**Statutory warning: This article contains the words “stereotype” and “cliché” a number of times and there are only so many synonyms we could find.
In 2013, Raha Moharrak became the first Saudi woman to conquer Mount Everest. In 2014, Major Mariam Al Mansouri became the first female F-16 fighter pilot in the United Arab Emirates. And, if we move on beyond our obsession with celebrating “firsts”, especially “women-firsts”, there have been several women breaking stereotypes, whether it is to become entrepreneurs or CEOs, in the Middle East and in the world. Consider this: the female population globally was 3.6 billion in 2014, of which 85.2 percent are from emerging markets, according to Euromonitor International’s report titled: The Rising Power of the Female Consumer. Not only do women make up a vast majority of the population, but they are also responsible for making a greater number of purchase decisions. As stated in the book, Your Loss – How To Win Back Your Female Talent, by Christina Ioanni- dis and Nicola Walther, globally, women control approximately $20 trillion in annual consumer spending. In fact, women account for 83 percent of all consumer purchases, including new homes (91 percent), new cars (60 percent) and bank accounts (89 percent).
Yet, when the audience tunes in to TV – or social media – they happen to find themselves targeted by ads representing women in traditional attire performing clichéd activities. So where are the Moharraks, the Al Mansouris and, well, just everyday women, working in private and public enterprise? Is contemporary advertising reflecting women who have more than one facet to their personality; who are more than the idle homemaker or nurturing mother?
“Not yet,” says Ramzi Moutran, executive creative director at Memac Ogilvy. He pins this down to the fact that the regional industry is still relatively young and it will take a while for the market to mature. In fact, Sasan Saeidi, managing director at FP7 UAE, says that the way we talk to female consumers is “absolutely 100 percent” regressive. “Though brands spend an incredible amount of time on research, the final outcome is a cliché because we try to stereotype as much as possible and I think we need to break that,” he says. However, Elda Choucair, managing director of PHD UAE feels that advertising has progressed to reflect these realities. “In the last few years, there has been a significant improvement. I have seen work [as far as] two years back that portrays Saudi women going to the gym or writing poetry at home and not someone who is just stuck in the kitchen,” she says. If such advertising does exist, it’s most likely overshadowed by dozens of other contradictory ads, such as Khoury Home’s ad in Lebanon last year, which suggested gifting women their products – mostly home appliances – instead of chocolates, because chocolates make women fat. Interestingly, the evolution of digital media might be changing the way brands speak to consumers. While the creative and content still incurs the risk of remaining stereotypical, the targeting is usually interest-based and not gender-based, explains Nadine Helal, digital director of Performics Egypt. For example, if “I am targeting a credit card to women, it will be about shopping and discounts,” explains Helal. But isn’t that an assumption based on another stereotype – again – that all women enjoy shopping? “We do a lot of content audits based on what people are searching for. If someone is looking at fashion websites, they are obviously interested in fashion, so I can promote a credit card that’s about discounts and savings [to them],” she elaborates. However, the situation isn’t as straightforward as we try to make it. It might be a question of: does art imitate life or does life imitate art? Greg Shuler, chief talent officer at J. Walter Thompson MENA, says: “Does advertising mimic human behavior in society or does it lead [to] behavioral changes and hence societal diversity? The answer to this ‘chicken-or-egg’ question has been debated for as long as the industry has proven it drives marketing results for clients and their brands. But eliciting an answer may not be as important as getting to grips with the changing consumer mindset and purchasing spectrum of tomorrow.”
While one concern is the clichéd portrayal of women in advertising, another is looking at if they’re being targeted at all, especially when it comes to categories such as banking and finance. Choucair finds this concern totally unfair – going so far as to call it, “shallow” – as she thinks “people in banking, telecom and travel [industries] know the exact profile of their consumers because they have rich data and information [about them]. They have the profile of their customers and they do the work in a way that they think is best to drive their business forward and grow their business”.
The term “women’s issue” has become such a blanket term to represent all social, cultural and economic issues that perhaps the industry – and consumers – need to question if men and women need to be targeted differently. At the end of the day, it’s just about being a consumer, isn’t it? Well, “I believe in ‘women-omics’. I believe that the future is female, the Internet is female, social media is female,” asserts Christina Ioannidis, CEO of Aquitude and chair of the GMR Marketing to Women conference. And it isn’t just Ioannidis. Consumers, brands and agencies the world over are increasingly
focused on revamping the way they talk to women, so much so that it has led to the rise and practice of the term “fem-vertising” – or advertising to females specifically. US-based lifestyle site SheKnows conducted a survey last year titled: Fem-vertising: Women Demand More From Brands. The survey revealed that 52 percent of women buy a product because they liked how the marketer and its ads presented women and 43 percent said it made them feel good about supporting the brand. Additionally, 51 percent of women liked pro-female ads because they felt it broke gender barriers. Naturally, this means that advertising to women specifically is something brands need to focus their attention on, especially given the fact that female-headed households have grown in the Middle East and Africa from 19.2 percent in 2000 to 22.4 percent in 2014, which is not that bad considering the global average is 27.7 percent, according to Euromonitor International’s research.
“It will change really fast in the next few years because [what is currently there] is not working. I don’t think clients are seeing the results they used to see because women don’t relate to it and so are not accepting it anymore,” says Moutran. However, in the process of advertising to women, brands tend to take the emotional approach, which could be considered manipulative if not exploitative. But, as Sascha Kuntze, creative director at Memac Ogilvy, argues, “the very nature of advertising is manipulative. In some cases, it makes sense to purely talk about the product, in other cases, it makes sense to be emotional and find the emotional connection to a product.” In fact, Choucair points out that this “emotional approach” is supported by research. “Studies show that if you have to create an impact for a brand, and because we are human beings – not men or women – if you present a story in an emotional way, or create a story that is more emotional, then it has more impact on the human brain and it sticks,” she says. For Saeidi, it’s not about being emotional, “it’s about being a realist. It’s about understanding the emotions of consumers; men have emotions.” Well, yes, men have emotions the same way that Kanye West has a sense of humor – we’re sure it exists, but it’s just not as apparent in the way one would expect it to be.
Which raises the question if this “emotional approach” really represents a fair field for both genders? On the one hand, men’s advertising tends to focus more on the positive – or at least, societally accepted – emotions and characteristics, such as, confidence, ego, aggression and ambition. Whereas women’s advertising tends to focus more on their insecurities and vulnerabilities about physical appearance, juggling different roles, being accepted among their peers and such. “It’s one of those things that need to get resolved over time. And it’s not just this part of the world, there will be ads that run in the US and UK and they will have some of these elements. Will there ever be a scenario where those sensibilities will not be there? I don’t think so, because at the end of the day, it’s about telling a story, but we can try to stay away from that kind of divide and be sensible and sensitive to that person [consumers],” says Saeidi. For Kuntze, this is a “chicken-and-egg situation. I would love to see less stereotypical advertising just in general.” Moutran, too, feels that advertising broadly needs to be less focused on clichés, be less generic and focus more on an “insight that cuts through and talks to people beyond the old fashioned stereotypes of age or income or geographic location or gender. That’s when you get some good insightful creative or work, and when you get to that, it goes beyond male or female,” he says.
So what is the kind of insightful work that has really cut through? After a lot of pondering, Moutran and Kuntze admire some of Procter & Gamble’s campaigns, such as the Mum platform for the Olympics and Pantene’s foray into what can be called “fem-vertising”, with its “Labels Against Women” campaign in the Philippines. The one that stands out the most globally is Always’ “Like a Girl” campaign, which has garnered 5,644,267 views worldwide in the last eight months. While some may argue that it is absolutely fine to run, throw or fight like a girl, it is definitely not ok to use the phrase “like a girl” as an insult. Choucair warns that not everyone might find this message relevant, but as Moutran points out, “it’s the context of the product, which is targeted at women who are going through this transition and it’s at that moment that they need to be given that confidence that nothing changes before and after.” The video was actually based on a study commissioned by Always that found that more than half of the girls surveyed experienced a drop in confidence at puberty.
Another campaign empowering women in its own way is Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign that has found new ways to refresh its message over the years. Although sometimes gimmicky, the campaigns manage to resonate with women, even though they have “proven to hit an insight which is negative, unfortunately, but the brand has taken it upon itself to make it a positive,” suggests Moutran. Also, the fact that President Obama – through his political speeches – and prominent celebrities, such as Emma Watson – through her #HeforShe campaign – have been championing the cause, has led more people to think, talk and debate – if not act, just yet. Similarly, UN Women’s “The Autocomplete Truth” didn’t have any call to action, but it led people to think and at the very least run a Google search – other than, of course, winning several awards. And as Moutran and Kuntze say, good or bad, as long as people are talking about it, it means that the work has hit an insight and stirred some emotion.
With great power…
Now as advertising evolves, we see brands taking more responsibility, whether that’s in terms of CSR initiatives or being more transparent. Does this also mean that brands need to take it upon themselves to address – if not help – cultural and societal issues? “The Googles, the Apples and the IBMs are bigger than countries now; they’re more powerful and more influential, so with that comes responsibility,” says Moutran, who believes that in the future, brands will have to take on more responsibility, almost on the level of governments and NGOs. Helal feels that brands could tap in on this, gain an insight and almost use it “as a sweet spot and start mixing it [within their communications strategy] either as a national initiative or at a commercial level.” And consumers couldn’t agree more. Some 71 percent of women in the SheKnows survey believed that brands should be held responsible for how they use their advertising to promote positive messages about women. However, when asked if brands should go beyond just selling products to addressing the gender gap in society, Choucair wonders if, before we raise this question, we need to ask if there is a problem that needs to be tackled. Her question might stem from the fact that if there is a problem, she has been very lucky and not experienced it herself. “I think if you zoom out, it balances out,” she says. Definitions of balance aside, does this hold true for every country within the region? “Every country is different, but today everybody has a voice and this is a reality. In Yemen, there are young girls forced to marry at the age of 13. Obviously, this is not fair and we need to create awareness. But this is inhumane so it’s not about gender, but about humanity,” she philosophizes. While, of course, gender inequality in itself is inhumane, it might be worthy to reflect here that it’s the 13-year-old girls forced to marry, not the boys – unless, we are now implying that women constitute the whole of humanity, which might not be as ostentatious as it sounds considering almost half of the world’s population – 49.6 percent to be precise – is female, according to the World Bank’s 2013 statistics. Hu- mane or not – should brands or do brands need to be addressing cultural – more specifically, gender issues? “I don’t think so,” says Choucair. But in Kuntze’s opinion, such brands are going to go out of business very soon. “You [as a brand] need to build a soul and a soul means you need to be a good person – rather, brand – and you need to be more than just your product. And if you have a soul, you need to nurture that; only then will you be able to sell in the future because your product won’t sell itself,” he explains.
Choucair does raise an interesting point, questioning the very idea of freedom for women. “I have heard a lot of women in Saudi completely counter-arguing and finding a different sense of freedom by the fact that they don’t drive,” she says. Ignoring the fact that this is almost a Hobson’s choice, except here the alternative might land you in prison, it is worth considering if women in the region are ready for advertising to start reflecting the modern woman of today. According to Dentsu Aegis’ survey presentation titled “The Female Majlis” – canvassing women between the ages of 20 and 40 in KSA and the UAE – at the Marketing to Women conference last month, “overexposure was a concern addressed solely by Saudi women confessing that overexpression of inappropriate information runs the risk of deviation from more cultural and traditional norms.” In fact, one respondent in the qualitative research says that “exposure to ethics distant from ours can lead to corruption”. This is why, Moutran warns, “we can’t expect it to rush too fast and if we do, we might make too many mistakes and people might get scared”. Ioannidis adds: “The founda- tion always has to be, you are a woman and you love your tradition and your roots and your family. You [brands] cannot touch those [values]. You can say that you are a woman of this region and you are very strong and valued, but you can also be multiple things, such as a coder, or a scientist, or an engineer.” As highlighted in the Dentsu Aegis survey, 86 percent of women said they are very ambitious, but 89 percent said that their family comes before anything else in their career. Ioan- nidis further explains: “Women in Saudi Arabia have aspirations, but their aspirations were ‘I want to do something, but at the same time, I want to be very local’, so one does not exclude the other. No brand has actually gone out there and attempted to shift that slightly, saying ‘we believe in you, we believe in what you represent and we’re going to be here to support you,’ and I also think that, unfortunately, it has to do with their fear of how the local community might react.” Other than the reaction of the local community, Ioannidis points out that brands could also be afraid of offending religious beliefs and getting banned, especially in countries like KSA. Also, some issues might be more relevant to specific countries within the region more than they are to others. And since “most of the advertising here is regional [and not always country-specific], most messages are generic rather than local, so it would be difficult to go into such subjects, which are very intense and can be specific to geography,” says Choucair, adding that it would be unfair for brands to engage in such specific campaigns when the message would be viewed across the Arab world. This is where, Ioannidis suggests, below the line (BTL) and social media activities should play a huge role. “No brand should have one channel. Brands should aim to have a mix; so they can have a regional ad, but then there are activities they do on a local level that are more targeted,” she suggests.
In order to be able to advertise more effectively to women, do we need to have more women in the industry? “There should be more talented people in the industry,” quips Choucair, adding that gender doesn’t matter. Helal feels that, “if you’re wearing the hat of a professional, you should work on everything, although if you’re promoting a feminine product, you do feel part of the target audience.” Interestingly, it is the men in the industry who feel that the representation of women in senior positions is a problem. “How many agency heads do you have that are women? There are a few, but I think there should be more. It’s not as if I think the system is blocking it, but I think there should be more opportunities for women to be in more leadership roles,” says Saeidi. Moutran and Kuntze concede that there is a gender gap – not just regionally – with approximately only four percent women in leadership positions in creative industries worldwide – according to the 3% Conference, women make up only three percent of creative directors in advertising. However, they don’t believe that women necessarily make better advertisers at speaking to female consumers. Kuntze feels that sometimes the opposite is true and it’s not because it’s a gender thing, but because they’re more distanced from the subject. “Sometimes a very young person is better at advertising a financial product that is targeted to 50-year olds or retirees, the same way a woman would be better at selling something to a man, because a man might go for the obvious, instead of finding a new approach,” he explains.
While it seems that women’s presence – or the lack of it – in the advertising industry is not an issue in terms of creating more effective women-centric advertising, it certainly is an issue in terms of their representation in leadership positions. The Global WIL (Women in Leadership) Report 2015 found that despite women representing 40 percent of the global workforce, they account for only 11 percent of board members and senior management positions. Closer home, Euromonitor International found that female employment rates in Jordan, Iran and Saudi Arabia fall below 15 percent. Even when women are employed, they aren’t given equal treatment as evidenced by a 33.4 percent pay gap globally in 2014, with Egypt exhibiting the biggest pay gap of 81.8 percent. It’s clear that the industry needs to act and act soon. The United Nations predicts female incomes globally will lag behind men’s for another 70 years if the gender pay gap continues to reduce at the current rate. However, McKinsey & Company’s 2014 report, titled: GCC Women in Leadership – From The First To The Norm, shows that the average female labor force participation across the GCC is increasing, with Qatar (51 percent), the UAE (47 percent) and Kuwait (43 percent) close to the European level of 40 to 50 percent. Of course, these numbers could be owing to the large expat population in these countries versus the local population. Probably unsurprisingly, KSA – the GCC country with the largest labor force – has the lowest female participation (18 percent) and the highest female unemployment rate.
Saeidi feels that men and women are equal – not physically and emotionally – but in a work environment, in fact women are at times even better. “The way they look at business, the way they look at the qualitative side of managing people…I think they [women] are much better. They also work very well under pressure [especially in our business] and are extremely good when it comes to client management and relationships,” he says. Though Helal says that she has seen women in top leadership positions, McKinsey’s report shows that female representation on executive committees and on boards is less than one percent in the GCC. Yet, interestingly, we do see more women working in the regional public and government sector, and even in the advertising industry, versus the global average seen in these same sectors, as pointed out by Moutran. “I find that there are more women here in the Middle East [in advertising] because the creative industry here is seen as a bit more feminine thing, whereas males want to be engineers, doctors, lawyers or accountants,” he says.
Although by and large the industry – especially men – admits to creating a more conducive model for women to rise, neither genders feel that there truly exists a discriminatory bias – or a real issue. While Moutran debates whether it’s an “actual issue on-ground versus something we are building up in our heads,” Kuntze prefers to call it a “missed opportunity” rather than an issue. “In a lot of fields, there’s no difference in the way men and women work and both do an equally good job. But in the creative industry, because our brains work biologically differently, it’s very fruitful to have a mix because the thinking and approach to problems is very different, so maybe it’s not a problem but it is a missed opportunity,” he elaborates.
Whatever you call it: an issue, problem or missed opportunity, the fact is that the gap exists – in society and in the industry – while the industry struggles to find a plausible reason and solution for it. “If we had the answer, we’d be able to solve it,” states Moutran simply. Kuntze thinks that when it comes to the advertising industry, it has to do with the nature of the job. “It is very demanding, very time-intense, and for biological reasons, such as child birth, it’s very tricky and the industry hasn’t adjusted to that,” he says. But is this a block created by the industry or the very nature of women choosing families over careers when they get to more demanding leadership positions? Saeidi feels it’s both: “There is always that scenario where there will be a drop-out rate, but also, the system is not allowing women to come up as fast as possible.” Helal, who feels that there is an equal balance in the industry – not by sheer numbers but by capabilities – attributes the drop-out rate to convenience rather than societal or family pressures. “A majority of women [today], especially in our industry, are very well educated so it [the drop-out rate] won’t be due to pressure,” she says, adding that “it’s not the fault of the industry, women are just wired that way”.
For Choucair, the circumstances working in the favor of or against women progressing professionally are rather individual and subjective. “If you want to make it happen, you can make it happen. There are so many examples, in the UAE specifically, where there are women in leadership positions. If these people can do it, so can others,” she says, adding that it would take some real research to find out why there is a drop-out rate. And this is where Ioannidis feels there is a divide. “There are women who, when they make it and in order to be successful, tend to absorb and take on behaviors that are very male. It’s not that they’re changing or morphing, it’s because they’ve had to become more like men in their approach and, therefore, they tend to then think that there isn’t a problem for other women. It’s called the Queen Bee syndrome,” she explains. This is also why Ioannidis, along with her co-author Nicola Walther, conducted exactly the kind of research Choucair mentions for their book and asked women who have dropped out to understand why they did so. It turns out women did so because the “culture [of the company] did not align with what they wanted,” she says. As per the book, there is an equal balance of men and women at entry level, but when employees reach middle management, there are 25 percent or less women, with the number dropping to five percent or less as women reach senior or executive leadership level positions. And that’s probably why 21 percent of respondents in the WIL survey think that the best way to ensure that women progress is to offer flexible working, with 33 percent of respondents stating that balancing work and family is the top barrier faced by women.
In an attempt “to move the needle for female creatives in the industry,” J. Walter Thompson’s Shuler says that the J. Walter Thompson Helen Landsdowne Resor Scholarship, a global $250,000 initiative in partnership with the four As (American Association of Advertising Agencies), will assist and promote talented female creative advertising students from around the world. It is a five-year program, broken down into five individual $10,000 annual scholarships and includes benefits such as a paid summer internship, a mentor and a “first look” placement upon graduation. In the MENA region, the agency is partnering with six universities to identify the “very best creative talent coming up through the ranks of undergraduate studies. Those include the American University of Beirut, the American University of Beirut, the Ecole Superieure Des Sciences et Technologies du Design in Tunis,” adds Shuler.
While this is a step in the right direction, for women who are – or intend to be – climbing up the ranks, how does the demanding nature of the advertising industry provide a culture that allows for a better work-life balance and more flexibility for women? Well, “if they’re making it as entrepreneurs, somehow you can adapt the system to make women able to contribute in the way that they can, so it’s about looking at the system and maybe being a little bit more flexible in the way the system is run,” says Ioannidis.
Speaking of flexibility and work-life balance, “I find it extraordinary that people can’t have the same conversation with guys. After all, the last time I checked, it takes two people to make a baby,” retorts Rita Clifton, keynote speaker at the Marketing to Women conference, chairman at BrandCap and board director at ASOS. She also suggests that it’s important for “men to understand the importance of having women in the workplace at every level and then they need to help make it work by playing their own role in their own families, as well as actually playing that role at work to encourage more women to stay at work and to progress.”
Last year, Communicate compiled its list of “women to watch” in the regional advertising industry. But this year, we questioned if, in doing so, we were perpetuating a stereotype. For instance, when Marissa Mayer became the CEO of Yahoo in 2012, the media attention largely centered on the fact that a woman was now leading a technology company. More recently, when British daily The Guardian appointed Katharine Viner as editor-in-chief, most headlines, including in UAE-based Al Arabiya, screamed, “Guardian newspaper appoints first ever female editor-in-chief.” Is this kind of attention celebrating the achievements of women or reinstating the surprise – pleasant or otherwise – felt by many at seeing a woman in a power of position? “To be honest, it’s a double-edged sword. It is perpetuating the divide because you’re making something that should be ordinary [into] something special. I won’t celebrate it as much, because when you do that you’re automatically saying you have an issue, and you’re trying to work harder to say, ‘let’s put this on a pedestal’ because that creates oversensitivity,” says Saeidi. For Helal, these lists are empowering, inspiring and motivating. As WIL’s study states, only 4.6 percent of CEOs of S&P 500 companies are women and questions, “where are the female role models?” At a time when there aren’t enough female role models, these lists could serve as the inspiration young women need. Ioannidis cites the motto of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media: “If she can see it, she can be it”. Ioannidis adds a regional spin to this motto, saying “if he can see it, she can be it” in a bid to show that men in the region need to work as support systems for women to succeed. “We do need to do it [women-only lists]. It’s part of the communications plan that we should have to make sure that we promote the successful women to inspire other women and to also break the stereotypes that men might hold of women’s capabilities,” she says.
For an issue – or non-issue – that covers such a broad spectrum in terms of geography, mindsets, values and tangible problems ranging from societal ones (such as domestic abuse), to financial ones (such as equal pay) to even a basic fundamental right (such as driving), it seems impossible to find a reason or solution. Empowering women is not about emasculating men, taking away their rights, egos or positions, just as admitting the differences between the two genders isn’t about demeaning the other.
However, while it is admittedly obvious that men and women are different – biologically, physiologically and emotionally – the way they are treated, shouldn’t be.