The Image Makers

Stan Richard says when his Dallas agency, The Richards Group, visits a client’s office anywhere in the country during a review, it is always obvious who the client is and who the agencies are. “The ad people are all dressed in black and their haircuts are better,” he says.

Appearance is important on the job, especially in advertising where image is everything.

In a recent Employment Law Alliance survey of workers across all fields, more than one-third of respondents said companies should be allowed to turn down applicants because of appearance, including weight, clothing, piercings and body art. Yet only about half of U.S. employers have a written dress-code policy. Meanwhile, legal claims involving alleged discrimin-ation on the basis of appearance are surging, says Stephen J. Hirschfeld, CEO of ELA and partner at San Francisco-based law firm Curiale Dellaverson Hirschfeld & Kraemer.

Luckily, the ad world is more liberal than the business world at large. Agency pros relish their freedom to dress as they like—to a point. Some agencies have complex unwritten rules that allow tattoos, piercings and blue hair, but frown on boring shoes, conventional eyewear, neckties and tucked-in dress shirts. And agency human resources execs say there are some common no-no’s: clothes that are too snug, skimpy, Goth or dated.

Written agency dress codes are rare and, when they exist, tend to be couched in very general terms. Robin Lander, svp of HR at Deutsch’s New York office, says its policy states: “Your personal appearance is largely a matter of taste and your best judgment. However, dress, grooming and personal cleanliness contribute to the morale of all of us and affect the business image Deutsch presents to clients and visitors.”

Mary Jensen, HR director at Cole & Weber/Red Cell in Seattle, says, “Our image ranges from the creatives, who look like they have just rolled out of bed, with shorts and rumpled untucked shirts, to our co-presidents, who wear designer jeans, suit jackets and T-shirts.” Co-president Brad Harrington, a former Ralph Lauren model, has lately taken to wearing T-shirts with Alcoholics Anonymous slogans. “Brad’s not in AA—he just thinks the shirts are cool,” Jensen says. Imaginative accessories are common, and the staff prides itself on eclectic shoes—from pointy heels to iridescent sneakers. Instead of the expensive, high-end designer clothes that ad execs used to be known for, the look is lower-end designer wear, which gives a sense of “authenticity and accessibility,” she says.

But for applicants, she suggests a slightly conservative look, such as a suit jacket with a button-down shirt or T-shirt. “You don’t want to be too groovy and cool because it can be interpreted as cocky,” she says.

Lander agrees that applicants need to be more low-key but warns about looking too traditional or generic. “I’m looking for touches that tell who you are,” she says. She recalls two good examples: a woman in her 30s in a black suit and teal high-heeled boots, and a younger woman wearing a designer skirt, jean jacket, knee socks and clogs. “Their clothes suited their personalities and they both looked fabulous,” she says.

Your image is how you market yourself, says Shaun Stripling, strategic planning director at Sedgwick Rd. in Seattle, who is known for her vintage ensembles. “Clients are looking to their agency as a breath of fresh air. We have poetic license to dial up the creative [in our appearance],” she says.

Richards says that as his clients changed, his shop’s dress code changed. “When we had big bank clients, we all wore suits, but now the rules are few and unofficial.” People who work with clients should avoid extremes, such as wild blond hair and piercings, but he says that “reasonable” self-expression is welcome. “We are expected to be more adventurous than the client in our dress and our thinking, yet we want to communicate that clients can trust us.”

MZ Goodman, assistant director of production at iDeutsch, New York, says her image is classic with a twist; she accents her navy slacks and sweater with a shimmery silver shawl. She thinks the worst fashion sin is wearing something ubiquitous. She asserts, “Ad people should not be the sort of people who blend in.”