Launched at the end of last year as part of The River Group, UK diversity and inclusion-focussed talent management agency Reflect is already making waves in the industry. With an established agency managing director brought in at the helm, and a range of talented influencers now on its books, the organisation has spent much of 2022 signing significant brand partnership deals.
We caught up with said Managing Director, Jackie Blake, to find out more, and I began by asking her to introduce her own impressive background in the industry to us…
“My background spans approximately 20yrs of talent and influencer management,” says Blake. “My career actually started back in 1995, when I was living in Cape Town in South Africa, where I lived for a good 25yrs. I began working for a start-up agency there, which has gone on to become the most successful agency in South Africa, and progressed my way through head booker, general manager, and eventually to another agency where I became partner and managing director as well.”
“Over that time, I’ve managed influencers, models, and within that Diverse and Inclusive (D&I) talent to a degree, but I’ve certainly seen a huge amount of change in the industry during that time too!”
The MD’s impressive CV is really the first thing that jumps off the page at you when you look at Reflect. The media and in particular the arts & entertainment sectors within it have often felt quintessentially exclusionary, be that across modelling, acting, music, or wherever it may be.
With Blake at the helm, you’re not only met with the image of an agency taking its brief extremely seriously, but also the underlying sense that one of its leading protagonists from the past two decades, is now at the forefront of industry change.
“We’ve since I joined signed 15 influencers,” says the MD. “They represent a whole range of communities from visible disability, non-visible disability, to LGBTQI+, neurodiversity and everything in between. Collectively the influencers we have attract 1.6m followers across all of their various social platforms, and we’ve to-date signed 12 brand partnership deals with brands as well.”
“These include some bigger names that people may recognise, like a Superdrug or a Starling Bank, F&F clothing who work with Tesco to smaller start-ups and tech businesses, say for example that run apps for individuals with autism and so on.”
Operating in such an industry, at a time of – in one sense great change, but also increased awareness – that much more still needs to be done, brings an array of client relationships, with brands at varying stages of their D&I development.
Where Reflect can undoubtedly have a more direct impact on D&I in media, compared with more traditional agencies, is through its legacy roots at River. The Group is one of the most successful content marketing agencies in the UK, and by levering this experience, Reflect is able to create opportunities for influencers directly, as opposed to remaining at the whim of the casting couch.
“From a Reflect perspective, we offer two distinct types of services to brands. One is influencer and creator talent, the other is campaigns, so we do D&I campaigns on behalf of brands as well.”
“When it comes to the talent and influencers we represent, the brand has already reached that part of their decision-making process where they have decided to work with a diverse and inclusive influencer. Generally, they’ve identified the sort of community they want to reach, and then it’s just a case of working out the logistics… making sure that they’re fairly represented both from a contractual perspective and also of course the fees they are being paid for the work they do.”
“The other aspect then is a brand approaching us with the creation of a D&I campaign in mind, and wanting to drill down into that a little bit further. They can tap into our thoughts and expertise on how they should go about doing that in an authentic way, and the types of audience that they want to reach as well.”
“You are not just appealing to consumers in these communities, but consumers in general.”
However individual companies approach it, it’s clear to Blake that – more broadly – attitudes in the industry are changing. And especially when brands begin to look at D&I from a business pov, the case for change becomes undeniable.
“I do think in terms of progression within the industry and amongst brands in general, there is definitely an upswing in the global conversation around diversity and inclusion. It is apparent in conversations everywhere, social media, in print, etc. and younger generations have much higher expectations of brands when it comes to social justice and equity.”
“So from a brand perspective yeah, it really is extremely important to become aware of that and to start becoming a lot more diverse and inclusive in your marketing and advertising. In doing so, you are not just appealing to consumers in these communities, but consumers in general.”
“The Gen Z community are driving higher expectations, without a shadow of a doubt, and there is a lot of data to support that. Consumers believe that brands that aren’t D&I in their approach are going to become less and less relevant over the years. There are even some studies that have shown that increased D&I directly influences increased ROI – and you can’t really argue with that!”
Blake identifies huge global brands as being pioneers in leading the charge for greater media diversity, such as Victoria’s Secret, Gucci, and Mastercard. But she also says that smaller companies have had a BIG part to play, especially when it comes to bringing less represented groups into mainstream culture.
“I think that generally what happens is that you see shifts beginning to emerge and then gain momentum.”
“I think it’s also becoming more apparent in television, or particularly streaming. Netflix is applauded on a regular basis for the diverse and inclusive series and movies that they they make, so it’s great to see it happening there. Channel 4 is another one that is highly recognised for the efforts and work that they put in. Disney is also a great brand in that respect.”
“I think that generally what happens, and I’m going back to 1995 here remember, is that you see shifts beginning to emerge and then gain momentum. Back then, I do recall advertising campaigns in particular were very much formed around your traditional model look – perfect bodies, flawless skin, photoshopped. These were completely unrealistic representations that normal people can neither identify with, or certainly live up to.”
“And you saw a big shift take place probably about ten years ago, where you started to see more people of colour, what we call plus sized models, and much more body positivity arriving on the scene. More recently, we’ve seen more diverse influencers starting to come through, with say a transgender or LGBTQ community focus. But I still believe that neurodiversity and disability is still sorely underrepresented, and yet these people make up a massive part of the global community.”
Disability can undoubtedly be an important niche for Reflect, and in-turn the industry at large. It’s a topic we looked at right at the inception of the agency, when Shadow Board Member and Head of Comms for Shift.ms, Mark Webb, highlighted that certain underrepresented groups still find it harder to make their way into the media spotlight than others:
“Arguably we are getting quite good with gender,” Webb told us during a virtual event with River Group CEO, Nicola Murphy, back in December. “Even though I like to point out that it’s 100 years since the Suffragettes ran in front of a horse to win women the vote and we still don’t have equal job opportunities and pay for women.”
“But ok, we’re doing OK with gender, we’re doing OK with BAME, we’re doing OK with sexuality, even though we could still do more. But then disability – despite being the largest minority – still kindof has to fight to get to the table.”
Finally, in talking to Jackie, I wanted to get a fix on the changing nature on the entertainment side of the media industry today. At the turn of the millennium, acting and modelling agencies were very much still closed shops that only a very small minority of individuals could get into, and therefore subsequently into work through.
Has this changed now? Is social media a help or a hindrance? Is the modern influencer game the same as the modelling/acting/presenting one that ran before it? Or are we now operating in a whole new media spotlight!?
“Yeah, it’s a good question, and I think quite interesting in terms of social media,” she tells me. “Although it is recognised as a channel or a media where the underrepresented can feel less underrepresented, it can end up feeling like the opposite. If you think about the Instagram algorithm, it ends up feeding us exactly what it thinks we are looking for, and this is not necessarily the most diverse or inclusive approach!”
“In terms of the industry more broadly… I mean look, there are still many successful traditional modelling agencies out there. I still believe there is a place for that, and many are still doing extremely well. But the growth of social media has seen a huge upsurge in influencers. Over the last ten years that side of the industry has tripled in size, it’s now worth billions of dollars globally, and so is certainly not a sector to be ignored.”
“And y’know, the digital world is here to stay isn’t it… when you start to look at the future and thinking about say D&I in the metaverse, and how that’s going to look, I think there is a marvellous opportunity there. While we’re still in the formative and creative stages of that world, we can be setting up environments that are actually MORE inclusive and accessible for people. The metaverse could actually end up becoming more representative of real society than the world we live in today!”