People sitting at a table at a meeting.
“More representative teams just perform better … ,” Elizabeth Paul, chief strategy officer at the Martin Agency, said at a VCU virtual event on how women are changing the advertising industry. “I want our workforce to reflect our audience because I know we’ll tell better, more representative stories.” (Getty Images)

Women are changing the advertising industry, and it’s leading to better, more authentic ads

As another Super Bowl comes and goes, a VCU Robertson School panel says improving gender diversity in advertising is leading to better storytelling and more opportunities for underrepresented voices.

Share this story

The representation of women at the senior leadership level in the advertising industry is likely at an all-time high, according to the Association of National Advertisers. And that improving gender diversity is leading to greater opportunities in the industry for other underrepresented voices, as well as better, more authentic advertisements, said a panel of ad industry women Thursday at an event hosted by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“More representative teams just perform better, just in general,” said Elizabeth Paul, chief strategy officer at the Martin Agency. “There’s been a number of studies across industries that have shown when you’ve got greater representation at the board level, at the leadership level, and really at every level in your organization, those organizations tend to perform better. And I actually think it’s a really exciting time in that regard for organizations that are kind of taking this charge seriously. To show that it is not just the moral case, that’s there’s actually a business case.

“We create cultural goods. We put them out into the world,” she added. “I want our workforce to reflect our audience because I know we’ll tell better, more representative stories.”

The virtual event, “A Shift in Culture: How Women Are Changing Advertising,” featured four women from the industry — three of whom graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University — and was moderated by Jessica Collins, an assistant professor of advertising in the Robertson School who worked for more than a decade as a strategic planner with brands such as Walmart, Target, Johnson & Johnson, Colgate, Unilever and Kellogg’s.

In addition to Paul, the panel included:

  • Ari Abad, a junior strategist at TBWA\Media Arts Lab, who graduated from the VCU Brandcenter in 2019 and graduated from the Robertson School with a degree in strategic advertising in 2017;
  • Crystal Douglas, a UX/UI Designer at COLAB, who graduated with a degree in creative and strategic advertising from the Robertson School in 2018; and
  • Nomin Boutchard, senior art director at Publicis Seattle, who received a master’s degree from the Brandcenter in 2014 and an undergraduate degree in creative advertising from VCU in 2011.

A Shift in Culture: How Women Are Changing Advertising

Boutchard said women are changing the advertising industry in two different but important ways. Women are shifting the workplace culture to be more inclusive for women and other underrepresented people, she said. And they are changing the advertising that is produced.

“Obviously ads are reaching millions of eyeballs — those are eyeballs of men, women, people of all genders, children — so I think it’s very important to put out work that is respectful, and that represents all people,” she said.

Douglas agreed, saying the brand messaging, particularly for ads targeted primarily toward women, have become more authentic and effective. She cited the example of Billie, a razor company that launched its “Red, White and You Do You” ad campaign in 2020 that featured models with and without body hair, emphasizing the freedom of individuals to do with their hair as they please.

“When you start to add people from all different kinds of backgrounds and various demographics, you get different perspectives, you get more authentic messaging and more authentic storytelling,” she said. “And I think that’s something that a lot of people are appreciating right now.”

Abad added that simply bringing more chairs to the table means more voices will be heard.

“Something that I see really changing in my circle in my career is how more women have a point of view and are speaking up about that point of view,” she said. “That is what changes and impacts the work in a very authentic way.”

Upcoming events

The Robertson School will host two additional events this semester as part of its virtual Speaker Series:

- "Post Black Lives Matter: New Beginnings" -- On Feb. 25 from 6-7 p.m., Robertson School professors Aloni Hill, Ph.D., and Vivian Medina-Messner will moderate a panel discussion with Anthony Antoine, anchor at NBC12; Regina H. Boone, staff photojournalist at the Richmond Free Press; and Michael Paul Williams, columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

- "Developing a Creative Mindset" -- On April 1 from 7-8 p.m., Robertson School professor Scott Sherman will welcome Ken Marcus, senior writer at the Martin Agency.

The panel discussion was held just days ahead of the Super Bowl, the ad industry’s annual marquee showcase. Paul noted how an Ad Age article published earlier that day reflects on how Super Bowl ads often play on ‘80s and ‘90s nostalgia that resonates with white people, but often fails to capture the Black experience and nostalgia. The article, she said, reinforces the notion of how representation matters in the industry.

“When you have a broader range of experiences at the table, you’re able to tap into an array of nostalgic cultural experiences and perspectives and stories,” Paul said. “So part of the task is to create those tables and part of the task is to prove that those tables work and work harder. And then I think the other task is to create things and share resources and tools and learnings that other agencies and organizations can learn from and hopefully make better.”