“Non-inclusive environments don't allow for the best creativity.”

Outvertising’s Marty Davies on how the industry needs to accelerate inclusivity for the LGBTQ+ community

Georgie Moreton

Deputy Editor, BITE Creativebrief


Where the industry talks a good game on diversity, equity and inclusion, the truth is the sector is at risk of resting on its laurels and falling short when it comes to creating an inclusive environment for the LGBTQ+ community both on-screen and behind the scenes. 

Marty Davies, Founder of Smarty Pants Consultancy, Co-Director of Events at Outvertising and Campaign Future Leader Award winner shares why making a concerted effort is crucial: “Non-inclusive environments don't allow for the best creativity,” they explain. 

With the Trans community, in particular, facing an increasing slew of polarising media coverage, Davies shares they have seen a “growing legitimisation of transphobic views”. Between the government's choice to exclude Trans people from conversion therapy bans, the LBG Alliance an anti-Trans hate group being awarded charity status and the Harry Potter author's obsession with Trans people, Davies explains that “it's a constant fight to stop the legitimisation of transphobia and it's exhausting.” 

Yet, where the advertising industry “exists within our society as part of our wider community” it has a duty to be reflective of and representative of the society which it serves. Brands, agencies and organisations must do more to ensure that LGBTQ+ people within their organisations can thrive and in turn connect with LGBTQ+ audiences authentically.

It's a constant fight to stop the legitimisation of transphobia and it's exhausting.

Marty Davies (they/them), Founder of Smarty Pants Consultancy and Co-Director of Events at Outvertising

Creating a safe space to create

“I’ve been in situations where I've been told by senior leadership to be less gay for certain clients, told to project a bit less of my queerness essentially,” says Davies. “Trying to break into more senior roles I’d always getting quite far in interviews but never secure the role for a ‘lack of gravitas’ which I read to be they’re ‘not like me’”

Where the industry so often recognises the principle of how important diverse teams are to creating diverse work, the problem remains that the cultures in place lend themselves largely for only certain types of people to progress; namely, middle-class heteronormative cis-gendered people. 

“I was coming up against a queerness ceiling and wasn't prepared to compromise. I’ve been told by people before that I respect that to get ahead you need to code switch more and keep your sexuality to yourself. But I wasn't willing to compromise myself for progress so I decided to go outside of that and build something myself.” As for Davies, like many others within the LGBTQ+ community, they are carving out their own path, a route to success outside of traditional agencies. 

I’ve been in situations where I've been told by senior leadership to be less gay for certain clients, told to project a bit less of my queerness essentially.

Marty Davies (they/them), Founder of Smarty Pants Consultancy and Co-Director of Events at Outvertising

While it is testament to the breadth of opportunity within the industry that the path to success is no longer linear, those more traditional agencies need to address inclusion issues to remain at the forefront of innovation. For that, education is important. “We need education within our industry but that starts with the person - that starts with you, everyone needs to embrace a learning mindset that they aren't going to get everything right,” explains Davies.

While the constant rhetoric around Trans people in the news may seem as if things are divisive, looking to YouGov figures shows that in reality there is broad support. “Actually in day-to-day working life, people are very supportive. If not, they don't understand and could do more to try and understand,” explains Davies.

Everyone within the industry holds a responsibility to do more as learning from and understanding others is the only way an inclusive workplace can be built. Day to day issues like “misgendering are relentless,” they add, “People don't do it out of any kind of spite, language can be hard to unlearn and no one is perfect, but it's just awkward to correct people. Things like that just make you feel disconnected when you are working.”

Small acts like this have a significant impact as Davies shares that “if you’re spending your mental energy code switching or being someone you think others will appreciate it’s exhausting.” And the impact is also on output. They continue:  “a sense of belonging is so important because it’s what prevents people from being able to give everything at work; it's quite a challenge.” 

Opening up to creativity

Curiosity and learning are responsible for some of the industry's best ideas. “If you're closed-minded you're not a great creative. That's what’s great about inclusion and creativity within our industry is that they are natural bedfellows for each other, one enhances the other,” explains Davies.

The past few years have seen brands do more in the LGBTQ+ space and campaigns like Starbuck's ‘What's Your Name’ and MasterCard’s True Name which enables Trans people to live their true identities through choosing name are examples of brands making a conscious effort to represent the journey of Trans people. “It’s a genuine thing they are doing, in the case of MasterCard a genuine change of product that’s wanted and feels valued,” explains Davies.

Yet equally, Davies poses the challenge that there is still more that can be done before the representation particularly of Trans people is there. As while Starbucks and MasterCard are making great strides forward, still adverts continue to “focus on transition which is one thing that sets Trans people apart from cis people, be it social, medical or otherwise.” they explain. 

For some ads that depict the transition Marty adds that “you could find yourself quite easily putting a soundtrack from the X Factor underneath it as the person seems down and depressed.”

“Trans doesn’t have to be traumatic” they continue, “it's not to be pitied. What’s interesting is one of the attack lines from people that are queerphobic is that these people are mentally ill.” And, where many campaigns represent the experience from the initial transitional lens rather than the accepted and celebrated one they can be at risk of feeding into this negative, attacking perception.

For Davies, the best campaigns are the ones that are celebratory. They point to the latest campaign from Virgin Atlantic as an example of a ‘subversion of stereotypes’ that celebrates self-expression and a campaign from Nike women starring legendary non-binary Voguer Honey Balenciaga as an expression of joy.

A sense of belonging is so important because it’s what prevents people from being able to give everything at work; it's quite a challenge.

Marty Davies (they/them), Founder of Smarty Pants Consultancy and Co-Director of Events at Outvertising

Barriers to progression

Not only are the aforementioned campaigns examples of advertising excellence but there are a myriad of data points showing that ads that support the LGBTQ+ community perform; Kantar Millward Brown found that 3 in 4 tested LGBTQ+ themed ads outperformed generic ads in terms of brand recall. So, what’s holding brands back? 

“One thing that holds brands back in a positive way is that there are a lot of companies still not inclusive enough in their policies and they have to get their house in order first,” explains Davies. “That work takes time. Until you have a transitioning policy, until you roll out pronoun sharing and very clear actions around how to support trans people like medical cover for transitions you cannot be truly inclusive.”

Yet, for some brands there are other things at play. “Brands are fearful of reaction, how they manage that and feel they are putting themselves unnecessarily in hot water. This is particularly true for more global brands, finding a way to navigator local market nuances and laws as well - it becomes things that can be worked through but slow things down and are things people hide behind if not sure.”

Where LGBTQ+ ads are proven to outperform others, there comes a need for a trade off. Davies poses a challenge to the industry: “If you are embracing queer people in order to sell things, what is the value of that to you?” They urge the industry “not to exploit the queer community because theres a lot of value. How will you pay the queer community back because they deserve to be paid.”

One such way to do this is in authentic representation. As they explain: “walking the walk, making sure everything is in order in terms of cultures, policies and what you are doing to support people. Meaningful acts of inclusion, recruiting queer talent behind the camera in every role, platforming queer talent, funding the liberation movement. Ask queer people what they need help funding, they will tell you because theres a lot of things that are in need of support.”

Ultimately visibility and authentic representation is needed because, as Davies says:  “it helps usualise queer people in society which reduces hate crime and increases people feeling positively, and demystifies.” There is a distinct trade off at play; “Brands benefit because they get the attention they need so the challenge is how can you not exploit the queer community because actually there is a great harmonisation of the two objectives.”

The future of work that works

The pandemic has acted as a catalyst for change in almost every aspect of life, but has also contributed to a mental health crisis. As Davies shares, it came hand in hand with new challenges. They share: “I personally found the pandemic really stripped away my coping mechanisms, ones that I didn’t even label as coping mechanisms. I faced a lot of anxiety and it's quite cliche but the pandemic caused me to realise my non-binary gender identity. I think a lot of queer people have actually realised their gender identity has shifted or not been what it was.”

The pandemic enabled remote working but at the same time “safe spaces were closed, bars, clubs, community gathering points that were not accessible any more” which left some trapped in a non-accepting environment that stifled their personal and professional lives immensely. 

Now, as the world emerges through the other side, Davies shares a hopefulness that we can hold onto the positive elements of the challenges we have collectively faced. “What was good about the pandemic was that it disrupted what was going on with non inclusive agency cultures and physical spaces, causing people to evaluate what’s important and prioritise mental health,” they say.  

Adding: “It also became very democratised working with clients - working with clients globally showing you don’t have to have a swanky Soho boardroom or an army of staff - everyone was in their front rooms, boardrooms became bookcases.” Which opened up countless opportunities the industry should make efforts to keep open. 

While the challenges for the LGBTQ+ community remain constant, maintaining an open-minded learning mindset is the key to progress across the whole of the industry. Looking at company cultures and at individual mindsets is not only imperative for societal progression but also business critical when it comes to creating the best work. As Davies so aptly puts it “there is a great harmonisation of the two objectives.” 

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