It is a truth universally acknowledged - to borrow and adapt Jane
Austen's opening words from Pride and Prejudice - that a creative
business whose lifeblood is originality and innovation must be a free
and liberal place to work.
Austen was, of course, referring to a rich bachelor's need of a
Sadly, there's no such universal truth when it comes to the ad business
where homophobia stubbornly continues to resist the age of
As Lou Burrows, who runs the HR company Braveheart and is gay, puts it:
"Advertising has the self-perception that it's frightfully go-ahead but
in fact it's incredibly traditional."
There are some examples of senior, "out" gay men and women in
communications who have positive experiences and many of the men will
chat openly. Gary Duckworth, the chairman of Duckworth Finn Grubb
Waters, is perhaps the industry's best example.
When you meet him, as soon as it's appropriate, he tells you he's gay.
"I was open from the beginning. At college I'd been involved in gay-lib
so I put that on the Boase Massimi Pollitt application form," he says.
He is referring to the 70s when such candor was rare. His financial
director, also gay, later told him he'd been considered "bold" but that
"to get on I'd have to be super talented as it would hold me back". He
denies that he has that level of talent.
"I was very clear being gay was part of my identity. I'd escaped
suburban Cheshire and wasn't going back to that closet-ty stuff."
It seems that when someone is honest and centred on their sexuality,
then an open-minded organisation will grow around them and diversity
will blossom. Burrows says: "When I joined HHCL & Partners, I was the
only openly gay person but one by one people came out and same sex
partners appeared at events."
Most gay people, though, have far more mixed experiences. Also, being a
gay man in advertising is one thing; being a gay woman is quite
Most do not want to be identified. "It's hard enough being a woman,
don't give them anything else to have a pop at," a copywriter warns.
"It's a bad label, lesbian, it needs rebranding."
Both sexes speak of a progression toward becoming more open at work.
Many start out very nervous about being openly gay. A prominent male
media director spells it out. "In my first interview I was asked openly
if I was gay. I said 'no'. I had a nanosecond to think and I felt put on
the spot. I thought if I say yes I won't get the job." He did get the
job and was, ergo, suddenly living a lie. To add insult to injury he was
in a laddish culture and claims he had to suffer the taunts of
colleagues who suspected the truth.
Some advertising agencies are cool; some are where football hooligans go
during the week. The industry is comparatively macho and,
departmentally, media is no worse than account management. The creative
department can be the most laddish of all. If you started working life
in another sector, arriving in advertising can be a shock. Sean Kelly,
Leo Burnett's new-business director, was a psychotherapist in the public
sector. "Coming into advertising was like going back into the dark ages.
Some cultures were openly hostile," he recalls.
The public sector is an environment where diversity is a government
In contrast, the world of advertising is raw commerce and the law of the
jungle can often prevail. Kelly adds: "Advertising is similar to the
City, it's all about driving money. People get focused and removed from
their holistic selves."
There is disappointment that a creative industry is so conservative.
Chris Hodgkiss of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R says: "When I left
college I expected the ad industry to be very liberal, especially the
creative department." When he started out in 1984 it wasn't like
"There was an homophobic atmosphere. For the first couple of years I
wasn't honest. I was careful and conscious."
Advertising is a collaborative, informal world. If, because of a
testosterone culture, gay people can't be open about themselves they
can't take part.
Marcus Blease, the head of advertising sales at the Financial Times,
describes the pain, in an earlier job, of being outside general office
"You feel you can't participate. They're talking about who they got off
with and you can't add your life into the conversation," he says.
There are gay women thriving in advertising, but their plight is years
behind that of male gays. One "out" creative says: "I want to be known
for doing great work, not for being gay." A copywriter adds: "It's
easier to be a gay woman in the creative department. They treat you as
one of the lads, no flirtation. But you're still on the edge and, in my
view, it's the women in creative departments who get fired or made
Advertising is a flirtatious business and gay women recognise men can't
take this approach with them and some resent it. One ex-planning
director says: "Men are very threatened by gay women. When my boss found
out I was gay he changed overnight. He closed me out." She left to
pursue a career elsewhere.
A male gay creative director (whose agency decided against allowing him
to be named as it didn't want publicity for his being a "poof") points
out: "Homophobia is tied inextricably to sexism. It's an insult to say
to a gay man that he's like a woman. It means he's histrionic,
Above all, gays working in advertising want the opportunity to be
They don't like jokes that wound and shut them out and suggest more
agency bosses should wander around their organisations with fresh eyes.
Burrows claims you can tell a company culture by what people wear. "If
they're all a certain age and all dressed the same there's a problem.
The industry's gays could also feel they could benefit from more role
models. A letter to Campaign from Guy Duncan, a gay board account
director at Publicis, urging others like him to help halt adland's
homophobia prompted many responses of the "so glad you spoke out" kind.
Pioneering takes bravery.
MARCUS BLEASE - Head of ad sales, Financial Times
Marcus Blease, the head of advertising sales at the Financial Times,
insists that being gay poses no problem for him in his high-profile
role.But it wasn't always that way. "Media buying is a very laddish
culture and over the years I've experienced different reactions to being
gay," he says.
He began in the regional press and experienced the most prejudice there.
"The reaction of men was always worse than women," he explains. "Men
were taken aback and often friendliness disappeared." Blease is no
soapbox gay. "I'm 'out' but I don't make a huge issue about it. People
tend to respect my being upfront but I do know people who lie about
being gay even today.
"It's still OK to have headlines that call gays perverted in a way that
wouldn't be acceptable if they were about black people."
Even though he's the boss he still sees homophobia in his business
After a client meeting while looking into one bar, the client said: "We
don't want to go there, it's full of fucking queers!"
He is, however, most hot on the more prevalent subtler forms of
homophobia he has experienced in past jobs. "It can be constantly in the
background. People make thoughtless remarks and statements."
But he's optimistic about the future. "The more people who stand up and
say 'I am what I am', the better it will get," he says.
IAN POITIER - Freelance account handler, Grey
Ian Poitier, a freelance account handler at Grey, has a light way of
dealing with advertising's laddish "totty" culture.
"A little mild flirtation along the lines of 'you're actually quite
cute' usually sorts them out .The giggle factor has to be stamped on.
It's not up for grabs that my sexuality is funny or a butt of
What's more, he doesn't see this as a gay issue. "It's just the way you
talk about other people. With respect."
Poitier claims he has never encountered prejudice in a business he
describes as "a catholic constituency".
He doesn't do "coming out" because "straight people don't come out" but
admits people can be "quite startled" when they find out about his
"Being an account handler there's a presumption you're straight. There's
a bullish model."
He anticipates there might be difficulties if he wanted to reach the
top. "There may be more of a club of old school people and the thought
of taking clients to the rugby does make me want to weep with
He sees other issues connected with being gay and his career. "I don't
feel I have the same permission to fail. I feel I have to be at least as
good as those around me. You've got to always be on."
Also, as one of the few black people at senior level in the business,
Poitier is, without realising it ,a role model. "I don't think being gay
defines what I do but I do believe in treating people fairly and I don't
like trashing people. Not in a PC way. It's just not funny."
LOU BURROWS PARTNER, Braveheart
Lou Burrows is rare. She's an human resources expert in a non-HR
friendly business. She's broken away to become a partner in her own
company, Braveheart, which supplies HR to agencies. She's also gay and
happy to talk about it.
Her work experiences mean she's full of relevant observations on how the
business treats gay people.
"Companies can discriminate without even thinking. One agency gave out
options and talked about tax advantages for partners. Anyone who was gay
was left wondering if this applied. Companies need to remember things,
such as ensuring private health care benefits are available equally to
same sex partners."
Burrows says she has never encountered any prejudice or felt herself to
be held back from doing extremely well. She sings the praises of her
last agency, HHCL & Partners, and recognises that people were
"pleasantly surprised about my openness". Also, she sees openness as a
choice - a very personal thing. "I would have left if I had not been
She feels that in some ways it has been easier for her being gay. "Men
are comfortable, they make the odd joke but they don't flirt with
She talks convincingly about the trials gay people face and sympathises
with the fact that many "out" gay women in advertising don't want to be
quoted or identified. "If you are gay you have inevitably fought a lot
of battles and faced difficulty. People get battle weary and think twice
before putting themselves into danger," she says.
She is under no illusions that there is still some way to go before
equality is reached. "Until 2003 there's no actual law against
discrimination." But at heart she's an optimist and centred about
She is also anxious to point out the fact that her consultancy does not
focus on gay issues and does fear being known as "the gay one".