“Racial pay gaps are an issue in every industry,” NBC News reported last year. “Nowhere is it worse than in influencer marketing.”
That NBC story cited a study from the public relations firm MSL U.S. and The Influencer League, which found a 29% pay gap between white influencers and influencers of color. The gap between white and Black influencers, specifically? A whopping 35%.
That disparity comes as no surprise to Pamela Zapata, who saw firsthand the inequities in the industry during her decade-plus in marketing, production and influencer strategy—and set out to fix it. In 2019, she launched Society 18, an influencer management and digital marketing firm that focuses on multicultural and multiethnic content creators.
Zapata wants to show influencers of color that their skills and talent have value, and these days, she has a roster of creators who trust her team to build their brands and showcase their uniqueness. We sat down with Zapata to talk about setting out on your own, supporting creators of all kinds, and the beauty of standing up for yourself.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you talk a little bit about why you founded Society 18?
Pamela Zapata: I had been working in marketing, production, talent and casting for about 10 years when I started the agency. I started at Ryan Seacrest Productions; then, I went to E! and was there for four years. I went to a startup and essentially created their entire influencer network. Then, I moved to New York and worked at a couple of marketing agencies, where I was overseeing the Estée Lauder and Unilever portfolios—everything from influencer strategy to casting to execution to reporting.
What I noticed across the board, especially in the later years, was that influencers—a lot of them didn’t understand their value. They didn’t understand how to negotiate contracts. They didn’t understand what they should be charging for certain deliverables. And even more, content creators of color were requesting way lower rates than their counterparts. I realized there was a big group of Black and Brown creators who just didn’t have representation, had been representing themselves and were trying to navigate the space. So, I quit my full-time job, which was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done, to do something that I thought was going to be a little bit more fulfilling for me, which was helping these creators understand their value and understand what they could be charging for certain scopes of work.
It seems like a lot of influencers maybe find themselves stumbling into it: Their network grows, they’re being approached by brands, and then there’s a point where they realize, “Oh, I’m an influencer.” Is there a lack of awareness about how much brands value this kind of partnership right now?
PZ: I think a lot of them grew a following just because it was a hobby of theirs. They like to create content, and the following kind of came after. A lot of our clients started in the natural hair space, where women were doing the big chop, and women of color, specifically, were looking for products to help with their hair. Most of them—especially the ones who are on our roster—quickly went from 10 to hundreds of thousands of followers in a short amount of time. And they started getting some interest from brands, but I don’t think they really understood how profitable this industry could be, and how they could actually make this a sustainable business for themselves.
This gets at something else I wanted to ask you about, which is the importance of supporting influencers of color in these spaces. Natural hair—that’s not something a white influencer is going to know very much about.
PZ: That’s kind of where the name Society 18 came from: I wanted to be an agency that represented what society actually looks like. For me, it was not just representing a Black creator, a Brown creator and a caucasian creator, but all kinds of creators: plus-size, Muslim women who have hijabs, all types of races, ethnicities, cultures, religions. I really wanted to be inclusive of all of that. Because I feel like, for so long, when I was working at these agencies, a lot of the rosters I would receive were a similar type of girl. I wanted to be a solution to the problem that I saw, which was that a lot of management agencies weren’t really looking for diverse creators in all ways, shapes and forms.
I think it’s important for marketing materials and influencer campaigns to represent what society actually looks like, not people’s subconscious biases. Look at what Rihanna did with Savage X Fenty, right? Where it was really pushing the boundaries of what we thought was normal—but that’s what people look like! All shapes, all sizes, skin tones, hair textures. It’s important for all types of people to be able to see themselves represented in these marketing campaigns, which is why it’s important for agencies like us to highlight and elevate these creators who are not getting the visibility they deserve.
Do creators of color face a different set of challenges than white creators? Are there specific hurdles they face when it comes to monetizing their brand and reaching that influencer status?
PZ: I feel like a lot of creators feel that, and that’s where a lot of my clients started, where they felt like the opportunities that were presented to them were different from a lot of the opportunities that were presented to their colleagues. They weren’t getting the same visibility. I’m trying to shift their perspective and make them understand that they are worthy of these campaigns, these rates, and that how they were treated historically—we’re trying to change that.
Natural hair was where they started, but that’s not all they are, right? They’re women of color who are parents and love beauty and wear makeup and care about their skin care routine. It’s not just about the hair. Part of our strategy when we work with these creators is rebranding them, making sure they’re showing different levels to their life—talking about, “What is it like to be a woman entrepreneur in this industry and also a mom? What does your skin care routine look like? What makeup products are you using? How do you do work-life balance?” Making sure that they’re highlighting all these different facets of their lives, I think, has really helped expand the visibility that they have.
Speaking of which, you are yourself a woman-of-color entrepreneur! It doesn’t seem like there’s really a blueprint for what you’re doing. How did you go from launching the company just before the pandemic and navigating the last few years to get where you are now?
PZ: It’s been a roller coaster ride, to say the least. I think being a woman of color, and also first-generation American, is just a whole different perspective than a lot of my counterparts I work with in the industry have. I don’t come from generational wealth. I came from very humble beginnings. My parents came to this country and couldn’t speak a lick of English, and they always instilled in us that hard work, dedication and education were important to succeeding. That’s what fueled my work ethic, and it’s part of why I’m so ambitious—I want to make sure my parents’ sacrifices are worth something.
I think I hit a point where I felt like I was being called to do something bigger than me. The goal was to help women of color and creators of color make what they deserve. Because I know what I felt like when I was negotiating my salary—it’s very hard to negotiate for yourself. A lot of it is just figuring it out. So, I also want to be a resource for other women, women of color and first-generation Americans, because I feel like I could have used some sort of guidance. A lot of times, you’re just throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photos by ©Simón Espinal