Over the weekend, BBC World News screened the first episode of a four-part documentary series called Her Story: The Female Revolution. It’s an inspiring and thought-provoking look at the achievements of female leaders and pioneers over the last fifty years. A stellar list of interviewees includes President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, President of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaite, Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Margot Wallstrom, head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, actor Geena Davis and Iranian racing car driver, Laleh Seddigh.
So far, so normal. Gender equality is one of the most significant issues of our times, thus a documentary on the topic of female achievement is nothing out of the ordinary. What is out of the ordinary is that it was made by an ad agency. And there is no client involved.
WPP-owned J. Walter Thompson has its own long-form content division, JWT Entertainment, a subsidiary that has previously produced material such as, Yes, Virginia, an animated half-hour Christmas special aired on CBS, and the documentary No Small Parts, both for client, Macy’s. Historically, the agency also produced the Radio Soap Opera for Lux Radio Theater in the 1930s, should we be deluding ourselves that branded content is a new phenomenon.
Her Story is JWT's first foray into producing its own material for the general edification the wider world. JWT Worldwide Chief Creative Officer, Matt Eastwood, explains how the project evolved, "We’ve been working for some time on female insight and in particular reflecting and understanding women’s evolving role within society not just as consumers but also as creators, leaders, influencers etc. What emerged from the teams’ thinking (led by Rachel Pashley in London), was the idea of "Female Capital"- namely the value that women deliver as women in the world."
Indeed, alongside the films, which were co-produced with production company Films of Record, there is an extensive website, which brings the series together with a large research study, case histories and a range of services JWT can provide that pertain to insight, trends and communications strategies. Collectively, the various strands aim to position the agency as one that has a superior understanding of women in today’s society.
However, Eastwood insists the film series itself is not seen as a marketing tool for JWT. "The program was never created as a sales tool," he says, adding, "We wanted to make the show because, as an agency, we felt passionately about the subject and hope it can contribute to a more positive cultural narrative around women."
The team developed the idea for a documentary series based on the central premise of "Female Capital". Eastwood says they wanted to "to tell the story of female progress and the qualities women bring to the world as women, across a diverse sphere of influence, and use women themselves to tell the story".The first episode, "Leadership" is followed by "The Personal Story" (love, motherhood and sexuality), "Religion", and "Women and Work" (the rising economic and cultural influence of women).
Intentional or not, being perceived as the foremost experts on women would be a powerful position to occupy in the ad industry. However, the ambition goes beyond any business benefits to the agency, Eastwood says. "We are in the position as influencers to change the paradigm when it comes to diversity and women in the industry," he states. "By changing the conversation we can also drive cultural shifts, which will bring its own rewards."
Some of this refocused direction would, naturally, be in service of the agency’s clients, which include, HSBC, Nestlé, Johnson & Johnson, Shell and Unilever. "Part of our role as creators is imagining a path forward for our clients and their brands," Eastwood says, adding, "Not just in terms of communications, but we can also influence and guide them in the needs of women at a more fundamental level. That could even include the development of products and services."
Her Story: The Female Revolution will run over the next few weeks on BBC World News. JWT owns the content and is in talks with other distributors, including video streaming players, to sell the series once its run on the BBC is completed.