Brands need to stand ready for battle in ongoing fight for gender equity

Like a fast-moving wildfire, all of us in the creative industries saw it coming: The debut of the now infamous Gillette campaign – 'The Best Men Can Be' – followed by outrage, backlash, and then the backlash to the backlash. Whether it’s Nike’s contract with Colin Kaepernick or a Pepsi commercial starring Kendall Jenner, this cycle for brands has become all too familiar.

But this time felt different. Why?

It’s important to reflect on how the conversation is changing in real time as the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements enter their second full year. The first wave focused on the brave individuals who came forward to out their powerful abusers. The next phase saw emerging solidarity and recognition of shared experiences.

The next phase – which we are now in – sees these voices aligning, consolidating and reaching out to forge partnerships and strategic alliances.

This is the turf that Gillette stepped onto, and the backlash to its campaign proved many were unprepared for the strength of the fight. The fact of the matter is, the voices that have emerged over the last two years will not be silenced. They will continue to grow louder and stronger through their emerging coalitions.

We are seeing allies step forward across industries in ways both big and small. At Ogilvy, we bid a fond farewell to our global head of PR and Influence, Stuart Smith, who left to become chief marketing officer and chief growth officer of Vegolutionary Foods. Knowing Stuart personally and professionally, we have long counted him as a fierce ally in the fight for equality in the workplace and the wider world. It shows both in the work itself and in the office culture he helped create.

But giving respect where it's due, Vegolutionary is one of the fastest growing brands today. It has the potential to be one of the most exciting and innovative breakthroughs in the food space with nearly limitless promise ahead.

The fact that Stuart is married to Vegolutionary chief executive Gail Becker? Incidental. What we have here is two pioneering business leaders coming together to forge a business alliance built on their longstanding personal partnerships. The reaction to this news shows we have a lot farther to go in changing how we relate to each other.

From our perspective, the ongoing fight for gender equity will be won on the strength of our partnerships. While not all of them will begin at home, successful partnerships require trusted allies.

That’s why Gillette’s campaign was so bold. An unequivocal choosing of sides – and proudly declaring oneself an ally in an ongoing fight – is rare. But in an increasingly crowded media landscape with increasing competition for eyeballs and share of voice, taking a stand is a critical tool to cut through the noise. Gillette stood up and declared itself an ally, and perhaps most critically, issued a call to action to their loyal consumer base.

Last week, the marketing world turned its attention to the annual Makers Conference, where luminaries ranging from Oprah Winfrey to Ruth Bader Ginsburg have made their mark toward accelerating the women’s movement through sharing their personal experiences among colleagues and allies.

Among the latter, Makers Men have long recognized the power of our shared mission for equality, a cause that is truly gender neutral in its reach and importance.

It’s long past time for brands to reflect that truth, and to take a stand accordingly. The theme of this year’s Makers Conference was 'All of Us' and I truly believe that all of us, together, must join the fight to break down the status quo and rebuild a new normal based on partnership and common values.

If some see these alliances as an attack – be it on masculinity or anything else – the response of those taking a stand is clear: it’s about time, and we are ready for battle.

Jennifer Risi is Ogilvy's chief communications officer and worldwide managing director for Media Influence. This piece was written with the additional input of Corey Chambliss, vice-president of Ogilvy's Media Influence.