Coffee with Danielle Wiley, CEO and Founder of Sway Group
If you ask Danielle Wiley, being a CEO may arguably be easier than being a content creator. As the founder and CEO of Sway Group, an industry-leading influencer marketing agency, Danielle has worked with top brands like Dove, eBay, Staples, CocaCola, and The Honest Company.
“I joke that I became the CEO of an agency because I love the content creator field and wanted to be involved in it. And it was so hard to be a food blogger, it’s easier to be the CEO,” Danielle said. After running social strategy for Edelman’s prestigious digital group in Chicago, Danielle recognized the need to make relationships between influencers and brands more seamless.
How did you get started in the influencer marketing space?
I saw the need for someone to make [brand deals for bloggers and influencers] easier and kind of act as that broker between the influencers and the marketers on the influencer side. What really struck me is that these influencers weren’t being paid fairly for their work and they weren’t being considered as influential and as important as some of the more traditional spokespeople. From a marketer perspective, I saw that this needs to be easier. And then also on the influencer side, someone needs to turn this into a real business and legitimize it. These women are writing amazing content, doing amazing work, and connecting with these audiences. There needs to be some more respect there, more money for them, and someone advocating on their behalf. Those are the two elements that came together.
What is your ‘why’ at Sway Group?
I think it’s really elevating. It’s elevation on a number of levels, and this is in our mission as well. We want to elevate the women who are creating this content. We want to elevate the quality of content. We work really hard with our creators if they are new. If we’re doing a program with nano influencers [ed. note: influencers under 10K followers], we’re working really, really closely with them and editing their content and teaching them.
Also, explaining why we need changes made and making sure that there’s not just pretty content going out there into the world and helping to keep the space elevated so that influencers can continue to get paid as much as we think they deserve to be paid. We’re keeping that quality up there and we’re elevating voices and stories. It’s just all about that, elevation is really the key part of our mission.
What’s a leadership lesson that you’ve learned that’s unique to being a woman leader?
I didn’t really have professional female role models growing up in the business world. My whole vision of women working was either like the movie Nine to Five or Working Girl where they’re wearing their lady suits and sneakers and walking to work. There wasn’t anyone I knew who was doing it. And so I never saw myself as a CEO because it wasn’t on my radar. It didn’t even occur to me that it would be something that I could do. So I fell into it because I realized there was a need for this company and so I started it. Then I was CEO and figured it out from there. So it's been more what I've had to learn which is like, yes, I can do this, yes, I can talk to anyone and ask people questions, reach out and belong here.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received and why?
I’ve created a network for me with people who give me advice all of the time now. I’ve had to go out and seek it because some people are lucky enough to get a job, have a mentor, and have someone lift them up and take them along. And sometimes you don’t have that, but you can go out and you can create it.
When I started Sway Group, I reached out to all of the women I knew who owned businesses, whether it was marketing-related or not. I got so much advice from the owner of my pilates studio, she was a kickass woman who owned a business. And what I’ve learned is that running a business is running a business. They don’t have to be the same type of business for that advice from that person to be relevant.
I’m in a CEO advisory group now that I sought out and we are in all different careers. From being in construction, to baking, to school uniforms, to gardening and landscaping. We are running companies and deal with personnel issues and profit issues.
What gives you energy at Sway?
Everything. I mean every day is totally different and just the excitement, it gives me energy. I’m also seeing how we impact the people who work for us and love hearing from them in their words. Not even solicited, just why they love working for us and how we make a difference in their lives as employees, and how they love what they’re doing. That is amazing! It’s almost kind of hard to believe sometimes, but that gives me a ton of energy.
Sway is women-owned and operated. How do you think that makes your team feel strong and empowered?
We don’t go by any pre-existing rules, we make our own. We had a leadership meeting and we were talking about the fact that there are all these operating systems out there for startups and entrepreneurial companies. We’ve tried a lot of them and we end up always grabbing a little bit of this and a little bit of that. We make up our own rule book. As women, we realized things haven’t always been set up in our favor and we’re in a position now that we can create things that are set up the way they should be for working moms, for working women.
Being in the influencer marketing industry, how do you influence those around you?
I talk a lot. So I think the best way to influence is to be successful and to model whatever is working well, right? I think it's to live authentically and live your life. Much like our best influencers, you’re only writing about content, products, or services that they actually use and feel strongly about. That really is the best influencer. So if you are living an authentic life and you’re having success with something and you’re modeling that success, that in and of itself is influential.
Any creators you love? Or love to work with?
I’m a food person. So my latest obsession is probably a food influencer/creator, Emily Nunn. She has a Substack newsletter called “The Department of Salad.” I love her Instagram and get the paid version of her newsletter. It’s salad recipes every week, and so niche and delightful. I love her writing, and she highlights different chefs as well.
What’s your advice for creators?
For creators, I think it’s just so much work. I joke that I became the CEO of an agency because I love the content creator field and wanted to be involved in it. And it is too hard to be a food blogger, it’s easier to be the CEO. I think it’s just like going into it with your eyes open and treating it like it’s a job. You have to be consistent and you have to have a point of view. You have to keep up with your community. You can’t just put content out there and walk away. There’s all these elements to it and it truly is a full-time job.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.