Q&A: Starcom's Amy Kean on her book The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks

The cover of The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks

Having released her debut book, The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks, The Drum talks to Amy Kean, head of strategic innovation for Starcom Global Clients about some of the behind scenes in how the book came to be, and the lessons she had learned from her own career to realise its publication.

Where did the idea for The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks come from?

When I first shared the concept on Facebook a year ago, my old boss Paul [Frampton] commented: “I feel like this has been a long time coming…” He was right! I wrote the book at boiling point whilst living and working in Singapore and it was less an idea, more a really crap epiphany. After 15 years in the industry I suddenly found it funny how – for a creative industry - everyone tries to act the same. Look the same. Say the same bullshit words and phrases.

Years ago, a more senior female at an agency I worked for said to me: “you have two options: you can be yourself, or you can progress in your career.” I’ve never forgotten it and know so many people who’ve been told similar. Being a woman in marketing is tricky because there’s so much personal critique: you’re too loud, too enthusiastic, too informal, too emotional, too nice, too hard on people, too overpowering, not enough gravitas, too much cleavage, clothes too frumpy, A bitch. The amount of times I’ve heard people say about ‘stern’ female bosses: “Oh, she just needs a good shag.” What’s worse is this is often women talking about other women. We’ve forged strict templates and regulate each other’s behaviour in a way that men don’t. The book is the fruit of my frustrations and encourages women to be themselves no matter what, personally and professionally. It’s about how we should support each other more; we don’t always have to agree but we can stop pushing other women down as we clamber for the spotlight. There’s room for all of us to succeed, and for a multitude of diverse, powerful characters.

I like to describe The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks as ‘an ode to everyday bravery’, and being true to yourself is brave. I love this quote from American feminist Gloria Steinem: “Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke . . . She will need her sisterhood.” But sisterhood is not a clique, or a privileged little industry society that women are invited to join, it refers to our behaviours as a social group. We’ll never be truly equal unless we accept and take responsibility for the (sometimes subtle) role we play in allowing inequality to thrive.

How have you used your experience in marketing to promote the book?

From front cover to layout to tone to little rhyming couplets, The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks is a product, and I’ve treated it as such. I created it with social media in mind and it was designed to be shared. When I started writing it, the phrase ‘zero fucks’ was being used more in everyday language and memes, and there were also all these wild dystopian cartoons being shared on social platforms that I loved and used as inspiration.

I knew I had something new to say that hadn’t already been said in the way I wanted to say it. I know my macro and micro-target audiences, and my messaging, and tested these extensively using images and quotes from the book on Facebook ads before we even started crowdfunding. Selling is also about relationships and I’m working with retailers like Blackwells to put on zero fucks parties. From next month, I’ll begin visiting schools to talk about themes in the book: self-esteem, anxiety and building confidence through creativity, which should raise awareness and do good at the same time.

It’s been so fulfilling to achieve something by myself and show that my weird ideas that people laugh at or ignore can become a reality, with perseverance. And something’s working! It’s sold out on Amazon (and all good high street book stores) and was in the top 20 political humour and feminist charts before we ran out of stock, which took four days. More copies become available on 30 November: I hear it’s an excellent Christmas gift and perfect stocking filler for the women (or men) in your life who worry too much about what people think! We now have a website, girlwhogavezero.com which has been made by the lovely people at the agency Tokyo so maybe just whack the URL on your Christmas list.

You crowdsourced the funding - what did you do to incentivise buyers and promote that sales would guarantee it being published?

It’s hard to create a sense of urgency with crowdfunding, especially when people are unlikely to receive the book they’re buying for another twelve months. Unbound allows 90 days to hit your target, but I set myself a personal target of a few weeks, just to get it over and done with. When you crowdfund with the likes of Unbound and Kickstarter you set a variety of different pledges at a scale of cost – I had signed copies, or you could buy the book with a tote bag, or the book and zero fucks badges, you could even buy the book and a poem written just about you – I had to write fifty of the fuckers and it nearly drove me insane.

To begin with, I created a lot of topical social-only content based on themes from the book to reach a wider audience and then retargeted anyone who engaged, with a crowdfunding message. To be honest, that didn’t work very well. So to inspire people to buy fast I decided to make the purchase process itself more fun and created all these little-personalised rhyming illustrated thankyous that I shared on Facebook and Twitter – so that people felt like they were a part of something lovely. Every time someone pledged, they got a public thank you, and it turns out the stats were right: personalisation works. It’s just labor-intensive. Every few days I’d tag loads of people into a poem that tugged on the heartstrings, to show the volumes of existing pledgers and guilt others into doing it, too! Oh yeah - guilt works as a marketing tactic as well. There are less stats on that, though.

There were lots of different methods you used to engage with potential buyers, which were you most proud of?

Good old traditional PR is still alive and kicking and effective! I enlisted my good friend Francesca Rich and the PR agency she works at, Popcorn, to help me out. We wrote a rhyming press release, which is tantamount to rocket science; gifted the ebook to some influencers who raved about it; secured some good reviews of the early version of the book on blogs and I did loads of Q&As and comment pieces. I worked in PR at the beginning of my career, when getting in a printed publication of a magazine with a great news story was still a thing, and I’m extremely grateful that I learned the essentials at a time when the essentials were valued.

The best thing that happened during the crowdfunding process (lesson for brands, here!) which set up me up for the long-term is the feedback I received from strangers, that enabled me to make the product better. A couple of folks suggested the book may come across as quite ‘white feminist’ (entitled, and written from within a cultural bubble) and that was the last thing I wanted. Me and the illustrator Jem then worked extra hard to ensure the characters were diverse and I even changed small stuff like the word ‘mummy’ to ‘mum’ so that it didn’t sound too cutesy middle class. I never said the word ‘mummy’ in real life, anyway. The contents of the book are supposed to make feminism accessible, when sometimes feminism – from a political perspective – is not accessible at all, because it’s very white and middle class.

Why do you think it resonated with so many people before they even read it?

It’s an underdog of a book! It’s fucking punchy! People like punchy! Women like punchy! One of the things that upsets me the most about advertising is how badly brands speak to women. I run workshops at work on ‘how to talk to women’ because our industry gets it wrong, time and time again. When I first pitched the book to literary agents every one of them replied and said “I just don’t see how this will sell…” because people deal increasingly in tropes and trends and have forgotten to ask women what they want. The publishing industry just wants to sell celebrity autobiographies, vlogger annuals and David Walliams books.

And hey, it may be uncouth, or not something you’d necessarily find in a quant survey, but women and girls want to tell the world they give zero fucks, using those exact words. They don’t want to be patronised, made to cry, or feel ‘empowered’. People kept trying to use the word ‘empowering’ when talking about my book – I hate it. It’s one of the most clichéd words we use in the communications industry. Empowerment means “the authority or power given to someone to do something.”Fuck empowerment, you already had permission to speak. It’s waiting for permission that’s the problem, don’t let an advert tell you to be strong!

I intentionally made things hard for myself and started off on the back foot by having a contentious title and using a format that looks like it’s for children but really it’s for adults. It didn’t fit into any existing templates, so it required a great deal of explanation, over-and-over-and-over again. Even now. A minor detail, but I think the fact there’s no asterisk over the letter u on the word fucks made a difference. It’s bold and people liked that, but it’s played havoc from an advertising perspective. Supporters knew they were supporting unconventionality and breaking the rules, which is why I think people liked sharing it so much. The gender split of pledgers was about 60% women 40% men. Men love this book, and every time I see a guy on Twitter telling me he’s bought it for his daughter, I cry. I’m constantly crying – it’s awful, and my family are really worried about me.

What do you hope the story achieves?

I honestly want people to feel good about themselves. The book is a bit of a pep talk. I need that pep talk, too, so I read it every few weeks. It’s almost impossible to give zero fucks all of the time, but hopefully what The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks might prove is that the world won’t fall apart if you stop worrying about everything, and if you take a few risks.

What next for you?

Broadway. Only joking! Although I am starting work on ‘Zero Fucks the Musical’ in the New Year: I just need to work out where the new piano will fit because my house is quite small. I’m on the final edit of a novel set in Kenya, am on the second draft of a (real, not pretend) kids’ book and I’m about to start a feminist non-fiction project with my sister, Louise. I’ve also got a few bits of poetry and flash fiction being published in various magazines between now and February, which is so exciting! And I want to start selling zero fucks merch, when I can find the bloody time. If anyone reading this wants to help me out with that…

The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks can be purchased through Amazon.

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