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We’re still waiting for B2B advertising’s feminist revolution

By Beatrice Alabaster | Creative copywriter

Earnest

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February 6, 2024 | 9 min read

Women now make up a higher proportion of business decision-makers than ever before, says Beatrice Alabaster of Earnest. So why are so many B2B ads still so male-focused?

A lithographic work of art, depicting two women, a child, and a large can of milk

B2B's feminist revolution is lagging behind, says Earnest's Beatrice Alabaster / Boston Public Library via Unsplash

By now, anyone who spends any time on the internet will have seen all the buzz about Calvin Kleins recent ads featuring The Bear star Jeremy Allen White.

The most astute commentary Ive read on the topic was from Amy Brown, who popped up in my LinkedIn feed to share her insight on why this ad has been a runaway success:

Shockingly simple, right? The Calvin Klein marketers have achieved that elusive prize to which we all aspire: figuring out what a target audience really wants, and showing it to them.

What do women want in B2B advertising?

Getting inside the minds of female audiences has presented a seemingly insurmountable obstacle for quite some time – even Freud was baffled by the question of what women want. Growing understanding of the ‘female gaze’ – using womens desires, viewpoints and lived experiences as the subject rather than object, the viewer rather than viewed – was a hard-won battle for pioneering women in the ad industry, highlighted by Channel 4’s recent Mad Women documentary.

These women bestowed on us, the grateful viewing public, the opportunity to ogle the Levis launderette man. Or see ourselves as can-do mechanics thanks to Pretty Polly tights, instead of disembodied pairs of sexy, stockinged legs.

I cant help but think were still waiting for that same feminist revolution in the big bad world of B2B. So many B2B ads feel as if theyre made by men, for men. The assumed or default subject/viewer is, at best, gender-neutral but, in many cases, distinctly masculine.

Some of these ads are rife with gendered tropes. Without sounding flippant, a lot of them to me seem big, brash, and blue, depicting phallic skyscrapers and touting the language of corporate boy guff. ‘Transform’, ‘power’, and ‘innovate: I’m looking at you.

Now Im not necessarily suggesting that B2B ads with buff men in their undies are needed to sell HR software or Decision Intelligence platforms (although, if any of my clients do have Jeremy Allen White-level budget, Im open to exploring this).

But beyond the obvious box ticking – a cynical stock image of a smiling woman in a power suit, or a diverse group of colleagues crowded around a screen – theres a gaping void of B2B ads that feel distinctly for the girls. The only example Ive come across is Sage’s lauded ‘Boss It’ campaign, with the pertinent line: He thinks hes the boss, but Im definitely the boss”.

The power of using a gendered lens

Time and time again, consumer advertising has proven that a gendered lens is a powerful brand differentiation device. With B2B’s strong emphasis on personalization, the gender angle feels like a huge missed opportunity to communicate and resonate with buyers on a more individualistic level.

The number of women in decision-making roles is growing every year – according to McKinsey, women now make up 28% of C-Suite roles, a 6% growth over the last five years. The number of women appointed to FTSE boards is also on the rise. Most client-side senior B2B marketers I work with every day are women. I even host a podcast, 43% and Rising, dedicated to spotlighting these brilliant women in the marketing industry. To reflect these encouraging changes in workplace demographics, we need more B2B campaigns that see the working world through the eyes of a woman.

I recently sat down with colleagues to discuss our shared experiences as women navigating the world of work for the Christmas special of the podcast. While there is, of course, no singular, universal ‘female experience’ of the workplace, it was clear from our conversation that we’ve all had common experiences which are influenced by gender. Like the stress and guilt of juggling care responsibilities with work. Or being spoken over in meetings, taking on more of the invisible office work’ than our counterparts, or diligently deleting all of the ‘justs’ and ‘sorrys’ from our emails.

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For real change, women and underrepresented groups must call the shots

Its time for more B2B ad campaigns that are clearly born of diverse experiences and perspectives. A more gendered approach could be an especially powerful tool when targeting job roles and industries where women are already relatively well-represented – such as sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR), human resources, healthcare, government, consumer services, and education.

For these kinds of underlying creative strategies to become more prevalent, we need more women and other underrepresented groups calling the shots in B2B creative and strategic roles. And we need employers that champion and make space for their views and lived experiences.

So, to answer Freuds notorious question What does a woman want?: this woman wants B2B ad campaigns to be a little less Boy2Boy. Although, some more Jeremy Allen White ads wouldn’t hurt either.

To hear more first-hand experiences from senior women in the workplace, listen to the new season of 43% and Rising.

Agencies Agency Leadership B2B Marketing

Content by The Drum Network member:

Earnest

Earnest is the award-winning B2B marketing agency that’s chasing out the humdrum in London and New York.

Why is B2B treated like the poor cousin to B2C? Business people are still people, after all – they just happen to be at work.

Since we opened for business in 2009, we’ve built brands, shaped strategies, produced content programmes, created experiences and developed campaigns that not only deliver results, but engage and delight their audiences too.

Our story

B2B marketing is tough. There are hard-to-reach audiences. Difficult-to-please internal stakeholders. And very often complex, intangible products.

That’s why B2B deserves just as much attention, passion and intellectual energy as B2C. And it’s why Earnest is on a mission to raise standards in B2B, creatively and strategically. Chasing out the humdrum, and ushering in the unexpected.

We positively relish the unique challenges that B2B marketing presents. Since we started the agency in 2009, we’ve earned a reputation for devising solutions that go beyond the obvious, often delivering far more than the client’s original objectives.

The agency offers an unusually broad mix of disciplines – including branding, campaigns, strategic planning, content, and experiential – and we’ve won awards for them all. That’s testament to the fact that we approach every challenge, of every size and every shape, in the same way – with high standards and open minds.

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