Diversity Is Not Your Influencer Buzzword

Shannae Ingleton Smith, founder of Kensington Grey, joins RHC to talk about the importance of representation within the influencer industry, and why investing in inclusive and equitable campaigns can be a game changer that goes way beyond marketing metrics.

In 2023 RHC established a Diversity Council to generate action and advocacy for diversity, equality, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) throughout all aspects of our work. The goal is to be progressive; to continually strive for excellence, and to arm our team with knowledge that we can readily apply to both our company framework and that of our clients. Throughout the year, we invite a thought-leader and game changer in the DEIA space to educate us on promoting DEIA within the workforce and consult on how we can apply their approach directly.  

In February we were joined by Shannae Ingleton Smith, founder of Kensington Grey, a Toronto-based, boutique influencer agency that aims to combat the lack of representation for people of color within the influencer industry. During the session, Shannae spoke on the importance of representation, not only for the success of a brand but for a company’s internal culture as well. She demonstrated how investing in inclusive and equitable campaigns can be a game changer that goes way beyond marketing metrics.

We have distilled some key takeaways from her session below:

Reflecting the Real World

The modern consumer is looking to see themselves mirrored in the content they engage with. So for a campaign to resonate below a surface level, brands and agencies must build campaigns that reflect the world around us – with representation from the composite of backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, and lifestyles we see in the cities we live in. Shannae notes that “in the U.S., where 15% represents the Black community, it’s a meaningful reference point. However, diversity in campaigns shouldn’t be overly prescriptive.

Keep Conversations Authentic

Intentionality is key, being upfront about commitments to diversity and inclusion, and acknowledging at what point in this journey you and your team are on is important in order to foster an honest and open conversation. Shannae’s approach is rooted in authenticity, “we prefer brands to be honest about their stance rather than adopting a performative front.”  

She continued, “when a brand expresses a genuine desire to change, learn, and embrace diversity, we enthusiastically open the door to collaboration. These conversations are not sporadic but an integral part of our daily routine, both internally and with clients. It’s about fostering continuous dialogue to navigate and address these challenges effectively.”

Seeing The Bigger Picture

Kensington Grey came from a plan to make a difference, Shannae recalls noticing a variety of bias gaps in her own workplace; “diversity, especially as being one of the only people of color, as well as a knowledge gap between the value of service and content being created.” A space filled with the same faces and lived experiences is filled with bias. And acknowledging this bias gap (if it’s there), consulting directly with individuals from diverse groups, and seeking input from those directly affected by the messaging can mitigate the risks of cultural misappropriation or insensitivity. Respect for differing perspectives and experiences allows marketers and publicists to see the bigger picture, away from their day-to-day radar, and helps create campaigns that are not only mindful of cultural nuances and sensitivities, but also often result in fresh, unique content.

Affecting Change 

One thing often overlooked about championing opportunities for diverse creators and underrepresented voices is that it plays a huge role in breaking societal stereotypes and removing barriers to entry and success for those groups. 

Shannae points out that we, as a society, are “shifting our attention from traditional media to social media” and consciously filling the spaces you have control over with opportunities for influencers who defy current traditional norms contributes to turning that into the future traditional norm. 

It also allows us to amplify the voices that are advocating for social change. Kensington Grey encourages all of their clients to speak on matters they are genuinely passionate about, and when engaging creators on behalf of brands, you are bringing new eyes to that creator and allowing them to leverage other platforms. Small ripples create waves. 

Creating Creative Freedom

Across the board, Shannae highlights granting influencers the creative freedom to do their thing as integral to a successful campaign. They know their audience, and imposing creative rigid guidelines can risk diluting the authenticity that makes diverse campaigns impactful.  She uses the recent Topicals trip as an example, because “they strategically sourced creators from diverse backgrounds, including up-and-coming talents. 

Transporting them to Ghana in December, a time of rich cultural festivities, Topicals went above and beyond by decking out everyone’s rooms with their products. This allowed participants to not only experience the vibrant city and country but also made perfect sense for the products being promoted and led to the organic sharing of the experience further contributing to the overall success of the campaign.

Creators have built their following creating content that resonates with their audience, which when it comes to working with influencers who are outside of your own societal ‘group’, can include leveraging different lived experiences that ultimately connect deeper with the end user. We all love to use “authenticity” as a buzzword, but true co-creation puts it into practice.

Another key to an authentic campaign is a fair value exchange that leaves everyone feeling valued. “Take travel experiences, for instance; it’s not just about content creation but ensuring creators genuinely enjoy the experience. We aim for a balanced schedule, allowing time for travel, enjoyment, and rest.” Shannae says.  

She also recommends engaging influencers around personal milestones or special occasions, “hosting creators for content on birthdays, has proven highly successful. The key lies in crafting collaborations that stand out and go beyond the typical, allowing influencers to truly shine.

Employ A Diverse Team

And finally, Shannae shares that the most impactful way to ensure you’re creating diverse campaigns, is hiring a diverse team and ensuring that decision-makers themselves are a diverse group, representing a variety of perspectives and backgrounds. We have seen so many brands pledge to increase diversity within their campaigns, however, if that diversity and equity isn’t reflected internally, then your allyship can become performative. 

Shannae continues, “maintaining a balanced and inclusive team that captures the richness of diverse experiences and perspectives, ensures that no one is overlooked or underrepresented.

Including diverse voices and minds in the strategy room creates well-rounded ideas that are appropriate in tone, content, authenticity, and effectiveness. And including those voices and minds in communications with influencers can also provide comfort to partners, offering them an insight into your business make-up and priorities, reassuring them that their perspective is represented and value appreciated, and ultimately deepening the relationship’s potential. 

For teams that are looking to grow in diversity, she recommends starting with expanding your personal feeds, “take stock of who you are following and what content you are consuming. It’s something that happens from the inside out; it’s not just a box that’s being ticked because it can get performative.  

The best teacher for growth in diversity is looking in the mirror, having a conversation with yourself, and working internally. What we are doing now is great: working with Black-owned businesses and agencies and connecting with people who know what’s hot and popular.”

When it comes to navigating challenges related to cultural sensitivity and appropriation in influencer marketing, overall Shannae recommends respectfully and fearlessly ask questions that help and prioritize openness, understanding, and fostering knowledge-sharing dialogues. Kensington Grey is rooted in authenticity, and when a brand expresses a genuine desire to change, learn, and embrace diversity, they enthusiastically open the door to collaboration. Shannae said, “These conversations are not sporadic, but an integral part of our daily routine, both internally and with clients. It’s about fostering continuous dialogue to navigate and address these challenges effectively.” 

To find out more about RHC’s Diversity Council, head to RHC’s Ethos page, and keep your eyes peeled for takeaways from our next session with journalist and activist, Shayna Conde.