Reader reaction: the woman-made brand

Campaign readers weigh in on this month's piece by the authors of Brandsplaining, who urged marketers to update the way they talk to women by learning from the new wave of female-founded brands.

Brandsplaining: book was published in February
Brandsplaining: book was published in February

Most marketing and advertising in history has been the product of men looking at women. Yes, brands may recently have started to tell women to be themselves rather than to be perfect, but that hasn't solved the problem of man-made biases being hard-wired into the practices of marketing brands aimed at women.

That's the contention of Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts in their recent piece for Campaign about woman-made brands, inspired by their new book Brandsplaining: Why Marketing Is (Still) Sexist and How to Fix It.

The marketing industry, they argued, needs to draw inspiration from the new wave of brands created by women, which successfully pull off the trick of "unconscious competence" when it comes to marketing to other women.

This is what Campaign readers had to say about the piece.

Sarah Jenkins

Managing director, Saatchi & Saatchi London

The killer takeout from all this for advertising is that women should not be defined in relationship to men.

That’s too often how society dictates women’s brands and products, although there are some great exceptions. The way we write characters still sometimes defaults to stereotypes, we use easy shortcuts, because that’s how we tell stories in 30 seconds, but we have to break with that.

The fact that there are more and more brands founded by women can only help. One of our planners, Rachel Eban, has launched her own company, Aura, which creates luxury adult products that are designed for pleasure. The issue is, they are constantly censored. It’s almost impossible for them to find an avenue that will let them advertise a vibrator; meanwhile, objectifying images of women can be used to sell everything from cars to cheeseburgers. The truth is, you can use sex to sell anything, unless it’s women’s pleasure. As the founder, she’s taking this agenda on and we need to have women at the top, holding big business to account.

Critical to all this is consistency and momentum. We spent three or four months getting behind Black Lives Matter, and now it’s the gender pay gap and International Women’s Day. It’s terrifying how easily distracted we are as an industry, but we need to be able to have multiple tracks running at the same time – gender, ethnicity, low social mobility, LQBTQ+, working parents and everything in between.

On gender, the real silver bullet is getting more women in senior positions, shaping the culture. I’m confident the industry will crack it. We are a good and generous industry a lot of the time, but we need all senior leaders to accelerate change, and the younger generation is amazing, of course – when you are hiring, they are watching and looking, and they are not taking any shit from us.

Sue Higgs

Joint executive creative director, Dentsumcgarrybowen UK

Society does not like “messy” women. Fact.

(I know this because I am one.)

That is, multi-dimensional, strong, fully rounded women, sexual women, funny women, women with opinions, non-victim women, women who aren't looking for male validation.

Women who can’t be put in a box labelled “good girls”.

What society needs, and I mean the patriarchy, are ways to control and suppress everyone who is not them, so they can feel greater than and continue to dominate.

So, we’re labelled “bossy”, “pushy”, “difficult”, “not very feminine”.

And they’ve been getting away with it for years.

But as any woman knows, women are gloriously messy and “they” don’t like it. They want to tell us what we are, and we don’t need them to tell us.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge has written some great messy women. Fleabag in her glorious, relatable dysfunctionality. And Pamela Adlon in Better Things, the strong, capable, non-victim, single mum, who’s killing it.

Of course, the patriarchy needs dismantling immediately (obviously by a woman because, if you want a job doing...)

And I applaud every single word of this piece. Bring it on.

Julie Cohen

Chief executive, Across The Pond

Cunningham and Roberts chart the progress (or lack thereof) of advertising to women. We still have a long way to go before the industry treats and depicts women as the multidimensional human beings we are. We need to tackle the issue from both sides.

On the one hand, there are not enough women calling the shots in the brand world. It's only in recent years, and in part thanks to pioneering female entrepreneurs like Bumble founder Whitney Wolfe, that some businesses have started to engage with women on their own terms, rather than through the “male gaze” or by box-ticking exercises on diversity and female empowerment.

And on the other hand, we know there is an uncomfortably vast imbalance of women in creative agencies helping ensure we make different decisions to see change. Women influence 80% of purchase decisions, yet only 11% of creative directors are female (according to the 3% Movement). Recent surveys show the gender pay gap in both marketing and advertising is more than double the UK’s national pay gap. If nothing else, it’s an extremely flawed commercial model.

In terms of hiring, promoting and championing diverse talent, the ad industry is moving much too slowly. We know better ideas come from a much more diverse workforce and one of the keys to make change is data. 10 March was All In – the day for all in our industry to come together and say “I’m In”.

Jackie Stevenson

Global chief executive, The Brooklyn Brothers, and president, Wacl

The stats in this brilliant piece are terrifying, and yet why are we shocked? When only 18% of creative directors in the UK are women, meaning 82% of creative work in the UK is made from a male point of view. When for so long advertising has been about showing reality, but not buying anything “too real”, which so often results in the glossing over of the messy, “difficult to look at” parts of women’s day-to-day lives.

I’m still shocked that when we started working with WaterWipes, the rest of the category was still peddling the "perfect parent" myth: smiley, happy families, neat apartments, white dresses! No baby sick, no spilt food, no exhaustion. Don’t even get me started about periods, weight gain and hot flushes.

I applaud these incredible female-led businesses taking on the huge gaps in the market for products that really understand the way women want to live... and I look forward to many more, particularly when it comes to women’s health.

But I also issue a challenge to all of us in the advertising and creative services industry to hurry up and get with the programme. No more excuses: we have to hire more diverse talent, we must turbo-charge our creative hiring and we need to introduce flexible ways of working to allow more women back into our business. Let’s celebrate woman-made brands but let’s also match them with woman-made brand ideas. We can grow this huge market opportunity together and help women finally be themselves.


Global innovation leader, Mordecai Inc

This gaze has infiltrated how many women see and show off themselves. One tour of Instagram influencer posts shows likes for sale via vacant doe eyes, lingerie via coy straddle, and anything in a tube grazed across an over-lined lip (who is chewing on the packaging of their new mascara?). We saw nods to reality in challenges such as Instagram v Reality. Vicky Pattison posted two angles on an image posted on Instagram Friday – highlighting it wasn’t a before and after.

Great friends call out their friends, and we all need that kind of sisterhood as female allies to each other. It’s impossible to not be conditioned through centuries of objectification and suppression, but we can follow the lead of these female brands and speak a better language to each other.

Coming out of lockdown, I’m looking to see authentic #NoApologies women. From the already trending trainers with suits, instead of pencil skirts paired with heels or infantile ballet flats.

Tied to women changing their approach, and full diversifications of the creative teams as much as the work, is that we as women need to untangle our own conditioning. I removed the word bitch from my vocabulary years ago because there is no male counterpart. Too many women have fallen prey to society conditioning that marks one woman as popular, pretty, queen. If we’re not all in this together, we all lose.

Around the time Alma H’arel and Emma Reeves were pushing for agencies to take the pledge they would triple bid all director jobs with their Free The Work initiative (née Free The Bid), I nudged a head of production, who was female, to take the pledge, which would allow her to not only bid out to female directors, but award them work. She took the pledge and the attention it garnered in industry, but never awarded work to a woman, stating, "they didn’t have steel experience" (her main clients were auto). This is not true; many directors have steel experience and a number of ADs and DPs are women from auto commercials asking for a chance to direct.

Tom White

Chief strategy officer, AMV BBDO

As these woman-made brands lead the way, the question of how the established players can remake theirs to overcome years of biases becomes ever more acute if they are to avoid being totally outmanoeuvred.

So how do brands get remade?

Our experience working with Bodyform on its “Live fearless” campaign has taught us you need to challenge all the old orthodoxies. Including one of the most sacred of those cows, the single-minded brief.

While so many of us have been watching so much TV over the past year, the small screen has been lit up by the stories of women who are multidimensional – independent, complicated, neither fully “good” nor fully “bad” but bursting forth in all their human complexity. Yet the quest for a tight brief and brutal simplicity in our work can mean we’re too quick to brush by that multidimensionality. The consequence tends to be the same old tired tropes.

We must stay ever vigilant against the impulse for reductionism. Bodyform’s “Wombstories” campaign was developed as a direct rebuttal to the over-simplified story we give to girls, by giving a voice to as many of the unseen, unspoken and unknown truths about women’s periods, vulvas and their wombs as we could find.

It’s been by packing all that detail into our briefs instead of sucking it out that we remade Bodyform to embrace the complexity of women’s stories. And with more and more data now available to support the case that removing gendered bias boosts brand impact, persuasion and ROI, it’s never been clearer that remaking your brand can also remake its fortunes.