Nate Nichols, founder and creative director of Palette Group, and Steffi Behringer, partner and executive producer at the agency, recently co-founded Allyship and Action, which hosted a virtual two-day summit in October that was focused on dismantling systemic racism in the advertising industry. That summit was only the first step. We talked to Nate and Steffi about the industry changes they saw (and didn’t see) in 2020, and what the next steps are for 2021.
Lonny Pugh: Could each of you talk a bit about your professional background, and how your paths led you to found Allyship and Action?
Nate Nichols: I went to art school in Philadelphia to study graphic design, and I always had a ravenous appetite for the entrepreneurial hustle. Throughout college I accrued hundreds of freelance clients doing design, website development and social media marketing. I used Twitter early on to manage and activate relationships, which led me to work on a global $5MM Hyundai campaign after graduation. From there I ran a boutique digital shop, scaled it and bought it in two years. After buying it, I rebranded it as Palette Group and positioned it as a creative and production shop in 2018.
Being a Black man in the advertising industry with not many peers and mentors to guide me as a founder was very lonely and discouraging. Being tapped primarily to produce the Black projects with subpar budgets was discouraging. When George Floyd was murdered and the industry reacted with a flurry of press releases, it was disheartening. The challenges of my lived experience as a Black man owning and operating a shop in this industry cannot be reduced to media releases and black tiles on Instagram.
Steffi and I woke up one tear-filled morning and knew we had to activate our production and creative skills.
Steffi Behringer: I started my career at a Fortune 500 automotive company, creating, building and scaling the first retail design programs for BMW and MINI of North America. After four years on the brand side, I decided to leave the corporate highway and started as a freelance producer within the experiential, event and content world. I worked with Google, YouTube, Under Armour, NBA, Target, The Rockefeller Center and many more.
Now, as a partner of Palette Group, I manage the production of IRL and virtual events, as well as commercial campaigns. Together with my life and business partner Nate, we founded the Freelancer Cyber Summit Series in early 2020, a virtual gathering to bridge the gap between the advertising world and the creative lifeblood of the industry and provide a platform for the creative freelancer community.
As May and June came around, and the world and industry experienced a sort of collective awakening to racial injustice and brutal inequality, we transformed this platform into Allyship and Action—and we hosted our first virtual summit June 18th.
We’re bringing together the ad industry, thought leaders and change-makers to have the much-needed conversation about race and how white professionals can work to affect change alongside people of color. The resulting conversations were unfiltered, emotional and incredibly popular. Thousands of viewers participated in the conversations and workshops, and Allyship and Action became a key figure in the industry’s diversity discussions.
LP: Our country continues to reckon with police brutality, anti-Black racism and systemic oppression. What were the goals of your summit, and what were the top takeaways afterward? What are the next steps for Allyship and Action?
NN: The country has much work to do in policy, training and reporting work. We can’t just continue to talk about the issues—we must design systems that produce transparency, accountability and true change. Our goal was to begin the conversation and see what the actions were behind the performative black boxes on Instagram and the media releases. We wanted to see what leaders were actually feeling when they deployed a communication. We wanted to understand the strategy.
The key takeaways were that non-white professionals have been pushing for change for decades and no one has listened until now. Non-white professionals have the solutions, systems and ideas, but people in power aren’t truly enabling them to produce the projects that will hire, retain and promote marginalized communities. We realized that people in positions of power and privilege are ashamed of where they are in their inclusion efforts. We realized that we could provide a place to take that guilt and that shame and create systemic action with it.
Next on the Allyship and Action docket is to produce our own platform that quantifies the work being done by agencies, brands and the industry as a whole—it will measure impact.
SB: It’s about holding the industry accountable, following up on big media posts and promising announcements to improve internal measurements, taking actionable steps to move the needle. And to listen and learn from each other on how to be more human. We now have a Slack channel with over 500 humans that communicate and collaborate together daily. It feels inspiring and humbling to finally experience this taking place, and hopefully for the long run, until sustained change really happens.
With Allyship and Action’s brand, positioning and production of the event, it allowed people to feel safe, heard, seen and connected to each other, feeling all of the emotions and leaving with actionable steps wherever they were in their allyship journey.
And as a producer, working through the new realms of virtual productions and technology, it was amazing to work with like-minded and passionate professionals to pull off an event in two weeks that had 2,500 people attending and caused an industry-wide digital tremor.
LP: How do you define corporate responsibility going forward? What does leadership look like in 2021?
NN: We can’t just throw money at challenges and issues. We need to ensure the people facing these issues have a platform where they can thrive, now and in future generations, because of systemic, policy and educational change. Don’t just hire the mechanics to build the pipe that feeds water to a community. Build the pipe, then ensure there are educational programs teaching the next wave of engineers, and mechanics, and others, so the community can help themselves.
SB: I think leadership in 2021 means fundamentally reorienting, reorganizing and rethinking in a lot of ways, personally and organizationally—it means transforming the way we think about community, our teams, businesses.
We shouldn’t be afraid to tell our stories and publish the data, and we shouldn’t be afraid of being publicly imperfect. Leadership needs to really lean into multiple perspectives, and organizations need to activate storytelling as a way to build empathy! We need leadership that generally and genuinely hold space for humanity.
LP: What’s the greatest piece of advice you’ve ever been given, and how has it helped you?
NN: The greatest advice I was ever given was, “Who you are should be so loud, you don’t have to say a thing.”
This is my north star when I approach any work and when I’m in conversation with people. With work, how might we produce work that can tell a story without having to tell the story? With people, what is the story behind this story, why are we having this conversation? People and organizations are walking, talking values. I want to feel them.
SB: Believe in yourself, trust your instincts and never stop being curious. Growing up in a very small village in Germany, I was lucky to have a mother who never stopped showing me everything that laid between myself and the horizon in front of me—and whatever is beyond that. This foundation helped me to start my career in America and to scale it, and it still allows me to go after my dreams and aspirations.