The creators are unionizing. Here’s what it could mean for marginalized creators
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When most people think of creators, or influencers, they think big.
They remember the TikTok insta-star who saw overnight fame for their pandemic quips. Or they recall the YouTuber with millions of subscribers and a lavish lifestyle funded by massive sponsorship deals.
The truth is far more down to earth, maybe even a little mundane. Similar to how actors struggle for years to “make it” in the industry, the largest slice of the creator industry pie is made up of thousands of micro-influencers with sizeable-but-modest follower counts that grow slowly over time.
Creators are some of the scrappiest hustlers of our time. They grow their audience and make brands look great through good ol’ fashioned work, dedication, and talent.
Creator marketing, born out of humanity’s beautiful mess of social media discourse, has traditionally been unregulated and unstandardized. But according to Insider Intelligence data, brands will spend a projected $15 billion on influencer marketing by 2022. The industry has officially gone mainstream.
After many years of carving out legitimate career paths within the space, many creators want the standard features of any (good) job: health benefits, professional development, and fair pay for good value.
In early February 2021, SAG-AFTRA, which represents American film and television performers, announced an important addition to their membership: online content creators.
While the agreement is important for all creators who often go months without seeing a paycheck for the work they’ve done, marginalized creators have the most to gain from the milestone agreement. Marginalized creators––people of color, disabled creators, and LGBTQ+ creators, among others––consistently report low offers, late or no payment, and the expectation of free work for product.
F*** You Pay Me, an Instagram account and app that collects anonymous data from creators, recently released their ethnicity pay gap data. According to the report, white creators receive an average of $4,352 USD for a campaign, while Black creators received an average of $478. (The report notes, “these influencers self-identified as "White" and "Black" only and do not include results from influencers who self-identified as more than one race.”)
While more data on pay disparity between white, straight, cisgender creators and marginalized creators is still being painstakingly gathered, anecdotal evidence from the Influencer Pay Gap, an Instagram account created by AGM influencer talent manager Adesuwa Ajayi, paints a stark picture of the experiences of Black creators through hundreds of anonymous submissions.
And here lies the importance of the SAG-AFTRA agreement for marginalized creators: when an organization steps up to represent an underrepresented group of people, it becomes a centralized source of information and education that empowers its members through credible transparency.
Keep reading to find out more about the basics of the SAG-AFTRA agreement for all creators, and how the agreement can lead to a better future for underserved pockets of the creator economy.
SAG-AFTRA agreement: The basics
SAG-AFTRA released this fact sheet with full details on the agreement.
Here are some of the most important points:
- The agreement doesn’t set minimums or pay bands on compensation between a creator and a brand. The two are still free to negotiate among themselves.
- There is no minimum follower count for eligibility. A union contract with an advertiser triggers membership eligibility.
- Creators will qualify for pension and health benefits based on contributions made on what they earn.
- Creators need to be incorporated to become a member.
- To qualify, creators need to produce all the content themselves, alone.
- A union agreement allows content only on the creator’s social media accounts and the advertiser’s accounts, including YouTube channels and websites. No TV, billboard, etc. allowed.
- Content can only be used for a maximum of one year, unless otherwise negotiated.
Transparency, education, and fair value: The role of union agreements for marginalized creators
“So much of the creator space is so secretive, and we have to think about intersectionality within that,” says Nicole Ocran, fashion creator and founding member of the Creator Union in the United Kingdom. “I know of so many Black creators who are approached by the brand of their dreams, and they think that if they do well on one piece of content for free that they’ll be approached again for paid work. And so often that just doesn’t happen.”
Credit: Lindsey Isla
The Creator Union is in the midst of parsing survey data on the creator industry, and Nicole says they see four main problems for marginalized creators that they’re working to address:
- Pay disparity among creators of color, disabled creators, and LGBTQ+ creators
- A complete omission of payment, especially in favor of “gifts” (free product)
- Fair pricing, but invoices remain unpaid for up to a year
- Pay structures determined solely by follower count––which barely scratch the surface of a creator’s value
Creator agreements like SAG-AFTRA’s can address these inequities in three ways: transparency, education, and assessing holistic creator value beyond follower counts.
The power of price transparency
You can’t change what you can’t see.
Rather than setting standard creator pricing––the SAG-AFTRA agreement lets creators and brands negotiate pricing themselves––Nicole says it’s more beneficial for creators to simply understand price benchmarking so they know what they should be charging for their time and effort.
“The creator doesn’t have the benefit of knowing the projected outcome of the campaigns they’re helping to produce,” Nicole says. “Price benchmarking eliminates the need to feel grateful and deferential to a business that may frame a partnership with a creator as ‘providing a gift.’ But that’s not what the relationship is.”
Transparent creator pricing is crucial for marginalized creators who may accidentally undervalue themselves, simply because they don’t know what’s normal. Creator unions can serve as centralized sources of truth during price negotiations with brands.
Education amidst the wild west
Unless you live in China, you probably didn’t get a degree in creator marketing.
“It’s not like you can go to school to become a creator,” Nicole says. “People have no idea what they should be claiming as expenses on their taxes. In the UK, they also don’t know that they can be taxed on gifts from brands. There’s nowhere you can learn these things as a creator.”
Nicole says that many creators don’t draft official contracts with brands, rather that agreements are worked out over DM or email. She says she’s talked to creators who see their face on a billboard or on TV as part of a huge brand campaign when they thought they were just taking a quick photo or video.
The SAG-AFTRA agreement, by default, specifies that a creator’s likeness only appear on social media accounts, likely to protect the creator from instances like these. As creator marketing continues to spill over to wider brand awareness campaigns in print and TV, brands should expect to negotiate these items separately and at higher value.
Credit: The Guardian
Paving a path beyond traditional metrics
As creator marketing moves beyond traditional affiliate metrics, Nicole stresses the importance of assessing a creator’s value based on goals, effort, and time spent creating content. Similar to other types of contractors, creators are providing a service to brands that can’t always be measured in a straight line. Unions are a place to start with the push for this holistic view.
“I wouldn’t say we should standardize pricing,” Nicole says, “but each creator should be considered based on they’re unique offering and how that matches with the brand’s goals.”
For example, Nicole says, one creator may do affiliate links every day, and people go to them when they want to shop. But other creators may just have an authentically chic vibe, and every brand that aligns themselves with that creator is automatically seen as a little more chic. If a creator is hired to create beautiful content that brand can use, why should payment be determined solely by follower count?
This is especially important for marginalized creators, who are often described as “niche” and therefore may get paid less than their peers. Unions open doors for these creators to negotiate price with a third party, who can explain their value on their behalf.
Creator marketing is growing up. Unions are a natural next phase of development for the industry—and when marginalized creators benefit from this maturity, so does everyone else.
Follow these accounts for updates
The creator organization effort is ongoing and developing quickly. To stay up to date on the latest developments, follow these accounts:
SAG-AFTRA: American union for performers and entertainers
F*** You Pay Me: The Glassdoor for creators, having recently released ethnicity pay gap data.
Influencer Pay Gap: Collecting anonymous stories from creators for better transparency and accountability.
Kimberly Renee: Holding brands accountable to paying creators.