Making Advertising that is Pro-Woman:Linda Scott (University of Illinois) Interviews Mary Lou Quinlan of Jusk Ask a Woman
Mary Lou Quinlan is often referred to as “the Oprah of Madison Avenue.” That’s because she has introduced an innovative research technique in which she interviews women in a “talk show” format, using a microphone and moving among them to coax, stimulate, and reinforce. She is formerly the CEO of NW Ayer, the nation’s first advertising agency. She is a feminist, a person who truly values women in all their diversity, and a respected force within the advertising business. Her book, Just Ask a Woman, tells about the wisdom she has gained from interviewing over 3,000 women of all ages from around the United States. She also has founded her own business, also called Just Ask a Woman, that specializes in market research among women. Interestingly, she maintains contact with thousands of women she has interviewed, who act as a panel from whom she gets feedback on myriad issues.
In this interview, Ms. Quinlan talks with Linda Scott, a professor from the University of Illinois, about her early years as a young feminist in the 1970s, about her experiences at Avon and in advertising, about how offensive ads get through the agency and put before the client, and about the insights she has gained being in personal contact with thousands of women.
Was the conference good?
The conference went very well. We had about 200 women. But the main thing was that the spirit of it was really nice. It was a coming together of a bunch of people who otherwise wouldn’t have crossed paths—or spoken to each other—talking about things that were important to them but are politically charged. I think, particularly, some of the feminist academics I had invited were surprised at how much they had in common with these women in advertising and how open they were to collaborative types of efforts. It was extremely positive. The energy in the room was really good all day long. At the end of the day, a whole bunch of people stayed around and talked about what would be the next steps.
I think we’re probably going to try to do it again, hopefully in New York. It was a very big success. Maybe you can help us with it.
Oh, yes. There are certainly enough women in New York who are interested in this topic. I don’t know how broad your audience was, but it certainly isn’t just advertising people who are controlling the messages.
One of the things that was really interesting in this conference, and it was surprising to some, was that women at these big agencies were willing to be critical of the work, and they were willing to step up to the plate with their clients and had plenty of stories to tell about that. At the same time, we did have a situation where some women at one agency, which had produced one of those awful Super Bowl ads, pulled out at the last minute because they were afraid that ad might come up.
Were they really going to defend it? Which ad was it, do you know?
It was the one where the mom has the really big hips. Did you see that one? It’s pretty awful. It’s the one that upsets my students the most. The guy is having the mother of the girlfriend over for the first time. His friend on the phone tells him on the way to the door to take a good look, because the mother is what the girl will look like in 20 years. He opens the door and the mother has these huge hips.
It wasn’t even by their office, it was by another office of the same agency. But their defense of it, which I thought was very strange, was “After all, it was the clients who did the casting, so it wasn’t our fault.”
It starts with the idea.
Having been a CEO of an agency, I’ve talked in the past about seeing how ads develop. How they’re made, and where the thoughts come from, and observing other agencies. I spoke recently to the Association of National Advertisers. So, in front of me were 250 of some the biggest clients: Procter & Gamble, car companies, and technology companies. I spoke about what I usually speak about, which is marketing to women, but I used the occasion to bring up two issues. One has to do with women within their companies and how free they feel to speak up as clients and say “This is stupid” or “This is wrong.” Do they feel they can do that without marginalizing themselves as advocates for women, at which point they feel that they get a marginalized career path? The other point I made was to look at your agencies’ creative departments. Who’s running them? And find out what women are on your account. And don’t let them bring in junior producers and say, “Here’s the women on your account,” because they’re not the ones that call the shots. It’s a huge issue in agencies that you’ll see lots of women running them and they get a whole lot of hoo-hah and a lot of women in media and a lot of women in account management and even planning, but creative tends to be a male playground.
Yes. This is something that did come up at the conference, in fact. Everyone kept asking the question, why? Why do you think it is that creative departments are still male?
I think a few things. Like hires like. Right now, if you were to put the pictures up, especially of the “hottest” creative agencies—and they are the ones that get the attention—their ads are the ones that you see on the Super Bowl. Their ads are the ones that get written up and get awarded. And awards drive creative people’s performance. They really respond to that. Whereas an account person might say it’s the relationship with the client. A creative person would think, “That’s nice,” but what they want to know is that they are recognized by their community as excellent. Look at the judges of creative award shows. If you see 20 judges, I swear to you, 19 of them will be men. And as I said at this conference, surly, irreverent, unshaven, men in black—that’s who they will be! There’s a code of coolness that personifies the creatives. And irony. A kid-ish sense of humor. Sarcastic. Dark. That’s the kind of creative that gets the juices flowing for many creative leaders. Sentiment? Forget it. Truth? Only if it’s funny. So, I’m really painting it with a dark brush here, but I think it’s better than acting like everything’s fine.
So, you have award shows that are judged by these hot creatives. These hot creatives really run the agencies, since they run “the product” that comes out of the agency. And then they look into their ranks and identify the stars. Pretty much, the stars are junior versions of themselves. So the women who are in the agencies—and there are women and they do come into the creative departments, although not as much, and it’s a huge disparity—I think they have a couple of choices. One is that they adopt that sensibility—a coolness, a funniness, an irony. And maybe that’s in their hearts. Maybe they really are that way. Maybe they look at the world sort of off to the side. A lot of creative people’s genius comes from that. Or maybe they just want to fit in. You want to please your boss, right? It’s like working out in a rough gym where everybody starts cursing. It’s the thing to do. You can’t come in and say, “Oooh, don’t do that.” If you’re in the game, you’re in the game. Then they progress based on their ability to deliver more work that is like the work that these guys love to do. It does fall into a mold.
Now, I’m not saying all agencies are this way. If you looked, for instance, at Goodby Silverstein & Partners in California, which has a huge leadership voice in advertising, you’d have to say it’s one of the top, if not the top, agency. They have some women they have identified as stars, but for the most part, it’s pretty male. But they do that beautiful Saturn ad, which is about being different. It’s a very simple, kind, likeable view of the world. They have a philosophy of advertising that is likeable and characterized by real-life truths. So, it can be done. So, it’s not that guys cannot do advertising that women would like as well, but there is still a prevailing old boy/new boy club.
Then, I think, a second thing happens with women. Let’s say they get in. Let’s say they adapt. Let’s say they try to get their voices heard. I think for some of them, their lives come in conflict with the creative life. They have children and they are asked to go on long shoots, which can require you to be out of country for a month. That’s pretty hard if you have a baby. I’ve seen women bring babies on shoots and have nannies and all this kind of thing, but it’s hard. And you’re not supposed to be off with a baby, you’re supposed to be with the client. So, I just think that some women just say, “I’d rather be freelance.” Once you do that, you are no longer in a power position turning out creative. You might be a successful creative person making money, but you’re not going to be driving the boat. Even so, there are some women who have stuck it out. Kathy Delaney at Deutsch is the creative director. Cheryl [Berman, of Leo Burnett], certainly, and she’s a mom. But that agency’s work has a very human sensibility. There are a few.
I hate to say it, but every agency has its culture. I think the creative departments of many advertising agencies have a male-centered culture that you are asked subliminally to adopt. It’s not very female.
Let’s say there were two or three teams working on a woman’s targeted product. There’s something about the way the work is treated when the guy team has worked on the women’s product. There’s kind of an adorable, “Isn’t he cute?” and “Look how funny that is” reaction. I’ve seen offensive things done by what I call the “irreverent, bad-boy creatives” on women’s products. And I watch the women stand by silently and then say, “Oh, well, let’s see what the consumers think.” That is such a cop-out. At Just Ask a Woman, all I do is ask what consumers think. I believe in what consumers think. But I also believe that you have to bring your own character to the table. If you can’t say, “I don’t care what the consumers think, I can’t sleep at night!” you might as well go home. I really think that. So, I still see that there is an allowance given, permission for the kind of irreverent guys who don’t know a thing about women. Why are we condoning this? Why do we think it’s funny? And, of course, when you show it to women, they say, “You have got to be joking.”
But those kinds of ideas shouldn’t have even gotten out of the agency. They shouldn’t have gotten on the client’s desk. That’s your point about the approval. Clients only approve the work they are given. If you don’t give them bad work, they won’t approve bad work. By “bad,” I mean offensive work.
So, I’m just saying that, good or bad, there are these cultural mantles that some people feel they have to adopt, and that there is a guy mantle in the creative departments.
Do you think that’s a recent thing?
Do you think it’s changed at all recently?
Changed for the better or worse, you mean? It’s been this way. I’ve been associated with advertising since late 1986, so that’s 17 years. And during that time, I’ve been a client approving advertising, an agency person, and now I’m invited sometimes to judge agencies’ work. So I’ve been on all sides.
There is sort of this benevolent attitude toward creative people. They are allowed to be, if they want, sometimes, irresponsible. If they want, they can be offensive. It’s all part of “the creative process.” There’s a lot of this. Now, I’m not saying that all creatives are that way, but it’s a mentality. They sometimes behave like children. And there’s a charming, “Oh, that’s the creatives,” as if they don’t have to be business people, or sometimes grown up people! I have to say that I know many times where I feel like I certainly gave them a lot more line than I should have. But you need their talent, and they’ve been nurtured that way by their “other mothers” before you get them. So you can’t all of a sudden slap them upside the head and say, “No more of this stuff.” Unfortunately, they can just go on to another set of foster parents who let them get away with murder.
It seems to me—at least a lot of people have commented to me recently—that there has been, in some areas of the culture, mostly in ads aimed at young men, kind of a nastiness toward women.
It’s like it’s okay to make fun of them.
Or even make threats against them.
What was I reading today? In Adweek, there was something written up that talked about young guys and it shows romantic scenes. Axe, which is a deodorant for young guys, was an example. There was a picture of a guy who’s at a restaurant with a woman, and he’s saying something very sweet and sentimental to her, and then his inner thought says, “If the oysters don’t get her hot, the chocolate will.” It’s a, “Hey guys, that’s the way it really is,” therefore it’s great advertising because it’s true, it’s real. And it probably is real and it probably is true. It’s just that you have to look at the other side and say, “How does that make women feel?” Advertising people, though, they live on that weird line in that, Do they actually influence or reflect culture? So, on the one hand, they can say “This is what’s true and my job is to connect to consumers with their truths in order to persuade them to pay attention to my message.” And the other one is, “Given that I do that, do I have a responsibility as far as the images that I am putting forward that can actually erode self-esteem, potential, or even put young men into a position where they are more aggressive to young women?” This is a huge issue.
I’m teaching right now. I’m a guest teacher for four sessions on consumer behavior in my college in Philadelphia. When I’m with the women by themselves, there are issues among college-age women. Fear of date rape, of threatened violence. I really worry about that. Do messages like that make it okay for men to think of women as something to bat around or make fun of? I don’t know if the folks writing those spots are thinking those thoughts about their responsibilities.
I worked for awhile in a battered women’s shelter, and violence against women on campus is, of course, a very big issue. It’s so salient that it’s hard to imagine that it does not occur to the people who are making these ads.
I think they would not laugh, but they would roll their eyes at this.
You’d get, “Oh, come on. Give me a break. It’s an ad. It’s a joke. They know it’s a joke.” That’s the response you would get. You would not get head-scratching. You would not get, “You know, we thought about that, but we felt blah, blah, blah.”
And that’s from these young men. Not from other people in the business.
I think mostly from young men, but I don’t know. Because where are their managers? Where are the people who sat at the meeting alongside them? Where are the people counseling the major client that this is okay? Let’s just say that the creative team is out to get an award, and the funnier, the edgier, the better. The client, though, has the huge consumer public. Millions and millions of mothers and daughters who they may want to be aligned with. So why, in that room, is there not somebody saying, “Wait. Think”? So that’s why I was talking about women at work, too. It’s both sides. Advertising isn’t just agencies dealing with bad stuff. It’s clients approving. Because once you are handed that ad, just because they gave it to you doesn’t mean that you have to accept it. That’s your moment to say, “Excuse me, I have a daughter.” And that’s what I wish. If I had a wish for men and for women—because women approve these ads, too—it’s that they would, even if they are wrapped up in a moment and the joke and want to be edgy—and believe me, they talk to themselves to the point that they are out in the stratosphere—say, “What about my daughter, who is 12? How would I feel if somebody said this to her?” If we just asked the question, maybe they’d stop.
This is one of the things that came out in the conference in Chicago. It was really a hot button for all of the women on the advertising side—the effects some of this could potentially have on their daughters. This seems to be a little rallying point.
We did some videotaped interviews with women in preparation for a speech I made to the Hollywood TV production community. It was really related more to television programming than the ads. A couple of the ads came up, but it wasn’t about advertising. It was about the kind of programming that is available for mothers to watch comfortably with their children ages six to 13 in prime time. It’s pretty dismal. So, I was thinking, how am I going to convince these Hollywood types who are sitting there with their Blackberries and their sunglasses to think, just for a second, about the effect of having no choice other than Fear Factor or The Bachelorette. So, I interviewed moms talking about their role in family values and creating family values, compared to the way their own mother mothered them. And these women who were in their 30s and 40s were so highly intense about their own role, whether it’s honesty or fairness or just having integrity. I found that the audience [of the Hollywood TV production community], when they watched that tape, I could see them nodding, as parents. Some of them are thinking, “That’s the way I am with my kid. I’m fanatical. They can’t do this, they can’t go there, they can’t watch this.” So, I think you just have to keep bringing it back to them as human beings, because we’ve got to break out of falling in love with these ideas that are, some of them, morally bankrupt. Not all of them, but there are some of them that you just think, “I just can’t believe that.” It’s like, how much can they get away with? The programming is worse, though. I have to say that the programming is worse than the ads, but I know your thing is on advertising.
This thing is about advertising, but personally I do think the programming is worse than the ads.
Well, they’re allowed to get away with more than the ads are. They’re much stricter with the ads.
Most people don’t realize that.
The ads practically have to go through the Supreme Court to get on television. With the programming, they can pretty much say any word they want.
This leads me back to what prompted this whole special issue. I think advertising has been much more of a target on campuses and in the academic literature than has television programming or film. Not that they don’t criticize those other two, but it’s not nearly at the same level in terms of either volume or hostility. A lot of that has to do with the fact that feminism, as it is defined on campuses—which means as it is defined at Barnes and Noble and Borders and all the places that carry those books—is very much identified with Marxism. I find that a lot of women in the ad business don’t realize this. So, it has come to the point where feminists on campuses very often take the position—both in person, like in campus meetings and classes, and in their writing—that you cannot be a feminist and be engaged in a market profession. Now, were you aware of that?
No. I’ve spoken about women at Wellesley, for example, and they purposely send you to classes that are, for example, anthropology, as opposed to marketing classes. As soon as you walk in, you can feel the wave of hostility. You’re there to defend your turf, or to at least help them listen, because their attitude is, “You are bad. You sell things to me.” Of course, my message—and I really believe in this—is, “Because someone is buying something from someone, you are here. How do you think you have a roof over your head? How do you think you wear clothes and went to this college?” Jobs are commerce. Selling is good. I don’t believe greed is good, but we are in a commercial enterprise here. Unless they stop buying every possible thing, they are always engaged in a market economy. Marketing, in itself, to me, is not evil. It doesn’t manipulate you, except at the earliest ages, which is an issue. It’s not as if you were a mindless person, doing things you don’t want to do, unless you are giving yourself absolutely no credit for having strength.
But I didn’t know it had gone as far as that, that you couldn’t be a marketing career person and be a feminist. That’s really a strong line.
Yes. How does that make you feel to hear that?
Annoyed. Really annoyed. In fact, if anything, I would say that they’re sealing the fate of things not changing by thinking that way. Because the fact that I am a feminist, that I am a woman who has been in leadership positions running agencies and running companies, they should want me speaking for them. They should want me in these rooms, because, believe me, I have always been a woman at work. I speak to companies, I speak to men and women in every speech now about not becoming “mini-men,” about remembering what it means to be a woman, and about what you can bring to the party and to the process and to the decisions. So if we sign off, then good luck, let that ship sail, because you’re going to be more disgusted. The only chance is for women to retain their identity and power and diversity. Feminism isn’t just some credo, a book that you read or bought into. I think it’s a way of thinking and behaving and honoring women, but in our own ways, to be able to bring that to work. The other thing is, what isn’t marketing? Marketing is pretty much everything except sitting in a room, designing a computer program, I guess. I’m trying to think—digging a ditch? I don’t know.
Certainly putting your books out at Barnes and Noble is marketing.
Certainly! It is. Book tours are marketing. Web sites are marketing.
But there’s this blind spot about that.
I think that comes from maybe not getting much exposure to marketing. Looking at everything from the outside and painting it badly as opposed to saying, “Come on in, find out what goes on. How could it be influenced if more women like you were in here?”
Which is part of what we are trying to do here with the conference and with the special issue. So far it seems to work really well, because these people, when they get face-to-face, go—
—“You’re not so bad?”
Yes, so it’s kind of nice.
You feel insulted, really. It’s like saying, “You’re unclean.” And after all these years of fighting for women, to find out that women are thinking that? Come on, guys.
This is the reaction that I got from a lot of the women in Chicago. I was actually in the agency business out in California in the 1980s and went back to school in the 1990s, largely because I had children and I was a single mother and couldn’t do the whole advertising game with them. And I was amazed to find this out. I felt like I had been on the front lines all that time—in a non-traditional job, a working mother, the whole business. All of the sudden, I had these 22-year-olds in combat boots telling me that I’m not good enough to be a feminist. It was horrifying. That’s why I wanted to see how you felt about it. Because that resentment and even anger is what I’ve been hearing.
What have they done yet? Twenty-two is just starting! There’s a lot of life to face!
Well, of course, they get it from their teachers.
In this issue, we are going to try to move forward and back from the ‘70s, because some of the material that I’m showing in this is from the ‘70s, and we’re trying to trace a journey of ads, so to speak, and even some of people’s personal journeys.
So can you tell me where were you in 1972? Where were you when the Second Wave hit? Do you remember?
Of course I do. I started college in 1971. I actually transferred, but both schools were the same from the point of view that both had been all male for about 150 years and had just gone co-ed in 1970. So I was the second class of women at the first college, and I transferred to the other. I wanted to go to a co-ed, even though I had been at a huge, huge high school where the girls and boys were separate. I didn’t want to go to a woman’s college. I wanted to go to a co-educational college. And the reason I did is that I knew I was going to be in the world of marketing, public relations, communications, advertising, something like that. Because my mom worked in advertising. I had a working mother and a working grandmother. A long line of that. I knew the world of work was going to be male and female. So my attitude was, I would rather be practicing and dealing and leading among men and women and not just with women. Although, as I look back, it would have been good for me to have more years with just women.
Because the ratio in my second college, Saint Joseph’s in Philadelphia, was 17 to 1, male to female, you [as a woman] were odd (Now it’s easily 50/50). There was one incident at the first college, which I left. It was outside the cafeteria. The boys stood there with placards numbered one through ten, and as you walked in, they would raise the card to rate you publicly in front of everybody. It was 1972, and I was wearing hot pants, boots, a sweater, and a big bulky belt into the cafeteria. That was the look. I had long hair. That’s what Seventeen magazine told us to wear! [laughter] I turned around at the end of the cafeteria line and the entire cafeteria, which was almost all male students, applauded. I was so embarrassed I wanted to kill myself. And you really say, “What am I doing here?” That’s what’s scary and weird. You feel so singled out for something that is just who you are.
The experience for me. . . In some ways, I’d look around and be the only woman, and you think, “This is really weird, I just realized I’m the only woman.”
We had consciousness-raising groups. I can certainly remember that. Which I loved. It was the first experience I had of being with other women and being a woman and talking and crying and railing. It felt good. It really was exciting. Because we were in such a male-dominated school, it had its own flavor. We used to go to some dark room to meet. I think it was the basement of one of the counseling centers. It had this clandestine thing to it. It was great—the otherness of it all was part of it as well.
So I remember. My experiences throughout the ‘70s, going from college, where you felt strong being a woman. I also felt that I was a woman who could deal, because of that experience, with being one of the few women, and wanting to represent women. I always felt that responsibility, that role-model thing. Even when I didn’t deserve to be anybody’s role model, I felt, “That’s our job.”
I graduated from St. Joe’s in 1975. I did really well in school. I worked my way all through school to pay the tuition. My first job was at the college, actually. I worked for three years in PR and fundraising. I was one of the only women on the administration. I was certainly the youngest by miles. I was 21 years old. So again, it was that youngest-, first-, only-woman thing. I wanted to stand tall. My sense wasn’t to shrink. It was, “I’m here! I’m at the table!” and I threw myself into that job, and that became the hallmark or pattern of my career. To be in over my head, to be taking on more, to always be female. I always got along with men, always. But I think it was through over delivery, as far as my performance. And humor. I think if feminists get knocked in the workplace, it’s for being humorless. Men cannot deal with that. It absolutely freaks them out. You have to have a sense of humor. I don’t mean a guy sense of humor, I just mean a sense of humor. So I think that really got me through what became my career, once I got to New York.
I had 10 years at Avon. So, first of all, I grew up in “the company of women,” as I refer to them. You were surrounded by powerful women. They weren’t running the company at that time, as Andrea Jung is now. But they were in vice president jobs, in director jobs, and these were outrageously flamboyant, dynamic women. That was really good for me, because it kept me from being a company clone. You were encouraged. The more different, the more individual you were, the more of your own personality you brought out, the more successful you were at Avon. So, it was great to grow up in that environment. Some people don’t get that. They grow up in a culture that is not like them at all, and they wake up one day and discover they don’t know who they are, and they don’t believe in the culture. I did believe in it, and I did grow, and I had a lot of good male mentors, too. I have always had that. But I’ve had one woman who has been my main one—Diane Perlmutter. She’s just fearless. Very strong woman. Wonderful.
Definitely then, when you were moving into these jobs, you were in marketing, public relations, communications of some sort. And you didn’t see any kind of conflict between doing that and women’s rights?
First of all, I was in the university, and that environment is very pro-woman. So I had three years of that. And the college was becoming more co-educational. By the time I left work there, it was almost 50–50. So there was always this woman thing. In Avon, the whole idea of that company is not so much selling lipstick, it’s selling opportunity. I really believe that. For the women, the half-million Avon representatives, it was a job where they could really make money and be independent and be with their families. All of your every day was about, “How can I help those women?” I was in sales motivation and recognition, which was developing programs that would honor them, give them prizes, send them on trips. It was all about, “How can I make them happy? How can I make them feel good about what they are doing so they would stay with us?” Because they could quit on a dime. If, every day, you wake up and think, “I have a half-million women who are housewives who work—sales professionals, who are grandmothers or teenagers, selling this product and depending on me to tell them the truth”—that was a certain kind of training.
When I became ad director, Avon’s sense of beauty at the time was unusual in the beauty industry, where it was always Revlon glamour. Revlon was the big one then. Cover Girl was strong. The market has changed quite a bit since then, but it was pretty much those two brands. Avon was this good-girl beauty. Beauty from the inside. We were talking about that in 1986. So when we were casting for the commercials, which I was very involved in, we always said they had to have a smile behind their eyes. They had to have a light coming through them. They couldn’t just be pretty and empty. That was my standard for casting. And we cast so many ads! The first campaign that we launched when I was the ad director was called “Look how good you look now.” It was meant to be a salute to women’s achievements and accomplishments. “You’ve got that confidence. You’ve got that smile. You’ve got that Avon look.” It was about look how good you look now. That’s what it was about. “You took the world on. You and Avon.” They’re the kind of lines that we ran. So you had these women triumphantly walking in, and, sure, they were beautiful, but they looked happy, healthy, strong, and they were doing things. It was very diverse. So there were just a lot of messages that we were doing that I feel really proud of. I don’t look at that and say, “Oh my gosh, I was making women feel bad for being...” I wasn’t. It was really beautiful! And that continued. Up to 1988, there I was in this world of women, and focusing either on the Avon representatives and managers, helping them feel good about what they were doing, or the advertisements, which were aimed at consumers to say, “You are beautiful. We love you.” If you ever saw a reel of Avon work, you’d be amazed at the messages’ consistency.
But, then I switched into a whole other planet, which was going into the advertising world. In 1989, I started what was a 10-year career in an advertising agency. Whole different thing. All men in charge. I was at the first agency for two years. I was the only woman on their male management board group. I worked on women’s accounts. Of course, they give you the chick thing. Waldenbooks wasn’t a chick thing, but the client was a woman. They wanted a woman. I’ve gotten a lot of my jobs because they were looking for a woman. To which I said, “Fine. Maybe you wanted somebody tall?” I don’t know. So, I worked at Ally & Gargano for two years. And I worked on the Jergens account. The client was almost all male. We did have a female creative director, though. She, unfortunately, butted heads quite a bit with that client, and my job was to be referee between the client and her. She was the one who wrote, “I don’t want to grow old gracefully.” Remember that great Olay campaign? I found then that my role became, “How to make the right thing happen in the context of an environment that is not necessarily caring about the right thing.” I do believe that, for me, that was the first experience of the editing role that you have in that job. Even if the client asked for it, I would say, “We can’t show that. That’s embarrassing. That’s stupid.”
And how would they respond?
Once in while, they would say, “What do you mean?” And I would be as straight as I could about, “It makes me feel this way.” They’d say, “Oh, other women won’t. . . “ [And I would say] “No. Let’s not talk about other women here. It’s us. It’s me. I can’t do this.”
When I got to DDB Needham. . . Keith Reinhard, who runs it, is probably the most evolved man you’ll ever meet. Even with that evolved male leadership at the top, you can get a culture, a creative culture particularly, that’s very guy-ish. Guy-ish in the negative sense of the word, not the positive. I remember they were pitching the Maidenform account, and I had never been on that business before—even though I knew I could be, just because I feel that I’m a salesperson, which I don’t think is a bad thing. I said, “I’d love to be on this pitch,” because I wore Maidenform bras at the time, and I “get it.” And they said, “No. We have it all taken care of.” And “we” were all men. There were six men pitching a female client, Maidenform, whose advertising, if you can remember, was always very feminist. They’ve been honored quite a bit for that, you know. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even know what I would have brought to the picture. I just knew that it would be true. At least I could speak up or raise my hand. So, getting in the room is important. And up until then, I hadn’t been in the room.
When we had the Clairol account, we did some of the most wonderful pro-woman advertising for Clairol. There’s a woman, Phyllis Robinson, who wrote, “It lets me be me.” Which I think was a ‘70s line for Clairol Nice ‘n’ Easy hair color, but so “of the times,” and still the way you want to feel if you’re going to do something. “Lets me be me,” is a fabulous, fabulous line. That’s the kind of stuff that DDB had done. And we were competing to keep the business. We were still doing good work, and I don’t know if it was as wonderful as Phyllis’ line, but we had a lot of great lines on the table, and I had dozens of teams working to keep the Clairol account. Men and women. But they were listening to me: “Is this right or is this right? Is this too edgy or is it too that?” And we lost to another agency.
And I’ll say this, because it just really bugs me. We had the Clairol highlighting account, Frost and Tip. We talked about your personality “highlights.” That was the idea that we were playing with. Which might be cliché, and I guess wasn’t exciting enough, because the other agency’s idea was, “Turn on your headlights.” Now, I looked at the client, who was a guy, and said, “Do you know what that means?” And he said, “No, what are you talking about?” I said, “Headlights are breasts, really. Turn on your headlights? Oh, my God. What are you thinking?” “Oh, I don’t know. It’s kind of funny, though.” It was one of those moments where you are, like, “I’m sorry. We’re not doing that.” We lost it, and I don’t feel bad about that.
Now, on the other hand, sexy works if you look at Herbal Essences, which is, if not the number one, then the second-most-successful hair care line in the world now. Based on the orgasm. So, again, some women might look at that advertising and say, “Oh, I hate that advertising, it’s so this, it’s so that.” But women’s response to it has taken Herbal Essences from a retro bring-back product in about 1996, to be the global leader in hair care!
On that campaign?
Yes! So I don’t know what to say about that. It seems that women love it, that they think it’s funny, they think it’s camp, and they get it. Young women. 18-to-24-year-olds is where all the shampoo goes pouring down the drain. They buy way, way more than anybody else. From a business point of view, that’s quite a success. But from a feminist point of view, you might hear from a lot of women who don’t like it. Even from women in advertising.
Even though it was successful.
Even though it’s successful. From a sales standpoint and an awareness standpoint, they have skyrocketed. At some point, everybody has to bring their own judgment to what they do.
You have to live with yourself about it.
One of the things that struck me when I was reading your book was remembering things I had read—I do a lot of historical work—about people like Rena Bartos.1 The kind of work that she and others had to do in the early ‘70s just to get marketers to recognize that women were a serious target. It was really interesting to me, looking at this and thinking “Now a firm has been designed just to do this.” So, could you speak to that a little bit?
The amazing thing to me is that Rena’s work was trying to get people just to wake up. It was the late ‘70s, when everything else was happening. There were, as there always will be, I think, women in the business who wanted to take on the mantle and the leadership role for women’s messages. It faded out, somewhere I guess in the late ‘80s and through the ‘90s. I think that happened for two reasons. One, it wasn’t so much that marketers “got it.” It really wasn’t. It was that women at work had spent so much time making the case that they were the same as men in order get fair pay and promotions. “We’re the same; we’re no different. We do the same job as everyone else. Don’t look at me differently. We’re the same.” If you start doing that, then it’s, “Why are we needing to study women as being different? You’re telling me that they’re the same.” I think that was one of the reasons. Also, some of the economic models of these agencies were not viable. That will always be, whether somebody stays in business or not.
I started this [company] in 1999. Which, on the one hand—isn’t that late to be starting a marketing-to-women agency? And, on the other hand, it just seemed to be the exact right time. The reason I thought it was time again is that, starting about maybe 1997, I noticed women’s conferences coming back. Fortune did their whole thing about the most powerful women. I was, and still am, involved in the Matrix Awards for New York Women in Communications. I felt that women seemed to be starting to come out to say, “We are different. And we like being women.” As businesswomen, for them to say that out loud, to enjoy being together, was a whole new thing. Given that feeling, I enjoyed that community of women so much that I thought, “I love women. I enjoy mentoring them. I enjoy listening to them. I think they’re funny. I think they’re smart. I think they have so much to say.”
And yet, after having run the last agency I had, where I was CEO, I still felt like companies weren’t really listening to women—otherwise you’d have lots of commercials you loved. That’s all I can say. If women are there, you’d think it’s all taken care of. There should be women’s music in commercials and humor and that nuance that makes you go, “Oh, I got it! It’s so true!” And there isn’t that. It’s wallpaper, plainness, the sameness, the flatness.
And I was at a point in my life where I said, “This corporate life isn’t doing it for me anymore. I’m stepping away from it.” I took five weeks sabbatical. I did some real soul-searching and came back and said, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I have this idea. I want to focus on women and focus on what I love to do.” And we would become the premiere interpreter of what women would want in the marketplace today. That was my goal. To be the most compelling interpreter. I think “compelling” is important, because I wanted to say and learn what we learned in a way that would force and cause change. Not an assembler. People don’t need more statistics. That just generates more “Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s nice.” But that doesn’t make anything happen.
So the company—as I created it, has continued to grow—is a combination of two things. One is the consulting, the research, the insight-getting. So, I’ve been interviewing thousands of women so that companies will get it right with them. That is the goal. So, if they’re selling a drug, I want to know what it does and want her to say what hurts, how it works, what language appeals to her. Whatever it is. That part has been fun, because it’s learning, learning, learning, and then telling the truth to the companies. The women’s truth. All my currency is women’s truth. The other part of it that I thought was just as important and that I keep expanding now, is the creation of media and content from what I’m learning. So that’s why I started writing women’s magazine articles about balance and stress and my own quitting. The speaking that I do all the time now about this subject. Because I am a compelling speaker, people listen. I can get people to pay attention and they laugh and they get it, and they come up to me saying, “Oh my God, now I get it.” That’s what I’m looking for, is that “aha,” dawning moment. I wrote the book. Now I’m going to be writing another book, actually, more about finding the time to create your new life. To me, I look at the whole combination of being a woman and working in communications. The gift of that is the platform from which to try to do the right thing in the job and to get the messages out.
That’s an interesting way of putting it, that the “gift is the platform.” You do have a compelling personality and style—I will give you that feedback! So, I think you have maybe a little more of a platform, but a lot of these women in the agency business do have a platform and look at it as a gift.
Since you’re talking, as you are, to 3,000-plus women, one thing I wanted to ask you about is this: A lot of times in feminist criticism of advertising, there is an assumption that the woman reader or viewer is not really bright, or, as you said earlier, doesn’t have much strength, or even cognitive ability. Diane Barthel, for example, in Putting on Appearances,2 talks about how they process ads as consumers “unconsciously.” Naomi Wolf wrote, in The Beauty Myth,3 that ads produce in their viewers a “raving, itching, parching product lust”—that’s my personal favorite.
Wow. That’s giving ads more credit than they deserve!
Exactly. I’d like you to respond to that, having talked to an awful lot women about how they respond to ads and to product messages. How real is that kind talk?
I have to push women to talk about ads. Ads do not make or break a woman’s day by a long shot. It’s barely on her radar. If you were to ask women about marketing issues, they’re going to talk about retail. They’re going to talk about when they buy it and the usage of it and the word of mouth that they hear. Who else is using it, whom I trust. My friends, what they are doing. How it works for me. In my life. Where I bought it. Were they good to me? Do they have good customer service? Good follow-up? That’s the stuff that they love to talk about and that they have a lot of opinions about. The ads? I almost have to turn to them and say, “Do you remember any ads about this?” “Oh maybe that one or that one.” They laugh about it.
Where ads used to be stridently offensive 20 years ago, now they’ve moved into “wallpaper land,” where they’re neutral. Now, occasionally, I do see ads where I think, “That’s really great,” or “That’s really fun.” I always try to keep a pad of paper by the TV, because when I see them, I always think, “Remember that one. I’d like to show that one.” Like Mass Mutual. They have that wonderful ad about “never kissed a frog, never had to.” So, there are ads out there that actually are nice. Then there are the ones that treat women like they don’t have a rational brain. A lot of advertising treats men that way, too. I don’t think that is just a woman thing anymore. If anything, there has been commentary, and I agree with it, that if you look at most advertising, the guys in the ads are losers. They’re fat, they’re stupid, they’re couch potatoes, they’re, like, barely Neanderthals. If anything, women are less so that way now. I think that has changed. I really do.
Do you think that women are skeptical about ads?
Oh yes. Because they don’t get their information just from ads. The best thing ads are doing for them is, maybe—if it’s a funny one, it’s entertaining, or if it’s something they’ve never heard of—awareness. But as far as depth of sale, or information, or credibility, they’re not getting it from ads. They’re getting it online. They’re getting it from their friends. They get it from trying the product themselves. So, I think they’ve placed ads in their rightful place. Advertising doesn’t wrench their soul. It really doesn’t! They’re too busy! Unfortunately for the advertising industry, between Tivo and remotes, and their schedules in general, they are tuned out. Even when they watch TV, let’s face it, they are so tired. It’s like a wash over them. It’s, like, Lifetime is successful because it’s like comfort food. Whether you like it or not, in terms of programming, it plays the role the medium plays for them right now in their lives. Just give me some mashed potatoes, please, and at the end, let me feel something.
Because they are just so exhausted.
They don’t need more stimulation.
That was another thing that struck me, reading your book. It was this business—and I’ve seen this also in other consumer behavior research—of women trying to do too much and having so much put on them. Of course, one of the things was that—if you look again at the journey since the ‘70s, there was a big push to get away from the housewife and to show women as working.
Right. I can bring home the bacon.
Exactly. And that was seen as a very progressive thing at the time. I actually remember it feeling inspiring to see women in suits and stuff on TV.
The Avon commercials were like that. You saw women in a suit with a baby.
But the feminist critique would suggest that this sort of Superwoman model that emerges from that, the person who does it all, has this downside.
So, do you feel like that’s any fault at all of the advertising?
I think it would have been at first, in the ‘80s, which is where I remember a lot of that. And probably still now. Again it’s hard for me just to focus on advertising, because I think it’s from all of the media images that we get. But even in advertising, I still think we see stereotypes. The new frontier right now is computer technology ads. We’re sheep. To me, every heroine of a technology ad is a 28-year-old Asian woman with her hair pulled back and tortoise-shell glasses, and a very narrow suit with a button-up shirt. That’s central casting. When did that happen? All of the sudden, that’s us. And if she has a kid, it’s a very-well-behaved-by-the-way kid. I think the picture has probably been in front of us now for 20 years. Even with women stepping away from corporate life. Even with women making other choices. I think we’re still holding that myth of having it all somewhere in our heads. Advertising certainly contributed to that for a long time.
Again, if I look at themes, looking at commercials as I do, usually what they will show now is the mom being more down-to-earth. When stuff goes wrong in her house, or when she’s driving the kids around in the SUV, she makes a joke, or she’s a little less concerned that everything be perfect. I think there is a lot of that now. Because you can’t listen to women and make ads and not include the humor, the eye roll, and the, “Hey, it’s not a big deal. I’ve got bigger things to do than my laundry.” We have moved, at least since 1995, past taking that image so seriously.
A lot of feminist criticism is built on a Freudian basis and makes a lot of attributions of embedding sexual images—
Oh, God! You mean the ice cubes, that whole thing?
Yes, that whole thing. But in supposedly more sophisticated ways. There are subliminal cues. Most of a sexual—but not necessarily of a sexual—nature. This stuff is still very much—
I think there are overt cues now. I don’t think they are subliminal anymore. I never thought so. I think that’s really, someone’s got too much time on their hands.
Have you ever been in a meeting where somebody said, “Let’s put a subliminal phallus in this ad”?
Never, never, never.
What would happen if somebody said that?
Well, it wouldn’t be subliminal once they told us, so I think they’d have to sneak it in to see if we noticed it!
I have been in meetings where I’ve heard, “Let’s push something as far as it can go.” In fact, I worked on a fragrance at Avon. It was 1986, with the director who did 9 1/2 Weeks, Adrian Lyne. And the scene was very film noir. And here I was, like Sister Mary Louise from Philadelphia, coming in to be the supervisor. It was about a couple in a hotel room, at this very late hour, tux-coming-off moment, and she had this black dress that kept falling off her shoulders. Would you say it was subliminal that the guy eventually crawled across the floor to her and fell face first into her lap in the end while she laughed? I call that overt, actually. That was my first experience with it, and I, myself, was wrapped up in that commercial. When we came back, we showed it that way, with the guy falling in her lap, and the woman who was the head of sales at Avon at the time, Phyllis Davis—she was appalled! She said, “Mary Lou, have you lost your mind? What is the matter with you? This is Avon! This woman, this is horrible!” And I have to say, I was thinking, “Oh, my God. What have I done?” What I had done was I had tumbled over to the dark side, because you were there, it was California, it was this fancy director. See, that’s what happens! You get sucked in!
The overt things are what you find in the ads now. There are some literally “penis-on-purpose,” I call it. It’s a figure in the ad. I wish I could think of some right now that are out there that are really obvious. Subliminal, to me, that gets back to this manipulative person, this Martian that landed on earth with really bad genes. It’s not that. I think it’s regular people who have gotten a more bawdy sense of humor and edgy thing. And if a show like “Coupling” is running, with the word “penis” as every third word, if you start thinking of your ads, that gives permission to push it.
The high-end fashion industry glories in this. Some of the ads are horrible, with the man standing on the woman with his shoe on her chest. Or the woman really looking dead. Or the scene of three women tangled in bed with high heels. That is advertising to shock. So I don’t think it’s subliminal, I think it’s, “How overt can I be until you say, ‘How can they do that? Stop!’”
I did want you to talk a little about this business in your book about women and their relationship with their image in the mirror. That, of course, is a hot topic. It’s also one, as a woman, of course, I relate to.
I think many women have two 100-percent beliefs, if that’s possible. One 100-percent belief is, “I am who I am.” I am the sum of my experience, my love, and my life, and it’s who I’ve become. The inner-beauty thing, the self-esteem, and all that, I think media has been nurturing us toward that a lot. And Oprah gets the award for leading women to focus on what’s inside that counts. At the same time, you look in her magazine, which I adore, and there’s the whole “things to buy.” It’s always related to external treats. And if I look at my own self, it was great to be at my birthday party in a strapless dress, and look sexy and feel, “Hey, this is what 50 looks like!” I think a lot of woman do care about that. I think we want both. We want it because it makes us feel good, because other people tell us things that make us feel good about ourselves.
Women are hungry for compliments. They don’t get them. Some of them might say, “I don’t need to hear what anybody thinks about me!” I guess you live alone. I really think that it really feels good to have somebody say, “Cute shoes,” “ I love your hair,” or just the littlest thing. It’s not that it breaks you or builds you up. It’s just that life’s rough, you know, and I think having somebody, like, take some little edges off—because the external is not a bad thing. I think that women do look at other women. I know that they do. I don’t think that. I know it. They’re paying attention to things like that. It’s not a bad thing. I don’t know why we do it, but you’re taught from when you’re little that you’re pretty. A mother tells her little girl, “You’re so pretty,” instead of, “You’re so smart.” So, you can’t have 20 years of coaching like that and just throw it out the window. And then you wait for your boyfriend to tell you that “You’re so pretty.” And then society and the workplace to tell you that you’re attractive, and somehow it’s nice to be around. I think Myrna Blyth said this to me: “There are three stages of a woman’s life: There’s young age, there’s middle age, and there’s ‘You look so good!’” So we’re all hoping that the “You look so good!”-part is going to play out for us, so that when you’re 80, they’ll go, “You look so good!” What’s the alternative? “You look so old?” “You look so bad?” “You look so unattractive?” Let’s think about it.
It’s as if we put our minds in the ozone when it comes to beauty. We still buy into a lot of the images that are impossible to achieve, no matter how much we know. We can’t stop looking at those images of perfect, svelte, fit women. And it’s even harder when you are older, because then, you are really asking a lot of your body. You’re asking for it to have done all the things that it has done, and still look like 19. And yet, I don’t know how to make that go away. You could say, “Why not have images of people who are old, neutral, and absolutely have no appeal one way or the other,” and then maybe we won’t have any problems. That’s not true. Look at the girl down the street. “Look how pretty she is, I wish I were like her.” I think it’s a human thing to want youth. It’s sad to me, I have to say. For many women, it’s true.
I mention this in the book. When I interviewed some women and asked them, I gave them a choice: “When were you, are you, or will you be your most beautiful?” They could pick whatever they wanted. Most went to “were” and they put it in the past. Even young women put it in the past, and that was very sad to me. That the 21-year-old would say, “I was my most beautiful when I was 17, and I will not be that beautiful again.” That shocks me. So, I think we’re awfully hard on ourselves about what is beautiful. We have huge expectations. Sure, the media certainly does contribute, too, but so do the people in our lives.
You told a story in the book about giving women some choices of other pictures, and they didn’t want the realistic pictures.
I think someone on the outside might say, “Show us real women. Show us with wrinkles and with some pounds.” You go, okay, here’s a list. Who are the funny people in Everybody Loves Raymond? It’s Marie, the mother. It’s also the wife, who’s no bombshell herself. And then, in Will and Grace, it’s Karen. She’s got the best part, and she’s big. So, the funny thing is, when it comes to what we consider real life or simulated real life—which is what television programming is, I think—I accept and embrace all different body types, looks, and even love them. But when it comes to advertising associated with a product that you are buying for a beauty reason, it’s a different game. Because, in household cleaning, you have some women who are big. There’s the African-American woman with the orange product. She’s pretty funny. And then there’s Star Jones on PayLess. There’s also Queen Latifa on the Cover Girl ads right now. Great. That’s a breakthrough. We like to see women who look as if they used the product. And so, if I use it, I will get the result of looking like her. So, if you are doing that transference, if I show you a picture of somebody unattractive, you would think, “Why would I buy this to look like that?” But here’s Queen Latifa, who I think is very attractive, has beautiful skin, but she’s a big woman, and she’s dancing with those skinny models. To me, she makes those models look pretty boring. She looks great. She’s who I want to look like. That is brilliant for Cover Girl to do that. That’s Procter & Gamble. I would encourage women to watch what’s happening in some of these places like Procter & Gamble, where they take these things very seriously. Oh, my God. You want to talk to people who worry about women and honor women like crazy? Talk to them. That kind of casting is deliberate, and it’s an example of that crossover moment where something is going to change.
Another example is using pregnant women in ads. I wrote that when I wrote the book. I originally had a sentence there: “Why do no beauty companies use pregnant women in their ads?” And then I had the chance to change it in March before it went to press, because out came Burberry Touch fragrance, out came Oil of Olay body wash, both with pregnant women. You could see pregnant women in orange juice commercials, you could see them in insurance commercials, but you didn’t see them in a beauty commercial. And yet, women would tell you that pregnant is when they are at their most beautiful. So these kind of gestures need to be recognized, because it’s very easy to look at the whole industry and say, “Nothing is happening. It’s the same old stuff. It’s really bad.” To make criticisms like that, you had better be doing your homework. You had better be watching a lot of ads, and that’s what I do. You can take names on the bad ones, but be looking for some good ones, and you’d be surprised. If you see them, tell those companies, because they might need a little reinforcement up there, because they might be being told, “You’re an out-of-it, old fogey, and this isn’t cool and this isn’t hip.” They need to hear from women, “That resonates with us.” That’s women’s responsibility, to make their voices heard, and they have no idea how powerful they are. A few letters to the CEO—it gets action. It really, really does. Because, otherwise, the CEOs just hear from the agency people, and they charge them with, “Make me cool.” So what can you expect them to do?
In 1999, after 20 years in sales, marketing communications and advertising, Mary Lou created Just Ask a Woman - a strategic marketing consultancy, specializing in new ways of listening to women and interpreting their needs for major corporations. Mary Lou interviews women for clients like General Motors, Lifetime Television, Johnson & Johnson, CitiGroup, Toys R Us and Esté Lauder. Her on-the-road interviewing process provides insight and inspires her writing for magazines such as Redbook, Marie Claire, MORE and Good Housekeeping.
Mary Lou started her career at Avon Products. During her ten years there, she succeeded as a motivator and sales coach to half a million Avon representatives and ultimately as the company’s director of advertising for the U.S.
In 1989, Mary Lou built a new career in advertising agency leadership - at Ally & Gargano and then at DDB Needham Worldwide. Her ability to respond to clients’ strategic issues and her talents for winning new business landed worldwide accounts with Johnson & Johnson skincare, Seiko watches and assignments from Clairol and the NY State Lottery. Her track record led to being recruited in 1994 as the first female president, and a year later, CEO, of N.W, Ayer & Partners. There she led teams to win the global accounts of Avon Products and Continental Airlines, as well as U.S.West telecommunications.
AWNY named Mary Lou Advertising Woman of the Year in 1995 and in 1997 New York Women in Communications recognized her with the Matrix Award for Advertising. Mary Lou serves as a board member of her alma mater, Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and holds an MBA from Fordham University. She also received an honorary Doctorate from Alvernia College in 1996. In May 2002, Mary Lou was named to the board of directors for 1800Flowers.com. Mary Lou speaks nationally to audiences about life/balance issues and marketing with women.
1. Rena Bartos. 1982. Moving Target: What Every Marketer Should Know About Women. New York: Free Press.
2. Diane Barthel. 1988. Putting on Appearances: Gender and Advertising. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
3. Wolf, Naomi. 1991. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. New York: William Morrow.