How to push for action to make space for systemic change.
The movement against racism and injustice is far from over. Social media may get quieter, but we need to stay in motion. At a time when skill evolution, inclusion, and diversity are so critically important, embracing flexible talent and building communities with each other, not for each other, can work in the favor of both talent and business. It’s a competitive advantage opportunity today that will be a prerequisite to survival tomorrow. In this episode of the Rosie Report podcast, Steph sits down with Nate Nichols and Stefanie Behringer from Palette Group, a commercial creative agency focused on producing content for campaign activations both online and offline. The three chat about creating change in our industry and the power of community through intentional virtual events, mission-driven organizations, and meaningful networking.
Nate and Steffi’s background and accomplishments definitely don’t stop with their creative work at Palette Group. They are the brilliant minds behind Freelancer Cyber Summit and Allyship + Action. Freelancer Cyber Summit was a wildly successful virtual event series launched in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, while Allyship + Action broke out on the scene last month as a direct response to adland’s responsibility to Black and marginalized talent, igniting real conversations, action & accountability across the industry.
Steph Olson: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Rosie Report Podcast, where I chat with industry changemakers about reimagining a more equitable future of work in advertising and marketing. I’m your host, Steph, founder of We Are Rosie.
Steph Olson: Today, I have the pleasure of welcoming our guests Nate Nichols and Steffi Behringer, from Palette Group, the brilliant minds behind Freelancer Cyber Summit, and Allyship and Action. Freelancer Cyber Summit was a wildly successful virtual event series launched in light of the pandemic, while Allyship and Action broke out on the scene a few weeks ago, as a direct response to Adland’s responsibility to Black and marginalized talent, igniting real conversations, action, and accountability across the industry.
Steph Olson: Today, we’re going to be chatting about creating change with the power of community. Welcome, Nate and Steffi, welcome to the show.
Nate Nichols: Hey, thank you.
Steffi Behringer: Hello.
Nate Nichols: Amazing intro.
Steffi Behringer: Seriously.
Nate Nichols: We could have never thought of that intro.
Steffi Behringer: Thank you for having us.
Steph Olson: Yeah, we’re so happy to have you here. I mean, it has been, I feel like, since I’ve met you both, probably two months ago, maybe? Not even.
Nate Nichols: Probably April.
Steffi Behringer: It feels longer. It definitely feels longer.
Nate Nichols: Yeah.
Steph Olson: It does, you all are like family.
Nate Nichols: Word.
Steph Olson: I got to meet you when you were planning the first Freelancer Cyber Summit, which is just one of the 200 things that you have going on right now. I would love to talk more about the inspiration behind launching that, and hosting a virtual workshop in March.
Nate Nichols: Sure.
Steffi Behringer: Yeah. Shall I go? You go?
Steffi Behringer: Yeah, the inspiration behind the Freelancer Cyber Summit really came one of these nights when Nate and I, we were at home, we were cooking dinner, and we had all our brainstorming hats on. COVID started in New York City to really pop off, and we took it serious quite early in the game. So, we were just thinking about what we can do in this pandemic for us, but also for the community, since all of our projects were immediately on hold, or canceled. Nobody really knew what was going on.
Steffi Behringer: So we were like, “Let’s get everyone together, let’s start a virtual event for the freelancer community, for the creatives, that are always the creative lifeblood of our industry. Let’s connect them with the experts and leaders of the advertising industry.”
Steffi Behringer: I think a week later, we hosted our first virtual event. We had about 700 RSVPs, and over 500 people showed up, and we had the most incredible lineup.
Nate Nichols: Including you.
Steffi Behringer: Including We Are Rosie, as the most powerful keynote speech that we could have imagined. That was the spark of a continuous series of virtual events.
Steph Olson: I love that you call it a spark. I feel like, watching it, having the privilege of witnessing what you all put together in such a short period of time, that wasn’t a spark, you lit a fire. I have never seen anything like it. The speed with which you moved, the people that galvanized behind the mission was simply incredible. Obviously, it’s something that’s so close to my heart because the freelance community, and the independent talent community, can often be marginalized under traditional work circumstances. And then, the way that you all were really focused on making sure that they aren’t going to be left out now, and they’re not going to be disregarded in this moment, is so critically important and such a beautiful thing. I love that you’ve done that.
Steph Olson: It’s spun into, now, Allyship and Action, which is your latest baby. But is similarly lighting fire, and taking off. I love it.
Steffi Behringer: Yeah.
Steph Olson: It’s so incredible. Tell me a little bit about the journey from your first child, I’ll call it, I think of We Are Rosie as one of my children, with the Cyber Summit, and even before that, Palette Group, and now, Allyship and Action. What has that journey been like? What prompted you to say, “You know what? We’ve got to do more, and we’ve got to do something different?”
Steffi Behringer: So many emotions.
Nate Nichols: Yeah. I think, first off, Palette Group’s brand ethos is creatives are the lifeblood of society. We enable, and we are a platform for creatives. It’s not like we’re here to service the clients, it’s we’re here to serve the creatives that are the lifeblood for this industry. Without the creatives minds, and talents, and energy on the front lines of these production sets, or behind the scenes writing copy in these offices late at night, there wouldn’t be an industry. There’s such privilege to be a C-suite, or a director, or a manager, and we just wanted to ensure that those voices were heard, and that they understand that they still had a platform in this industry, that there was still space for them in this industry.
Nate Nichols: We took that same energy and applied it to Allyship and Action. It was really birthed out of … It was such a weird day, when George Floyd passed. It was the day that Steffi and I celebrated my birthday, and here I am, in such a place of privilege where my life partner is just killing it on the birthday front, just killing it. I had no idea what was going to happen, and I was totally just embracing the day, and just letting it happen in a way that I had never done before. I’m always nervous on my birthday, because I’m just anxious. I never really celebrated birthdays as a child, because I didn’t have that privilege.
Nate Nichols: So here I am, a Black man celebrating my birthday, and I get news that this man has been killed by the police. For a Black person, you experience it, you see it, and you feel it, but you let it pass, unfortunately. It’s very sad, because the resilience that we’ve had to grow, and the trauma that we’ve had to live through, it normalizes seeing someone die like this. So we all react in different ways, and it was just weird for me to be in this experience of watching this happen again, and also being my birthday. It’s polarizing.
Nate Nichols: The next day, I was just walking around like an empty shell, and just very sad. I don’t know who to talk to about this. We’re already thinking about the next Summit, we were going to do something with a big brand for the community. I think a couple days passed, and Steffi just started … I could see her emotion just change and shift, in a way that I had never seen before, regarding what had happened. Then, I started to see everyone on the internet paying more attention. I’m like, “What the fuck is going one? Are white people noticing? This is insane.”
Steph Olson: Yeah.
Nate Nichols: Then, I think on Monday morning the next week, on June first or second, I woke up in tears. I just woke up in tears because inside, the sadness finally caught up to me. I felt seen for the first time in a very long time, and I felt seen by white people, and non-Black people of color in a way that just has never been historically felt before. I’ve never felt this feeling, and I could tell that they’ve never felt this feeling. Steffi and I cried together, for 20 minutes. Then, we’d immediately, “What do we do?”
Nate Nichols: We were like, “Fuck that brand thing.”
Steffi Behringer: Yeah. Nothing felt right anymore. We were immediately thinking about how we can shift programming, and what we can do to really contribute to this conversation, the movement that started with these eight minutes and 46 seconds. Being a partner of Nate was really, really, really, in that moment, of standing with each other in silence, and just tears coming down, it was such a moment where you realize how much weight has been on these shoulders for his entire life. It’s just an incredible realization. Okay, this needs to change immediately, now. That’s how we started with the Allyship and Action.
Nate Nichols: Yeah.
Steph Olson: Yeah. I mean, it’s such a heart wrenching, gut wrenching story. I think one of the things that I have been feeling around this movement to create change in our industry, and in the world at large, is that people feel it’s their calling. I feel like we’ve moved away from there’s white space. I can go placate a bunch of people, and get something done, and make some money to what is in my soul and spirit, and what moves me as a human, and how can I contribute to the greater good of society. It comes through in absolutely everything the two of you put out there.
Steph Olson: I use this idea, even in our own business at We Are Rosie, that there’s magic. When people are like, “How did We Are Rosie do X, Y, and Z in this amount of time?” I’m like, “It’s magic.” But, there’s something that comes through when you are living in your authentic soul purpose, and you have found a way to express your unique gifts with the world. People are a magnet to it. And I think the two of you have a found way to express your unique gifts with the world in a way that will create the change that you feel, at a cellular level, needs to happen. I think that’s the beautiful thing about what you’re doing.
Steph Olson: The fact that you keep that North star, it doesn’t matter how it’s expressed. You are in service of the industry, and of the people in the industry. That was formerly expressed as a Freelancer Cyber Summit, it is now expressed in a different way with Allyship and Action, but you’re still working towards the same goal. I think that I really admire the work that you all have done. It’s been absolutely incredible to watch.
Steph Olson: I know that Allyship and Action has two pillars, these baller … I have never, in my life, seen virtual events done the way that you two do them. You’re the bar that I tell people about. If you’re listening, and you haven’t checked out the Allyship and Action Virtual Summit, you have to. There’s another one coming up. So I’d love to hear more about how Allyship and Action is living and breathing in this moment, and the two pillars that you all have built so far? Around events, and also certification that will be powered by tech, which is really cool.
Nate Nichols: Totally. Do you want to talk events?
Steffi Behringer: Yeah. Well, first of all, that was so beautifully said, Steph, thank you so much.
Steffi Behringer: Going back really quick, to the calling that you were saying, we really feel the same way. We started doing these virtual events, and forums, and community building in March when COVID hit. But looking back, it almost feels like this was part of the journey, to now actually find our purpose with the Allyship and Action. So thank you for rephrasing that for us, this really means a lot.
Steffi Behringer: Yeah, Allyship and Action consists of two different pillars. One pillar is the virtual summits, where we bring, again, the advertising industry together, the creative people, everyone that wants to learn, that wants to listen, that really wants to dig in and learn about different perspectives, multiple, different perspectives. We are just super, super proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish with that, on the level of the production as well. Again, I think it was a build up to this point, where we now feel more confident, and we know the structure and the process of how we can build it.
Steffi Behringer: The other pillar is the certification platform that you wanted to speak about.
Nate Nichols: To add on to the event side, the industry has been … Everyone’s been talking from their company perspective, but you don’t actually know what these people are feeling, and how they’re actually moving as individuals. When I say individuals, I mean C-suite. What it feels like is everyone’s just burdening their teams or roles. Instead of looking at their entire structure, and everyone is feeling this, how can you expect one human being to solve for this?
Nate Nichols: So for us, this forum you can call it, where advertising come together at the Summit, is a space for any part of the hierarchy to come and learn, and understand their role in allyship, and understand their role in the problem that exists, of systemic racism and oppression in our industry and the world.
Nate Nichols: The vision is to create this space, this forum, for people to get comfortable in their discomfort, in a way that is accessible and productive for them. So they can take their sadness, their frustration, and their anger, and actually learn practical steps, understand what microaggressions are in the workplace, and how that is racism. How do we design code of conduct policies for our clients, so if they are popping off and they’re like, “We want white models,” we can tell them, “Tupac. You’ve got to go.” And helping design those things is something that we don’t want to do, but the community that comes to this forum and space, we’re enabling and incubating those people in the community in a Slack channel, off to the side.
Nate Nichols: So it’s a place where you learn, and then you’re a part of a community. Then, you can go off, design things you feel like you need, or we need as an industry, together as a community, so you don’t feel like a lone wolf in your allyship at your agency or your brand.
Steffi Behringer: Adding to that, that was really amazing to see how these people founded their own communities, and groups of people that started new initiatives to work on, and took tangible actions that will help their agencies and leadership, and within their organization, to learn about what kind of language should we be using, about this radical, systemic change. That should start with the leadership, but how do we approach the leadership? There were so many questions, and now there are groups that formalize themselves and take action, which is just really awesome.
Nate Nichols: To design briefs for themselves, activate and design code of conducts, so it’s crazy.
Steph Olson: But it’s such a beautiful thing, because I feel like the work that you’re doing, while it manifests in different ways, at the core, you’re creating a sacred space for conversation that we have suppressed for hundreds of years, as a culture. It allows people to be vulnerable. To your point, Nate, it allows people to get comfortable being uncomfortable, which we all need to do.
Steph Olson: Then, I think what you’re saying, Steffi, is it sounds like, through that experience, and that vulnerability, and the conversation that you all are prompting and sparking, everybody’s able to figure out, “How am I uniquely suited to impact racism and anti-Blackness in the advertising industry?” There’s a million ways to tackle it, because it is so systemic, and it has infiltrated every nook and cranny of this industry. I say it’s the air we breathe as a culture, as an industry, as a workforce.
Steph Olson: But, it’s really incredible for you all to set those sparks, and then for everybody to go start their own little fires, however you can show up in this moment, and it sounds like that’s already happening. We can keep the conversation going.
Steffi Behringer: Right.
Nate Nichols: That’s the vision.
Steffi Behringer: Yeah. Our friends from People & Company always say, “You don’t build for the community, you build with the community.” That’s what our goal is, and mission with Allyship and Action.
Nate Nichols: It shouldn’t be on our shoulders, either. We can’t fix everything, we all need to do this together.
Steph Olson: Yeah. Everybody has to pitch in.
Steph Olson: Tell me a little bit more about the Allyship and Action certification. And, the tech platform that you all are building. We Are Rosie has signed the certification, I think every company should be seriously considering this. Everybody, if you’re listening, you need to take a look. And, if y’all want to share a little bit more about it?
Nate Nichols: 100%. If you want to take a look, it’s allyshipandaction.com.
Nate Nichols: Basically, the thesis is that all of these leaders … Some have taken the pledge to change from 600 & Rising, and report their workforce diversity. Thousands haven’t, hundreds haven’t. Brands, agencies, et cetera, they’re just going on without really being transparent. In there, there’s shame. In there, there’s fear. But, beyond that, these leaders are running organizations with their shame and fear, with organizations that don’t trust them now. We’re in this moment where you said what you said with your Black tile, and there’s nothing after that. We can’t believe you, because you’re not doing anything to advance the industry. You’re doing this to react to what society has deemed this is terrible now.
Nate Nichols: So we are trying to normalize the idea of transparency and accountability in the industry. So you don’t have to feel ashamed about reporting workforce diversity, you can be proud of the cultures and ethnicities that are in your organization, and have a benchmark that you’re comfortable with, in growing however you want to shape or design your workforce diversity. So the technology platform is essentially a website where you’re going to upload your company. Once you have a company page, you’re going to upload your workforce diversity, and it’s going to be there forever. You’re going to update it however many times a year.
Nate Nichols: We’ll have an annual report, which will measure other types of data like retention of the people of color, or Black people, we’ll do an annual report where we can see the different categories of brands, and how Black people and non-Black people of color are being promoted throughout the industry by category. You’ll be ranked in your industry or category, with the different percentages and numbers on gender, or sexuality, et cetera. So it creates an industry wide standard that everyone should be striving for. Too many people are thinking about themselves in the organization, and their fear and their shame.
Nate Nichols: It just occurred to me 40 hours ago that your shame, the shame that you have, weighs ounces compared to the trauma that we have to live with the rest of our lives. So truly measure what you are striving-
Steph Olson: Snaps on snaps.
Nate Nichols: What you’re making your decisions in is based on a reactionary feeling, versus empathy.
Nate Nichols: Our vision is to create this platform that creates equity across the industry, and drives workforce diversity in a way that feels normal. It feels like if you’re a brand questioning an agency’s workforce diversity, you just ask if they have the A&A certification, and they could be proud of it. They can upload their work, and show off how much they’re doing as well, proactively. That’s the other part of the technology.
Nate Nichols: Once you upload your staff the one time, and you refresh it either biannually, or at the end of the year for our annual report, you’ll actually be able to upload 10 campaigns, evergreen campaigns, and projects to show off how you’re still attributing to workforce diversity, either through your vendors or through your internal staffing plans. It just continues to be a system of showing, and being proud of the workforce diversity you have at your organization, from the brand perspective and the agency perspective.
Steph Olson: Yeah. There’s so much I love about this. Holy shit, it’s just needed. But, you know what strikes me as I listen to you, Nate? It’s the idea of pulling the shame and fear out of the darkness. We’ve kept it cloaked so long as an industry, one, because we don’t want to talk about it. Two, because C-suite leadership’s hoping that anybody that’s calling for change or action will just get tired and go away.
Nate Nichols: Right.
Steph Olson: I feel so motivated at the moment, because I feel like we’re at a watershed moment and it’s not going away. But, by coming out of the darkness, and bringing into the light your diversity data today, which is going to be shit.
Nate Nichols: Right.
Steph Olson: We all know the baseline is shit. Can we normalize that okay, we’re just going to acknowledge that, and take steps to do better? Nobody expects a holding company to come out of the gates and say they have 30% Black and people of color.
Nate Nichols: Right, right, right.
Steffi Behringer: Exactly.
Steph Olson: But, we have to start somewhere. We can feel shame and take action, moving forward, and be proud of that action. Because it has been generations of leaders that have gotten us to this point, and it is today’s leaders that can decide to do something different about it. The first step is bringing it to the light, and that’s what you all are building, which I think is simply incredible.
Nate Nichols: Thank you. That is the vision.
Steffi Behringer: I think, from what you were saying, that taking it out of the dark and really getting uncomfortable with these conversations. We all know discomfort really breeds transformation. If we start having these conversations, and acknowledge that we can be imperfectly perfect, to learn and grow, I think that’s really the start point of transformation, and diversity.
Steffi Behringer: What we want to accomplish with this platform and certification is really the first step of committing to transparency, and commit to diversity. It’s not about new marketing, it’s not about new metrics, it’s not about policy, it’s really about humans. It’s about real stories, and it’s about their real lives. We really want to get these brands and companies to acknowledge that this is the first step of you committing to this institutional change.
Steffi Behringer: If you take the certification, there will be an onboarding process, an assessment tool, we will help you. It’ll be a big spectrum of milestones, and we will help you to figure out where you are right now. Like you said, the diversity data is shit, if you even know your data. We also want to provide resources for you, so that wherever you are in your work and change, there will be resources, and programs, and other initiatives that will help you to meet your own individual goals. Because we all know, this will take time, and we have to be patient, we have to be really having this greater good always on our radar.
Steffi Behringer: If you, as a brand or organization, can commit to one thing, it will help you to make your organization more diverse, or really increase the belonging and inclusion in your company, I think we can set up these different goals that would automatically lead to the certification, and something that you can really, really be proud of.
Steph Olson: I love that. The analogy that I’ve been using a lot lately is that I think there are a lot of people that want to influence change, and impact change in their own way, and what they’re looking at is a treadmill that’s turned up all the way. So they’re like, “Oh shit, how do I get on it? What do I do? If I try to go, and go into a sprint immediately, I’m going to fall on my ass.” But, there are so many things you can do before you sprint. Any behavior change, any systemic change, you have to start somewhere, just be in motion.
Steph Olson: It sounds like you all are building the platform where people can just stay in perceptual motion in service of the greater good of the people doing the work, which is how we have to create change. We can’t spring tomorrow, as much as we wish we could.
Steffi Behringer: Exactly.
Nate Nichols: No, no we can’t.
Steph Olson: What is next for you two? There’s probably 500 things that you’re talking about.
Nate Nichols: Everyone’s like, “You guys do all these awesome summits!” We’re like, “Great.”
Steffi Behringer: Yes.
Nate Nichols: It’s making us think about how there’s this new world of production opening up, with these virtual experiences, we have these two series ongoing. It’s like, “Oh, cool. Palette Group could be an agency, a production company. But also, could it be a media company, producing virtual experiences that are like a podcast media company?” Or, any other type of media company producing video. But, our thing is live experiences.
Nate Nichols: What does it look like if we design a media company where we have a couple producers? Producers in charge of the Freelancer Cyber Summit Series, producers running an Allyship and Action series. We’re spawning these little breakout workshop sessions, one off, from each one of the events that we do. We’re re-thinking other types of programming that are live, and interactive, and engaging. We have our minds on different virtual experiences, and engaging the audience that we’ve already engaged. How can we engage them differently, in a way that’s fun, valuable, and productive for them in their careers?
Steph Olson: I love it.
Steffi Behringer: Yeah, I think despite all the challenges that we’ve had ever since Corona came into our world, I think it also opened up so many new opportunities, like doing these virtual productions now. We would have never, ever expected this to be a vertical that we now have for Palette Group. I think that’s exciting, to just continue exploring this channel, and keep doing the virtual summits, building the platform. We do have a bunch of new ideas that we potentially are going to roll out.
Steffi Behringer: Yeah, this has been really exciting, and a whole new landscape for us to … It’s all learning by doing, really. Who knows what else 2020 has prepared for us?
Steph Olson: Who knows what’s going to happen next week?
Steffi Behringer: Exactly.
Steph Olson: I know we’re definitely not going back to normal, and certainly not if any of us have anything to say about it. What is something that’s giving you hope right now?
Nate Nichols: Great question.
Steffi Behringer: That is a great question. Yeah, I think going back, looking at 2020 and what has happened, really despite the tragedy of COVID, I think it opened up a different level of empathy in our industry, and humanity. I hope that a lot of those things will actually stick in the following months and years to come. And that we’re not only responding right now, to this very moment of crisis, but really keep on doing the work. Yeah, just be more mindful and cautious about each other, and not being as blind and as deaf anymore. But really pay attention to what’s going on around you and with each other, I think this is needed, and I think with 2020 this has definitely, definitely opened up a lot more people, and perspectives, and reactions to our world.
Nate Nichols: For me, I think I find solace in chaos. I feel like I’m at my best and thriving when there’s challenges and chaos. When things are status quo, it just feels uncomfortable, and I feel like I’m not being challenged enough.
Nate Nichols: I’m seeing a lot of people in the world looking at 2020, feeling shut down, but also being resilient in ways that I don’t think they would have. I’m seeing a lot more resilience in the world, that is beautiful, and rooted in the right spaces, rooted in empathy. Not being resilient and being dominating with their reactions towards being sad or frustrated, they’re being resilient in being more hopeful, and productive in ways that are filled with integrity, in ways that we’re all being productive together. Versus how can I advance through my resilient energy, and take? It’s much more like, how can I advance through my resilient energy, and give, and create more for other people?
Nate Nichols: That’s what’s really hopeful for me, is that although people are sad, and angry, and frustrated, the resilience is at another level. There’s a lot more integrity in resilience. Time either exposes you or promotes you, and the people that don’t have integrity in their resilience, we see you, you can’t hide. I enjoy that, and it makes me hopeful.
Steph Olson: It’s like we’re expediting a better future through all of the challenges, and pain, and chaos.
Nate Nichols: Right.
Steph Olson: It takes visionaries like the two of you to see this, as difficult as this moment is, as an incredible opportunity to usher in a new era. Because where there’s chaos and instability, we can initiate the change that we want to see, and often at a much more rapid timeline. Thank you so much for the work that you two are doing, and thank you for sharing your time with me today.
Steph Olson: I want everybody to check you out on social, check out your website. Let’s do a social internet rundown for Palette Group, Allyship and Action, Freelancer Cyber Summit. Where can you be found?
Nate Nichols: Palettegrp.com, G-R-P. So, Palette, P-A-L-E-T-T-E-G-R-P.com, creative agency and production company. Then, freelancercybersummit.com. Then, allyshipandaction.com. And then, Instagram, just all those things are the same on the internet.
Steffi Behringer: Yes.
Steph Olson: Follow these two at all the things on the internet. Thank you everyone for tuning in to the Rosie Report Podcast, subscribe if you’re watching on YouTube, or follow us on whatever streaming platform you’re on, to never miss future episodes. You can always head to therosiereport.com/podcast if you ever get lost, and we will see you next time.