The 10 Essential Advertising People of the Year: No. 10 Lisa McKnight

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The woman behind Barbie's long-overdue makeover gave the industry its first big female empowerment story in a year that wanted more of them.

For better or worse, 2016 was a landmark year in advertising, with enough controversies, crises and breakthroughs to fill a decade. To mark its conclusion, Campaign US is highlighting 10 people we believe are essential to understanding the year. We will be counting down our choices starting on Dec. 9, with our No. 1 most essential person revealed on Dec. 22. Click here to see the list as it is revealed.

Until this year, Barbie looked like she could double as Don Draper’s secretary (pre-Dawn Chambers). But the relentless criticism of parents and feminists, not to mention years of declining sales, can be strong forces for change.

Enter Lisa McKnight. In January, Mattel's SVP and global brand manager for Barbie led the unveiling of three new body types for the formerly slender, blonde doll: tall, petite and curvy. Barbie was also given flat feet (she previously wore heels) and various skin tones, facial structures, hairstyles, hair shades and eye colors. 

"Some people have seen her as polarizing, they didn’t see what the brand stood for, and it wasn’t reflective of their values," McKnight told USA Today. "So we went back to our heritage and the origin of the brand."

And the crazy thing is, it worked. Barbie’s sales rose 23 percent in the second quarter, breaking eight consecutive quarters of double-digit declines. Much of the credit goes to the newly designed body types, which received 5.6 billion media impressions, according to Mattel. But that was only part of an overal shift in marketing strategy that put female empowerment at the center of the brand.

In 2015, Mattel launched the "You can be anything" campaign, via BBDO San Francisco, which features girls using Barbie dolls to dream about career success. Barbie also ran for President again in 2016, this time with a female running mate (a surprising first). In November, Barbie added plus-size model Ashley Graham to her Sheroes collection, which honors boundary-breaking women like director Ava DuVernay and gymnast Gabby Douglas. 

Had 2016 turned out differently, we might remember the Barbie makeover as an isolated tale of brand revival. But 11 months later, Mattel and McKnight look culturally prescient, having predicted one of the year's dominant themes in advertising, media and politics. In a year when the United Stated nominated its first female candidate for President, but elected a man less admired by feminists than Ken, Mattel's move stands as evidence that brands shouldn't shy away from embracing changing values. 

"We felt early on, for a girl to see it is to be it," McKnight said. "We want to really make sure we’re promoting and telling little girls they can be anything."

Next year, Barbie will start telling little boys they can be anything, too, as Ken is rumored to receive similar upgrades. Mattel EVP and chief brand officer Juliana Chugg promised "more boy products" at the 2016 ANA Masters of Marketing Conference in Orlando, Fla. — and she wasn't meaning Hot Wheels. "We're really working on reducing the gender stereotypes within the toy industry," said Chugg, proving that Barbie is not done with her evolution.