Where are all the innovative women? At DMEXCO.
A view from Laura Holmes McCarthy

Where are all the innovative women? At DMEXCO.

On the heels of Forbes' list of 99 innovative men (and one woman), the global digital marketing conference proved there are plenty of groundbreaking female leaders--but we need to adjust our biases (and our algorithms) to find them.

Women are pretty popular right now. We’re in the news, in commercials, and in more and more leadership positions than ever. And yet... there’s that Forbes list. The one where poorly-conceived data sets provided an even-poorer representation of what an innovative leader looks like in 2019. It all happened about two days before I left for Cologne to speak at the world’s leading digital marketing conference, DMEXCO, about how brands can work authentically and effectively to embody gender equality, and drive a more equitable culture. Unsurprisingly, female leadership and representation were at the top of my mind.

Turns out, I wasn’t the only one. This year’s DMEXCO has been touted as the most female-friendly yet. Some 35% of speakers were reported to have been women, the highest representation of female thought leadership they’ve featured yet. And while it’s not quite true equality, it’s a sign of progress nonetheless. So I set out with one goal for my two days at DMEXCO: to find out what some of the most innovative women in the world had to say about the future of digital media. Spoiler alert: they weren’t that hard to find (well, other than the fact that this conference is huge and very, very packed). And yes, more than a few of them talked about that Forbes list, too.

Here’s what I took away:

Trust is earned. And so is a lack of it. With "Trust in You" as the central theme of this year’s conference, the topic of rebuilding relationships with audiences in a world of data breaches and privacy oversteps was on the minds of most. As one of the first keynote speakers of the day, Stephanie Buscemi, CMO of Salesforce, examined the trust rift forming between business, government, and communities, declaring that "personalized experiences vs. privacy... is the new battleground for everyone in this room." As she pointed out, trust drives an overwhelming majority of purchasing decisions, consumer loyalties, and even employee engagement. But the question remains: how did we lose sight of that fact in the race to optimize, maximize, and scale? And what do we do now, with the benefit of hindsight?

The future might mean taking a step back. The consumer reaction against our industry’s full-throated embrace of digital technology and data has just begun. Podcaster Charlotte Roche spoke to the emerging trend of Millennials embracing voice-driven media; a reaction to a world in which we’re increasingly saturated with imagery. Jocelyn Lee, head of Heat AI, discussed the Forbes innovators list, and what happens when we put our trust in data without applying a critical eye to how we’re choosing our data sets. During my panel, we discussed how data has given creative agencies - my own agency included - permission from clients to do riskier, more purpose-driven work; but that comes with the need to recognize that we’re accountable to our audiences, first and foremost, and to design, interpret, and optimize responsibly. The moral seemed to be that while there’s room for a correction, we’d be wise not to do a complete 180. Instead, the answer to sustainable success might be striking the right balance: combining the intimacy of voice with the reach and personalization of digital; putting a human filter on AI; and diversifying and opening the aperture on the people that make up our data sets. Because in a world with more data than ever, it’s not just how we interpret it that matters. The humans designing for it in the first place do, too.

We’re at the ground level when it comes to progress, not the ceiling. A striking number of panels and exhibitors put the pillars of purpose and progress at the forefront of their messaging. The desire for real, long-term change was palpable, not just in the voices of the speakers, but in the reactions of the audiences. And while these calls for social responsibility and representation were both fervent and frequent, there were other ways in which the conference experience itself illustrated just how necessary change is. In-floor presence alone, it was clear the majority of attendees were male, and racial diversity was visibly lacking. Women turned out in droves for panels like the Executive Shoutout, featuring six innovative and inspiring female tech and media leaders giving their views on the future of gender equality and diversity in the industry. But where were the men during these sessions? They may be the ones who needed to hear these women the most. Meanwhile, the less-than-empowering ads for the Pornhub booth that graced the back of every bathroom stall sent a message that digital media is still a man’s world—even in the women’s room.

This isn’t a criticism of the conference, which demonstrated its commitment to these issues in making them central to this year’s conversation. It’s simply symptomatic of an industry that still has a lot of work to do on itself. Thankfully, plenty of great ideas were shared to help us continue moving forward. Unconscious bias, along with AI and data’s roles in both reinforcing and fighting it, came up in nearly every panel I attended. The hard numbers around the business benefits of both purpose-driven work and representation in both the workforce and the media we create were repeated more than once. And practical tactics for how digital marketers can become more responsible were offered up freely: The need for revising HR criteria; for ensuring a more rigorous, diverse review of the data sets we use to inform our marketing decisions; and for holding ourselves and our businesses accountable to not just shareholders, but all stakeholders as a means towards sustainable success were clearly and urgently articulated throughout my two days on the ground. It left me optimistic that while our industry certainly isn’t perfect, it’s got some of the world’s most innovative thinkers leading the path towards progress.

Laura Holmes McCarthy is creative director at Decoded Advertising