

Do you have any advice for European brands looking to break into the US influence marketing market?

Diversify your strategy and don’t just believe the negative press. In terms of diversity and inclusion, corporate structures are really advanced in the US. When I work within the US market, it always makes me happy. Often in the UK, within the corporate sector, there needs to be more representation at the top; then you wouldn’t need to employ agencies like us to educate your staff because it would filter down from the top. Whereas in the US, when I work with senior managers, there is a diverse selection of them. It’s not just one specific type. The US is absolutely fantastic for this, they’ve been doing it a lot longer than we have. Their brands generally recognise that diversity and inclusion is a necessary policy.

About Kolsquare

Kolsquare is Europe’s leading Influencer Marketing platform, a data-driven solution that allows brands to scale their KOL Marketing strategies and implement authentic partnerships with KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders). Kolsquare’s technology enables marketing professionals to easily identify the best Content Creators profiles by filtering their content and audience, and to build and manage their campaigns from A to Z, including measuring results and benchmarking performance against competitors. Kolsquare has built the largest community of influencer marketing experts in the world, and offers hundreds of customers (Coca-Cola, Netflix, Sony Music, Publicis, Sézane, Sephora, El Corte Inglés, Lacoste, …) the latest Big Data, AI and Machine Learning technologies to drive inspiring partnerships, tapping into an exhaustive network covering 100% of  KOLs with more than 5,000 followers in 180 countries on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. As a Benefit Company, Kolsquare has been pioneering Responsible Influence by championing transparency, ethical practices, and meaningful collaborations to inspire change.

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