Being liberal agency folk doesn’t automatically make us LGBT+ allies

Photo by Peter Hershey on Unsplash

Us ad agency folk like to think of ourselves as a hotbed of liberal thinking; an industry that opens the world’s eyes to inequality and discrimination through Cannes-winning creativity and campaigns that put as much emphasis on social purpose as advertising.

So it’s ironic – and perhaps slightly shameful – that not a single ad agency made it into this year’s Stonewall Workplace Equality Index, the benchmark for employers to measure and monitor their progress on lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT+) inclusion in the workplace.

Ruth Hunt, Stonewall chief executive, blames a lack of imagination. "What’s really struck me about the media industry is a significant complacency,” she laments. “There is an assumption of meritocracy, an assumption that creative is meritocratic and an absolute instinct to only work with your friends and people you trust and worked with before.”

Meanwhile, PrideAM’s president, Mark Runacus, points out that the advertising industry lags “well behind the public sector and other professions like consulting and law”. Who knew these sectors were so much more progressive than ours?

So this June, as the world celebrates the Pride movement, rather than solely helping brands capitalise on the “pink pound” by turning every asset they own into rainbows and glitter, perhaps we should also take a long hard look at ourselves: what exactly can we do to increase diversity and better support LGBT+ employees within the advertising industry?

Firstly, make us feel welcome:

Ad agencies need to start walking the talk by ensuring their commitment to LGBT+ equality is more than mere lip service. How? Let’s start by making LGBT+ awareness and support an official part of the induction programme. Then, let’s back this up by providing details of relevant rights and policies, whilst signposting LGBT+ employee networks.

Then, provide a safe space:

By nurturing an empowered LGBT+ employee network, agencies can create safe spaces that encourage LGBT+ staff – and their allies – to come together as a force for positive change. In 2018, where the LGBT+ community appears to be welcomed by the creative community with open arms, it may seem unnecessary to foster a network that proactively champions LGBT+ rights. By coming together, however, we are better placed to not just instigate new policies, but to gradually change the agency’s overall culture from the inside.

Next up, be empathetic towards LGBT+ battles:

Each minority group has its own battles and hurdles in life. A big one for the LGBT+ community is the ‘constant coming out’. If only it was a simple as one bold statement to family and friends, and then getting on with life. In reality we never stop coming out: every new team member, every new client, every new boss; they all seem to require a smaller but not necessarily less stressful coming out.

Last but definitely not least, don’t use us to sell in work:

I shall never forget the moment when a creative director (who shall remain nameless) tried selling in work to a client that centred on a lesbian wedding. In a moment that made me feel like the proverbial ‘only gay in the office’, he used the phrase “and don’t worry, we’ve checked in with Tim and he said there wouldn’t be a problem”. Because, as we all know, one LGBT+ person can speak for us all, right?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not accusing the advertising industry of being rampantly homophobic. But Pride month is a good time to take a step back and realise that we still have a way to go before our industry truly represents the diverse audiences we communicate with.

Tim Noblett is head of data at TBWA\London

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