• Publish Date: Jun 26, 2018

The Gender and Diversity Agenda Dominates Cannes Once Again, But To What End?

Everyone was talking about women, equality, gender, diversity and inclusion at Cannes, from brands, agencies and creatives to journalists, sociologists, actors, musicians and sports stars, but will the festival conversation really change anything?

The Gender and Diversity Agenda Dominates Cannes Once Again, But To What End?

CANNES — Women, gender, equality, diversity and inclusion were once again among the most high-profile conversations at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity this year, with topics ranging from the #MeToo movement to achieving truly balanced and representative creative and leadership teams being raised across the Palais stages and fringe events.

Examining how far the industry has come, and how far there is still to go – for women, for people of colour, for the LGBTQ community, and for those from varied socio-economic backgrounds – Cannes concluded that despite some progress there is still much room for improvement.

It’s an interesting time for gender, diversity and inclusion as a broad theme for industry events: it’s neither still an edgy (and potentially risky) new bandwagon for brands and agencies to be jumping on, nor has significant, measurable change occurred, for instance at the level of equal pay and representation at junior or board level.

In fact, looking past the Croisette cheerleading, a quick glance at the numbers tells a pretty depressing story. The gender pay gap in the PR industry, frustratingly, is actually widening, and the sketchy data available suggests the number of ethnically diverse people in the industry remains embarrassingly low. The balance of men and women in the wider marketing and advertising industry is also off: 32% of CMOs are women, 33% of chief creative officers are women and only 10% of commercials are created by women.

As Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer, P&G, said at one presentation: “We have been discussing this at Cannes for many years, and it may feel like a lot is happening, but the progress is slow, even glacial… How can we have equality in creative output when we don’t have equality in creative input? We have to set targets. The goal should be 100% of advertising with positive and accurate portrayal of women, and 50% of creative directors and CMOs being women.”

Madonna Badger, chief creative officer, Badger & Winters, was responsible for putting the issue of objectification in advertising on the agenda at Cannes, resulting in a pledge that the Cannes Lions awards would not recognise work that objectifies women. She said: “We need to look at the myths, and the measuring sticks they are judging us by. There’s a myth that there are not enough women in the pipelines to be CMOs or chief creative officers. There are plenty of women in the professional services, but if we keep saying there are not enough women, they are never going to advance.”

Fittingly for an industry that hasn’t yet cracked evaluation, in terms of progress thus far, we can probably say little more than “awareness has been raised,” and we now find ourselves in a period of flux, of shifting sands, of establishing a new norm.

At the annual IPG Women’s Breakfast, now in its eighth year and always a highlight of the Festival fringe, chairman Michael Roth introduced the event by saying: “We have made some progress – we now have 52% representation of women in senior management at IPG – but we have to look at people of colour and people with different social values, so we will continue to push forward until we don’t have to have a breakfast like this.”

In terms of women’s equality (both within the industry and in wider society), the Cannes narrative was wide-ranging, including breaking down gender stereotypes in creative content, what brands can do, and how women can overcome obstacles to playing senior roles in the creative industries.

Gail Heimann, president of Weber Shandwick, said at the IPG Women’s Breakfast: “If you look at the world around us, there is a new, inclusive women’s movement. There are more women running for office, and 55% of graduates this year were women. The stats are changing. The brave, powerful and empowering women here are the driving force behind that change.”

At the New York Times, COO Meredith Kopit Levien said we were at a time of “incredible cultural reckoning” where gender was now “a lens through which to see the world.” She introduced the publication’s new gender editor Jessica Bennett, who looked at the images used in the media and in advertising and marketing, calling the famous image of Harvey Weinstein being led away in handcuffs by a female detective, “the most powerful image of 2018.”

Bennett has worked with Getty Images to repopulate its stock photo libraries with more pictures of female leaders, women working, girls as scientists and athletes, and men as caretakers, fathers and teachers. She said: “Middle-aged white men have been shaping our mass media for decades and the result is subtle. Women are three times as likely to be outnumbered in film and TV as men, and less likely to appear in roles like business executive, politician, doctor, engineer. Women now receive the majority of bachelor degrees around the world, yet in the ad world, we are still four times as likely to appear without our clothes on.”

Cannes also had a bono fide feminist hero in its midst this year, as Gloria Steinem took to the stage alongside civil rights activist Tarana Burke, who founded the original #MeToo movement in 2006.

Steinem said: “Each of us in this room checked into this revolution at a different time, but it’s the same revolution: trying to get rid of patriarchy, racism and sexism. We’re striving, and it will take time, but we’re all on this adventure that we as human beings are linked, not ranked. It is a watershed moment because women are being believed at more than any other time in my life, but it depends on what we do every day. Revolutions and social change are like trees – they do not grow from the top, they grow from the bottom.”

And Burke – who stated: “I will not be the black woman you roll out to show you are diverse” – agreed we are at a tipping point: “There hasn’t been a culture shift yet but we have a unique opportunity in a unique historical moment. Look in your homes, your communities, your offices, and see where the gaps are. It’s about what we do all the time – you don’t have to lead a movement.”

Brands have a key role to play in moving the conversation, and the movement, forward. Last year, UN Women convened the Unstereotype Alliance, whose mission is to use advertising as a force for good to drive positive change around “empowering women in all their diversity” and “addressing harmful masculinities to help create a gender equal world."

Members now include IPG, WPP, Publicis and Omnicom, Unicef, Unilever, Diageo, P&G, AT&T, Facebook, Microsoft, Mattel and Google. The alliance unveiled a short film at Cannes to underline the problem of all kinds of stereotyping in creative content.

Speaking at the IPG Women’s Breakfast, Kim Getty, president of ad agency Deutsch LA, said: “Brands have a larger voice in culture than film and television. More people saw the 'Fearless Girl' campaign than Wonder Woman and Black Panther. We need to own that responsibility. Agencies can also unlock female innovation by partnering with women founders of start-ups, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s great for business.”

P&G’s Pritchard also said there was a firm link between business success and doing good, quoting the stellar performance of the Always brand since the launch of its #LikeAGirl campaign in 2014: “Our best performing brands have gender equality at the heart…Part of proving that this is good for business is great campaigns that work. 'LikeAGirl' changed perceptions of what that phrase meant. Our Olay work focusing on fearless aging has changed how women view aging, and they have both been great successes for their respective brands.”

P&G sat alongside Unilever in a discussion hosted by WPP’s UK country manager Karen Blackett. Rather than being a "battle of the big guns," it was an unexpectedly emotional session, as Aline Santos, EVP global marketing and head of diversity and inclusion at Unilever, and P&G’s global design officer Phil Duncan talked about brands as a force for societal change, and showcased their own – and each other’s – adverts that they found particularly powerful in turning gender and other stereotypes on their head. 

These included Unilever’s ground-breaking Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, which started with a white paper with Edelman in 2003 that found only 4% of women described themselves as beautiful, and then working with Ogilvy to debunk traditionally narrow ideas of beauty with a long-term, integrated campaign that evolves (and wins awards) every year.

Santos said: “Dove is growing faster than any other Unilever brand, because people love the campaign, so we’re winning in business as well as communications terms. Being one of the biggest advertisers in the world, we have a responsibility to inspire girls and women to be whoever they want to be. When we remove the stereotypes that put us in little boxes we get better results – buying intention increases by 18%, so it’s good for brands and good for society.”

Another culture-shifting creative campaign shown was P&G’s #ShareTheLoad for its Ariel detergent, which tackles assumptions about who in the family does the laundry. Duncan said: “Even though we and Unilever are competitors, we share the same spirit in this work. When you are a company that is in the everyday lives of women, children and families, you need to have a genuine sense of authenticity in the way you deal with them. India loves a debate and tens of millions of people began to have this great conversation, and we saw engagement and business lift.”

Duncan added that evolving societal norms takes time: “You have to go on a decades-long journey. I was here at Cannes 10 years ago with Marc Pritchard and we were concerned about being boycotted because we’d decided to support Pride by putting a float in the parade. We knew that for some we would be putting a conversation out there that they would view as negative, but it was about our values and leadership.”

Santos agreed it was time for brands to stand up for what they believe in: “We are starting to move forward and now we’re targeting intersectionality beyond gender: colour, disabilities, other taboos we are trying to break. We have the grounds to say to our agencies: you have to do your part and if you don’t, we will find someone else. If you don’t bring me 50-50 men and women, I’m not going to work with you. If you don’t have women, find them, nurture them, help them. But the best pressure will come from consumers. The World Economic Forum says it will take 217 years to get to real equality; I don’t want to wait, let’s do it now.”

In another lively discussion, “Diversity Requires Bold Action," Antonio Lucio, chief marketing and communications officer at HP, which has taken a leadership role in mandating that its agencies diversify their account teams, focused on diversity as “a values issues and a business imperative.”

He said: “Panels keep happening, research keeps piling up—McKinsey this year has found that diverse leadership teams perform better—but what will it take to make this a reality?”

Lucio said it was down to both clients and agencies to take the initiative: “We fundamentally believe that in order to change our industry we need to have a holistic approach. The clients have to have a diverse perspective when they create the briefs, the agencies need to be diverse because they are creating the campaigns.

“We said we wanted the heads of creative and heads of strategy who represent the communities we serve. We went from zero to 52% in 12 months. When we started, there were no female creatives leading our campaigns. Now we have 59 campaigns that were created by female directors.” 

Lucio added that diversity had improved HP’s market share per impression as well as its sales, and was another voice over the week who called for it to be part of a business discussion: “Diversity and inclusion has to move out of the human resources department. It needs to be treated like any other business priority, with goals and objectives and metrics.”

Omnicom’s chief diversity officer Tiffany Warren is also president of Adcolor, an organisation that celebrates and advocates diversity in the creative and technology industries. Citing the “abysmal” lebel of African-American men in the creative industry – around 2% – she said the business case for diversity should be flipped: “All too often people on the margins are asked to make the business case for diversity. We have to turn that around and ask people to make the case for sameness. I don’t think there’s a business that would argue that their success depends on sameness. We have to move away from sameness and move toward innovation.”

However much it succeeds, or not, to shift the status quo, one thing Cannes is unequivocally good at is inspiration, and there were plenty of inspiring stories about diversity throughout the week. These included Queen Latifah talking about her “uphill battles” of wanting to play ball sports with the boys as a young girl, and then breaking into the male-dominated world of rapping, and Olympian fencer Ibtihaj Mohammed on the difficulties of establishing herself as a young Muslim woman in the sport. 

Katie Couric, the first solo female anchor of a nightly newscast, pointed out the importance of getting more women involved in the media: "In journalism, the story selection comes from your own experience. If you get a more diverse group of people making those decisions, you get a more diverse range of stories.” 

Fellow journalist Edward Enninful, editor-in-chief of British Vogue, earlier this year created one of the most diverse covers in the history of fashion publishing. He told delegates: “We were told that black women on covers don’t sell. We put Gugu Mbatha-Raw on the cover and it sold like crazy… The world is much more beautiful if we have a range of voices and not just one.”

British actress Thandie Newton said being diverse had defined her: “My mother is from Zimbabwe, my father was a Cornish boy, I grew up on the coast of Cornwall and I was one of the only brown-skinned people, and just the fact of me changed their lives. My life has been about the breaking down the walls of ignorance, the fear of the other… We have to take courage from the fact that our children could exist in a world where we celebrate diversity rather than fearing it.”

Creative director Gabriela Lungu also hosted an emotional evening with ten inspiring women from across the creative industries, both agency and in-house, talking candidly about the many and varied obstacles each had had to overcome in their careers. 

And futurologist Faith Popcorn’s panel session on the ‘death of masculinity’ looked at how changing notions of what it meant to be a man were impacting on creativity and marketing. Michael Kimmel, a sociologist specialising in gender studies, said: “We’re living through a moment of such dramatic transition, but we are also at a place where men have gone from controlling 98% of power in the world to 88%, and we think we’re oppressed. In the past five years there has been a shift in ideology; men in this room are living lives that would be unrecognisable to their grandfathers, in terms of their relationships with partners and children.”

And Kimmel added that creative work targeting men had shifted in turn: “Ads for trucks and beer and aftershave used to be about compensation for not feeling or being masculine enough: you’ll get laid if you use this product. Now, it’s about expressing who you are through this brand, and that appeals to younger consumers a lot more.”

But for all the “fired up, ready to go” chat across the stages last week, concerns were expressed privately throughout the Festival that we may be on the verge of a D&I backlash; that the focus on the gender pay gap and even #MeToo was “getting boring”; that the industry was inevitably going to be dominated by middle-aged white men forever; and that the gender, race and socio-economic elements of creating a diverse and inclusive working environment that affords equality of opportunity for all were on the verge of becoming a “box-ticking exercise” rather than being done from the heart, out of purpose and for good.

After all, outside our creative industry (and certainly outside the sunny Cannes bubble) we live in a society where women have only this week been able to drive in Saudi Arabia and only recently won the right to control what happens to their own bodies in Ireland; where people of colour are still eight times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people; where trans people around the world are encountering resistance and abuse; and where there’s still nothing like equality of educational opportunity for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.

There’s still a long way to go; only time will tell whether gender equality, diversity and inclusion will still be quite such hot topics in Cannes next year, or how long it will take before we simply don’t have to have this conversation any more.