“I’ve been at agencies my entire professional life and it’s been interesting to see how various places shape up when it comes to freedom of speech. I think at some agencies the consensus is act like we think freely but watch what you say because we don’t want to piss any clients off. That’s not really freedom of speech," says co-founder of The Charles agency, Samantha Edwards.
Edwards established the creative hub alongside her brother, Aaron, who previously worked in finance. Last year, amidst the tension of an increasingly vitriolic election, the pair noticed a new dynamic emerging between many of their employees: they were having raw, meaningful and sometimes very difficult conversations, about everything.
Instead of worrying about the potential of an HR scandal - both siblings had experienced this in past work environments - they decided to create a platform dedicated to taboo workplace conversations. The first issue of Charlie Magazine was formed with one thought firmly in mind: How do you have productive discussions about controversial topics in spaces they don't normally occur?
We chatted with the siblings about facilitating awkward dialogues, the role of print today, and why having NSFW conversations at work can be a one-of-a-kind team building experience.
How did Charlie come about?
Samantha Edwards: Charlie came about not long after our breakout Biggie x Kate Moss project, our Annual Report and BIRDWATCH. After the success of those internal projects we knew we were onto something in terms of parlaying agency lifestyle and culture into something larger that fell outside of client related work.
We’ve been working on a lot of brand-sponsored content recently. We were spurred on by the awards we picked up for Netflix's "Narcos" and Wall Street Journal’s "Cocainenomics" story. After that, we knew we had to do something that used our design, content marketing and development skills.
Last year was a pretty heavy in terms of news and opinions, and we had plenty of in-office debates about all topics: Black Lives Matter, the election, LBGTQ rights, climate change…You name it, we probably discussed it. The team was fired up and we believe in self-expression, particularly because you spend the majority of your ‘awake time’ at work. In terms of personality we felt like Charlie would be l’efant terrible to The Charles.
Why was it important to give employees a safe space for having controversial conversations at work?
Aaron Edwards: NSFW conversations in the workplace are every HR teams' nightmare - but that’s part of what makes us unique. We’re a very diverse team and always have been - straight, gay, queer, Black, White, Chinese, Korean. Religious, atheist, agnostic.
I think enabling your team to have a healthy balance of discussion, debate and opinion shows that you trust them to make the right decisions. Furthermore, encouraging them to communicate these issues in a way that makes sense - not just for shock value - reinforces that point. It enables them to think critically.
How will the inspiration change from issue to issue?
Samantha Edwards: We’ve talked about this a lot - if we do the same thing next issue will we fall into the realm of just another publication? Media today needs to be varied in order to be truly relevant. Charlie is a mindset and movement, an expression of our culture and individuality. Aaron and I talk all the time about the concept of metamorphosis and it's something that influences us on a daily basis. Not to get all Willow and Jaden on you but the next issue won’t be an issue, and that shouldn’t be an issue.
Where is the line between self-expression and insensitivity in the workplace?
AE: Emotional intelligence ranks high on the list of personality traits we look for when we’re hiring, so people innately know where the line is. They also have the ability to communicate their beliefs and express themselves while not offending anyone. On paper this is an HR nightmare, but in reality it works.
How do make sure your employees honor each other's points of view even if they don't agree?
AE: My experience in corporate finance helped spur the idea of a NSFW forum at The Charles. In finance coming out with statements that don't fall in line with stringent compliance policies could get you fired immediately (I saw this a couple of times). Yet at the same time executive leaders would foster a culture of magnified self-expression (narcissism and vulgarity with a dash of sadomasochism). So you’re trapped in fear of losing your job over expressing how you really feel.
Similarly with a lot of mid-to-large size agencies, they faux-champion culture and individuality. It’s almost homogenized and that’s obviously down to fear of offending clients. At the end of the day I get it - money talks - but I also have faith in the teams' intelligence; they’re super smart and super diverse. A healthy debate helps everyone think and teaches you about the person you spend 40-plus hours a week with. Some of our greatest ideas have come from our internal forums.
What do you think traditional publishers are missing?
Without a doubt everyday collaboration and storytelling. At The Charles creatives, developers, content strategists and UX designers all sit together, and on Charlie they collaborated on articles. For example: Year of The Black Girl was written by a black woman (Sianna) and designed by a white woman (Christine) - they collaborated on the article from start to finish.Ultimately it sparked a conversation between them on the challenges black women face and to some degree enlightened them both on perception and the portrayal of race in popular culture. Their collaboration on the article sparked a conversation that might not have happened otherwise. Being able to learn about each other personally and professionally helped strengthen the storytelling, resulting in a really powerful article both in written and in visual form.
What role do you think printed matter plays today? Especially with new concerns about the spread of false information?
Print matter today is still an appreciated art form. You only need to step into Iconic Magazines on Mulberry to see that print is not dead. Print magazines are works of considered thought, whether that's written or visual. I think today’s ADD style of information serving and the rush to push a story first without verified fact makes print relevant now more than ever.
The information may not be breaking, but as I said before, it’s considered and researched. From Lapham’s Quarterly to Hamburger Eyes, there will always be an appreciation for the principles of the written word or the visual creation in print.
Also take an inside look at Frank Ocean's 'Boys Don't Cry' zine.