Stuck In The Closet?

Paul Cappelli was enjoying a party at the Cannes International Advertising Festival this summer when an Interpublic Group executive stopped by to say hello and Cappelli, CEO of The Ad Store, introduced the man to his longtime boyfriend. “The guy’s face instantly contorted,” says the 50-something creative director. The message was clear: “If you are straight, you can include your family and relationships all you want, but if you are gay, please don’t bring your partner around,” he says.

Dale Erquiaga, who is also gay and is a managing partner of R & R Partners in Phoenix, has had a different experience and describes his company as pro-family—toward straight as well as gay households. His favorite example of the company’s openness is when the agency’s employee of the year in 2002 was a gay staffer, and execs asked the winner’s partner what prize they would like.

Gay men and lesbians get a mixed reception in the ad business, and in some respects agencies’ attitudes toward gays are lagging behind both their clients and consumers.

Take domestic partner benefits. Fifty-five percent of straight adults feel that regardless of sexual orientation, all employees are entitled to equal benefits on the job, such as health insurance for their partners, according to a 2005 survey by Harris Interactive and Witeck-Combs Communications. Three-quarters of heterosexuals strongly agree that employees should be measured by their job performance, not their sexual orientation. Yet, only 42 percent of the members of the American Association of Advertising Agencies offer domestic partner benefits to gay employees, according to a 4A’s survey of the human resources practices of 242 agencies in August, which is slated for release next month. This was the first year the 4A’s included questions about domestic partner benefits. (In comparison, 49 percent of Fortune 500 companies offer such benefits.)

According to company officials, only IPG and Publicis Groupe provide a blanket benefit package for their U.S. agencies that includes domestic partner benefits. WPP Group does not provide domestic partner benefits companywide but strongly encourages agencies to provide them, and most do, says a WPP official. Havas’ Euro RSCG and Arnold have individual programs that include domestic partner benefits, per agency HR officials. Omnicom allows agencies to decide for themselves, and the bulk of its large and midsized agencies—such as BBDO, Young & Rubicam and GSD&M—offer such benefits, say recruiters and agency reps. MDC also has no requirements, but some of its shops, such as Crispin Porter + Bogusky, have offered domestic partner benefits for years, says an MDC rep.

Another indicator of the level at which agencies’ accept gays and lesbians is their gay-friendly policies, as compared to other industries. The Human Rights Campaign, a gay and transgender advocacy group, measures the “corporate equality index” of various industries and companies each year, and advertising is near the bottom of 2005’s list of 32 industries encompassing 755 large companies. Companies are rated from 1 to 100 percent, based on domestic partner benefits, in-house gay organizations, written nondiscrimination policies, support of gay-related causes and other measures. In the ’05 index, advertising is one of only four industries that have no companies with a perfect score (the others are construction, forest products and tobacco). Industries that hire agencies, such as fashion, airlines, auto, telecom and banking, all had higher scores.

Within the ad business, WPP and IPG moved ahead in the equality ratings in the last year. (WPP improved from 57 in 2004 to 79 this year, and IPG went from 57 last year to 71). Omnicom scored the worst (43, the same as last year). Havas and Publicis were not tracked.

“Gays and lesbians are not in high demand in the ad business,” says New York recruiter Anne Ross. Unlike their large, more public clients, “ad agencies do not go out on a limb to hire gays and other minorities,” she says.

Agency insiders say that while many openly gay people work at agencies, they tend to be low-profile and private about details of their personal lives. Matthew Warnecke, director of network and local radio at MediaCom in New York, chose another path. He made it clear he was gay when he interviewed for his job six years ago and says that it has not hampered his career. He keeps his boyfriend’s picture on his desk, but notices that at industry events where spouses are invited, same-sex couples are rare.

Ironically, creative departments in agencies—where observers might expect to see the strongest gay presence—are still sometimes bastions of straight sensibilities, say agency execs. R & R’s Erquiaga says he recently had to alert his entirely heterosexual creative team when its proposed ad for a Las Vegas hotel had unintended gay overtones. The ad showed well-dressed men asking a museum director to display art by Robert Mapplethorpe instead of Rubens. The idea behind the ad was that people could go anywhere, demand anything, and the service would be as accommodating as the hotel’s. But, because the team didn’t realize Mapplethorpe is associated with gay culture, it didn’t realize the ad could be viewed as gay.

At gay social events in San Francisco, you don’t see many ad people, says Brian Fisher, northwest advertising manager for Smart Money, who is openly gay. “When you go to parties with lead creatives, there is a college frat-boy feeling, like Animal House,” he notes. (Publishing/printing fared better than advertising on the index, with two perfect scores.)

Many lesbians in general market shops are also mum, according to those who are active in the gay community. Dawn Meifert, a lesbian and founder of gay marketing boutique MergeMedia in Dallas, says that of the many lesbians she knows at traditional agencies around the country, none are “out” at work.

Cappelli, who founded The Ad Store 13 years ago before he came out of the closet, says, “People think it’s like Hollywood at ad agencies, but it really is like a bank. [The homophobic view] is that to be gay is to be a spineless whimperer and that clients would take offense. But the reality is clients can handle it.”

Some execs think denying benefits to gays only hurts business. “To get access to the maximum amount of talent, you need to treat people equally across the system,” says Howard Paster, WPP evp. “Gay people have the freedom to compete without the burden of having lesser status.”