Building an Inclusive Social Media Strategy
Featuring an interview with Callia Hargrove, founder and lead strategist at Backstory, a modern marketing agency rooted in DEI.
When it comes to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) and social media, I’d say most brands take a reactive approach. They post black squares, show up during designated months, and speak out only when in crisis mode. Callia Hargrove, founder and lead strategist at Backstory and my former coworker at Condé Nast, is on a mission to change that. She wants to make sure that brand marketing and social media is reflective of the world around us, all of the time.
For this week’s newsletter, I spoke with Hargrove about how brands can build DEI more proactively into their social strategies. This means hiring diverse teams, allowing talent to show up as themselves when creating content for a brand, storytelling with authenticity and lived experience at the center, and ultimately developing social ideas consciously and responsibly. We talk about mistakes she sees brands make, one brand that’s doing things right, tips for starting your own social agency, and more!
Rachel Karten: First can you tell me a bit about your current role and any past social roles you've had?
Callia Hargrove: Happy to! Currently, I’m the founder and lead strategist at Backstory, a modern marketing agency rooted in DEI. We take a custom approach to all of the projects we take on, with our capabilities spanning everything from social media strategy to DEI positioning. Because of that custom nature, I get to work with so many wonderful creatives and other agencies to bring projects to life. I hate to be cliche, but it really is the job of my dreams.
Prior to founding Backstory, I mainly worked in social media. When I started out my career it was back in the days when no one believed in the power of social and I felt like I was constantly convincing the companies I was working at to invest in it. I helped to build social programs at Teen Vogue, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Lou & Grey, and Racked (RIP).
RK: Can you talk to me about starting Backstory in 2020 and the work you've been doing since then?
CH: 2020 brought cultural and societal reckonings with it, but as a Black woman, the racial reckoning hit me especially hard. At the time, I was freelancing for a couple of different companies, but the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police led me to examine what I could personally do to push toward a world that is equitable and safe for all. I kept coming back to marketing, and the power that it has in allowing people to see themselves reflected when done right. Out of that contemplation came the idea for a marketing agency that centers DEI. After a frenzied website build, Backstory was born. Since June 2020 when we launched, we’ve refined our scope and have found a sweet spot at the intersection of marketing and comms through the lens of DEI. It has truly been the best adventure.
RK: I know one of your many areas that you focus on is social media, and specifically creating inclusive social media strategies. What are some ways you help brands do this?
CH: In intro meetings, we often get asked why brands need us if they have a dedicated DEI team. I believe there’s no limit to the areas of a business that DEI can and should touch. With my background in social, it felt like a natural fit to offer social capabilities through our specific lens. We’ve all seen campaign after campaign that centers one ideal of beauty. Or a product launch that’s missing the perspectives of people from minoritized communities. By partnering with us, brands and other creatives can ensure that they’re developing ideas consciously, responsibly, and sustainably. There’s no reason that in this day and age we’re still seeing all the -isms play out on social, especially from brand accounts. I hope someday that this approach to social becomes standard practice, but until then we’ll do all we can on the projects we touch.
RK: What's a mistake you see a lot of brands make when it comes to building an inclusive social presence?
CH: The biggest one I see these days is tokenism. The 2020 reckonings made many people aware that brands needed to do better when it comes to the diversity of the people and perspectives employed for projects. But without deep thought and behind-the-scenes work around how to do that effectively, we get box-checking. We get hiring talent for their unique point of view, then not allowing them to show up as themselves when it’s time to create content. We get inequality on set. Individual people should never be viewed as representatives of any given community or group.
RK: I think that a big factor is making sure both social teams and marketing teams are more diverse.
I attended a wonderful dinner last week celebrating books written by two of my old Teen Vogue colleagues. ‘Worn Out’ by Alyssa Hardy and ‘The Power of Plus’ by Gianluca Russo. Following readings from the authors, we had an amazing round table discussion about diversity in the fashion industry. One of the discussion points questioned why we haven’t been able to see true change when it comes to fashion companies extending size ranges. When we chatted about marketing’s hand in the issue, I mentioned that most companies only want to deal with matters of diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging when a crisis arises. They don’t invest in staffing diversely, and then have to hire agencies like Backstory when they’ve done something that could have been avoided. With DEI work, it’s so important to think proactively vs. reactively and staffing should be a central part of any proactive brand strategy.
RK: Is there a brand (or brands) that you think have done a really good job at authentically building a diverse social presence and online community?
CH: I love love love what Ami Colé is doing. I chatted with Diarrha about the pre-launch concept, and I’m blown away by the world she has created around the brand. If you were to look at the brand as a case study, Ami Colé proves that you can have a brand that centers a particular minoritized group but is still welcoming to all. The nods to Black women never cease to delight me, and the product more than lives up to the hype. Whenever I’m out and see another person (across races, ethnicities, gender expressions, etc.) with a tube of their now infamous Lip Treatment Oil it creates an instant bonding experience. To me, that’s the epitome of what a successful online to offline pipeline looks like.
RK: To pivot, I would love to hear any tips you have for social professionals who maybe want to go out on their own and either freelance, consult, or start their own agency. What you've built is so impressive! What are the three most important tips that you'd give someone?
CH: Thank you! To quote Nike, just do it. I say that with awareness of the systemic barriers and inequalities that may make it more difficult for certain people to leap out on their own. Know that whenever you’re ready, you can do it and the world is made better by you and your skill set. We each bring unique things to the table, so use those things as a vehicle to set you apart. Think through your secret sauce and use that as a launch point.
Off the top I’d give these three tips:
Boundaries boundaries boundaries. Create ‘em and live by ‘em. Social media is a 24/7 job in nature and it’s important to create boundaries for your own well-being. Don’t be afraid to say “no” or “not right now” if a project is out of alignment.
Know your value. Don’t shortchange yourself. Research industry rates and add a little something on the top. You deserve it.
Be kind, but firm. With client work, it pays to be kind but remember that your clients aren’t your bosses. Kindness and respect should be exchanged both ways.
RK: Are you hopeful about the future of social media?
I am but I definitely think intervention may be required to get us back on the right path. When I was starting out in social, every platform had a unique use and it felt like people could genuinely be themselves. As the business of social media has grown, I think we’ve veered away from what I believe is its true purpose—allowing people to connect with one another and explore their interests regardless of location. Lately, the social media experience feels very homogenized and I’ve heard so many people—both online and IRL—talking about how they wish they could give up their accounts.
When I think back on what I’d consider the golden age of social (roughly 2010-2016) Tumblr always comes to mind. I miss the Tumblr of that era so much. It was a magical place where I could explore my budding interests in art and fashion while connecting with other people who loved those things too. It also introduced me to the importance of mental health and that I wasn’t the only one wondering what my place in the world was. I wouldn’t be where I am today without Tumblr. I literally found my first internship in New York City from a posting I came across there! I hope someday we’ll get back to a place where platforms prioritize genuine connection and expression over the bottom line.
RK: Any final thoughts?
CH: Thank you so much, Rachel! I had a great time answering these questions. If you’d like to keep up with what we’re up to at Backstory, follow or connect with me on LinkedIn. It’s my favorite platform as of late!
Looking for a job in social media? Want to list the social job you’re hiring for? Check out the Link in Bio job board here!
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