Published On: June 1, 2023By
Alex Varriccho spoke with Little Black Book about how businesses can keep their allyship alive and thriving 24/7/365. Read the interview on their site, or below.
The start of June means warm weather, long days of sunlight, flowers in full bloom, and, of course, the arrival of Pride Month – a cause for great celebration. In a period when loud-mouthed bigots scream and gnash their teeth at the possibility of anyone existing who isn’t straight and cisgendered, the ​​2SLGBTQ+ community can roll out the rainbow flags and stand proudly – defiantly – knowing fully that their existence is valid, their identities matter, and that these things deserve to be commemorated.
 
Here’s the catch though. All of this celebration and standing up to hate – it doesn’t need to be done solely in June. Sure, it serves as an easy jump-on point for allyship – a literal calendar convenience for some brands and agencies – but it’s not as though the 2SLGBTQ+ community just evaporates when the month ends.
 
The fact of the matter is, this demographic has always existed, always will exist, and needs support now more than ever before. While not everyone might have the means, the capability or the knowledge to demonstrate significant advocacy, a legitimate effort will always be worth more than a token campaign for the sake of labelling one’s self an ally… all before the office rainbows get thrown into the furthest reaches of the closet on July 1st. In short, affirmative, supportive action needs to be lived, breathed, and integrated into agency and brand ideologies 24/7, 365 days of the year, and not just for the 30 days of June (although celebrating especially hard in June is very much encouraged).
 
LBB’s Josh Neufeldt sat down with Alex Varricchio, co-founder of Winnipeg-based creative agency UpHouse to learn more about what true allyship is, how this is embodied at his agency, and naturally – considering it’s Pride Week in Winnipeg – the agency’s plans for celebration this year.
Pride with Us float heading past toward the Museum for Human Rights
LBB: UpHouse is known for being a ‘gaygency’. How does this influence the way you work, and how did the nickname come to pass?

Alex: I think the name came about pretty naturally. A few people have used it casually around the office, and it’s just kind of stuck. While it’s nothing formal, I think it represents an open and supportive approach to our work.

We want the marketing we make to matter and connect with audiences in a unique and meaningful way. Something in the name gives us confidence to be ourselves, put ourselves out there and take risks.

LBB: As part of this, UpHouse has an overrepresentation of women and queer folks – creating a distinctive workplace culture. What does this look like, and how does it allow you to operate and think in ways other agencies cannot?

Alex: Many folks on our team have had previous positions where they haven’t felt seen or heard, or their opinions or perspectives haven’t been valued. Because they’ve experienced this, they’re conscious about elevating each other and the clients and communities we serve. They identify with equity-seeking groups, and so we’re great at amplifying voices and messages that need to be heard by the larger community. They care deeply about respecting each other, and hold each other to a high standard – especially for living out these values. Our crew is given autonomy and they take this seriously. As such, because the communication is strong and respect is high on our team, our ability to be nimble is there too.

LBB: Since coming out as a queer-led agency, has the way you work changed? And what are you hoping to accomplish, both in the 2SLGBTQ+ sphere, and across the industry as a whole?

Alex: I don’t know if the way we work has changed – we’ve been pretty queer from the start (ha). I think what’s been interesting to see is how much the team and culture have embraced it. The team will champion community whenever they can and bring this to all of our work. We’ve definitely seen changes in the industry, with more and more brands showing queer folks in their marketing and many more celebrating or acknowledging Pride month. However, we still feel like there’s a lot of work brands can do to make sure they involve the 2SLGBTQ+ community in their marketing, as well as ensuring they’re benefiting this community instead of just selling to them. We’re hoping to help create a more equitable society and better representation in marketing in general, but certainly this community holds a special place in our hearts, and our ‘spidey senses’ are strong whenever we see rainbow-washing or poor efforts to engage these folks.

LBB: Building on this, what does good, non-performative allyship look like, and how do you embody these principles within UpHouse?

Alex: The simplest way to think about this is to ask yourself, ‘What are we doing?’ versus ‘What are we saying?’.

Corporate allyship should be a celebration and promotion of the activities you are already doing to support diverse communities.

Rather than making a rainbow edition logo, instead, share some of the initiatives your company is doing to support queer community groups or employees. If you aren’t doing these things yet, start there!

If you already participate in Pride as a team, or promote DE&I initiatives, find ways to connect it to a cause and use it to drive actual change.

If you’re not sure how to do this, connect with a diverse-owned agency – there are so many small to medium-sized diverse agencies that would love a chance to collaborate with a major brand during Pride. Reach out and ask one!

Finally, stick to it. If you aren’t ready to stand by your initiatives and the communities they support, then hold off on saying anything.

LBB: A common issue seen within Canada and abroad is a lack of representation within the industry. What are the biggest factors contributing to this, and what needs to change to remedy this situation?

Alex: I think there are a couple reasons for this. Firstly, representation has been a problem for a long time, and it means there are fewer people from underrepresented communities in senior positions. As a result, people say it can be harder to find senior, diverse hires with experience in advertising. However, I don’t fully agree with this. I think we need to look at other industries and beef up agency-specific training to get us over this hurdle.

We should also look for opportunities to bring diverse talent in at all levels of our organizations. We need to open more doors right from the start if we want the industry to change.

Equally important to consider is that the ad and marketing industry is small and connected, meaning those hiring will often go on referrals or connections from existing staff. If your staff isn’t diverse, their network may not be either. To address this, look at the schools you are getting interns from and consider adding new schools to the mix. Also, post resumes earlier so you don’t default to known hires. And reach out to different platforms that may connect you to more diverse candidates, or consider allowing atypical application styles. Sitting back and hoping diverse folks will find you on traditional platforms doesn’t necessarily help you break the mould, due to different barriers in the way.

Finally, open up your agencies for meet and greets! We need to be bringing in talent from different backgrounds, and folks with different perspectives. Give people the opportunity to learn about our industry to see if it might be a fit.

Laura riding the float triumphantly
Jordan, Jan and Michelle taking a selfie using the float's mirrors
LBB: And how can Canadian agencies offer better support for their marginalized communities, especially outside of Pride month?

Alex:

If you’re not ready for meaningful allyship this Pride Month, start in July, and then next year, you’ll have a year’s worth of good work to talk about and celebrate.

And most importantly, make sure there is an open dialogue about what’s happening in the world, and in marketing at your agency.

Queer rights and Pride are being attacked right now, and our teams need to know that you have their back… all year. Showing up and sticking to your guns makes people feel supported. It also ensures they know you have their back anytime they may have to make a call to stand up for themselves or anyone else in the company.

It’s also important to ensure your staff from equity-seeking groups don’t feel tokenized. If you are going to seek input from staff, consultants, or community members based on their lived experience, make sure they are compensated for it. Lived experience is irreplaceable, so make sure the pay speaks to this.

Beyond this, look for opportunities to provide mentorship throughout the year, or work with a local, queer not-for-profit that might need some marketing or communications support. You’ll learn about some of the realities for queer folks through this, and also give the organization the support they very likely need.

Within the work itself, rainbow-washing and representation are often major issues, with token gestures being surface level, and nothing more. Agencies need to demand better work that creates meaningful engagement with this community, and involves and impacts them directly. Specifically, a rainbow wash is fine… as long as the paint is permanent. Bad analogy? Who knows?

Regardless, during Pride month, talk about what you are doing as a company, rather than focusing on what you want to say.

Brands need to decide whether or not they are ready to have a voice in this space. If they are, you’ve got to be ready to speak to and defend your position.

LBB: In the same vein, UpHouse works with the Sexuality Education Resource Centre MB, Canada’s LGBT+ Chamber of Commerce, and various organizations that benefit the 2SLGBTQ+ community. What do these relationships look like, and what have you achieved thus far?

Alex: We’ve been really lucky to find meaningful work by putting ourselves out there. Many times, value-aligned organizations will seek us out, or we’ll answer an RFP that asks about the agency’s DE&I efforts, and we’ll hear that most companies sort of fudged through a response, while UpHouse’s stood out.

We got started with the Sexuality Education Resource Centre MB (SERC) in 2019, helping them run their first major fundraising campaign through a brand campaign anchored in the creative tagline, ‘Sex Ed for Everyone’. To demonstrate why we need sexuality education expertise at all ages, and for people from all walks of life, we set up cameras for regular folks to answer (and playfully stumble through) some of the tough sexuality questions regularly asked in SERC’s youth program.

Since then, we’ve worked on a workplace sexual harassment campaign with them, and are currently working on a campaign to promote SERC’s training programs for service providers (to help them provide trauma-informed care and sexuality education that’s rooted in experience). SERC has opened our eyes to a lot throughout our time with them, and it’s been such a symbiotic relationship. We’ve been able to promote them while feeling like we gain so much from the research-backed responses they can provide on all of the issues our gender and sexuality diverse communities are facing at any given moment.

We’re also members of Canada’s LGBT+ Chamber of Commerce, and have worked with them to name and brand their ally accreditation program for businesses, ‘Rainbow Registered’, as well as various other tourism-related projects and their biggest annual gala. It’s been so fun to be able to work in these spaces that value the experience – as well as the perspectives we bring to the table – and be able to give back to the communities we’re so proud to be a part of.

LBB: Last year, you debuted the ‘#PrideWithUs’ campaign. Tell us more about this! What is it, how did it come to pass, and how can Canadians show their support?

Alex: Thinking back to my first Pride festival, there was a lot of anxiety celebrating it. Being new to Winnipeg, I didn’t have a big community yet to go with.

Realizing that the first-time anxiety, or anyone feeling like they lack strong community connections to march with might be universal, we decided to launch our first Pride float by inviting people to ‘#PrideWithUs’. The Pride Winnipeg Festival is a bit unique, in that the public can still join the Parade and march behind a float, and we wanted to give people the warm welcome they might need to be a part of their first Pride, or just feel a sense of belonging and community at the event.

Our float was completely wrapped in mirrors, symbolizing that even those observing the march were really ‘Priding’ with us, too. We are back this year with the same concept, but a few small tweaks! (More bubble guns, more glitter, and more stickers – plus, a bit of tie dye). We’ll have a DJ from the community and a drag queen at the head of the float, plus we’re matching donations to the Rainbow Resource Centre, and giving away a few tickets to its Saturday Night Pride event (which we helped orchestrate).

LBB: For readers who might still be in the closet, or struggling with their sexuality or gender identity, is there any advice you might give?

Alex: This is a tough one. I think people only come out when they feel safe to do so, or when they decide that they are willing to give up some security in their lives and relationships because it’s so important to them.

So, I think people can only really come out on their own time.

The only ‘wisdom’ I hope I can impart is that there really is a community waiting to accept you. Being a part of the 2SLGBTQ+ communities is one of the great privileges of my life.

They are so willing to embrace, challenge, and respect each other, and it really can make you feel like you have a starting point in common with people all around the world. It grows and shrinks your world in amazing and beautiful ways if you can let it.

LBB: Presently, we’re right in the middle of the Pride Winnipeg Festival! What sort of plans do you have in store this year, and what are you most excited about?

Alex: We have DJ, The Kaptain, spinning on our float before shutting down the parade’s main stage lineup on Sunday, so we feel pretty lucky to have them! But other than our float in the Parade, we’re excited to attend the Rainbow Resource Centre’s Saturday Night Pride event, in celebration of their 50th anniversary.

The event will be at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights – the only museum of its kind in the world – and it should be a sellout event with close to 1,000 people attending! They’ll be bringing back an homage to a popular lounge from the ‘80s to early 2000s in Winnipeg, Ms. Purdy’s, to give folks a hit of nostalgia at the event. Our whole team (including remote folks who’ve flown in from Vancouver and Toronto) will be in town for the event, dancing together into the wee hours!

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