Can female-focused marketing make a comeback?

Specialists in marketing to women join forces as women's buying power -- and dissatisfaction with advertising -- continues to grow

The debate goes back more than a decade: Do female consumers require such different marketing and advertising approaches from the "general market" to require specialists — freestanding agencies or divisions or teams within agencies?

The Marketing to Women (M2W) movement arose in the early 2000s, as new economic and demographic data showed that women’s buying power had become greater than men’s and would continue to gain share in the ensuing years. Nevertheless, the vast majority of women (91 percent, according to an oft-repeated piece of research) was not happy with the way advertisers marketed to females.

With her efforts to identify and band together Marketing to Women specialty agencies around the world, Bec Brideson, founder and executive creative director of Melbourne, Australia-based Venus Communications, hopes to revive that conversation and perhaps take it to the next level.

Ten years after she founded her M2W agency, though, Brideson was frustrated because, as she saw it, marketers continued to stereotype, exploit, disrespect and overlook women, while M2W specialists seemed to have made little progress.

Earlier this year, Brideson did some research to identify other M2W specialists, conducted a survey of them, and formed the Global Marketing Women network to begin to share best practices and join forces to advance awareness and acceptance of the M2W discipline.

"Together, I hope we can share intelligence and create more professionalism around our specialization. And, in doing so, we’ll create the legitimacy for things to change," she told Campaign.

Specialists say, "Time hasn’t come"

Brideson identified 60 female specialist agencies across the United States, Europe and Asia, estimating that the number of M2W agencies had increase tenfold since 2003-04. Almost half of that group responded to her survey, from which an 18-page report was written with a title that foreshadows its results: "Marketing to Women: An Idea Whose Time Hasn’t Come."

Forty-eight percent of respondents, who were anonymous, answered the question, "How well do you think the marketing community understands the female opportunity?" by choosing the statement "They are open to the idea, but slow to take it up." A quarter of the M2W specialists reported that marketers’ understanding was poor, largely ignored or underrated, and 16 percent said marketers needed "a lot" of convincing that women are different consumers from men. When it came to their industry peers, three-quarters of M2W agency leaders felt their specialization was understood only a little or not at all.

 "There’s still an issue between marketers and women," says Linda Landers, who started her firm Girlpower Marketing nearly nine years ago and is one of the respondents. "I’ve done surveys and focus groups with women, and it just keeps coming back to them being very unhappy with the way they’re being spoken to."

When it comes to the discussion about M2W specialty agencies, Landers’ view is that Girlpower Marketing has full-service capabilities and, therefore, should not be pigeonholed as only a female-oriented shop.

Landers observes that the M2W movement may have lost momentum during the recent years of recession, but, because the expertise is still needed, it has a future, as well. "Bec Brideson’s attempt to bring people together is something new," she says. "This is just the beginning of us trying to see what we can do together."

Facilitating change from within

Kat Gordon founded the M2W agency Maternal Instinct in 2008 and The 3% Conference, which is dedicated to advancing the careers of female creative directors, in 2010. "I started the conference was because I was horrified by the way women were being marketed to, the lack of respect, the lack of understanding," she says. "But, as much as I support what Bec Brideson is doing, and as much as I have been banging that same drum for the longest time, I’m not sure having specialty agencies is the answer."

While Gordon doesn’t believe the M2W disconnect has been solved, she has decided to try to tackle the issue by bringing ad agency and marketing people together in a forum that educates them on the economic opportunities behind the M2W approach and helps get more women into creative director roles. With some 90 percent of creative directors being male, "the skew is just so enormous that there’s no way a group of creatives that looks that homogeneous is going to have enough insight into what it’s like to live life as a woman," she explains.

Gordon notes that it’s easier to get advertisers and marketers to recognize and address their M2W missteps today because social media has given female consumers a voice they never had before. "Social media is the missing accelerant. There’s a public shaming factor that’s now working in favor of [better] marketing to women," she says.

Mullen launched an M2W specialty practice, Frank About Women, in 2002, and after four years as a freestanding entity it was integrated back into Mullen.

"The focus on marketing to women remained intact, but some of the resources started to be absorbed within Mullen overall," says Shaun Stripling, SVP, CMO and head of Frank About Women. "We now have a seven-person team running Frank About Women and about 30 cross-discipline leaders infused across every department who contribute on a regular basis with thought leadership, white papers, ethnographic research and the like."

Like Gordon, Stripling says social media has played a role in reigniting the debate about how marketers and advertisers should approach women. "Women have more voice in the dialog now. If they’re feeling left out, women now have the opportunity to talk about it through social media and other tools," she said.

However, based on Mullen’s experience, Stripling questions whether freestanding specialty agencies are the ideal solution to M2W problems. "When you bring in an agency partner, it gets clunky,  you have to figure out who gets billed for what, and it’s never as fluid as you like," she said. Because Frank About Women sensibility is built into all of Mullen’s work through its internal experts, Stripling sees it as a differentiator that would be hard for other agencies to duplicate. "Marketing to Women is a philosophy we live and breathe at Mullen," she added.

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