What Gaslighting Taught Me About Leadership
Nandini Jammi co-founded the ad accountability platform, Sleeping Giants, but never felt she got the credit. Now she's building a business centered on personal power.
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Earlier this month, Sleeping Giants co-founder Nandini Jammi walked away from the massive global movement to deplatform hate—and took to Medium to expose co-founder Matt Rivitz’s bad behavior.
Jammi and Rivitz together should have had many reasons to celebrate. During their time running the Sleeping Giants campaign against Breitbart alone, they convinced thousands of advertisers—including AT&T, Kellogg’s, BMW and Visa—to blacklist the site, denying it their precious ad dollars. They mounted a successful campaign to cancel The O-Reilly Factor. Their work inspired copycat accounts all over the globe—including a mighty arm in France, which has taken aim at right-wing outlet Boulevard Voltaire, and a Canadian faction that convinced over 300 corporations to abandon ads with Rebel Media. Jammi and Rivitz were so powerful that when they were forced to go public with their identities in 2018, after being doxxed in the online pages of the Daily Caller, they had the chance to do so in the New York Times.
But Jammi’s memories of these moments, each detailed at length in her confessional post, are instead complicated by verbal and emotional abuse that she says she suffered as Rivitz’s co-conspirator—including gaslighting and the constant minimization or erasure of her contributions. “It’s a Rorschach test,” Jammi says now of that profile. “Some people saw that article and saw me as a co-founder. Others saw it and saw me as a very involved member. For me, that article was the most valuable and precious thing that I’ve had in my Sleeping Giants-related career because it was the only evidence that I had that I was solidly involved in this movement.”
Last year, while Rivitz was at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity accepting a Gold Lion award, Jammi was thrown into a full-blown crisis. She didn’t even know they had won, or that he was going until she saw posts roll in to her own mentions congratulating her. “I spent the rest of the week just asking myself: Are you actually as involved as you think you are? Are you actually doing this work every day? Does it actually matter? Why did I put this on my website? Am I here? Do I exist? It was beyond comprehension for me. I’ve been working on this every day next to my job. I work in the nights I work in the mornings. And I’m calculating: What is it? What is it that I do?”
Jammi knows now exactly what she wants to do: the hard-won lessons she took away from her time at Sleeping Giants are now fueling her next chapter as the co-founder of Check My Ads, a brand safety firm that she built with Claire Atkin, an advocate who has been working at the intersections of tech and policy for the better part of the last decade. “I don’t have a negative message to spread,” Jammi clarified to me. “My message, and my work, is ultimately positive and empowering. The message I bring is: We want you to be in control of your advertising. What we want is for companies, for marketers, to feel like they’re in control. We want you to feel like you know where your money is going and you’re in control of your brand. We want to hold your hand and walk you to a more safe and sustainable future where your marketing strategy and society are not at odds—but rather, the way you spend your money supports the values that you care about.”
The entire venture is designed around a model of leadership Jammi hungered for when she worked alongside Rivitz—together, she and Atkin hold meetings where they demand women and people of color have a seat at the table, and their plans to expand make explicit room for diverse leadership as their funding and capacity grow. They work in coalition and they lead by listening.
“I’m so proud to be partnering with Claire, because she’s amazing—and is committed to building a better business, a better future, with inclusivity in our DNA. We had both talked about how when we have money, when we have clients, when we finally hire people, we want to put in the effort to find diverse voices. We want those folks at the table with us, helping us out. We want to pay them. We want to create a business around them.”
That genetic material was on display during one of their earliest calls with a tech partner—in which Atkin asked two of the most powerful men in the room to find a woman to assign to their case. “We’re marketing consultants, and we are not technical by nature,” Jammi remembers Atkin explaining to them. “When our potential client asks us to explain the technical details, we don’t want to hand that over to a guy on these calls… We want to be a woman-centered business.” The sales rep running point on their partnership now is a woman named Madison.
“I think Matt represents this ideal, this concept, this construct that you need one leader to build a powerful organization,” Jammi said about her former colleague. “I think I’m proof that you can build something even more powerful when you collaborate. We give credit freely. We open doors for others. And we are more connected and we’re more powerful as a result. I think that is the business of the future.”
Jammi’s work is also proof that the advertising game is changing—because consumers, riled up by activists like her, are demanding better. “Advertisers are in a place where they don’t know what to do anymore—because of Black Lives Matter, because of the pandemic, because the U.S. elections have just decimated the marketing strategies that we had in place,” Jammi explained. “Just the act of advertising is no longer enough to win your customers. Advertising could actually hurt your company. The companies that did put out the wrong message, during the height of the George Floyd protests, they suffered—and other companies see that. They are realizing for the first time that their advertising is not resonating. All the rules that they learned in business school, in marketing class, are just not working anymore. They’re now looking for someone to help them navigate that. And lucky for us, you know, I’ve been on the ground for four years being part of this change—and no one knows how to navigate it better than me.”
Co-founding Sleeping Giants was an opportunity Jammi had unknowingly been seeking throughout her young adulthood—a pursuit that began when she enrolled at the University of Maryland to study marketing and joined the Honors Humanities Program. In those honors courses, Jammi and her peers were presented with probing questions about the human impact of the fields they studied. One seems prescient: “What’s the point of science that doesn’t benefit humanity?” Asking these questions put Jammi at odds with her classmates in business school, and when she graduated her ambivalence toward the field only grew. “I didn’t know what you were supposed to do after college,” she admits. “But I didn’t want to do any of it.”
Instead, Jammi saved up money and went exploring, flying to Europe to enmesh herself in what she sees now as a series of “ridiculous schemes.” The first was with a UX design agency, a stint that ended with Jammi being invited to stay with the founder and his wife. The next was at a tech startup in London, which gave her the opportunity to stop living off of her savings and settle down. The third, a the Head of Growth for a different tech startup, led to an “Aha” moment—and set the stage for a global movement.
“At some point, we were making enough money that my boss was like, ‘Here’s £3,000. Why don’t we experiment with the Google ad campaign?’” Jammi designed the entire campaign, writing copy and building landing pages, and she became so invested that she couldn’t resist looking into the analytics and metrics once it launched. “I also looked at the backend, to see where my ads were appearing,” she explained. “Are they on cnn.com? Are they being shown in an environment where my audience is reading? And no, they weren’t. They were on sites that I’d never heard of. They were on sites I don’t think human beings visit. And they were on [far-right libertarian blog] zerohedge.net.”
That moment stuck with her. “There are tons of articles about how to run an ad campaign, but there’s nothing about where your ads might be appearing,” she said. “I thought it was weird. I was never able to figure out how much my clients had gotten out of that. I didn’t understand why my ads were appearing on all these sites that had nothing to do with where I thought my audience would be.”
That was in August of 2016. We all know what happened later that year: Donald Trump was elected President, and the fake news profiteers at Breitbart experienced a mainstream ascendance alongside Trump’s own hate-filled, far-right campaign. After months of avoiding its URL, Jammi finally visited Breitbart—and saw an ad for Old Navy featuring an interracial couple in the sidebar. “I was immediately like: They don’t know their ads are on here. Someone should tell them.”
She did—and she issued a warning to her peers as well. Jammi tweeted at Old Navy to let them know their ads were appearing on the website, and later that night, she published a blog on Medium that began with a powerful declaration for other marketers: “Don’t wait for permission to blacklist Breitbart.” The next day, Jammi received a DM from Rivitz, inviting her to begin collaborating on the then-nascent social media movement. Jammi accepted, and began building what would become an eager and engaged Facebook community of activists ready and willing to take action to deprive fake news platforms and outlets trafficking in hate speech from precious advertising revenue.
Jammi speaks now of the transformation she has undergone in her professional life since that day with a sense of awe in her voice. “I’ve always felt like every job that I’ve had is the last job I’ll ever have and that I’m not good enough to ever be hired, I’m not good enough to ask for a raise, I’m not good enough to ask for promotion… I felt like I could not ask for more, like my time had not come yet,” she said. “This act of coming out and claiming my power has been like a repudiation of all of the assumptions that I held about myself. I know that so many women have the same feeling: it’s not my time yet, and someone knows better than I do.” While she cringes at the cliche, Jammi is now the type to declare, sincerely, that “all you have to do is believe in yourself.”
Jammi’s evolution happened one decision at a time. Six months after the New York Times profile came out, Jammi updated her personal website to take credit for her work with Sleeping Giants and invite speaking and media opportunities, which she took at whim. Learning to celebrate her own success led Jammi down a rabbit hole of bigger, better opportunities—and even more re-invention. She rewrote her bio, finally claiming the title of “co-founder” on her own, and weeded out every trace of imposter syndrome that had once lived in the sub-text. “I did not realize all the stuff that I had done until this December, when I went back and looked at everything and was like: Oh, that was me. I got Robert Mercer kicked out. I came up with the strategy. I had in my brain assigned it to the collective, and I had just said, oh, that happened as if I was not the common denominator for all of these accomplishments.
In the process of claiming her own seat at the table, Jammi was also able to find her people—and keep them close. “The power is not only for me,” she declared, “but really the ability to hold the door open for someone else.”
Jammi takes the responsibility of modeling a new way of work—and a new face for ad tech—very seriously. “I’ve seen the impact that my work has on the world and on the companies that enable them,” she said. “I feel I have no choice but to continue doing that work—because people are rooting for me. What I did is causing [people] to re-evaluate their own personal situations and has given them courage to speak out. They’re actively recalibrating their personal decisions as a result of what I’ve done.”
Buoyed by her newfound sense of herself as a trailblazer and a leader, Jammi is ready to march defiantly forward. “I have a vision of a better future in my head,” she confessed. “I don’t have a roadmap, but I have a vision. I know that Claire and I are on the right path and we have the right instincts and that we now have people in place who are going to enable us and support us as we figure it out together. That’s not something I can just walk away from.”
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