- The sneaker and hip hop-focused Complex Networks has been in the spotlight since some former employees cited microaggressions and unfair treatment of Black staffers.
- Several former employees told Business Insider that a predominantly white ad sales team at times downplayed the company’s Black audience in sales pitches.
- Complex Networks said July 20 that it was bringing in an outside consultancy to begin a full cultural audit of the company and its processes, in response to recent claims.
- If you have a tip about Complex, contact the authors at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Complex Networks has built a $200 million business from its roots in Black culture, covering hip hop and sneakers.
It has done so while sometimes downplaying its Black audience in advertising pitches, according to five former ad salespeople.
Founded by fashion designer Marc Ecko in 2002 as a print magazine, Complex has been an exception to the recent gloom and doom facing digital media. It sold in 2016 to a joint venture of Hearst and Verizon, which provided it with funding, independence, and resources to expand in video.
Under longtime CEO Rich Antoniello, it built a profitable business on low staffing costs and ad-friendly video series like “Hot Ones,” and “Sneaker Shopping.” That lifestyle content has enabled Complex to broaden its business into areas like licensing, large events like ComplexCon, and merchandise like hot sauces.
But it has been in the spotlight in recent weeks since some former employees cited microaggressions and unfair treatment of Black staffers. Tiffany Wines, a former Complex staffer, spoke out in June alleging there was a “toxic workplace steeped in misogyny, anti-Blackness, favoritism, rape culture, and pay inequity across demographic lines.”
Wines also described an incident where she unknowingly consumed drug-laced cookies that were left out in the office and consequently blacked out.
—tiffany wines (@radioheadass) June 19, 2020
Following Wine’s tweet, Business Insider talked to 20 former staffers, including 12 former sales employees and six editorial employees who worked at Complex from roughly 2014 to 2019.
Five of the former ad salespeople said the company downplayed its Black audience in advertising pitches. Some of these sources referred to the practice as “whitewashing,” saying images of Black talent featured in Complex were replaced with white talent in pitch decks and presentations for clients.
A former sales employee said: “Complex has been described as loving Black culture, the machismo and the coolness but not supporting people who are Black and want opportunity.”
Complex Networks said in a statement to Business Insider that it would bring in an outside consultancy to begin a “full cultural audit” of the company and its processes starting July 20. It said the review would be followed by “actionable recommendations in the coming months” to improve the company culture.
“Recent events have compelled us to take a deeper look at ourselves and the way things have been, especially for our Black and female employees, and we know there is work to be done to evolve our culture into one we’re proud of,” the company said in the statement.
The company also shared a July 2020 diversity report with Business Insider that showed 56% of its full-time staff in 2020 self-report as people of color, which it says is a 17% increase from 2016, when the company was acquired. The report says 37% of the full-time workforce is female, up from 35% in 2016.
Some said ad sales pitches downplayed Black audiences
Zarinah Williams, a former marketing manager who worked at Complex from 2012 to 2016, said that the sales and marketing department often pitched influencer campaigns as part of larger advertising deals. Williams said it was common to remove Black influencers from presentation decks that highlighted 10 influencers, resulting in what Williams called a “mostly whitish” pitch with a few Black influencers.
Williams said that the directive to “whitewash” Complex’s image in these proposals came from its former CRO Moksha Fitzgibbons, and sometimes from sales VPs. Fitzgibbons left in 2017, but a second source cited an example of an ad proposal showcasing primarily white talent from 2019.
Fitzgibbons reviewed every deck that his team created, according to Williams. Employees cranked out three to five responses to advertisers’ requests for proposals per week, and she said the sales team tried to streamline the process by “having the foresight to remove Black people from the RFPs.”
“Across all areas of business, part of our reflection is reexamining practices to ensure responsible representation,” Complex said in response to this claim. Fitzgibbons hasn’t replied to multiple requests for comment.
One former editorial exec connected the 2016 acquisition by Hearst and Verizon with an increase in sales pressure that fed the downplaying of Complex’s Black audience.
“Over the last couple of years, some of the credibility and authenticity of the brand was eroded at the expense of delivering profits at the end of each year for the new parent company,” the former executive said. “There’s more of a priority to sell the culture than necessarily to participate in it.”
Some former staffers said they believed management thought this approach would make Complex more attractive to advertisers. 25% of Complex’s digital audience is Black, according to Comscore.
“Brands and agencies perceive Complex as too gritty, too urban, too raw,” a former New York ad sales staff member said. “There was an effort by marketing to always position Complex as youth culture instead of hip hop culture.”
Other former sales execs offered a different viewpoint. One said the company wasn’t trying to marginalize Black talent. The team routinely tailored proposals to the specifics of each RFP with decks that represented white, Black, Asian, or multicultural talent, depending on who the advertiser was targeting.
For example, last year Complex sold a sketch comedy show called “Group Therapy” to Procter & Gamble’s Old Spice that featured a racially diverse group of comedians and writers like Niles Stewart.
Complex tries to position itself as a mainstream media company
In a recent pitch deck the company said it’s wrongly been perceived as a niche publication and plays up its food, sneakers, and music content and appeal to female audiences. While many would call it a media company, Complex wants to be called an “entertainment network.”
There’s some historic rationale for this. Media companies that are considered niche have been challenged to compete for ad dollars with other, bigger outlets and can have limited appeal to advertisers.
Williams said requests from sales leadership to whiten sales pitches didn’t come at the behest of clients, though. Advertiser attitudes also have changed with time. Cliff Atkinson, SVP and executive director of digital media at ad agency RPA, said the Complex audience is becoming more important for them.
“Their audience represents America and especially the younger generation that advertisers are looking for,” he said.
Research from Deloitte-owned Heat last year found that diversity in ads correlated with revenue growth. Another survey from Adobe in 2019 found that one-third of consumers are more likely to buy products from brands with diversity in ads, and 38% of consumers said that they were more likely to trust brands that do.
Some insiders have also said they had problematic experiences at Complex
The sales approach at Complex comes to light as current and former employees at a number of media companies including Condé Nast and Refinery29 have alleged problematic cultures at their workplaces.
Complex said in June that it was taking the claims made by Wines and others seriously. It said it hired law firm Greenberg Traurig to investigate the allegations and suspended two execs Wines named in her statement while the investigation is underway. It also said it set up an anonymous hotline for employees to raise issues.
The company’s top leadership, including Antoniello, president Christian Baesler, and legal and HR representatives, have been meeting with various departments in recent weeks to discuss the allegations, according to two former staffers who are still in contact with current employees.
Some former employees said Antoniello, who is known for being loud and using profanity, has not created an inclusive work environment. Two said they overheard Antoniello shouting homophobic slurs from inside an open-door conference room in 2017.
Complex has also been accused of discrimination in two lawsuits. The first, which named Antoniello as a defendant, was settled in 2017. The open case, which alleged pregnancy discrimination in 2019, also briefly alleged a “culture of discrimination against, harassment of, and retaliation against women” that worked under one sales exec, Larry Menkes, a vice president of brand partnerships, who oversees lifestyle accounts.
One of the former editorial executives said that Complex’s leadership should take the recent string of complaints seriously in building Complex’s culture.
“Complex has a huge burden to carry because they’re viewed as one of the cultural leaders as far as a media company goes and they’re held to a certain standard,” the source said. “It’s on Complex to live up to that standard that audiences expect.”