Powerful Female Creatives Are Challenging Representation on Screen and in the Boardroom

Women are rising up as CCOs and changing how they appear in ads

Women creatives are bringing fresh ideas and new perspectives. - Credit by Adweek
Headshot of Lindsay Rittenhouse

When the ad opens, “Sarah,” a tired, disheveled housewife, wearily faces the prospect of wiping up a messy stove, when boom, a sexy, buff version of Mr. Clean appears. Mop in hand, the Procter & Gamble brand’s mascot seductively washes the kitchen floor, then the shower, steaming up the housework before morphing into Sarah’s “real-life” husband. Overcome, Sarah jumps into his arms, as the “You gotta love a man who cleans” tagline shows up on screen.

And scene.

Although steeped in a decidedly 1950s sensibility, Leo Burnett Toronto’s “Cleaner of Your Dreams” commercial ran just last year—during the 2017 Super Bowl. One of the most talked about ads of the game, it earned wide praise for its humorous take on gendered roles, even as it reinforced outmoded depictions of women.

And that’s the problem, a big one. According to a joint study by JWT and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, released last year, not only do men appear twice as often as women in ads, but 25 percent of all commercials solely feature men compared to women, who carry an ad a mere 5 percent of the time. What’s more, the same study found that 85 percent of women become offended when seeing their gender negatively portrayed; 66 percent of them will switch off the TV altogether when confronted with such stereotyped depictions.

At a time when women are making strides across various sectors—last year’s Fortune 500 list included 32 female CEOs, the highest number since the magazine established the list in 1955, and in 2016 women continued to outpace men earning doctoral degrees for the eighth straight year—the ad industry has stubbornly clung to a narrow view of how to portray women. “It’s a powerful thing when a little girl has a badass female figure on TV to look up to, the same way boys do,” says Jen Wang, Publicis New York art director. “The lack of representation as a whole leaves a subconscious imprint. It manifests itself as that tiny voice in the back of girls’ minds whispering ‘you can’t.’”

But now, it appears the ad industry has reached something of an inflection point. White-hot movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp have become catalysts, forcing agencies to take a hard look at business as usual and make some significant changes. One of them has been to install more women in high-powered creative roles. According to a 2017 LinkedIn study, 33 percent of all chief creative officers were women. While still underrepresented as a whole, it was a marked improvement from just two years ago, when, according to the 3% Conference, only 11 percent of all CCO titles were held by women.

While the needle has moved slightly, the impact of that surge has been substantial, as women creatives bring fresh ideas and new perspectives—and that usually means more progressive and inclusive representations of women as well as other segments of society.

“Women filmmakers are the biggest untapped pool of creativity,” as Alma Har’el, founder of Free The Bid, a nonprofit aimed at increasing female directors in advertising, previously told Adweek. “We have a skewed view of everything around us because we are exposed to more than 3,000 advertising messages every day and 95 percent of them are done by men.”

For women, thinking about image and perspective is a feature, not a bug. “During the conceptual process, it’s so easy to fall back on gender stereotypes—they’re the low-hanging fruit of character development,” explains Jamie Silverman, associate creative director at Publicis Groupe/New York, who has worked on a number of campaigns, including work for Walmart. “So, when I’m working with a group to come up with ideas, I try to remind everyone when they fall into those traps. Most of the time it’s unintentional.”

Nathalia Resende, creative director at 22squared Atlanta, who spearheaded an International Women’s Day campaign that reimagined posters comprised of negative connotations of women (e.g., replacing the word “crazy” with “driven”), echoes that view. “Being a woman in creative I find it very natural to always double check for stereotypes and misinterpretations of women roles,” she says. “But that’s because the first filter I apply to every project is my personal one. So naturally every time I get a brief or review work I make sure to question both the portrayal of female and male roles to ensure we’re not reinforcing stereotypes.”

In 2015, BBDO Atlanta appointed Robin Fitzgerald its first female CCO. She shepherded “KellyBaked,” HoneyBaked Ham’s first TV commercial in 10 years. The spot depicted a successful female in her early 30s struggling to prepare a ham for a party before HoneyBaked’s pre-glazed, ready-to-serve ham swoops in to save the day. “You wouldn’t believe how long we discussed the casting for that spot,” admits Fitzgerald.

Alma Har'el directed Coca-Cola's 2018 Super Bowl spot.
Byron Bowers

While Fitzgerald was dead set on using a female lead, her team wrestled over the idea of portraying a cooking-challenged woman, afraid it might offend certain audiences. “A lot of women can’t cook and that’s OK,” she says. “In my house, my husband cooks all the meals. I can cook two things. When my kids see me cooking, they’re like, ‘Oh no.’”

Fitzgerald’s instincts were on point, and this realistic portrayal of a woman clicked. The client was thrilled. “We wanted something fresh, disruptive, funny,” says HoneyBaked CMO Jo Ann Herold, “something that could appeal to a modern audience.”

The next step: getting more clients on board.

Rebecca Ortiz, assistant professor of advertising at Syracuse University, points out that a lot of storied brands continue to play it safe, hesitant to overhaul their creative strategies after having done them “the same way” for so long. That’s how many age-old stereotypes make it into marketing today. “It really tends to be the household products where we still see the women in the housewife-type scenario,” says Ortiz. “A lot of times it’s the CPG companies trying to stay consistent on some level. If they step outside the status quo, they fear having a worse response to the brand image. Is [that] working? Arguably not.”

Katie Keating, co-founder and creative director of Fancy, suggests these brands are only doing a disservice to themselves by not driving change. “Advertisers often say they are ‘mirroring’ the current dynamics in society and that change comes to advertising when societal norms change,” she says. “With the amount of money spent and the amount of messaging that streams into households, who are we kidding? We can either reinforce stereotypes or break them down.”

Putting the CCO title next to more women is important, but just one step in a broader process. The Martin Agency’s Karen Costello says all marketers, on the brand and agency side alike, need to embrace change and break stereotypes, and not just those related to gender. In January, Costello was promoted to chief creative officer at The Martin Agency after the ouster of former CCO Joe Alexander following sexual harassment allegations made against him.

“It’s about showing what America really looks like,” Costello says. “Show people of color, people with disabilities, etcetera. Sometimes change feels too slow, but I feel that [the industry is] going there. It’s exciting.”

For more, be sure to check out: 10 Examples of Women’s Portrayal in Ads, From the Good to the Bad to the Completely Sexist

This story first appeared in the March 26, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@kitten_mouse lindsay.rittenhouse@adweek.com Lindsay Rittenhouse is a staff writer at Adweek, where she specializes in covering the world of agencies and their clients.