When Adam Kleinberg picked up his office phone late last week, a man screamed at him, “You and your company suck big, black n***** dick!” before quickly hanging up.
It was just one of more than 100 vaguely threatening messages Kleinberg had received from angry conservatives that day. A few hours earlier, the alt-right news site The Daily Wire had posted a story about Kleinberg — the CEO of Traction, a San Francisco–based advertising agency — giving his employees two days of paid time off to engage in political activism.
Taking it as a personal affront, Trump supporters came out in droves to express their displeasure with the policy. They sent him menacing emails and LinkedIn comments (of all things). They called him a “snowflake,” “libtard,” “candy ass,” “unpatriotic,” “fascist” and “socialist” — a somewhat bizarre claim to make about a man who founded his own advertising agency. And, of course, they descended on Traction’s Facebook page to leave it one-star reviews.
“It’s kinda funny,” Kleinberg says, “I knew liberals call Trump a fascist, but I didn’t know it went the other way.”
By giving his employees paid leave to engage in civic activity, Kleinberg has found himself at the epicenter of the current moment of heightened political and social awareness, even on the part of typically apolitical corporations.
“There’s been some degree of shit that’s been slung our way, but there’s been a very positive response, too,” Kleinberg says. “People are either like, ‘What you’re doing is amazing. You’re visionaries.’ Or they’re angry and feel threatened by it.”
Kleinberg didn’t arrive at the policy hastily; it came after months of contemplation. He first started mulling over the idea last November, immediately after Trump’s unexpected election victory. Specifically, Kleinberg was concerned about the Trump administration’s plan to drastically cut the federal budget, including gutting the Environmental Protection Agency and defunding Planned Parenthood.
“A lot of people were on their social media accounts bemoaning the changes in the country that were happening. But bitching on Facebook wasn’t going to make an impact. I wanted to do something that was meaningful, if we did something at all.”
By February, Kleinberg decided to give all 60 of his employees two days of paid leave to participate in a protest or volunteer activity of their choosing. “Originally, I was gonna call it Days of Resistance, but I realized it was hypocritical to frame it that way. Not everyone is a protester, and not everyone shares the same political views.”
In that vein, he renamed the policy Days of Action, and assured his employees they could use their two days however they saw fit, so long as it involved active civic engagement. That said, he doesn’t anticipate many of his employees using their Days of Action to attend pro-Trump rallies. “To be candid, Traction is in an independent creative shop in San Francisco. I don’t know that any of our employees are Trump supporters. But they may be, and I wanted them to feel comfortable and empowered if they are.”
Kleinberg made the policy official early last month, just days before International Women’s Day on March 8. Some of his female employees used their Days of Action to participate in those marches, while others are using them to volunteer for organizations that benefit homeless veterans.
He didn’t make the policy public until he posted to LinkedIn about it on April 12, launching the first wave of mixed feedback.
The larger question is why Kleinberg felt compelled to have his company encourage political activism. Advertising agencies are at the mercy of their brand clients, catering to their every whim and living in constant fear of getting fired. And brands are notoriously risk-averse, often going to great lengths to avoid any potentially controversial subject. (Pepsi, take note.) Historically, it has not paid off for an ad agency (or any company, for that matter) appear even remotely political.
But Kleinberg says it’s increasingly popular for companies to engage in social and political activism. The hot new buzzword around Silicon Valley is “corporate social responsibility,” he says. For example, he recently attended a business conference that had attendees help pack toiletry kits for women staying in women’s shelters.
“I’m aware there may be brands out there that may never want to work with us again,” Kleinberg says. “But I also conclude that what we’re doing is something other brands out there respect and agree with.”
As for the backlash, Kleinberg, like any great ad man, sees it as an opportunity for commerce. He plans on selling T-shirts that say “Boycott Traction” and “Candy Asses” on the back, and donating the profits to the ACLU.