The day my agency stood up to a homophobic client was the day it came out
Whether or not to come out at work may not seem a big deal to people who’ve never had to consider it before, but for LGBT+ people it’s about more than announcing who you happen to be sleeping with. It’s about being proud of who we are in order to be your authentic self. It’s about bringing all of you to work, not compartmentalising your life out of shame or fear. Because, as we all know, if you’re happy at work you are quite simply better at your job.
But it’s still hard to stand up and stand out without support – that’s why so many of us still aren’t doing it.
So how did I do it? How did I manage to be out and proud in the face of what felt like an openly critical industry? Well, my agency came out too.
A few years ago, when I was still a young aspiring creative at Therapy, I came face to face with my first homophobic industry hurdle – and it was quite a baptism of fire. At the time I was out but only in so far as I wasn’t ‘in’ – colleagues knew if they knew but it wasn’t something I made a point of talking about.
We had just created a smashing social campaign of which we were all really proud, which involved a competition whose entrants were couples. We were responsible for drawing up a list of finalists and, after meeting scores of hopeful pairings, we had to whittle it down to the four best, most deserving couples.
One of those finalists just happened to be a same-sex couple.
We had already had pre-approval to select and upload our final selection onto the client’s social platforms and start the ball rolling with the campaign – there was a lot to do in a little space of time so this selection was the least of our worries. Or so we thought.
Soon after the couples were uploaded for the whole world to see my creative partner and I were pulled into an internal agency meeting to receive some urgent client feedback.
The feedback was a torrent of fury all on the same theme. First was indignation: how dare the agency enter a lesbian couple without pre-approval. Next was denial: we can’t have a same-sex couple win and become the face of the brand. Finally, they landed on their solution: Make it go away.
It felt like a physical attack as if I’d been punched.
I walked out of the meeting completely numb and immediately left the office. And I’m not ashamed to say, I cried. I was effectively being told by the brand that this couple – and by association myself – were a problem. A cancer that needed to be cut out of the campaign swiftly and efficiently. We were people to be ashamed of and hidden in the deepest depths of the internet.
The guys at the agency who had received this feedback directly did not initially offer a response, so the client was awaiting confirmation that we would comply with their demands.
Within a few minutes of me leaving the office Neale (Hunt, Therapy CEO) and Laura (Redman, Therapy MD) tracked me down and told me they would categorically not be doing a single thing to make this go away for them, in fact, they were going to shine a light on their homophobia.
They would be going back to the marketing director and not only telling them that what they had asked of us was disgusting, but would be letting them know that our agency is and always will be LGBT+.
They came out.
That overwhelming sense of support allowed me to confidently be my authentic self every day from then on in. Their actions nourished me, helped me grow and helped me make it to where I am today. It restored my faith in the corner of the world I inhabited, and the people I spent my day with, and it felt as if I had been given the oxygen I didn’t know I needed to thrive professionally.
The marketing team in question are no longer with the brand, nor is the brand still a client of the agency, but even if they were we have collectively decided we don’t care if they recognise themselves in this story. What they said was shameful and should be upheld as an example of the disgraceful behaviour and antiquated attitudes that are thankfully on the wane in our industry.
That day Neale and Laura faced the dilemma most agencies have had to face at some point: please the client without question or speak up for something they believe in. By holding up a mirror to this client and coming out as an agency they made me realise I owed it to every other LGBT+ person in the industry to stand up and stand proud.
So yes, we do need to come out and be ourselves, but what would help more than anything is our agencies supporting us from the get-go.
And that’s not just a Pride flag in the bottom corner of the website. That’s making a stand, having a stance and being a support.
Richard Miles is associate creative director at Therapy.