Sex sells: A proposal for Sexuality Offsetting

October 14th, 2022

Access to modern contraception is vital to the empowerment of women and girls worldwide.  There are 160 million women worldwide who do not have access and a $59bn cost to fulfilling unmet contraception needs.  Even when contraception is available, cultural pressures: social norms, traditional gender stereotypes, prejudices and stigmas mean that many women do not have the choices that are available to most readers of this blog.

One session at the recent World Woman Foundation’s United Nations General Assembly 77 conference focussed on the inequalities that this engenders across the globe.

I was privileged to be part of a panel that ran later that day speaking about media and activism for an equal future for women and girls.  And what I heard at the session on contraception, combined with the insights of the later panel, prompted a significant new provocation to the media, advertising and entertainment industry to take responsibility for a better and more equal future for everyone.

Sex sells.  From music videos, through TV shows, to advertising, sexuality is used to drive audiences and sales. 

Yet unprotected sex costs lives, curbs choices and represses opportunity.

Just as our industry has universally adopted carbon offsetting to ensure that businesses take responsibility for a better climate future so too should the industry adopt a sexuality offsetting responsibility.

This would mean that if you are using sexuality to sell product or drive audiences and views then you would also contribute to dealing with the unintended consequences.  This could include making a contribution to the provision of contraception in the developing world where it is not freely available, or to ensure that you are actively involved in keeping responsible contraception front of mind for young people – of every gender –  everywhere, by contributions to charities and NGOs and by creating content and education.  It could mean provision of free condoms in your office, just as many organisations now offer sanpro.

Brands, movies, TV, music and media use sex to sell.   Its less blatant in advertising than it was in the 1970s and 80s but in reality TV shows, drama, movies and pop videos it is in some ways more explicit.  Using sexuality to sell is still widespread and prevalent.  Its not hard to understand why – humans are hardwired to notice sexual references and imagery.  Sex gets attention.  Attention helps to cut through the clutter and the noise of competing products and images.  

Contraception should not be a controversial issue.  It is not only an issue for those who might get pregnant.  The panel at UNGA77: Lori Adelman, Geralyn Ritter, Karl Hofmann and Dr. Julitta Onabanjo were clear that when women are able to make better and more active choices in terms of giving birth then this leads to better outcomes for society in terms of education, economic independence and health.  The panel chair, Lori Adelman, asked the very distinguished audience in New York to raise their hands if they could acknowledge that their ability to make controlled choices about giving birth had contributed to their current status and ability to attend such a prestigious conference.  99% of hands were raised.  Its easy to think that this issue doesn’t affect the world if you are in a position where you have had control and choice.  For millions of women worldwide this is not a choice they have.  Karl Hofman, ceo of Population Services International was clear: there is still huge resistance to better choices for women from the forces of “patriarchy, tradition and misogyny.” Geralyn Ritter, head of external affairs at Organon, said: “Women must raise their voices, education is needed for young people and for politicians, advocacy is essential”.

The later panel, on the impact media has on society, with Traci Otey Blunt, Adrianne C. Smith, Marjan Neshat, Karen Bystedt, Cheryl Fox and me, was agreed that there is huge change and transformation ahead.  We discussed the huge impact media can have in terms of positive advocacy for change for a more equal future.

If you have influence in our industry, if you have a voice, you can help to make positive choice for women and girls have a bigger priority so that all women and girls can achieve their promise.

Making this change, a change to ensure a better outcome for women and girls through media in terms of responsibly offsetting sexuality, will ensure a more equal future for the world.

Ensuring that the price is right

September 26th, 2022

Pricing is a marketing issue, especially as cost of living crisis mounts.

“We should not talk down the power of advertising in the wider marketing mix. When a brand buys advertising, it sends a message: that it wants to be noticed and win approval, that it wants to generate desire and drive behaviour.” Gideon Spanier, Campaign editor in chief.

Of course, one other thing that advertising does is drive a price differential versus other, less desirable, brands.  And in the cost of living crisis, it is crucial that marketing has influence, a significant one, on pricing.

The great Jeremy Bullmore once cautioned the audience of marketers at a MediaCom conference against focussing too tightly on the core target market for any brand.  In the face of a step change in the availability of data to calculate pinpoint precision of targeting ads at those, and only at those, in the market to buy a brand (in this case a luxury car) in the next 3 months he said: “If brand x only ever targeted people in the market to buy the car in the next quarter, there would soon be far fewer of them.  Because one of the reasons that you pay the premium to buy that luxury car is to be the envy of all of those who cannot afford to do so.”

Luxury cars has been an outlier category, in as much as the performance of most modern cars is satisfactory.  The electric car marketplace is shaking up this norm but in the past the premium lay largely in the prestige of the brand, of the marque and this was highly influenced by great advertising and of course entertainment in general (Bond and Aston Martin for example).  To use the category recently cited by Tom Darlington, there is less brand premiumisation for instance for a toilet cleaning product, but still advertising drives brand recognition and memory structures and therefore should allow a premium in terms of pricing.

As the guru of effectiveness, Jane Christian, managing partner at MediaCom, puts it: “we see strong brands benefit from inelastic pricing”.  In other words when prices go up by 1% you might expect to see sales drop by a proportionate amount.  She goes on to say: “if the brand is strong enough, then there may be only a minimal or even zero drop in sales.”

Here then is one effect of growing demand in the right way and driving value for the business. McKinsey estimate that raising prices by 1% without losing sales can, on average, boost operating profits by over 8%.

Pricing systems are therefore crucial, and Artificial Intelligence advances are stepchanging their effectiveness.  The Economist reported recently that the latest AI charged models “can spot patterns and relationships between multiple items.” The models scrape social media sentiment and product reviews. 

We can look forward to a marketplace for many products where pricing is more volatile than we have experienced in the past.  Some consumer segments may find this challenging – those who hunt for a bargain will have to put more homework in; those who just don’t like to be ripped off may have to do the same.  And this in itself may affect brand perception.  If you have a reputation as a brand that is good value for money, your pricing choices may need some marketing input on top of the AI.

There are 48 ways to transform creativity. Here’s the 7th. Go outside.

September 13th, 2022

Going outside is a transition, a transformation.  And readily available when anyone is stuck for ideas. Going outside can be the start of a new adventure.

There are, of course, more than one way to go outside: you can go through a door, step outside of your social or work bubble, dive into the natural world, exit your comfort zone, experience a liminal space. 

The exemplary of going through a doorway in many UK childhoods is when Dr Who steps outside the Tardis and a new adventure begins accompanied of course by the  Vwoorp Vwoorp sound of the Dr Who Tardis landing.  The sound triggers excitement of knowing that a new adventure is beginning each time the Doctor steps outside the Tardis.  (Always a bit disappointing if they just ended up in modern day Britain, even if the daleks were attacking. Such a letdown and inexplicable until you understand the production budget had run out.)

Going through a doorway can signify the start of a new way of looking at things for us all.  Inside is control and organisation.  Outside there may be chaos, randomness.  Inside is known, outside is unknown.

In the workplace we all need to step outside the office bubble.  All great advertising strategists are curious about other people’s lives.  The ad agency bubble cliché where creatives are accused of producing work for other people like themselves, for an audience of Soho House members, exists for a reason.  Often a list of awards will showcase work that pleases peers more than it excites the public.  But great work transcends this to speak to the consumers’ lives and understand what they genuinely care about.

You can’t plan for that in a capital city bubble.  You have to dive into the lives of the prospective audience, get outside of the office, and go where they hang out, where they live, and immerse yourself in what they care about.  A rundown highstreet will tell you more about buyers of many products than going to an office everyday.  The “Back to the office” evangelists need to take note that time spent in a café in a suburb might be more insightful and inspirational than filling in post it notes with Sharpies.  Yes, teams need to cluster, but not necessarily in WC1 or EC2.  Go outside of your normal office space.

Get outside into some nature. Research studies have proved the impact of green spaces on mental health.  If you can take your challenges or problems that need solving with creativity outside and sit with them there then you should find the outside helps your thinking to flow.

Go outside your comfort zone.  This doesn’t have to be extreme, it doesn’t have to be stressful.  It is necessary for growth.  Psychologists have a term for healthy development and growth.   Vygotsky’s concept of the “Zone of Proximal Development” posits that human potential is theoretically limitless; but the practical limits of human potential depend upon quality social interactions and residential environment. This ZPD is “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance (for children) or in collaboration with more capable peers”. In other words, its not about being brave, you don’t need to sky dive.  But do reach out to colleagues and mentors for help in stretching into the mildly uncomfortable zone.  Go beyond your immediate capabilities.  The rewards are immense.

My recent experience in entering (and winning) a worldwide creative competition is one example of this.  You will know your own boundaries, for some, its challenging their conservatism, for others its changing jobs, partners or learning a new skill, hobby or making new friends.   

Go outside the space you are in.  The very act of going through a doorway or a portal, being in a liminal space, is renowned in story telling as magical.  It’s a transitional moment, the gateway from one state to another.  Richard Rohr, an American Franciscan monk and writer describes this space as “where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown.  There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence.  There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence.  That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin.”

Liminal spaces can be uncomfortable.  But many people believe that you cannot begin afresh until you have separated from the old, in jobs, in relationships and in self care.  In the nothingness of liminal space you can recreate a new version of yourself.  Surely one of the greatest acts of creativity of all.

“The past has a vote, not a veto”

August 15th, 2022

The world has changed, but the way that we operate in many spheres has not changed enough.

Not enough systematic change.  This is true of many sectors, including advertising.

Not enough change.  It’s true of fiscal policy according to Conservative Party leadership candidate Liz Truss.  She’s advocating tax cuts, arguing that the Treasury has outdated views on what works in stimulating the economy. 

Not enough change.  It’s true that this is one of the barriers to inclusion, equity and belonging.  Newer tech has been shown to carry the prejudice of the past when algorithms endorse the biases of old.  As algorithms invisibly permeate our world constant vigilance is crucial.  Our children need to learn to be as aware of this as they grow up in a world where their preferences are always reinforced potentially manipulated.  We need to teach our children well in this respect.

Not enough change.  There’s a catch 22 that may be familiar to many when innovation is requested but meets with an additional requirement that it is proven to work from past experience.  An impossible conundrum. 

Crucially we are in danger of continuing to follow the advertising rules of thumb or heuristics of the past in a world that we know has changed irrevocably.

I was delighted to share a stage in late July at the Odeon on Shaftesbury Avenue in London with global ceo of creative systems Stef Calcraft.  We had invited guests from across marketing and media to join us for our curation of Cannes Lions winners on the Big Screen.   Describing a new era of creativity Stef said: “The world has changed, and the people we need to connect with have changed too.  Our job is to understand what matters to them most, what they really care about, and give them more of what they want and more of what they need.  If we can do this, we’ll be more successful than ever before.”  Yet so much thinking is stuck in old paradigm, pre-internet thinking.  We must transform how we work and how we create to build platforms and ideas that truly make a difference in todays transformed world.  Back to Stef: “We have entered a new creative era where the ideas we create can be more purposeful, more powerful, and inherently more active than ever before. We are all privileged to have this opportunity.”

This isn’t a return to the so-called “golden age” of full-service agencies.  (Unlike many people I remember that era and it was mostly not a golden age for media, which was often sidelined.)  

This is the creation of a new way of working that harnesses the brand truth, the consumer reality and cultural relevance.  Its hard to change.  Its hard to throw off the shackles of the past.  Yet this we must now do.

One of the great Jewish thinkers Mordecai Kaplan, a man who played a huge role in adapting Jewish religious practices for the modern era said this: “The past has a vote, but not a veto”.  We need to pay respect to the past but not let it limit how we work today.

Its great to have perspective on past success, its important to incorporate the lessons of experience, but it is more crucial to be open to new ways of working to drive success in this complex world.  A golden age, for creativity.

Why our industry could do with being a bit more Wimbledon

August 1st, 2022

Serena practicing at Wimbledon. Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

A new film about John McEnroe was released as this year’s Wimbledon tennis tournament came to a close, which prompted me to think a bit about tennis.

McEnroe is famous of course for being outspoken.  In a corporate world some people find speaking bluntly can be difficult.  McEnroe’s view was that he was the “normal” one on the tennis court: “What I’ve always thought about myself is that I’m more like the normal guy than Björn is,” he goes on. “Björn’s the freak that could go out there and not change his expression for four hours. I’m the normal guy that gets frustrated on the court and expresses himself.”

He believed in winning at any cost, but goes on to say however that 37 therapists didn’t help him really be normal.

Is anyone who is world beating entirely “normal”?  Not by definition. 

Is it possible to win without ranting?  Yes of course. 

Has psyching out your opponent become common practice?  Yes of course.

Can you give robust feedback without upsetting people?  Undoubtedly, and here’s one highly successful contributor to my book, with co-author Kathryn Jacob OBE, The Glass Wall, success strategies for women at work and businesses that mean business explaining how to give criticism so that it is well received: “Above all, I am authentic. I would say that what I do is the Shit Sandwich. I’m quite nice to people, I try and be understanding and empathetic and listen, but it doesn’t stop me from confronting what’s wrong. Nice, and then I’ll be horrible. But then I’ll say I love you, let’s have lunch. I get furious, but then I say, it’s only work, there are important things, let’s make friends.”

However, this is not how we should be more Wimbledon.

And its not by eating more strawberries and cream, or drinking more Pimms.

We should be more Wimbledon by adopting the rule of the second serve.

The genius of the tennis game lies in the second serve.

What other game, or profession, authorises you to make your best shot and have no worry about failure?

In tennis every player can shoot for the moon with their first serve, with no anxiety at all about it missing. 

Imagine how much more interesting to my mind (apologies to the purists) penalty shoot outs would be under these rules where every shooter would get two shots at goal. 

Imagine what this would do to our education system if a brave go was written into some subjects.

Think how you would feel in a pitch or answering a client brief if the rule was to go twice – first you shoot for the moon, then you give a safety shot.

Of course, we all have the option to give a range of solutions.  But that’s different, that’s about options not about ambition.   The Second Serve rule should be baked in, and I would recommend to any client giving a brief today that they try this as a mandatory and see what that does to the responses.

Our industry is transforming thanks to the advent (finally) of great AI and automation.  Efficient automation levels the playing field in mature markets, and means that competitive advantage lies in those businesses that fuel differentiation with creativity.

The second serve rule can transform that creativity.