McCann should return all it's prices for Fearless Girl

By Jacqueline Bosselaar, 11 April 2019

My PR heart was stolen by this campaign, but then almost broken by its creators. It’s time agencies returned their awards if they break their creative promises.

It’s time agencies returned their awards if they break their creative promises. I begin this column feeling pretty up in arms. Reason: last week's umpteenth scandal around – nota bene — my favourite campaign: Fearless Girl.

Through the campaign, the American asset manager State Street Global Advisors fought for an equal position for women at the top. It won a staggering number of advertising prizes, including 4 Grand Prix and 10 Golden Lions in Cannes.

But it was precisely this moral crusader who once again made the news last week due to unethical practices.

PR heart stolen

The Fearless Girl campaign stole my PR heart when in 2017 it captured the world media’s attention with literally just one image. On International Women's Day, there she stood suddenly, on a square in the middle of New York’s financial district: a tough, combative bronze girl face to face with the bronze Charging Bull, the ultimate symbol of Wall Street (read: testosterone).

It was the right statement in the right place at the right time, and spread via the right people and media. Fearless Girl was the ultimate story that breaks through all advertising filters. A perfectly executed, modern earned-first campaign. By sunrise, tourists and other passers-by had already shared the image on social media and ensured it went viral in no time.

Deadly sin in our industry

But the sting is in the tail - or should I say, ponytail? Because just six months later, State Street itself became embroiled in a scandal about unequal pay between men and women. Ouch! It paid off the complaint for $5 million.

In short, their campaign promise didn’t match their business practices. A mortal sin in our industry. Showing once again how extremely important it is that marketing and C-level work well together, so that the message always matches the business strategy.

And then last week there was a report that, of all the gender-equality funds, State Street was living up to its promise the least. This was confirmed by research by the much-respected Morningstar.

For me, this begged the question: shouldn't State Street’s agency, McCann New York, return all the awards they got for Fearless Girl, just like a sportsperson who turns out to have cheated has to? Not that McCann has done anything wrong themselves, but it would certainly be a statement. On behalf of the communications sector, too.

Dismissed as Femwashing

No doubt it’s a bit more nuanced than just a simple good or bad. For example, since Fearless Girl, 423 companies have appointed their first woman to the board. But no matter how you look it at, a trailblazing campaign is now in danger of being dismissed as Femwashing.

And probably rightly so; but as I said, it is nevertheless a grievous sin. We need role model campaigns more than ever, because social engagement is precisely what consumers are demanding more and more from brands and companies.

Agencies also have a responsibility here. They need to be even more critical about brands keeping their promises. They have to protect clients from disaster. At the same time, I know how difficult it can be for advertisers to get to the very bottom of things.

Maybe it’s an idea to agree on a code of conduct with clients, just as they ask their agencies to sign on matters such as CSR and gender equality. With such an agreement, we’d have less reason to worry about whatever form of washing, and could once again focus fully on the ‘awe’ in ‘awards’ and, even more importantly, on delivering on the campaign promise.

Transcending her creators

As for my favourite campaign ever, do I have to say goodbye once and for all to that plucky little girl, who now has a permanent place on the New York Stock Exchange?

Fortunately, the answer is 'no'. Because while State Street's behaviour is questionable, and McCann has yet to make a clear statement, Fearless Girl has long transcended her creators. Actually, she did the moment she was suddenly standing there, at sunrise one morning in front of the Charging Bull, and was immediately embraced by people the world over.

Fearless Girl isn’t a campaign any more. She is culture.