FH Out Front Debut Stirs Up Mixed Feelings In Industry

Don’t expect a stampede of imitators following Fleishman-Hillard’s launch last week of the first PR-agency practice dedicated exclusively to gay and lesbian consumers. Although industry groups and activists are heralding the move, there’s skepticism among public relations executives.

Many officials don’t believe the segment—now commanding $580 billion in buying power, according to MarketResearch.com—has enough critical mass to warrant its own unit yet, for one thing.

“We haven’t seen enough traction yet in the gay and lesbian market where we can dedicate people 100 percent of the time, but that’s possible in the future,” said Peter Land, general manager for the Diversity Solutions practice at independent Edelman in New York.

Aaron Kwittken, CEO of New York-based Havas shop Euro RSCG Magnet, cautioned that the idea may backfire because—unlike multicultural groups, where language and cultural nuances often demand separate communications—gay consumers are more connected to the mainstream.

“Some may question moves like this, because it presumes that marketing and communicating to the gay and lesbian community is different, when in fact this community does not want to be treated differently or in an atypical manner at all,” he said.

The new unit, FH Out Front, is receiving kudos from the industry’s largest trade association. “Fleishman-Hillard is very wise to have taken the steps that they have,” said Del Galloway, president and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America. “We all know the days of mass marketing is history, and [gays] are a very lucrative market.”

FH said it believes its new, 12-person practice is overdue, given the increase in ad efforts to reach gays. These include a gay-targeted Volkswagen campaign within the “Drivers wanted” theme that broke in September via Havas’ Arnold in Boston; a billboard for Absolut vodka by Omnicom Group’s TBWA\Chiat\Day in New York featuring open closets; and a Subaru ad by independent Moon City Productions in New York showing items associated with activities that gays and lesbians enjoy during weekend jaunts in their cars. (Kodak, which declined comment for this story, is one of FH Out Front’s first clients.) In addition, media options are growing, with offerings like Sirius Satellite Radio Network’s all-gay channel and the February-set launch of Viacom’s gay-dedicated cable network, Logo.

“My personal theory is that—particularly when it comes to multicultural and other nontraditional audiences—the advertising comes first,” said Ben Finzel, 37, co-chair of FH Out Front with Phillip Sontag, 42. “Companies see there’s an impact, and then they decide to do [PR campaigns].”

In addition to targeting gay and lesbian media such as the Advocate and Washington Blade, FH’s new practice will seek placements in virtual communities, chatrooms and blogs, as well as gay-pride events.

Activists, not surprisingly, are also heralding the FH initiative. “This market has gotten a lot more ink than dollars,” said Michael Wilke, executive director and founder of Commercial Closet.org, a nonprofit that educates companies on how to improve portrayals of gays in advertising. “With the arrival of Viacom, I think [marketing dollars] will start to flow more freely over the next several years. That seems to be the bet that FH is making.”