Much ado was made about the new Influencer Agreement announced by the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) last month. I even shared a quick reaction opinion that it was a step in the right direction to further legitimize the entrepreneurial category we broadly call influencer marketing.
But upon further review, the agreement is really just a Band-Aid for current SAG-AFTRA members and not very inclusive of influencers who aren’t already actors or performers.
What the agreement breaks down to is that anyone who performs on camera or behind the microphone — thus qualifying as a screen, television or radio artist — can now file that contract to count toward work under SAG-AFTRA guidelines. That qualification, and the dues paid to SAG-AFTRA that are typically a percentage of the influencer’s fee, adds to the individual’s pension and healthcare-benefits qualification.
SAG-AFTRA fees are often paid by the agency or brand on top of an actor’s fee, and in most cases SAG-AFTRA members don’t work unless the union’s fees are accounted for. The big hiccup that forced SAG-AFTRA’s hand on this influencer agreement boils down to watching out for its members, not offering benefits to others.
What SAG-AFTRA members needed
The core issue behind the move is the blurred lines between the channels screen actors and radio/TV performers typically make money from, and the new highway of opportunity in social media. If a brand engages an actor for a television commercial, they pay union fees for that talent, but when the brand wants to engage the actor for a video on his or her social media channels, that’s not a traditional “screen actor’s” execution, so they refuse to pay union fees for the work.
There was also no check box on the submission form for an actor to file social media work as qualified performance work for their union card. So, SAG-AFTRA stepped in and now has a policy that social media work does qualify under the union and fees should be paid and accounted for.
The new Influencer Agreement covers performance work (on-camera or audio recording) published on either the individual’s social media feeds or those of the brand or client. As of this writing, it doesn’t qualify if the work is done in collaboration with other influencers. It can only be the single performer.
What SAG-AFTRA does for influencers
The good news for non-SAG-AFTRA members is that if they earn a good amount of money from videos (TikTok, YouTube, Instagram Stories) or voice work (e.g. podcasts or in a world where Clubhouse moderating pays well), they can now apply for union membership and pay in to receive healthcare and pension benefits. No real union exists for this type of content creator, so the opening is a relevant one and a needed relief for many earning their livelihoods on social media.
While the current Influencer Agreement has its holes, SAG-AFTRA officials told me repeatedly that it was a good first step. The union says there are continuing conversations about expanding this initial offering to solve for the larger industry problem.
What SAG-AFTRA doesn’t do for influencers
For all its hype and even potential for good, the agreement falls way short of being much benefit to the influencer marketing world. The complication isn’t, however, a failure in SAG-AFTRA’s vision. The failure is that influencers are not defined singularly. A performer, the general qualification of a SAG-AFTRA member, is one fraction of the role that an influencer plays. They might be on-camera or behind the microphone, but they’re often also the writer, set designer, director, producer, photographer, graphic designer, video editor, makeup artist and stylist for the intended work.
“The way that the [influencer] industry works is so vast and complex outside of the way the entertainment industry works that it doesn’t feel like there is a true understanding of how to support it,” Patrick Janelle, the personality behind @aguynamedpatrick and founder of influencer marketing talent agency Untitled Secret, told me recently. “There are lots of ways that influencers need to be supported, but one kind of small, specific way that influencers can be supported through SAG is not really helping the industry in a significant way.”
When I asked union staffers why the agreement didn’t cover all of what influencers did, the answer was very simple: Their union doesn’t cover that kind of work. They would be stepping on the toes of other unions, which I think we can all agree would be more trouble than progress.
Janelle is also the chairman of the Board of Directors of the American Influencer Council (AIC), a trade organization (but not union) for influencers. He says the Influencer Agreement from SAG-AFTRA also fails to address one of the more pressing issues a union should help with which is compensation standards.
“That’s something a union typically does,” he said.
Janelle recognized the move was a positive step forward for influencers, and noted the AIC is engaged in ongoing conversations with SAG-AFTRA to widen its understanding of, and perhaps representation for, the influencer industry. But the problems still exist.
What the influencer marketing industry really needs
The SAG-AFTRA model is, frankly, one that would do the influencer marketing industry good. It needs a creator-first organization — yes, a union — to ensure the entrepreneurs who earn their living creating engaging content on social media channels have protections, resources and benefits. And as the SAG-AFTRA agreement underlines, no union exists that can rightfully cover all the different aspects of what an influencer profession entails. Influencers are a new breed of professional with needs other unions cannot meet.
Imagine there was an influencer’s union — one that covered all aspects of being a digital content creator, not just on-camera or microphone work. An influencer could join and pay dues to carry an Influencer Union Card. Any engagement with a client would include a 10-20% fee to be paid to the union.
The union could survey its members to set common pricing standards for various types of work with a scalable fee for various sizes of a given influencer’s audience and/or engagement rates. Those content creators who didn’t want to join wouldn’t have to, and brands could elect to use non-union creators and influencers if they wished. But those high-quality producers making a career out of it would be more apt to join the union for the benefits it offers, so brands would tend to want to use union talent.
If anything, SAG-AFTRA has opened the door to some content creators, though most of those who will benefit are their current members. You can’t fault them for looking out for their own first. And we should give them a nod to taking a step, even if it’s a baby one, toward making the entrepreneurial avenue of online content creation more viable.