What's it like to be gay in adland? Industry insiders share insights

Ad execs offer takeaways from when they started their careers to now.

With Pride Month in full swing, Campaign US chatted with a few industry professionals to hear their stories about being members of the LGBTQ community in the ad industry.

For the most part, the executives say adland is a welcoming, safe place for gay people, but they offer a few ideas for how the industry can improve and become even more inclusive.

See their answers below.

Michael Houston, Worldwide CEO, Grey

Has your experience as a member of the LGBTQ community in the advertising changed at all from when you started your career? If so, how? If not, why not?
When I started in the business I wasn't a member of the LGBTQ community so, yes, I'd say my experiences have evolved over the span of my career. I'm thankful that when I did come out, I worked in an agency and in a business where it really didn't matter to anyone other than me.

In the business of creativity, the things that make one different are equally those things that make one beautiful and valuable. So, the minute our industry stops actively seeking diversity in its broadest sense, we’re dead in the water. Our drive to diversify is perpetual and if we're doing our jobs right, we'll never get there. Only when we think of quotas is there an end point, while genuinely living an ethos of inclusion is dynamic and ever-evolving.

Do you think more needs to be done in order to make members of the LGBTQ community feel welcome in adland or do you think the industry is already where it needs to be in that regard?
Specifically regarding LGBTQ people "feeling welcome" in adland, I can only think of a handful of industries that might be more welcoming than ours. While I may be on the side of disproportionate good luck, I've only encountered open-minded colleagues and clients in my career. I'd like to believe my personal experiences are not unique, rather indicative of a gay-friendly industry.

I'm looking forward to the day when we stop analyzing how open we are to specific groups of people and start simply analyzing how open we are. Full stop.

Barry Lowenthal, CEO, The Media Kitchen

Has your experience as a member of the LGBTQ community in the advertising changed at all from when you started your career? If so, how? If not, why not?
One of the things I remember vividly about starting in advertising as a gay person is how safe I felt. Growing up gay, I often felt I had to hide who I was and when I started working in advertising being gay was just a non-issue. In fact sometimes it felt like a real plus.

Today I think that safe feeling is still true, but probably even more so. It’s one of the reasons I love this business. Advertising is made up of people who respect individuality, love creativity and are incredibly respectful of social differences, at least the people I’ve had the good fortune to work with (and that’s a lot of people). I think as the equality movement gained momentum and LGBT rights became a national discussion, people in advertising were especially vocal and supportive.  In fact many of the non-gay people I know were really proud to support marriage equality. It’s an incredible feeling being surrounded by people who want what’s best for you and what’s right for society. Who wouldn’t want to be in an industry that’s cheering you on?!

Do you think more needs to be done in order to make members of the LGBTQ community feel welcome in adland or do you think the industry is already where it needs to be in that regard?
I’ve never felt discriminated against by any employer in adland. I’ve never felt uncomfortable around a client and I’ve never felt I was being held back for being gay.  My employers have always been progressive with benefits, originally with domestic partner benefits and also with medical benefits. I also know that my experience is unique because I worked at incredibly inclusive places like KBS, BBH and The Media Kitchen and I’ve always held senior roles that helped drive the discussion. From my perspective the industry is in a great place around LGBT issues. Clearly there are other issues that need significant improvement, which is true across many industries.

But I also think it’s important to remain vigilant because things could change, especially in this political climate. My advice to all employers is make sure you’re creating a safe space for all voices to be heard and that your workforce is inclusive and diverse. If you’re a gay person in adland, make sure you’re out, which is the only way to create change. We always need more role models.

Elina Lim, Producer, Swift

Has your experience as a member of the LGBTQ community in the advertising changed at all from when you started your career? If so, how? If not, why not?
I feel like I see more big companies leaning into LGBTQ culture as a strategy to sell product. And as suspicious as I am about it—and a lot of my friends in the LGBTQ community are suspicious too, I also see it as a great way of normalizing who we are in society. If corporations show us that a range of identity, sexuality and style is normal, then others might feel like it’s okay too. But you can definitely see when companies just show up for the month of June and then check out for the rest of the year, and would like to see that change. 

Compared to other industries, advertising has a good pulse on what’s happening in society, but we’re not as up to date as we should be. How many people working in agencies really know what cis vs. elected gender is or actually use they/them pronouns or have non-gendered bathrooms? We have to get with it or we’ll fall behind the curve. 

Do you think more needs to be done in order to make members of the LGBTQ community feel welcome in adland or do you think the industry is already where it needs to be in that regard?
Yes. One way is for agencies to establish LGBTQ affinity groups. Give them the support and structure to gather and talk about what they need on their own terms. It’s also really helpful if management checks in with them to see if what they need is being met. It’s easy to create a workplace environment that is very normal and comfortable for cis white dudes, but leadership needs to include all groups in the conversation in order to make intentional choices for everyone to feel supported. It’s really powerful when leadership stands by the people who are most marginalized in society. 

I always believe in putting your money where your mouth is, so agencies could provide more volunteer or pro bono opportunities that prioritize and benefit the LGBTQ community. 

Simone Byrd, Beauty and Wellness Director, Domain Integrated

Has your experience as a member of the LGBTQ community in the advertising changed at all from when you started your career? If so, how? If not, why not?
My experience working on the marketing side of the beauty industry has certainty changed over time. Brands have always thrived on divided gender lines which now there is a huge shift to gender non-conformity. For example, makeup brands are featuring men and transgender people in their ads. Along with messaging and imagery, packaging is becoming way less explicit to one gender and it has been cool to see these new "fluid" brands that are launching and are all about inclusiveness.

I have also noticed that brands are focusing their cause marketing on LGBTQ charities which is great to see when done genuinely. Brands that I notice make a big push for this are Keils, Mac Makeup and Milk.

Do you think more needs to be done in order to make members of the LGBTQ community feel welcome in and or do you think the industry is already where it needs to be in that regard?
What has been done so far is just a dent.

Is it important for brands to authentically communicate that their products are for people and that there are no rules to sexual orientation, gender or skin color.