Founder stories: Marc Allenby, Hijinks on being gay in adland

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Marc Allenby is the proudly gay co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer at full service creative agency Hijinks.

With Pride Month almost here, we can expect to see lots of brands and companies donning rainbow flags to show their support for the global LGBTQ+ community over the coming weeks.

Bravo for that, but true diversity needs to be seen at the top of companies as well, which is why we wanted to speak to an industry leader who is also from the LGTBQ+ community.

In this interview, Marc shares how he has navigated his way through the advertising world as a proudly gay man, having suffered sometimes traumatic and difficult discrimination in his own life’s journey.

He bravely reveals his difficult past and hopes for the future, not least with a UK General Election looming…

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Marc Allenby, Hijinks

In your career, have you ever been discriminated against because of your sexuality?

The attitudes towards gay men and the discrimination I witnessed in the advertising industry made me want to become a chameleon; to put it into context; I was born in the 70s and grew up in the 80s.

Being queer was still very much hidden in society (especially from the perspective of a small town in the North East). If you were gay, you would have been very much discriminated against.

Having myself been severely bullied and singled out at school, that trauma very much carried through into my early adult life, until I found the confidence and courage to ‘come out’ in my late 20s (it took that long!)’.

Until that point, and as a 6ft 3 masculine man from the North East, I was able to hide my sexuality and could pretend to be straight. By the time I did come out, attitudes had begun to change.

Because of this I was never discriminated against by anyone in the outside world. But in reality, I sort of discriminated against myself; which was a horrendous place to be in.

What have been the toughest moments for you as a gay person in your industry?

In my younger years, not being my true self, in a very male/lad- centric environment was incredibly challenging. Pretending to be straight caused anxiety and mental inner pain. I was a fake.

The agency make-up back in the 2000s was very different to now. As a gay man I did not feel comfortable at all, nor confident, so hiding was the safest way for me.

How has this experience shaped/informed how you lead your company?

It was really important to me that we created an open and safe environment for people from all walks of life.

My fellow founders and I want to work somewhere that’s liberating, empowering, and open: a place where you can be your true self.

As a leader I’ve learnt to have empathy, judge without prejudice, be open and supportive, lead without ego and be human and kind.

I hope to inspire and to lead in a way that is full of positivity, empathy and fairness.

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Diversity at work: Allenby and his co-Founders champion ‘diversafety’ for all at work.

Can you tell us about how you first opened up about your sexuality in the workplace?

I didn’t have one single ‘coming out’ moment. I had many and they were all hard, and sometimes traumatic (that’s a whole other article right there!).

It would usually happen at work events and usually after I’d had lots to drink.

Alcohol gave me the courage I needed to say it out loud, which is sad to say but true – that’s just what it took for me to open up.

I’m happy to say that now it’s different – I’m proud, loud and completely open about being queer. In fact, it plays a huge role in who I am, how I see myself and the world.

We believe that Hijinks is the first UK advertising agency which is 100% female and queer founded, and that is something I’m incredibly proud of.

What is your advice to business leaders/employees who are concerned about/don’t feel free to express their true selves at work or be open about their sexuality at work?

As leaders we must use our influence and platform to create change. I believe that we have a responsibility to be open and visible, even though it’s hard, sometimes even dangerous.

Imagine if more senior business leaders were open about their sexuality – what a change that would make to how people view leadership.

It’s important for society, culture and the workplace that we are our true selves so that others feel like they can be their true selves.

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Colours of world: Allenby believes more company leaders should live as their true selves.

How have you built an inclusive culture at your workplace?

From the get go we were always going to be a different agency, because we are ourselves a little different from the mainstream.

We are building something which looks and sounds different, which is incredibly exciting for us: A workplace which is empowering and liberating. A workplace which truly celebrates one’s true selves, welcomes all perspectives and opinions. An environment which is open and joyous. An environment where we are safe to be who we are without prejudice.

Essentially an environment where we can come together, and focus on what we love doing – which is creating  ideas for the biggest and most loved brands in the world.

Creating an agency from scratch means that we can put into place the people policies which feed into our ethos of ‘Positivity through Creativity’; such as trusting people to work the hours and from the place that suits them, for example.

What do you think of the progress that has been made around LGBTQ+ inclusivity in the workplace? What more needs to be done?

It’s great that a lot of workplaces now have LGBTQ+ groups and of course people policies in place.

There are also brilliant industry-wide groups like Outvertising and Creative Equals who continue to push the inclusive agenda.

As much as we progress, there’s always more to be done.

It’s time to move past brands’ rainbow-washing in June. You only have to see the news agenda lately and see that the Conservatives want to amend the Equality Act 2010 if they get re-elected.

Under the Equality Act 2010, it is illegal to discriminate against anyone because of “protected characteristics”.

The Conservatives have promised to rewrite the Equality Act so that protections it enshrines on the basis of a person’s sex apply only to their biological sex.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the “safety of women and girls” meant the “current confusion around definitions of sex and gender” cannot be allowed to continue.

The Conservatives have been accused by the opposition that this is an election distraction from the really core issues that matter to people.

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Rishi’s rights risk: The upcoming election could threaten LGBTQI+ protections.

This is a very important time for businesses to take a stand against the populist politics and protect our employees; they need to do more than just simply put a rainbow on their social feed logos.

Business and brands are the ones who can really push positive cultural change, we all have a duty to push it forward.

As citizens (agencies or brand side) we always need to be pushing the agenda of equality, no matter your sex, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and class.

No one is going to do it for us.