Complex Insiders Say Company Was built On Black Culture But Whitewashed Ad Deals

Complex Insiders Say Company Was built On Black Culture But Whitewashed Ad Deals

Insiders at Complex Media allege that while the company was created on Black culture and profited from it, it whitewashed advertising deals. Credit: DrawKit

There’s been a day of reckoning with several media outlets called out for creating a racist and sexist work environment. Now comes word that Complex magazine, which had always been seen as friendly to the Black culture in its content, was two-faced.

Former Black employees have come out and claimed they experienced  microaggressions and unfair treatment. On top of this, the company tried to distance itself from the Black culture it covered in its content when trying to get ads.

Several former employees told Business Insider that a predominantly white ad sales team would at times downplay the company’s Black audience in sales pitches.

Due to the allegations coming to light, Complex Networks said on July 20 that an outside consultancy would do a full cultural audit of the company and its processes.

There is no denying it. Complex Networks has built a $200-million business from its roots in Black culture, covering the hip hop and sneaker industries. It was founded by fashion designer Marc Ecko in 2002 and sold in 2016 to a joint venture of Hearst and Verizon, which provided it with funding, independence, and resources to expand in video.

Longtime CEO Rich Antoniello helped Complex build a profitable business on low staffing costs and ad-friendly video series like “Hot Ones,” and “Sneaker Shopping,” Business Insider reported. It expanded into areas such as licensing, large events like ComplexCon and merchandise including hot sauces.

Yet, the work environment was anything but creative. Former Complex staffer Tiffany Wines alleged in June on Twitter that the company has a “toxic workplace steeped in misogyny, anti-Blackness, favoritism, rape culture, and pay inequity across demographic lines.”

“Complex Networks would and could not exist without Black art, Black consumers, and Black labor, but the company itself is not a safe space for its most vulnerable population: Black women,” Wines wrote, Vulture reported. 

Wines recalled an incident where she unknowingly consumed drug-laced cookies that were left out in the office and consequently blacked out.

Following Wine’s tweet, Business Insider interviewed 20 former staffers including 12 former sales employees and six editorial employees who worked at Complex from 2014 to 2019.

According to five former ad salespeople, the company downplayed its Black audience in advertising pitches. The practice was referred to as “whitewashing,” and the employees explained that 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.”

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Complex Networks addressed the stories shared by former employees with a short statement on Twitter. “We believe Complex Networks is a great place to work, but it is by no means perfect,” the statement began. “It’s our passion for our brands, communities, colleagues, and the belief that a safe and inclusive workplace should be the expectation for everyone … that make this company what it is today.”