It was the summer of 2016. South African Caster Semenya’s gold medal had sparked a debate on gender identity, an all-female cast relaunched cinematic favourite Ghostbusters and Prince William was the cover star on Attitude magazine.
Amid this backdrop of social evolution, two Dentsu Aegis Network employees were pitching to their then chief executive about the need for an employee network dedicated to building a better workplace for LGBT+ people. It received overwhelming support and &Proud was born in autumn that year.
The launch event brought a fantastic external panel debate, great entertainment and passionate opening speeches. The gauntlet had been truly laid down. But our mission to nurture an employee network that could create a workplace where LGBT+ people would feel comfortable in their own skin and flourish required more work.
Skip forward to today and we can reflect on an incredible three years of achievements. These include functional actions such as introducing gender-neutral toilets and a Transitioning at Work policy. But also cultural initiatives such as role model training, reverse mentoring and deeper partnerships with clients and suppliers. Last year’s Pride event felt like a seminal moment for the work we’d done as colleagues, both LGBT+ and allies, came together in an emotional and humbling moment.
But there is still a lot to be done.
As a gay man, barely a day goes by when I don’t have to come out to a new colleague or supplier. And every time I do, I find myself nervously watching for the reaction. The double take, the "Oh, OK" and the awkward silence when I answer the question of what my wife’s name is with: "My husband, actually – Ben."
Our industry is built on personal relationships and constantly coming out always leaves me wondering if it will disadvantage me. Watching colleagues struggle to know whether to invite me to rugby with the men or to join the spa day with the ladies (I’m fine with both, for the record).
While the UK has made progress, there is still a lot to do. If you’re a white middle-aged male, living in one of our larger cities, you might be forgiven for thinking we’re almost there. You can walk down the street holding hands and have dinner for two without eyes rolling. If you’re a black lesbian, or a trans man living in the rural countryside – chances are things aren’t so great.
A basis for better business
As a society, our understanding of sexuality is still evolving. We no longer think of it as completely binary, but rather a glorious spectrum with anything and everything in between. As our understanding of ourselves and those around us changed, our norms and values will continue to adapt too.
It’s for this reason that making businesses better for LGBT+ employees is the right thing to do. It’s the right thing to do to create a fair and equal workplace for everyone. It’s also an ongoing and evolving journey – there is no "done".
And it brings business benefits too. Top talent is more likely to join, they’ll stay and be happier, and greater diversity brings better client solutions. It’s also the right thing to do as consumer experts – our role is to understand a client’s audiences and the people they want to reach, and this is harder if we aren’t reflective of the society in which we live.
For &Proud, the recognition we’ve received from Stonewall as one of its top 100 UK employers is the culmination of a rewarding mission to make our own business better. We’ve made great progress but also have much more to do.
As the only agency network featured in the list, we must turn our focus outwards and represent a leading light for others. After all, we’re in the business of consumers and are a network made up of media, creative and CRM agencies that sit at the heart of the communications ecosystem. The narratives around topics such as better representation in advertising and the impact of blocklists on LGBT+ content and publishers need elevating to be front of mind of our industry’s most senior leaders.
We all need to get better at ensuring advertising is a force for good across our society.
Tom Amies-Cull is global operations officer – media at Dentsu Aegis Network and executive sponsor of LGBT+ employee network &Proud
Picture: Getty Images