We’re Just People After All: Andy Semons, IPNY

Two women wrapped in pride flag

AdForum.com recently interviewed Andy Semons, Founding and Strategic Planning Partner at IPNY, a brand-led digital and direct advertising agency

“LGBTQ+ marketing is a real need. We eat, shop, wash our clothes, brush our teeth and buy consumer durables just like everyone else.”

What is your opinion on the current state of LGBTQ+ representation in the advertising industry?

As a gay man who’s been part of the advertising industry for more years than I care to remember, I’m of mixed mind about this. Coming out of Pride month and Stonewall 50, I’m thrilled to see that so many brands have made the effort to acknowledge the LGBTQ+ community. Regardless of who the advertiser is, our money is part of what fuels their success, and it’s wonderful to be visible. On the other hand, I still think that the industry has far to go in how it represents our community. We’ve managed to mainstream the “L” and “G” folks pretty well. But we really haven’t done enough to familiarize the public with the BTQ+ components of our community.

Furthermore, most of the advertising I’ve seen is terribly ageist – it certainly seems that no one is interested in LGBTQ+ folks over age 35. Just google the category and you’ll see what I mean. That’s a shame. Early pioneers of the movement such as those that actually made Stonewall happen paved the way for younger generations to have the rights and protections they do. It didn’t just happen by itself. Where are the gay Gen Xers and Baby Boomers who so tirelessly fought for the rights we’re now celebrating? Advertising seems to have forgotten them.

Do you think LGBTQ marketing is seen as a trend or a real need for businesses?

No business that ignores its consumer base can realize its full potential. And kudos to the beverage alcohol and the travel and leisure industries for recognizing this so many years ago. But LGBTQ+ marketing is a real need. We eat, shop, wash our clothes, brush our teeth and buy consumer durables just like everyone else. Like all consumers, we want to be able to trust the brands we use. But how that’s communicated makes all the difference. It’s not all about brands being included in our stories – we need to be included in brands’ stories as well.

How can brands be more authentic in the way they engage the LGBTQ community?

OMG this is a question I could answer briefly or in 20 pages. First of all, stop depicting us like a bunch of young kids out to have a great time. We do a lot more than drink alcoholic beverages or go to trendy neighborhoods. And when we do, we’re not always hanging out with people in our own tribe. We go to PTA meetings. We sit on Town Boards. We run companies. We work in factories and gas stations. We’re everywhere – not just on urban rooftops. Secondly, remember that you’re a brand. We’re happy that you support our cause and believe in our rights, which by the way are HUMAN rights. But aside from all that, we still need to make informed choices about the products we buy.

Lester Wunderman once said, “Stop trying to pretend you know me when you only know some things about me.” In other words, it’s not enough to feature an LGBTQ+ person in your ad. We ask, what’s in it for me? And why should I care? We’re just people after all. Sometimes it’s just best to hit us with the messages you give everyone else.

Do brands risk damaging their perception in the eyes of the community if they don’t show support?

That’s a tough question. And I guess it depends on what you mean by “support.” Certainly if I know via a news item that a brand is not in favor of the community I won’t support them. I myself have boycotted a number of major brands because of things their key representatives, founders or CEOs have said. But in the absence of hostility I think there are many products and services out there that don’t have to go to the extremes of tailoring advertising to the community. A gay flag or a decal at my local hardware store makes me smile. I don’t expect a “Happy Pride” circular in the mail from them.

Outside of advertising/marketing where can brands look for inspiration on how to embrace the LGBTQ+ community?

Look to the relationships you know and have as individuals within your own families and social networks. We’re right here next to you. We’ve always been there. Be present. Talk to us. Engage with us. For the most part, understand that our sexuality is only one part of us. We’ve got a lot more in common with the rest of the world than you’re acknowledging. And again, make us part of YOUR story, don’t just try to be part of ours.

Where is the line between inclusion and “rainbow-washing” for a communication agency running a LGBTQ+ campaign for one of its clients?

Advertising is storytelling. And clients have many stories to tell. One might just be that you support us. And that’s great. But frankly, “be proud” doesn’t do it for me. I already am proud. And I can’t figure out why you’re giving me that nice encouraging message and then walking away. Michael Kors advertising for Pride this year mentions contributions to God’s Love We Deliver. Verizon’s “Love Calls Back” spots don’t just tell the story of LGBTQ+ youths who have been dismissed by their families and are reconnecting with them, it carries an endorsement from and contribution to PFLAG (an organization focused on uniting families with someone who is LGBTQ+). Find a real cause and make a difference. Authenticity is not just saying you support the community – Authenticity is SHOWING you support it.

As we reach the end of Pride Month, are there any brands that celebrated it well in your opinion?

I love Harry’s, which once again has proven that brands can truly embrace causes and have an impact in the world. Last year they won the gold Jay Chiat award for best campaign for their “Paint the World Orange” work. This campaign fearlessly challenged the accepted notions of masculinity and caused us to seriously rethink the way we turn our young boys into men. This year for Pride, they introduced the “Shave With Pride” set — an artist-designed shaving set with an iridescent, rainbow-like handle on the razor. It’s so gorgeous I bought one. And all proceeds from the sale go to the Trevor Project, which is the largest organization aimed at suicide prevention for LGBTQ+ youth.

As mentioned above, the Verizon “Love Calls Back” spots, combined with the PFLAG partnership and donation is really impressive. I first saw this spot at a conference a few months ago in Chicago and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. So many of our youth have been dismissed by their families and the notion of repairing the damage by creating a connection (something a Telcom company has done successfully) is not just impactful but on brand. I love this effort.

Finally, I really like the new Kind Pride bar in the rainbow wrapper. Kind’s done a lot to foster inclusion, generosity and understanding among folks in general. Remember the Kind Foundation’s “Pop Your Bubble” experiment from a few years back, which was aimed at getting groups of people with different political beliefs to talk to one another as friends? This is just as cool. This year 100% of the proceeds from Pride bar sales through the end of July will go to the Ali Forney Center, which helps homeless LGBTQ+ youth across the country.