Periscope employees walk out to protest parent company Quad/Graphics' response to racial injustice
Nathan Young, group strategy director at Minneapolis-based Periscope and co-founder of 600&Rising, announced this morning on Twitter that he and the three other Black employees at the agency, as well as one LGBTQ ally, had walked off their jobs in protest over parent company Quad/Graphics' actions regarding social justice in recent weeks. By the afternoon, at least eight others had joined them.
Sussex, Wisconsin-based Quad earlier this year ranked No. 16 on Ad Age’s list of World’s Largest Agency Companies and No. 21 on its list of World’s Largest Consolidated Agency Networks. The company made its name as a printing giant but has broadened its capabilities into marketing with acquisitions in recent years, including that of Periscope for $132 million in 2019.
Young and his colleagues’ complaint centers largely around what Young says was Quad’s aversion to using the phrase “Black Lives Matter” in messages addressing the current unrest. He also takes issue with how the company failed to fully disclose accurate diversity data in response to “Commit to Change,” the initiative that 600&Rising introduced last month in an effort to get the industry to be more transparent with staff and leadership numbers with regard to employees of color.
On Young’s Twitter thread, he wrote that at the beginning of June, he had drafted a statement on behalf of Periscope responding to the death of Geoge Floyd and asserting the agency’s plans to take swift action. He said the agency team was “unanimous” in moving forward with the statement, yet Quad had intervened. “Not only did they soften or strike every major provision in the statement and plan, they had me physically delete the words Black Lives Matter from the statement I personally drafted,” he continued. “This was deeply painful to me as a Black man and civil rights leader.”
Quad CEO “Joel Quadracci personally intervened to ensure that happened,” Young tells Ad Age in an interview. “ I had a discussion with him for over one hour on the matter and at multiple times he reiterated that we were not able to post Black Lives Matter and that he was uncomfortable with the statement because he believed it was anti-police. He really felt that posting Black Lives Matter was the same thing as posting Defund the Police because Black Lives Matter supports that effort. I tried to explain to him that they are separate but related issues multiple times and he wouldn't hear it.”
Young says the Periscope team also had a plan in place to retweet organizations supporting racial justice for a month. “That plan was delayed by Quad several times because those organizations supported Black Lives Matter or used that phrase in communications.” After that, he says, Myles Gorham, who heads Periscope’s D&I committee, threatened to quit along with others in the group.
"As we started to create these intiatives, social content, sharing about Black creatives and business, it became clear that the 'Black Lives Matter' message itself, the phrase, was the sticking point with anything we wanted to do," Gorham says. For the company to not support that, "that means that my life doesn't matter, that my colleagues' lives don't matter. Why would I want to be part of an orgaization that doesn't seem to have my best interests in mind?"
Young adds that the #CommittoChange data that was released as part of Periscope’s participation in the campaign ultimately was misleading, containing inaccurate figures on POC in leadership positions. Young says that after he had seen a draft of the statement containing the figures, he raised the issue with leadership, including Exec VP, Product and Market Strategy, President of Agency Solutions Eric Ashworth and that Ashworth "gave me his personal assurance that he would release full and accurate data."
Ultimately, however, for Periscope, "they reported 25 percent POC at a director level or above,” Young says. “They omitted creative directors, account directors, and many other directors from that count and only included people at an executive pay band. But even by that standard I'm not sure how they got to 25 percent."
Young had joined the agency in March, part of what Periscope announced as a leadership overhaul designed to “provide marketers with a preferred alternative to the agency model.”
The other employees who first walked out are Gorham; Senior Account Manager, Associate Brand Strategist Annaliese Phidd; creative Michael Collins and Bret Herzog, strategy director-brand engagement. Later in the day, they were followed by the agency's entire content editing team, as announced by colleague Alex Toskas on Instagram.
Herzog, who is also part of the agency's D&I task force, says "As an LGBTQ+ member of the community I know what this industry can feel like to anyone who’s every felt marginalized in advertising. I think it's really important when you’re an ally that you need to put your money when your mouth is. So [walking out] was a no brainer. We're a creative agency and expression is part of our mandate, and when that's being silenced, we can't really be creative."
Young tells Ad Age that he has “zero issue with Periscope leadership. They’ve been huge and vocal proponents of our D&I efforts.”
In a statement to Ad Age, the agency said, "We are supportive of our employees and their desired actions. This reflects our beliefs and culture at Periscope."
On Quad’s part, “It was a complete betrayal of trust,” Young says. "The thing I am most upset about is that Quad leadership has compromised my integrity. I took them at their word. I worked in good faith. And now look where we are."
Today, Ashworth had told Adweek that "We’ve always been in support of the term ‘Black Lives Matter.’ The activities of what does that stand for as a social movement is what we were trying to get an understanding of.”
Young criticized that response on Twitter, calling it a lie, with a screenshot of a previous email exchange. Part of the email from Ashworth in the screenshot reads, "Please let the team know that until the Defund the Police efforts get better defined, we cannot support Black Lives Matter publicly via Periscope in any form."
Ad Age reached out to Quad, who has not yet responded.
Herzog says that he and the fellow protestors are asking Quad to "end censorship of Persicope being able to express its own voice on social media." They are also calling for correction and clarification of misleading diversity data and for leaders that have "dug in their heels" over proposed diversity initiatives to take mandataory D&I training. "It's really close to home because we are here in Minneapolis and we’ve seen a city in grief," he says. "The change has to start with us."
Meanwhile, agencies have started to come out in support of Young and his colleagues, with R/GA posting the tweet below.