“As a bi woman, I am at the intersection of two minorities which haven’t always been championed within the advertising and media industries”
BY ZOË SCHULZ
Ali Reed, the CEO of media agency PHD UK, has had a dynamic and successful career in the advertising industry. With a focus on creativity and innovation, she’s worked with renowned brands such as Disney, Mini, Hasbro, L’Oreal, Volkswagen, and Chanel. Speaking to myGwork, she shares highlights from her career, her experiences coming out as bisexual, and her dedication to advocating for LGBTQIA inclusion at PHD.
Ali began her career as a graduate media planner in the early 2000s. Despite entering the industry during the dot com bubble burst, she’s worked her way up to become the CEO of PHD UK, a global media agency and part of the Omnicom Media Group. Ali leads the team as they create campaigns that lead to remarkable growth – utilising data and technology.
As the CEO, every day is different for Ali. Her role involves a diverse range of activities, varying from cracking new business briefs to meeting with clients for annual planning work. She also actively participates in industry events, such as organising thought leadership expos and supporting LGBTQIA initiatives within the company.
Ali’s father was an expat, so her childhood took her around the world – from Brunei, America, Holland to the UK – instilling in her a love for travel. She also ended up marrying a diplomat whose job now takes her family around the world, so they are able to give this same experience to her kids, and it’s taught them French, Italian and now Maltese. This exposure to different places helped shape how she sees the world, along with surviving breast cancer at a young age.
“I had breast cancer young, which shaped my view of the world. For many people in that situation, I think it makes you step back and lean out of the rat race. For me, it did the opposite – I want to experience everything that my career can offer me in technicolour, and it probably contributes to my relentless thirst for success personally and professionally. I’ve also learned not to apologise for this anymore.”
Ali noticed an equal attraction to girls and boys during her teenage years and slowly realised she was bisexual. Despite accepting this, she still notes that heteronormative standards still influenced her subconsciously, conditioning her to believe relationships with men to be more acceptable. She also didn’t feel the need to label herself at this point or have a formal “coming out” experience. Instead, her family and friends understood and accepted her, creating a safe space for her to be herself.
Despite being openly bisexual with friends and family for most of her life, it was only two years ago that Ali came out in the workplace. During a panel on ‘covering in the workplace,’ she had been asked to talk about covering as a mother, but she ended up coming out as bi instead. This act of visibility resonated strongly with so many who were relieved to see someone in a senior leadership position discussing their identity openly.
“It made me feel humbled to know so many people still felt scared to be unapologetically and openly themselves in the workplace for fear of negative attention or judgement,” Ali shares. “And it made me realize I had a role to play in changing that.”
While Ali feels comfortable being out in the workplace, she acknowledges that being a married mother of three can sometimes confuse people. “Although I’m comfortable, I think it can make others feel a little uncomfortable; the bisexual individual is sometimes harder to categorise in people’s minds,” she explains. She often faces bierasure, which is the tendency for society to overlook or invalidate bisexual identities. Despite the challenges, she strives to speak openly about her experiences to contribute to positive change and create a future where individuals can embrace their identities without fear of judgment.
“As time goes on and education and awareness improve, I feel more comfortable speaking about my experience and the more I do it, the more I hope people like me can see themselves in the future holding a leadership role without having to withhold a part of their identity. That’s why I do it.”
Advocating for LGBTQIA inclusion holds great importance to Ali, not only within the LGBTQIA community but also for every employee at PHD. She believes it’s crucial for everyone to feel included and valued in the workplace. PHD fosters an inclusive environment through policies that are inclusive such as supporting transitioning in the workplace for transgender individuals, and training initiatives that promote everyday inclusion and allyship. Celebratory events are also an essential part of fostering inclusion and strengthening allyship, allowing the team to express their joy and solidarity.
As CEO, Ali is dedicated to ensuring all PHDers feel included and belong at the company – not just LGBTQIA folks. She explains that it’s incumbent on her, the leadership team and all PHDers who work across their offices and within the wider OMG family to create an environment where everyone thrives as their true self. She isn’t naïve in thinking this is an easy task – but is always determined to push the organisation to be more empathetic and encourage active allyship.
“As a bi woman, I am at the intersection of two minorities which haven’t always been championed within the advertising and media industries,” Ali notes. “But there are others that have had even less of a voice, and it’s my job to raise everyone up as much as I can. My generation has been pretty complicit in a culture that hires people who look and act like themselves – and that’s really poor business acumen. The British population to whom we are advertising our brands is incredibly diverse across all sectors of society – so we need to do a better job of attracting that kind of person to work with and making them feel happy and included when they get here, whatever their background.”
Ali’s journey in the advertising industry and her commitment to LGBTQIA inclusion at PHD UK demonstrate her passion, resilience, and dedication. Through her experiences and leadership, she aims to create a workplace culture that embraces diversity and empowers individuals to be their true selves. In a world where the bi community are still misunderstood and erased, we need more people to stand up as visible role models and, in turn, inspire others to do the same, a domino effect creating leaders who value empathy.
Looking ahead, Ali hopes that with better education and representation, the bisexual community won’t ever feel the need to pass as straight to get ahead. “Celebrate our difference in a positive way which feels unafraid. Because celebration is a force for good in the world, and I personally believe advertising can be too – marrying the two will make things better and make better things!”
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