Leo Burnett junior copywriter Len Sheth opens up about their highly successful work with Trans Lifeline, brands authentically extending their reach, and even a competitive tap-dancing past.
Two years ago, Len Sheth began their journey as a Burnetter—and since then, the junior copywriter has created exceptional work for a diversified client portfolio including American Heart Association, Nintendo and Wingstop. But beyond that, Len is one of the most passionate, prominent voices for Diversity and Inclusion across the agency. Here, they dive into Pride Month, pronoun education, Trans Lifeline and so much more:
Q. You’re the Co-Lead of Trans Lifeline, a trans-led organization providing community and resources to trans people. In light of Trans Day of Visibility, you took a no-budget brief and produced the “We See Us” influencer campaign that generated $37,000 that went toward a peer support hotline. Talk about the inspiration behind the pro-bono work, and the impact it had.
A. Trans Lifeline does so much for the trans community. After Trump’s leaked memo, which would define gender as sex, defining trans people out of existence, Trans Lifeline’s call volume quadrupled. I saw that, and I wanted to tap into my skills as a writer and advertiser, as well as my access to Publicis Groupe and the agency, to help Trans Lifeline. Britt Meyer (they/them) is an Art Director at Arc, and together, we noticed there’s a sense of community online among trans people. If you’re a trans person in crisis, something they tell you to do is to go on Instagram and follow other trans people—because seeing yourself out in the world like that is really helpful and validating. So that’s where our inspiration came from. It’s about trans people seeing trans people and feeling that validation, recognition and sense of community. So, we redefined Trans Day of Visibility to reflect this and activated this through influencers.
Q. This year’s Trans Day of Visibility looked a little different in light of COVID-19. Increased isolation and social distancing measures are affecting everyone these days, but in your mind, how has this impacted the trans community? Why do you think this is an important issue to address?
A. Well, the trans community already faces a crisis of isolation. The community is used to feeling separated and alone, and the feelings of quarantine that everyone has been experiencing are not foreign to trans people. But obviously these feelings have been massively amplified—and because of that, there’s been a lot of ramifications. A lot of gender-affirming surgeries aren’t seen as necessary and are now being pushed back or canceled. It’s becoming harder to get access to clinics and healthcare. Trans healthcare protection was recently taken away by the current administration on the anniversary of the Pulse shooting. Trans people, who already experience higher poverty levels, are now experiencing higher rates of unemployment. In terms of mental health, it can be hard to get qualified help since providers are already experiencing a higher intake of patients. So, while the trans community is no stranger to isolation, it doesn’t mean they’re having an easier time. However, there are some lessons to be learned from the trans community like finding a community online and staying in touch with people. If you are alone, turn to people who might be outside your literal family for support.
Q. Additionally, June is Pride Month. Because of the BLM movement and pandemic, respected events are being canceled to prioritize Black solidarity. How do you think brands can authentically show up in solidarity and extend their reach? Specifically, in the LGBTQ+ community?
A. We seem to forget that the Stonewall Riots in 1969, what today is known as the Pride, started as a Black-led protest against police brutality. If it weren’t for Black trans and queer folks throwing bricks at cop cars 50 years ago, Pride wouldn’t exist. This is why so many LGBTQ+ people are upset when brands slap a rainbow on something and call it a day—the meaning runs deeper than that.
It feels like brands think they have to choose between focusing on Black Lives Matter or Pride Month, ignoring Black LGBTQ+ folks who need representation. For a brand to authentically show up, I strongly believe they should focus on intersectionality – supporting Black queer people or trans people of color. It’s crucial to support people at the intersection because they don’t feel seen or feel like they belong. Another way brands can genuinely show up is through directly supporting and uplifting these people. Everyone is struggling for money right now, so if brands took the money that they were planning to use toward a paid Pride post and give it to an organization and get some PR out of it, it could be really meaningful. Or even if you have Black trans people creating the content. In my mind, those are how brands can truly give back.
Q. In addition to your work with Trans Lifeline, you’re leading the charge on pronoun education, even helping to create branded Leo Burnett pronoun pins last year to increase general awareness. How has your experience and background inspired you to be an outspoken advocate, and what advice would you give people on approaching pronouns in the workplace?
A. I’ve had some great conversations with people who were unfamiliar on trans issues. The more conversations I have with people, though, I realize nobody is transphobic or openly transphobic, at least the people I’ve encountered. Nobody is intending to hurt anyone. In fact, that is their biggest fear. People are afraid of seeming ignorant or hurting feelings, and they don’t want others to know how little they actually know. So, I commend people who approach me and ask me to clarify. Don’t be afraid to show that you’re willing to learn and educate yourself. If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, just ask. And if you mess up a trans person’s pronouns, apologize and move one—don’t over-apologize. But there are very, very easy, low-effort things people—and companies—can do to be a trans ally. Start with introducing yourself with pronouns or add it to your email signature. Avoid gender generalizations in your emails like “Hey, guys” or “Hey, ladies,” and opt for something gender-neutral like “Hey, squad.” In general, though, I’m hoping we can be in a workplace one day where people automatically introduce themselves with their pronouns, and this is something that should happen on a cultural-wide level.
Q. Your copywriting career at Leo Burnett began two years ago as an intern, and since then, you’ve done some truly great things at an agency-wide level. What is your hope for Leo Burnett, and the industry as a whole, as it pertains to LGBTQ+ and Diversity and Inclusion?
A. If people want to bring their full selves to work, and we’re getting messages from Leo about how bringing your full authentic self to the office yields the best work, we should strive to be open and honest and create a truly transparent workplace. I’m hoping by being vocal at work about my experience, I’ll make it easier for others to come into the company every day with their authentic identities.
Q. Hot off the press—the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of granting federal job protections to the LGBTQ+ community. What does this historic ruling mean to you and how do you think it will translate to the creative communications industry?
A. It gives me a lot of hope, especially with the challenges the LGBTQ+ community—and especially LGBTQ+ people of color—are facing right now. This trial is seven years in the making, and I’m incredibly grateful to Aimee Stephens and the ACLU for persevering the battle for this time. It’s a great step forward in trans protection, and also strengthens Title IX (which protects everyone from being fired on the basis of race, gender identity, sex, sexuality, religious identity, age, etc.).
Q. What’s been the best piece of advice someone has given you, and what advice would you give to aspiring copywriters?
A. The best piece of advice I’ve heard is to use a thesaurus, from a poetry professor. She was really smart, intimidating, successful, but even she used a thesaurus. Basically, using the tools available to you isn’t cheating or a shortcut. The true skill comes from knowing which words are the right ones. Honestly, aspiring copywriters should have fun. It’s your first job, recruiters and creative directors don’t expect perfection. Skill and polish can be taught, but being yourself can’t be. We want to see a fun, unique portfolio, so don’t be afraid to create things that truly reflect your own personality! Recruiters want to know you’re independent-minded. Also, whether it’s your cover letter or your resume or a bit of description in your portfolio, every line you write is an opportunity to show your writing skills.
Q. Three things people may not know about you:
A. – I used to tap dance competitively for roughly 11 years. I was even voted best tap dancer in the graduating year of my dance company.
– My quarantine hobby has involved learning modern calligraphy. Each letter is made up of different strokes and different pressures, and it’s an excuse to get some fancy pens.
– My first job was making balloon animals in Chili’s.
SOURCE: LEO BURNETT