It’s rare for a marketing executive shakeup to inspire the kind of coverage that strikes when netflix confirmed that the director of marketing Bozoma Saint-Jean was leaving the streamer after less than two years in one of Hollywood’s busiest and most demanding marketing jobs.
After the publication of the sympathetic statements on both sides – “I loved working with Boz and was inspired by his creativity and energy,” the Netflix co-CEO said Ted Sarandos, with Saint John adding, “It was a transformative two-year experience that I will always be grateful for” – came reports of behind-the-scenes friction. Some have alleged that she devotes too much time to building a personal brand and side activities like The Badass Workshop and lead a Harvard Business School short program. Others said a potential move to Paris has caused a rift with Sarandos. There were other stories, like The Hollywood Reporter reported last summer, about senior executives in Netflix’s marketing department who were fired after complaining about Slack’s management. (Netflix denied the posts targeted members of management and said they were more about peers.)
Saint John is used to attention. She has 388,000 followers on Instagram, a platform she used in the days after her discharge to add to the whirlwind by declaring her freedom. “I am free in every way…physically, emotionally and mentally. It’s my super power. I fought hard for it, and believe me when I say it’s still a daily fight to maintain my freedom. Especially when the world tries to make me feel like I have to change and fit into someone else’s standard,” she wrote on March 7. “I refuse to bow because my being even is in active revolt, so I expand.
A few days later, she celebrated her selection to the American Marketing Association’s Marketing Hall of Fame. “Them: She is out. God: No, bih. She is inside. In fact, she’s in THE MARKETING HALL OF FAME,” she posted of the honor. “By the way, for anyone contemplating your trip and wondering how/where/when YOU do…do it now. Live life urgently. I am a living, breathing, walking, sashaying testimony that it is possible to do anything on your terms.
Saint John practiced what she preaches when she stepped out for an EMILY’s List panel at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills on Tuesday where, at one point, she literally walked across the stage while showing off her ensemble, a neon pink jumpsuit. Before that, Saint John walked the red carpet and stopped for a brief interview with The Hollywood Reporter where she opened up about the release, responded to criticism of her personal brand, and shared the “cathartic” creative work she focuses on.
This is your first appearance since leaving Netflix. What can you say about why you left and how you feel now?
There’s so much going on in the world, right? There’s a shift happening for all of us, and if you’re doing something that you love, fantastic, keep doing it. For me, I was doing everything I loved. The entertainment space has always been so exciting to me. I got there after working in music, advertising, and working at PepsiCo, a consumer packaged goods company. Netflix was such a great place to work, especially during a pandemic where everyone was at home looking for new ways to be entertained, or in ways they maybe hadn’t even thought of before. He connected the world. Think about squid game and how a show could come out of Korea and entertain the world. It was just magical. But now I also needed a pivot in my own life, and there are other things I want to accomplish. You need to know when time is up and move it forward.
As with anyone who leaves a high profile job, news follows. Some reports cite criticism that you raised your personal brand too high while on the job. Can you respond to this review?
Here’s the thing: I live out loud. I recognize that there are not many black women in these positions. Do I sometimes want to be “like everyone else”? Of course, who doesn’t want to be? But the truth is, I’m not. In these spaces, there is nothing in me that resembles anyone else. I recognize that people will talk about me and sometimes people will talk about me negatively because they don’t understand where I come from, the culture I represent, the way I am. And these things look like friction.
I hope now that more of us are different. And, by the way, this doesn’t just apply to black women. This applies to everyone. I think everyone wears a mask, figuratively speaking, so I wish more of us could [take it off] and really be exactly who we are. That way I wouldn’t seem so strange and so other.
Have you read these stories? Did they get you at all?
Oh yes. I read it all. That’s the challenge of being a marketer, I consume so much information all the time that I can’t avoid it. I also want to know what people are saying. Sometimes I use it as fuel because I’m like, listen, if you want to talk about my personal brand and you want to talk about the things that I do, I hope maybe even spotlighting that will encourage someone another. That might sound negative to me, but maybe it’s encouraging to someone else who’s just, “Man, I wanna do what I wanna do, I wanna say the things I wanna say.” If more people were allowed to do this, maybe I wouldn’t be seen as so different.
Other stories have cited friction between you and Ted Sarandos over a possible move to Paris. Has this ever been a problem?
Oh no. Oh my God. I like Paris. No, never, never. Actually, I think my first trip to Netflix was in Paris, but the pandemic happened and it didn’t make sense. The long answer is I tried, and then we went into another lockdown, so it didn’t make much sense to be in Paris while stuck at home. I have a 12 year old daughter and it would be impossible to be able to manage all that. That’s the long answer.
Back to pivots. What does the future hold? Did the phone ring?
A little, yeah. Yes.
Can you give me an outline of what you want to do next? Have you made any decisions?
I take a break. There are so many other things I want to explore. I am writing a book which will be published early next year. This is my memory, called Urgent Life [from Viking]. It covers the last months of my husband’s life before he died of cancer. I will share what I learned from this in the hope that people can learn something from my experience. It was very cathartic for me. Besides that, I have my [The Badass Workshop] as well as my Harvard class. But right now, I’m taking a break.
If and when you decide, do you think it will be another marketing job?
I am in love with marketing. I don’t do it just because it’s a job or a career. I do it because I really like it. I wake up, I think about it. I watch television, I see commercials and I think: “They should have done x,y Where zor I think, “My God, that was amazing. My mind always works that way. We’ll see if something else pops up, maybe in a new industry. I’ve already been in six.
We are here today for a political organization, have you thought about politics?
I’ve loved EMILY’s List for as long as I can remember. I did an event for them when I was at Endeavour. My father was a politician in Ghana, so I was the 12-year-old kid who talked about the differences between the political systems in Venezuela and Argentina. It was us at home, so I was always involved in politics. Right now, I’m working with the president of Ghana on the diaspora. He made me an ambassador to the diaspora. [Political work] has always been something worth looking into, and I don’t know if it will ever become a main thing for me, but I definitely want to be involved in any capacity.
Interview edited for length and clarity.