Interviews

“If we did more listening, I think we’d live in a much more understanding and tolerant world”

Omar DaCosta-Shahid, Founder and Director at Muslim Influencer Network on bringing out the best in talent, the importance of listening and why you shouldn’t become an influencer.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE

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The basis of most hate crimes is ignorance. All too often hate is rooted in a place of misunderstanding and cultural stereotyping that is often so pervasive that it blinds the individual to the lived reality of those they are abusing. In 2019, 52% of all hate crimes were against Muslims while Islamophobia is so on the increase that it has been designated a specific category of crime by the Metropolitan police.

Omar Shahid is dedicated to ensuring people understand the scale of the issues facing Muslims in this country before they engage with the community itself. Shahid founded the Muslim Influencer Network, a dedicated platform set up to support Muslim influencers, in 2017 because he wants “to help normalise the presence of Muslims within the mainstream.”

He acknowledges that there are prominent Muslims across society and plenty of Muslim voices out there. But, as he explains, “we don’t feel that Muslims are quite normalised yet. There’s still a hint of prejudice which is associated with Muslims.”

Shahid started out his career as a journalist, writing for the likes of the Guardian, New Statesman and The Times because he “wanted to feel a sense of purpose.” He wanted to be “exposing injustices and uncovering good stories.” But he hit a roadblock when he realised that many of his editors did not feel that the stories he believed were important had a place in mainstream media.

After a quick retirement from journalism he entered the charity sector where he met his business partner. At this point Shahid was already managing influencers and artists of mainly Muslim talent. But, after realising they had a mutual passion for not only social media, marketing and influencers but also representation and their faith, the pair decided to launch MIN, to make “sure voices of Muslims are represented, are in the mainstream and they’re heard,” Shahid adds.

We need more listening because everyone has something valuable to add, no matter who you are.

Omar Shahid

Bringing out the best in the talent

Shahid explains that MIN’s presence is as “an agency which manages talent to bring out the best in them and to inspire their audiences.” They wanted the agency to both connect brands with Muslim influencers but to also support the influencers themselves, to offer them financial, mental and spiritual security.

The support MIN offers is through an “empowerment programme” that encompasses what Shahid refers to as the Four Ls: “love, life, learn, legacy.” “We want to provide a holistic solution for influencers that every aspect of their life is supported,” he explains. This means helping the influencers on a personal level with life at home as well as ensuring that they have informative data and insights on which they can develop and build their strategy.

It also means helping the influencers ensure they earn enough money to thrive. Shahid explains: “One of the things we’ve noticed is that a lot of influencers have a kind of cognitive dissonance where they’re famous and people know them but they’re not earning any money.” MIN helps influencers bridge that gap between something done on the side and a viable career. They also want to ensure that each influencer builds something that will carry forwards, that will stay in their name and become their legacy.

The importance of listening to each and every community

Shahid explains that MIN believes in there being better representation but also, “for people to accept Muslims. For them to be seen just like everyone else.” He points out that while 99.9% of Muslims “are just normal people just getting on with life,” they are tarnished with the same brush as that used by the media to talk about the 0.1% who lean towards extremist behaviour. Those individuals, Shahid says, “we wouldn’t consider them part of our community.”

He does point out that social media platforms are tentatively doing a good job of profiling and highlighting Muslim creators, choosing them as ambassadors. But, says Shahid, “it’s just important that anyone who wants to work with Muslims understand the Muslim perspective and are not using them tokenistically.”

MIN worked with Primark recently to assist with the launch of the brand’s second modest line. They ran an influencer campaign but also gave them a consultancy session. “What we appreciated about Primark was they actually valued our feedback with regards to their strategy targeting Muslim consumers,” Shahid explains.

It’s a fundamental belief that he wishes everyone shared: the power of listening to bring about real change. “We should all be listening to each other. If we don’t listen, we will never learn. And that applies to all communities,” says Shahid. “We need more listening because everyone has something valuable to add, no matter who you are. If we did more listening, I think we’d live in a much more understanding and tolerant world.”

We want to make sure that the person we’re managing and supporting actually has something bigger than themselves in mind.

Omar Shahid

Changemakers & visionaries

Shahid says MIN has implemented a set of criteria to ensure they are working with influencers, “who we believe genuinely can be changemakers,” he says. They ask themselves the question, “do we see them as a visionary?” The prime reason for this part of the process, says Shahid is to determine that the influencer isn’t simply using their platform to make a quick buck.

“We want to make sure that the person we’re managing and supporting actually has something bigger than themselves in mind,” he explains. What MIN wants to do is work alongside the influencer to bring about change and to determine how they can “positively contribute to society,” Shahid adds.

In 2018, the Network created a video around mental health and depression, working with influencers to encourage people to talk and to seek help. It was an example of how the network aims “to use influencers to create empowering messages,” says Shahid.

MIN also hosts influencer meet ups, bringing together influencers from across the UK and Europe. “The purpose of that is for them to feel inspired,” he says, to create a trickle effect, to inspire those influencers to influence their audiences in a positive way.

Do brands actually care?

Shahid believes that at the moment, “diversity marketing is quite performative” rather than being sincere. He feels a lot of it stems simply from brands and businesses looking around at what the rest of the market are doing and doing something similar because they think they should rather than, as Shahid says, “it being the right thing to do.” “It took this movement in America for you to realise, hold on, our marketing should be diverse,” he adds.

Shahid believes that young people are increasingly looking to brands that have a sense of purpose, he points to research showing consumers are spending with brands that take positive action.  He believes brands should be responding to what their consumers want because “brands that have a sense of purpose outperform brands that don’t by at least 30%.”

Ultimately, says Shahid, this shift towards purpose needs to be led from the top: “brands and agencies need to genuinely ask themselves; do we care about this? If there’s this sense that they don’t care, then the people at the top need to be replaced.” It needs to be a balancing act, he believes, between your CSR and purpose-led values and your revenue because that is what the younger generations in particular want.

“Brands and agencies need to do a better job in having diversity and inclusion as part of their strategy,” Shahid believes. “But also, it needs to be informed. So, that can’t just be a strategy that a group of middle-aged white men devise themselves. It needs to include a wide variety of voices on the table who have a different perspective, who’ve had a set of life experiences which are different.” This is essential, he says because it means when you’re communicating with diverse audiences, “it’s going to come from a more authentic place because it’s come from the very people that you’re targeting.”

Creativity needs to be matched with authenticity. If you can bring the two together then something powerful can come about.

Omar Shahid

Creativity needs to be matched with authenticity. If you can bring the two together then something powerful can come about.

Omar Shahid

Don’t become an influencer

It seems counterintuitive coming from the founder of an influencer agency but Shahid’s advice to nurturing new talent is, “don’t become an influencer.” What he’s saying is that people need to read between the lines: “Don’t seek out fame. What I believe you should do is express your talents, express your abilities, and if you happen to become famous as a result of that, brilliant. But then use that platform that you have wisely. Don’t just use it from a narcissistic perspective, use it to help other people as well.”

He cautions against using your platform for your own self-promotion, for insecurity or ego’s sake. This, he reveals from experience, can lead to destruction at the very hands of the fame you worked so hard to curate. “If you seek fame, you’ll generally be destroyed by it,” he adds. Fame, he believes, should simply be a by-product of your talents and abilities.

He offers three pieces of advice to potential creators and influencers. The first is to seek out mentors, “because if you are going to have a public platform you want to make sure that you’re grounded by people who are experienced and have a bit of wisdom.” The second is to seek accountability. He explains: “check in on yourself every now and again, to question your intentions.”

The third he thinks is vital: understand what your end goal is and what you want to achieve. Ultimately, believes Shahid, “creativity needs to be matched with authenticity. If you can bring the two together then something powerful can come about.”

Through the Muslim Influencer Network, Shahid is working to reframe the narrative around how Muslims are perceived in the mainstream. It is about the creators at the very heart of brand campaigns being representative of the very audience and communities brands are looking to speak to. Represent authentically and your brand will win a long-standing place in consumer hearts and minds.