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Opinion and Insight

Rosie the Riveting Taboo-Buster

From puncturing the sacred cow of ‘reach’ to normalising the menopause, AMV BBDO’s Rosie Arnold tells LBB’s Laura Swinton that there are still barriers to dismantle

Rosie the Riveting Taboo-Buster

It’s early Thursday morning at Kinsale Sharks. There are a few crusty eyes and throbbing skulls following the previous night’s folk shindig, but the rusty fishing boats and bobbing seals bathed in low, golden sun in the harbour outside of the Trident Hotel reward judges and delegates.

Rosie Arnold has arrived ready to judge, and it’s not too early to start taking on taboos. For the past couple of years she’s been heavily involved in the ‘Unstereotype’ movement – and indeed throughout her career, she’s made a point for fighting for more diverse casting in ads. And yet, as conversations evolve, she’s finding more assumptions to prod and tropes to probe. 

Recently, she’s come up against a particularly personal area of representation she wants to tackle. “My personal mission has been around the menopause because I’m that age,” explains Rosie, who is enthusiastic about the work AMV BBDO put out in April this year that addresses it. “It’s taken a while to face up to it, and it’s about feeling relevant as an older woman. And I just decided that I’m going to start talking about the menopause several times a day, to normalise it and so I didn’t feel ashamed of it.”

Since joining AMV BBDO in 2016, the agency has been at the forefront of breaking conventions in representation. They’ve worked with Mars on the depiction of differently abled people for Maltesers – and since then the brand has explored all sort of other aspects of representation. And over the past year, they’ve tackled dishonest portrayals of menstruation for Bodyform/Libresse with Blood Normal, which abandoned the age-old trope of portraying menstruation as a sterile blue liquid.

“I think there’s a real spirit in the agency [of breaking taboos]. I think the Blood Normal work is fantastic and a lot of clients are looking at it and saying, ‘I’ll have some of that please’,” says Rosie, who refers to the project as a ‘seismic shift’. “I think there’s a spirit and it attracts clients who see the success of that work and feel they’re in the right place to get it.” 

A bold agency culture, however, is not enough to bulldoze fusty taboos. Rosie mentions one recent execution, a sensitively researched piece around Muslim women, which has been put on pause by a client.

And, of course, while a brand may seek a purpose to champion or unspeakable truth to speak… it’s not an appropriate course of action for all brands. Rosie mentions difficult conversations she’s had to have with keen clients and refers to the cautionary tale of Pepsi and Kendall Jenner.

“I think, in a way, I feel a bit guilty because I was part of the move to do purpose-led advertising with the [launch of the D&AD] White Pencil and now every single client wants it and we have to be very careful about how we use it,” she says thoughtfully. “I don’t want to be part of a cynical campaign that exploits a cause to sell an inappropriate product.”
 
However, whether or not a brand chooses to embrace purpose-led strategies, there is a strong business argument that all should seriously question representation and stereotyping within brand communications. “My discussion is that if you’re not doing that, your brand looks really old fashioned. I think the millennial generation won’t stand for it,” says Rosie.

It’s not just social advertising taboos that Rosie wants to talk about – she’s also keen to take on the assumptions of the business and its priorities in 2018.

“This might make me very unpopular, but I find the word ‘reach’ is driving me mad and I genuinely worry that we’re destroying the industry. When I first came into the business people would say, ‘oh my god, the ads, I prefer them to the programmes’. It was an industry that I felt very proud to be in,” she recalls. “And I think by this constant drip, drip, drip of irritation, people no longer say they love the ads. And I know you’d say it’s because people don’t see the ads because there are so many ways of avoiding them but I think to really build a brand you need to entertain people. I’d rather talk more specifically to the right target audience in a more involved way rather than interrupt and irritate.”

It’s fitting, then, that Rosie is in Kinsale both as jury chair and also to judge the Kinsale Sharks ‘Creative Bravery’ category. The winning work in the category – Blood Normal and Mother London’s KFC apology ad ‘FCK’ – were ads that circumvented the ‘skip ad’ button by tackling topics that people wanted to talk about and by engaging with their audience.

And Kinsale, too, as a festival echoes this sentiment. Not the biggest ad festival in the world, but, perhaps the warmest. And rather than racing after reach by chasing media owners and big slick brands, it’s all about a specific target audience - the creative and creative production community.

“I came to speak last year and it was my first time. I just fell in love with the place,” sighs Rosie. “It feels like a very intimate creative community. A lot of the awards have got so vast and so corporate that it’s more for the clients than the creative community. I love what D&AD is doing with its festival and that feels like a proper grown up international event, it’s absolutely spectacular and serious and very creative. I think Cannes is much more client-focused now and a lot of my creative buddies are now thinking ‘it’s not for us’. It’s lovely to win an award but the whole thing has lost a little bit of the sparkle - sorry Cannes! I just love the ‘craic’ as they call it here. I came last year and met a small group of people who were gathered together to talk about the work and what’s happening.”
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