AT&T's Chief Brand Officer Talks Commitment to Eliminating Gender, Other Biases in Advertising

Courtesy of AT&T
AT&T chief brand officer Fiona Carter

Fiona Carter will focus on the telecom giant's work around gender equality and #SeeHer at this year's Cannes Lions, but tells THR about widening the commitment and putting together an Inclusion Playbook.

AT&T has committed to eliminating gender and other biases from its advertising by the end of 2018. 

The telecom giant, one of the largest U.S. marketers, started working with the Association of National Advertisers and its Alliance for Family Entertainment’s #SeeHer movement to improve the portrayal of women and girls in advertising messages. But it has since then expanded that commitment to address other biases, including racial, age, sexual, physical and others. 

AT&T chief brand officer Fiona Carter will focus on AT&T's work around gender equality and #SeeHer during this year's Cannes Lions international festival of creativity, which runs June 18-22.

Ahead of that, Carter recently talked to THR's international business editor Georg Szalai about AT&T's decision to address biases in advertising, how it has been approaching stereotypes to make sure its ad messages better reflect its workforce and customers and why the results will never be perfect.  

When and how did AT&T commit to addressing biases in advertising and what are the key goals of that initiative?

AT&T has been in America for over 140 years. It's one of the largest companies in the U.S., and therefore our customers and employees are extraordinarily diverse. That's really behind our informed argument for inclusion across whatever dimension you might be talking about. 

In this instance, I had joined the company two and half years ago and was in the middle of developing a business campaign and realized at every step of the process, whether it was developing the stories and the commercials, whether it was looking at the casting, looking at the agency side of the business, an inherent bias was seeping into the process. By that I mean we were looking at stories that were dominated by white men. And I realized that that is just not the company that we are or the customers that we serve. For me, it was really a personal epiphany. And I realized that in my role, the buck could stop with me. It started as a very personal commitment that reflected the company's commitment. 

What is so exciting is that we were able to partner with our industry through the Association of National Advertiser (ANA) and the #SeeHer initiative and be one of the earliest partners and to see it catch fire throughout the company very fast. AT&T is a company where while we believe in talk, we really believe in action. As one of the largest advertisers in the U.S., we knew that we could make a difference here. We produce over 5,000 pieces of advertising a year, we know we are culture makers and culture shapers. It was important for us to do the right thing. 

What are key parts of the commitment?

We decided to change our process and measure improvement, because that is really the only way to systematize what was essentially one person's observation. We worked with #SeeHer and the ANA to be the first to use their measurement systems. They developed the Gender Equality Measure, or GEM, which allows you to measure your advertising for business effectiveness, communications effectiveness and see how positively we are portraying women and girls. That gave us a series of benchmarks and allowed the entire organization to galvanize around the issue, because it gave us measurements that we could look at monthly and assess our progress.

The measurements also gave us insights that we were able to put into what I call the Inclusion Playbook, which has tips and tools that very practically tell you how to develop bias-free advertising and content.

We quickly realized that this was a passion of many across the company, and we started identifying champions. My finance lead quickly became a champion and that went all the way through to our (AT&T Communications) CEO John Donovan. The champions stood up, declared their commitment and made a real difference in terms of motivating the entire organization to help achieve our goals. So I feel it began grassroots, but it quickly became a passion and commitment across some of the most senior leaders. 

How successful has the initiative been?

We had a series of outdoing our commitments. Our first commitment was to deliver the #SeeHer goal, which is a 20 percent improvement in the positive portrayal of women in advertising by 2020, which happens to be the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote. We realized with focus we were going to achieve that more quickly. And then given the momentum behind it, our CEO declared that we should attempt to achieve that by the end of 2018 (to make sure our portrayals of women and girls are not negative or inappropriate). We are currently rolling out the playbooks across the company to touch as much content we create every year as possible.

We might do an internal video, external advertising and even our own entertainment content. We have developed an award with the Tribeca Film Festival, which is called Untold Stories. We are the presenting sponsor of Tribeca Film Festival. You will know only too well the statistics on inclusion in Hollywood and the challenges there. We worked with founder Jane Rosenthal to create the award that would make a real difference in terms of inclusion in Hollywood. It's $1 million to fully fund a movie from underrepresented filmmakers, provide mentoring from Jane and her Tribeca Film Institute and distribution from us — the movie will get distributed on AT&T's DirecTV in addition to a Tribeca Film Festival premiere. The second award we just gave out in April.

So we started in advertising and are now moving to an inclusiveness across all the content that we create.

Can you share more about the Inclusion Playbook and how it works?

It is as simple as ensuring that women are in strong and primary roles in the advertising, not always in secondary or non-speaking roles, ensuring that you show women being positive and happy and constructive rather than ancillary and weak and looking for others to solve issues.

The playbook has a series of practical tips that anybody, whether you are in the marketing department or agency, can execute to help deliver the scores that we are looking for.

It's very simple, five pages of the key principles. Ensure that your casting is 50:50 gender split, ensure your casting has an equally diverse ethnicity and age split, show women in primary roles, ensure that your behind-the-scenes crew has a fair split. 

This is a skill that every marketer and communicator across the company needs to be aware of and have. Our goal has been that this becomes an everyday skill as quickly as possible.

You mentioned gender, ethnical and age biases, among others. Do you expect more biases to come up over time?

We have a diversity and inclusion council across the company where we get constant input. The goal is to ensure that we are representing our customers and employees as authentically as possible. We really do believe that we as a company are at our best when our employees and customers see themselves at their best in the communications that we provide — whether that is age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical ablement, we are keen to represent America in all its authenticity. 

What role did recent broader debates in society, such as #MeToo, play in the process behind rolling out the initiative?

AT&T was ahead of the zeitgeist on this one. What is so exciting is the acceleration in trying to solve the issues. There has been a seismic shift in society, and underrepresented cohorts and people have declared time's up and it's enough, and they want to see their own stories reflected and they are no longer going to accept the inherent bias that has been influencing the stories creators have been putting out. So I see this as an accelerator.

From my industry of chief marketing and branding officers, it has been wonderful to see so many share the same focus and commitment around this issue. The data also shows you that if you get the portrayal of women right in your advertising, it will improve the effectiveness of your advertising significantly. Among measures that marketers care about, for example, brand recall — do you remember who this ad is for? — we saw improvement of up to 17 percent. In terms of consideration — would I purchase from this brand? — there has been improvement of up to 12 percent. And in reputation, there has been improvement of up to 8 percent.

So I don't believe it's simply a social imperative, I really do think it is a business imperative for marketers. And as we look at 20- and 30-somethings, they care deeply about their decision about where to purchase. They care deeply not only about what a company makes, but also about who the company is and what its values and belief system are.

So how would you summarize the key business benefits of more inclusive advertising for AT&T?

Improved effectiveness of our communications and advertising. It makes us a more relevant brand for today's consumers who see their own stories reflected in how we tell our products and service stories. I think it also has an effect on our employees who equally want to see themselves in our advertising. What I felt from our employees is that they feel excited and proud that AT&T is making a difference here and taking action. It's great for employees to feel something so tangible being done here.

How is AT&T's push to do away with biases different or special compared to similar initiatives elsewhere?

One of the largest advertisers in the U.S. has declared its intention. We are, I believe, the first to measure all our advertising to be sure we are benchmarking our progress. Beyond that, our ability to move beyond advertising into content we create more broadly also marks us out as different. We recently announced a commitment with Reese Witherspoon and her production company Hello Sunshine where we are going to mentor very young female filmmakers to tell their stories this summer. 

In terms of big TV advertising, when do you think consumers will start seeing a huge difference?

I hope you would see it in all of our advertising now. For example, we have a campaign that is a few months old called "More for Your Thing." The casting is incredibly ethnically diverse, our voiceover is from Lena Waithe (Master of None, Ready Player One) who reflects a very different sensibility for us and is the first African-American woman to win an Emmy. She is a great spokesperson for these inclusion issues. 

And on our business marketing side, we very consciously in our "Power of And" advertising have been casting to ensure we have African-Americans and Hispanics in senior leadership roles in the advertising and we have a female voiceover. In business marketing, that is rare. We have Olivia Wilde. I think you'll see examples of this across all of our work.

What is your next big focus in eliminating biases in advertising?

This year, our goal is to try to eliminate bias from all of the marketing and communications content we create. We are rolling out the playbook. And then it's a question of ongoing measurement, because you can never be perfect at this.