Cars, deodorant, and even yogurt brands are getting a feminist look. When Danone’s Activia brand launched its new ad campaign in February, it switched gears from its usual message about yogurt cultures and digestive health to a pitch for women’s’ self-empowerment. The new campaign includes a series of spots speaking about real-life women’s struggles and achievements and a partnership with the tech education group Girls who Code.
The first TV spot features the first female NFL referee Sarah Thomas asking: “Was it my refusal to accept that an NFL official was a man’s job? Was it to show my daughter that she can be anything that she wants to be? If I don’t believe in myself, who will?”
Similar questions are being asked in marketing offices and ad agencies around the country. After several high-profile incidents pointing to sexism in the industry — and a bitter political campaign capped with millions of women taking to the streets — women in marketing are taking on gender issues with a new vigor.
Activia’s campaign is not a political stand, but it’s inspired by an insight of the hurdles women face in society, said Carolina Cespedes, senior brand director for Activia U.S. The brand’s research found 85 percent of American women feel they are their own worst critics, she said.
“We wanted to take a stand that women have enormous potential,” said Cespedes.
That potential is being wasted in the industry, say insiders. Marketing insiders say sexist and offensive messages are still frequent and progress is still slow for women in marketing, but brands and agencies are increasingly seeing the value of taking a stand against gender bias.
“The much-needed conversation about the lack of diversity and women representation in the ad industry has been percolating for many years. But it has become front and center since last year, and was definitely further ignited by the recent U.S. presidential election,” said Patricia Hong, a Partner in the strategy and transformation practice of consultancy A.T. Kearney. “As a result, the topic has started to garner the attention it needs and deserves.”
Hong noted women in advertising are becoming more vocal about bias and disparities, and the industry is taking a stronger stand on the topic. She singled out Badger & Winters Chief Creative Officer Madonna Badger’s gender conversation with her “#WomenNotObjects” initiative in 2016, and the ANA’s #SeeHer campaign among efforts that set the goal of eliminating bias against women in advertising and media.
Hong also noted the issue was front and center at the 4A’s conference in 2016, the 4A’s and the 3% Conference – named after the average ratio of women creative directors at agencies — have commissioned surveys on the experiences of women and other diverse professionals working in advertising industry. The 3% Conference survey, titled Elephant on Madison Avenue, found 54 percent of women in advertising had experienced sexual harassment and 58 percent had been excluded from important business meetings. (The survey was a follow-up to Elephant on the Valley, which exposed a similar gender bias in Silicon Valley following several incidents of cyberbulling directed at women in tech.)
In 2016, two agency CEOs lost their jobs because of their attitudes and actions towards women — JWT’s Gustavo Martinez for making racist and sexist comments and Saatchi’s Kevin Roberts after saying he didn’t spent any time on gender diversity. About the same time, a party invitation seeking “attractive females only” set off a firestorm at the Cannes Lions festival.
“There is definitely increased awareness, brought about by the well-publicized gaffes,” said Michael Farmer, president of ad consultancy Farmer & Co. A high percentage of women are now visible in responsible senior roles at ad agencies, albeit a much smaller percentage of them hold top posts such as regional heads or CEOs, he said.
“So there’s still is a visible glass ceiling,” said Farmer, author of Madison Avenue Manslaughter: An Inside View of Fee-Cutting Clients, Profit-Hungry Owners and Declining Ad Agencies (2017, LID Publishing). “But with everything that has been written about the issue, I believe that there can only be greater awareness.”
The increased scrutiny to the racial and gender gap in the U.S. electorate, culminating in the women’s marches around the world on Jan. 21, virtually guarantees that gender biases will be a major issue at agencies, media companies, and marketing departments everywhere this year. Women are taking the resistance online, in Facebook groups like Pantsuit Nation, blogs and Twitter flame wars; female marketers are increasingly emboldened after seeing hordes of women protesting on the streets.
Diversity of all kinds — both gender and racial — is a necessity now, say many insiders. Industry groups are linking to the social trend and trying to address the issue. Advertising Week in New York last fall held an entire track of events on diversity, dominated by panels with titles such as “Sexism in Advertising and What Brands Should Do,” “The Revolution will be Feminized” and “We Need to Talk.”
Speaking to the annual Financial Times Marketing Summit last year, ad veteran Cindy Gallop, founder of Make Love Not Porn, blamed the lack of both gender and racial diversity on “the closed loop of white guys” in the industry.
“I’m fed up with seeing young male morons in beer ads,” she said. Stereotypes are the result of lazy creative work, she said.
The ad industry is having trouble reinventing itself in the digital age because it is not leveraging diversity, said Gallop: “There’s a lot of money to be made by taking women seriously,” Gallop told the FT crowd. “We buy and we share.”
In fact, as marketers often mention, women are the main decision makers for most household purchases. Most research points out that at least 80 percent of U.S. household spending is being decided by women.
Marketers have been ahead of the curve in promoting women through the ranks better than agencies, partly due to the higher percentage of women in executive positions, including CMO and senior procurement jobs, said Farmer. And as more brands bring their advertising in-house, they offer better advancement opportunities for women.
Agencies, which are already under duress by digital disruption, have been slower than marketers to check their privilege. As they fight to stay afloat, cutting staff and budgets, agencies are not prioritizing diversity as they should, noted Farmer.
“The old ways of working are not working, and senior male executives are at a loss to figure out how to restore their agencies to financial and strategic health,” he said. In this environment, women may not want the top agency jobs, he said. “Women certainly wish to have better representation in the C-suites of ad agencies (but) women might not view the ‘opportunity’ (if given) as anything other than a poisoned chalice.”