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Netflix has dismissed three senior film marketing executives — about half its staff at that level — after they were discovered grousing on Slack about management, sources tell The Hollywood Reporter.
According to sources, their immediate boss, vp original films marketing Jonathan Helfgot, whom they also criticized, was extremely reluctant to fire the three for their comments, arguing that employees vent as a matter of course and such dire consequences were not warranted. But sources say he succumbed to pressure from higher-ups at the company.
The episode is a window into Netflix’s unusual culture, which calls for radical transparency. Under the heading “Real Values” on its job website is an entry reading, “You only say things about fellow employees that you say to their face.”
Apparently, the executives in question thought the messages were private. An insider says an employee stumbled across several months’ worth of these messages and reported it. A Netflix spokesperson says, “The depiction of the slack messages in question being critical of marketing leadership is untrue.”
The marketing department is headed by chief marketing officer Bozoma Saint John. Though Saint John is Black, an insider says the company found nothing in the chat to be racist or disparaging to any particular community. Rather, sources say, Netflix deemed the conversation to be inconsistent with its core values. “Their culture is all about transparency and giving feedback,” says one outside observer with knowledge of the situation. “It would make sense that there should be no need for private conversation.”
Another source familiar with the thinking of co-CEO Ted Sarandos says, paradoxically, the executives might have been better off speaking about their complaints more openly. “If you vent [there], you do it very publicly,” this person says. As for grumbling among a smaller group, “Ted told me it’s a firing offense because it’s destructive to the fabric of the company.”
Sarandos addressed the issue in a July 17 message on LinkedIn, acknowledging the firings but denying that the messages targeted Saint John, Helfgot or others in the top ranks.
“Very early on at Netflix, Reed Hastings wrote a culture memo for the company with Patty McCord, then our head of talent. At its heart was the notion of integrity and feedback, which they described as ‘You only say things about fellow employees you say to their face,'” he wrote.
“What happened here was unfortunately not simply venting on Slack or a single conversation. These were critical, personal comments made over several months about their peers (not their management as suggested by The Hollywood Reporter) – including during meetings when those peers were talking or presenting,” he said. “This is entirely inconsistent with those values, which is why their manager fired them. It’s also worth noting that we don’t proactively monitor Slack or email. The Slack channel was open so anyone could access the conversations even though the employees concerned thought it was private.”
Sarandos personally recruited Saint John and hired her away from Endeavor in June 2020. Saint John was the first Black person to join the ranks of the streamer’s top executives. Before joining Endeavor in 2018, she had worked at Apple and Uber in high-profile roles.
A source who has worked with Saint John says she has “a tremendous presence” and is a dynamic speaker. She is also described by one former Netflix insider as well as former colleagues at Endeavor as an unconventional marketing executive. Insiders say Sarandos and Reed Hastings place a low priority on traditional marketing strategy.
Saint John has become a name in her own right, giving Ted Talks and speeches. Posting to her 372,000 Instagam followers under the handle “badassboz,” she recently promoted Level 2 of her “Badass Workshop,” promising to help followers “architect your greatest self!!” at $150 for five sessions. In June, she appeared in a Conde Nast Traveler promotional video that invited viewers to discover places in Los Angeles “where she seeks out meaningful connections to her heritage — in the Porsche Panamera.”
She had announced to staff that she would be relocating to and working from Paris as “an ambassador of the [Netflix] culture,” but sources say those plans have been called off.
For THR‘s Women in Entertainment issue in May 2021, she wrote about her unique trajectory and about an Ad Age article that questioned her credentials and was then withdrawn with an apology after blowback on social media. “I don’t think it’s a surprise that Ad Age was not the first time somebody has called into question my accomplishments or tried to twist them into something negative,” she wrote. “Reaching the mountaintop just means you’re susceptible to the high winds. They’re fierce, they’re strong and they’re much colder… I am not superhuman. I just happen to be super good at what I do.”
Meanwhile, Saint John continues to put her stamp on the marketing department. Recent hires include Allure editor-in-chief Michelle Lee and Spotify vp and global co-head of music Marian Lee Dicus. Saint John also recently parted ways with nine-year veteran vp Eric Pallotta. In a statement, Saint John said, “Over the past 9 years Eric Pallotta has helped build passionate communities of fans for our titles all around the world, and created the playful and entertaining brand voice that defines us today. We wish him the very best in his future endeavors.”
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