DM To Collaborate: Working With Brands on Instagram

There’s nothing I’ve come across in my time doing interiors-based fannying about on Instagram which is more divisive than the existence of “influencer marketing”. It seems to inspire a range of big feelings in people, ranging from “you go, girlfriend/boyfriend” with general waving of pompoms, via “meh, whatevs, scroll on by”, to “PEOPLE WHO ADVERTISE THINGS ON INSTAGRAM ARE THE LOWEST OF THE LOW, GO AND GET A PROPER JOB, YOU LEECH” (these comments are generally from the sort of people most comfortable writing in capitals. I presume their phones are set to constant caps lock, for ease).

Now, I’m a peaceful sort of a person. I don’t like conflict in my personal life, I do not go round starting arguments or offering my unsolicited opinion on what other people are doing (apart from the government, but that’s slightly different). I like the easy path. I’ve never fallen out with anyone (to my recollection). I’m a people pleaser (which annoys me, I wish I wasn’t). The discovery that there are virtual angry mobs out there, gunning for people who do paid work via Instagram was slightly confusing to me, I must say. I’m certainly not the biggest account out there, or any kind of authority on the subject, but I do paid work sometimes, and so I thought I’d give my two penno’rth about what it all involves. Hopefully no-one will come at me with a pitchfork, virtual or otherwise. I will also add that no-one has ever had a pop at me personally for working with brands on Instagram, but I have Seen Things On The Internet.

How I Got Into ‘Interiors Instagram’

Good question. I’m never quite sure. It was definitely an accident. I opened an Instagram account in 2014, and posted pictures of daft things that made me laugh, or the frilly blouse I was wearing, or the kids, as and when I felt like it. I followed mainly fashion accounts, because I like clothes as much as I like interiors. After a few months, I began to pick up on the fact people were Instagramming their home decor, and I followed along with some of them, probably being too shy to comment, and just having a general nosy. One day, I was working at home (many years pre-pandemic, I like to think I was a trailblazer), and I’d bought some old vintage letters which spelled out “HOWL”. There is no exciting reason behind this, I just thought they were cool. I popped them up on a shelf in my hallway and thought they looked nice, and I bobbed an Instagram post up with a picture of them, and added a couple of hashtags, including “myhomevibe”, which I’d seen a few people using. The “myhomevibe” hashtag was actually one run by Instagram legends Lisa Dawson and Dee Campling, and they ended up re-gramming my hallway pic. I nearly died. It was well exciting. I got a mini flurry of new followers.

Early adventures in interiors Instagramming

I then went on with a mix of a few bits house stuff (the house was nowhere near complete then, I only had a few good bits!) and other stuff, and, in 2017, somehow ended up being invited to a small, Leeds-based Instagram gathering at Katie Woods’ house (@comedowntothewoods). Again, I nearly died. She had, like, 7k followers at the time (she now has 220k+), which was unfathomable to me. I didn’t know anyone, but I also like doing things that scare me a bit (you feel alive!) and so I trundled along and had an absolutely brilliant night with lovely people in Katie’s jaw-dropper house.

I didn’t know one of these people before this night! All now pals.

I then felt like I’d like to do a bit more with the interiors thing, and took it a bit more seriously, and I did a course run by Lisa and Dee (then, the “myhomevibe” ladies), on how to successfully use Instagram, which was really helpful, and I set about putting all their tips into practice. They totally worked, but everything was different then, the Instagram algorithm wasn’t really a thing, it was easier to know what would work and what wouldn’t, and very, very much easier to get new followers. And that was it, and my account grew, and I stopped posting pictures of anything other than the house (that was definitely the received wisdom of the time, you were not allowed to show any other interests or even your face, you had to be a one-dimensional, anonymous, interiors machine. I don’t think it’s the same now). I was delighted and shocked and amused by it all. And that’s how it all began.

Working With Brands

And so it came to pass that I began to be approached by a few indie brands, who offered to send me their products in return for me taking some styled pictures of them, in my house. Some of the things were very lovely, but not the sorts of things I’d normally buy, so I said a polite no thanks to those, whilst still being ever so chuffed they’d asked. I’m massively picky about what I like and don’t like, to the extent that most people don’t even dare choose presents for me, so I couldn’t comfortably rave about something that wasn’t “me”. Some things were, however, awesome! I really, really enjoy interior styling and photography. It lights a fire in me that my corporate day job doesn’t. I do it for fun. So this was an absolute win for me, I worked with some gorgeous brands and the photos were shared and we both benefitted and got new followers and that was lovely.

I think one of the major criticisms some people have about influencer marketing is the fact that they see it as “beggy” or that the recipient is is simply being showered with “gifts” or being some kind of soul-selling manipulator, or whatever. There’s a world of difference, however, between a reality tv star with a young audience hawking diet lollies without mentioning she’s being paid a trillion pounds to do so (an appropriate target for the angry mob), and your interiors-loving Instagrammer, who has invested time and money into their own home and built up an Instagram account over months or years, telling you about something that they genuinely love, appropriately declared as an “ad”.

The fact of the matter is that taking a photo to advertise a product is laborious. If you care about your work, which everyone I know does, it takes time and effort. Any brand photography/videography that I do will take hours, and involve:

  1. An epic clear up of the areas to be photographed. My house is an absolute midden, my husband/kids/dogs are outrageously untidy, and my everyday home looks absolutely nothing like it does on Instagram. It takes serious time to clear an area. When I take a shot, the area behind me resembles a yard sale, with all my belongings swept into it.
  2. A clean – dust bunnies, fingerprints, crumbs and wrappers all to be removed (my kids are seemingly incapable of putting any wrapper in an actual bin).
  3. Possible furniture lugging. You might need to hoof your dining table out of the way, or move the sofa to get the shot you want.
  4. Styling. In my case, it’s definitely not a case of plonking it down and snapping a quick photo. I’ll try lots of styling options, sometimes in different rooms (where steps 1-3 will be repeated). Usually I’ll have invested my own money into fresh flowers and other bits and pieces to make it as lovely as possible.
  5. Lighting. It is the rule of trying to take a photograph for an Instagram collaboration, especially on a deadline, that the second you get your camera out, it will go pitch black and start raining outside, so that everything in your house is in the shadows. Alternatively, the sun will beam directly on to the corner you’re shooting and bleach it completely out of shot. I have soft box photo lights for the dark times (which is a rigmarole in itself), and you just have to sit and wait the sunshine out.
  6. 1294783045980968 shots, to get the perfect one. Tweaking, moving things, changing angle. Photographing bed linen is something I find particularly testing. So many wrinkles.
  7. Photo editing. Usually lightening, upping the saturation a bit, editing out rogue crumbs that I failed to get rid of in step 1.
  8. Writing a winning caption.

So, it takes time. I end up red and sweaty without fail. I swear loads. I have probably cried once or twice. And because I’m taking the photo for someone else, I want it to be great. I want it to do well for them. There’s a pressure involved that I didn’t think much about until I did it myself. Then, of course, there’s the posting of the “ad” and waiting to see whether it goes well, whether the algorithm is going to give you a good kicking, or whether everyone will just ignore it. It’s one thing to post a general pic on your account for fun, and no-one really engaging with it, but it’s another entirely when you have the weight of a brand’s expectations on your shoulder….

A Good Day’s Pay For A Good Day’s Work

Bearing in mind all of the above, the time and effort involved in being one-stop-shop stylist/lighting engineer/location/cleaner/photographer and occasionally model for a brand, is it unreasonable to expect payment for this? No, it is not. I’m talking particularly here about large brands with budgets for marketing. Often they use PR firms, or an in-house PR person or team, and the approach to me will be made via them. The brand expects to make money from sales. The PR company or person are paid by the brand to find the Instagrammers. Should the Instagrammer be paid only in product or, worse, “exposure”? I don’t think so. The brand wouldn’t approach a magazine to place an advert and offer them the product in return, would they?

There are exceptions to this, some products are significant or high value items, and I’m sometimes happy to work for product as payment in those cases. It may be a smaller indie brand or artist who I love, and would like to support, and I wouldn’t charge in those cases either – that’s a situation that every Instagrammer can judge for themselves. It’s ok to never accept work without a fee. It’s also ok to work in return for a product if you feel that’s appropriate for you (NB, this is never a “gift”, so I never call it that – there is always a quid pro quo involved, the brand is not your nan buying you a prezzie because they love you). Don’t work for nothing for a big brand for “exposure” though. There’s usually only one winner there, and it isn’t you.

I should add here that, obviously, all income from advertising on Instagram is taxable, and PR products also carry their own tax implications. This needs to be factored into the calculation of whether a product-based collaboration will work for you. There are plenty of good sources on this out there (see also the advertising regulations and guidelines), I am not going to go into it here, as that feels far too much like my day job and this blog is a place for fun and games.

What they said….

When I’m approached by a brand now, I send them my Media Kit, which is basically a CV with all your greatest hits on it (who you’ve worked with, where your house has been featured in the press, how many followers you have, your engagement stats from Instagram, blog info and your rates). Sometimes, at the outset, a brand will say “we would like X from you and the budget for that it £Y”, and then you can make your decision about whether you’re up for it. Usually, payment is not mentioned upfront, so you have to ask if there’s budget for payment. Often there is, but this information is cunningly witheld and it’s all a bit cat and mouse. Quite tedious. So you then get into telling them your rates. Sometimes this is the last you hear from them (which is weird, because a minute ago, they were telling you you were their favourite Instagram account and perfect for the job *Fleabag look to camera*). Sometimes they say fine, sometimes they negotiate, sometimes they say soz, we can’t pay that, we like you very much but goodbye. And that’s fine – you set your bar for what you find acceptable for you. I’ve definitely lost jobs because I wouldn’t accept less than I thought was appropriate, I’ve definitely done jobs for less than I should have, I’ve definitely done appropriately priced jobs and been delighted about it. It’s all an ongoing learning curve, because it’s an emerging industry and everyone is very secret squirrel about what they charge. Luckily, I have a small band of good folk who are open about their rates with me and I use that as my gauge.

The Good, The Bad….

I think I’ve been exceptionally lucky with the brands I’ve worked with. I’ve heard some horror stories from others, which I’d love to repeat, because it would make for a brilliantly scurrilous blog post. I won’t though *polishes halo*. I haven’t had a bad experience with any brand I’ve worked with. Loads have been completely wonderful, leading me to get to know lovely, lovely people at both PR firms and brands, large and small. If you’ve seen them on my Instagram grid, they’ve been a good egg. Some brands expect a lot from you, and have detailed contracts, timescales and deadlines. Some are easy-breezy, wang it up on the grid sometime, it’ll all be fiiiiiine. Different strokes for different folks.

My one bad experience was with a home fragrance brand, not a well known one, but I won’t name them, much as they deserve it. We agreed a fee, they needed the shots urgently, the following day. My husband and kids happened to be away overnight with our only car. In light of the urgency, I needed to go to a supermarket to purchase the home fragrance products myself, there was no time for the brand to post them (I was clearly a last minute fill-in for someone else, wasn’t I?). The PR told me to get an Uber and they’d reimburse me. In the end, I got a kind friend of mine to buy them for me and deliver them to my door. I spent a whole morning taking photos and making a Reel, to the brief. I was actually on annual leave from work, so this was my very precious time.

That evening, the PR said to hold off on posting, as they were going ahead with two of the three Instagrammers they’d chosen immediately and saving one (me) for next month. A bit annoying, but ok. The next month came. Nothing. I emailed for an update. She would get back to me. Then nothing at all happened until three months later when I saw the same brand using two new Instagrammers to advertise the product. And there I was with my self-purchased products and half a day’s work for absolutely nothing. Very, very bad form. I let the PR know what I thought about that kind of caper, and there was no apology. I invoiced for the products I’d bought and put it down to experience. I think it was probably a lucky escape. I still give their products the stink-eye when I see them in the supermarket, though.

To Conclude….

I suppose what I’m trying to say is not to let the naysayers out there discourage you, if you fancy giving working with brands on Instagram a go. You don’t always need loads of followers, “micro-influencer” marketing is absolutely a thing. Some brands are very fixed on follower numbers, but savvier ones know it’s more about engagement and authenticity. It’s fun (I am not usually saying this when trying to remove all wrinkles from bed linen, whilst juggling a photographic light, a timer and a tripod, with beads of sweat running into my eyes, but it is fun). It’s hard work, not in the sense of a day’s nursing on the Covid frontline, or brain surgery or anything like that, but there’s undeniable graft involved. For me, whilst brand collaborations make up some of what I do on Instagram, I still use my account for fun the majority of the time. It’s not why I do Instagram, and it’s certainly not the be-all and end-all for me. It’s also absolutely fine with me, and absolutely none of my business, if it is someone’s be-all and end-all. Some people make a great, full-time, living from it and that’s incredible. I’d love to! But being paid sometimes to do something I genuinely love is a wholly new experience for me. I’ve spent over 20 years in a job I like well enough, but I don’t feel any passion for. Instagram is my side hustle, it’s where I am “me” and I enjoy it immensely.

I should also add that I was a bit sniffy about people doing “ads” before I got into it myself. I was certainly not a caps lock maniac about it, but I probably just scrolled on by and didn’t engage. Now I know how long it will have taken the person to create the ad, and that they will definitely be sat at home, refreshing their feed, crossing fingers and toes that people engage with it on Instagram, I will absolutely give it a like and a comment, because why wouldn’t you, if it’s an account you love? If advertorial content does well, then the Instagrammer is happy, the brands are happy, the brands will invest more in Instagram marketing and <adopt Lion King vocals> it’s the ciiiiircle, the ciiiiircle of Instagram marketing life.

What do you think about the whole thing? Let me know in the comments, but please don’t shout in capitals 🙃😉.

38 Comments

  1. 2 May 2021 / 10:15 am

    WELL DONE 👏😜🤩🤩🤩🤩
    Excellent read Sandra, and of course.. you always get it just right. Xx

    • 2 May 2021 / 8:53 pm

      That is ever so lovely of you, thanks Sarah xxx

  2. 2 May 2021 / 11:29 am

    Brilliant post Sandra, love that you share your experiences with your readers. when I scrolled down and saw that fabulous photo of the first time we met it really made me smile (that and the fact that I was also finding something absolutely hilarious with my mouth wide open laughter) xx

    • 2 May 2021 / 8:53 pm

      I love that photo so much, Anna – it was such an excellent night! And I love your gorgeous, natural, huge laugh – sums the whole night up xx

  3. 2 May 2021 / 11:59 am

    This was so interesting to read! Because my Instagram is essentially a business on which I already sell I have held off doing paid for campaigns …but it’s getting to the point I’ve been thinking about it. Thanks for posting this xxx

    • 2 May 2021 / 8:51 pm

      Definitely go for it! And thanks so much for reading x

  4. Melanie
    2 May 2021 / 12:32 pm

    Really good Sandra, I worked out it takes me about 9 hours to create a post then all that comes with that, the engaging almost takes the same time as creating the content for me. I find it really tough when you know people scroll on by who would normally engage or who ask a lot from you in DMs etc. Thanks for writing this.

    • 2 May 2021 / 8:51 pm

      Sounds about right! And there’s always the core group of brilliant pals who comment on everything, which is lovely, but there is a lot of scrolling on by, for sure. Thanks so much for reading x

  5. Rob Rob
    2 May 2021 / 1:52 pm

    I LOVE THIS SAN!

  6. 2 May 2021 / 2:17 pm

    This is a fascinating read and I think it’s great to show people all the hard work that goes into the effortless looking perfect photos!!! Love your honesty as always 😊

  7. Claire Dallimore
    2 May 2021 / 8:56 pm

    Aw SANDRA (as you know I’m not being shouty that just happens when I type your name in 😂), I thoroughly enjoyed that. It must have taken you ages to write. I hope you get a good response, good response for a very good lady X X

    • 23 July 2021 / 9:09 pm

      Awww thanks CLAIRE (mine isn’t automatic but I feel like I need to reply in caps!) xx

  8. 2 May 2021 / 10:34 pm

    Sandra this is brilliant. So honest and raw, it’s so refreshing to read a real, unadulterated experience and I so appreciate all that I learn from your blogs! Also…I swear, if you weren’t an interior designer…you’d be a comedian, or at the least a comic writer…your blogs crack me up. One last thing, now I’m intrigued about your day job? Thank you for making my Sunday that bit brighter.

    • 23 July 2021 / 9:08 pm

      Hi Emily! Sorry for the late reply, and thanks so much for reading! Glad you enjoyed it – I’m a lawyer by day, which is so dull I don’t talk about it much! x

  9. Terry Taylor
    3 May 2021 / 4:39 am

    Well done, I loved reading this and I would happily work with brands I love… I’ve got a teeny tiny following and get asked often if I’d like to do a collab for some jewellery or clothing and I’m always honest in saying whether I feel I would be able to be true to the brand in whether I’d use the items outside of the gram

    • 23 July 2021 / 9:07 pm

      Exactly right, Terry – it would feel weird promoting something you didn’t love, and would probably be really obvious to your following! Thanks so much for reading x

  10. Isa
    3 May 2021 / 7:07 am

    Such a great read thank you. I am fairly new to all this and am sometimes confused about lots of the collaboration do’s and don’ts and what to charge. I have been really lucky to be contacted by several companies/PR’s, mainly for gifted opportunities but this now seems to be changing to some paid work. I love taking photos for brands and I’m hoping my account can help me branch out into doing more of what I enjoy.

    • 23 July 2021 / 9:06 pm

      I’m not surprised you’ve been approached a lot, Isa – your home is beautiful! You definitely deserve the ££ for using the fruits of your labour to provide the backdrop for a brand’s products x

  11. Zoe Lodge
    3 May 2021 / 8:05 am

    Really informative, thanks so much for sharing.

  12. Tamsin
    3 May 2021 / 8:12 am

    GO GIRLFRIEND!!! You defo deserve pounds in your pocket for marketing product so “effortlessly” & your witty words.

  13. 3 May 2021 / 6:31 pm

    Brilliantly put all of this. So interesting to see a home bloggers side to it and I can only imagine the nightmare of moving all the furniture all the time. Thank you for your honesty and humour too.

    • 23 July 2021 / 9:04 pm

      Thanks so much, Helen – the ones that really kill me is where I have to get both myself AND the house looking ok – killer!

  14. Emma
    4 May 2021 / 10:09 am

    I loved reading this Sandra – you always tell it like it is. I recently received a request for my media kit and didn’t have a clue what one was 🙈🤣 still not sure what it should look like to be honest! I feel like there’s a secret school of Instagram that lots of people have been to and I’m just winging it so thanks for the insights here x

    • 23 July 2021 / 9:03 pm

      Hahahahaa, I didn’t know what one was at first either! It sounds a lot fancier than it is. I genuinely think most people are winging it! x

  15. 4 May 2021 / 4:35 pm

    Thanks so much for creating this blog! Such a wonderfully informative, honest and entertaining read. I hear ya with the yard sale element and I will also blame it on the husband and kids. For me it is all about authenticity with my brand. I want to be able to provide real value and have been having this very debate for a while, asking myself…’What will my wonderfully loyal and cheerleading followers think of me if I did collaborations.’ You’ve just given me the confidence to try it out. Thank you Sandra x

    (This has taken at least half an hour to write 😂 and now I have to go grab the kids from nursery.)

    • 23 July 2021 / 9:02 pm

      Hi Jenni, please forgive the very late reply. So pleased it resonated with you – I think authenticity is the key. If you really rate the thing you’re promoting, it’ll shine through! Thanks so much for reading 🙂

  16. 13 May 2021 / 10:37 am

    Hi Sandra, thanks so much for sharing this. I’m emerging and such advice and candour is gold dust.
    Tx
    Polly
    @thecuriouscoco

    • 23 July 2021 / 9:00 pm

      So please it was useful, Polly – thanks so much for reading!

  17. Joanna
    13 May 2021 / 10:40 am

    This is really insightful and helpful.
    Thanks for sharing.

  18. Anatolia
    14 May 2021 / 9:19 pm

    Hi Sandra! What an interesting article you wrote!
    I relate to what you say in regards to the hard work and lengths of time involved in Instagramming. I have experienced this and I’m not even collaborating with anyone! When I started my home account @my_dolce_casa with the intention of documenting our house renovation I looked forward to the completion so that I could start posting beautiful pictures of our transformed home. I wanted to inspire people the same way I had been inspired by some lovely home accounts. The truth is I find the whole posting activity (tidying,and cleaning, beautifying a corner, taking the perfect photo, editing, writing an interesting comment and finally adding the right #s) labour intensive! I struggle to even get to 50 followers! But still… I shall not give up! Plus I love each one of the “not yet” 50 followers 😉😘

    • 23 July 2021 / 8:58 pm

      Hi Anatolia, please forgive the late reply – thanks so much for reading and glad it resonated with you – the labour involved is quite something!

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