Q&A with Cindy Gallop: Tackling porn, feminism and big dreams

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Advertising whiz Cindy Gallop delivered one of the most talked-about talks at TED2009, so before it was posted the TED Blog had to snag her for an interview. Spirited as usual, she did not disappoint. Keep reading for answers on what people thought of MakeLoveNotPorn.com, Gallop’s bold position on feminism, her new project IfWeRanTheWorld and the story of her success.

What sort of feedback have you gotten on MakeLoveNotPorn.com? What do people think of it?

What MakeLoveNotPorn has in common with my other ventures is that when I encounter something that I feel very strongly about, I do something about it. Incidentally, that’s the whole point of my other venture IfWeRanTheWorld. It’s all about turning good intentions into action, being a very action-oriented person myself.

As I make clear in my talk, MakeLoveNotPorn is designed to address an issue that would never have crossed my mind if I had not encountered it within my personal life and specifically, because I date younger men who tend to be in their twenties, who are part of Generation Y. In this context, when I encountered this issue personally, I really felt that I wanted to do something about it. That is why I created MakeLoveNotPorn.com, and then welcomed the opportunity to launch it at TED.

I will say that I was extremely nervous before I gave my TEDTalk, and I was nervous for two reasons. The first is that I had absolutely no idea how MakeLoveNotPorn.com would be received. I talked to a few people about it in the process of conceiving the idea and then executing it, but predominantly friends of mine. It had received a generally very positive response, but I obviously still had no idea how the wider world would view it. The second reason I was nervous was I knew that in order to launch this I was going to have to really launch it, in the sense that I was going to have to be straightforward in order to have people understand why this was so necessary. I made a deliberate decision to be very frank in the language and the terminology that I used. This isn’t an issue that one can fence around if you want there to be complete clarity and understanding of what makelovenotporn.com is designed to address.

I was enormously gratified by the extraordinarily positive response I received at TED. The talk was obviously BoingBoing’ed immediately. Mark, from BoingBoing, told me it was the highlight of his first day at TED. The Twitter stream went mad. Robin Williams came up to me during the coffee break afterwards, told me how wonderful he thought it was and did an entire ten-minute comedy routine around it, which was terrific. But what I was really pleased about was that for the remaining three days of TED, loads of people came up to me and said it was fantastic. And they said it was fantastic in a number of contexts. Parents were particularly struck by it, and a lot of them said to me that they’d forwarded the site to their 16-year-old daughter or 18-year-old son. I think they particularly welcomed the fact that they could forward the link on without needing to have the conversation themselves, which is precisely why I began the site.

A number of people said that while they love the fact that TED covers science, art and technology, touching on the area of human relationships in the way that I did was really welcomed. A number of young people, and lots of the TED Fellows, said to me, “Oh my God! I love it. That is absolutely what I’ve encountered myself.” So, actually, the response at TED itself was absolutely wonderful in terms of having the audience understand and appreciate what this was intended to do.

Also, the site is very nascent at the moment. I put it up with no money. All you can do there is leave comments, send in your own porn world/real world ideas, and you can write to info@makelovenotporn.com. But judging by the comments that started appearing, I can see that MakeLoveNotPorn.com has achieved what I wanted it to, which is that it’s gotten to young people out in the mainstream, beyond the more TED intelligentsia-inclined audience. I’ve had a huge amount of submissions from people sending in their own porn world/real world ideas. These are very interesting to read, because while the vast majority of them are screamingly funny, some of them are also very serious and very heartfelt. One interesting thing, for me, was that I designed MakeLoveNotPorn to be deliberately gender-equal. It’s talking to men and women equally. A lot of men have submitted ideas that are much more about the male experience and the false expectations of men that porn engenders, which made me realize that when I do develop the site further, I will need to encompass the male experience more. I’ve got fantastic input there.

Also, MakeLoveNotPorn is very much a global concept. I work globally as a consultant, and I’ve encountered a great response to this from people in other countries. It’s absolutely reflected in the visitors to the site as well. I’m not actively promoting MakeLoveNotPorn at the moment because I don’t have the resources and I don’t have a lot to send people to yet. Nevertheless, I monitor it on Google and it pops up on French blogs, Chinese blogs, Greek blogs. One of the last emails I received was from a young guy in Morocco who wrote to me — by the way, when people write to info@makelovenotporn.com, they have no idea who they’re writing to and I identify as myself when I write back. Anyway, this young guy wrote to say, “Thank you so much. Young people in Morocco are like young people in the US, they are heavily influenced by porn. Now at last I can tell my friends how to make love to a girl, thanks to your wonderful website.” And I just love getting emails like that.

So, what’s next?

I have further plans for development and promotion based on finding far-sighted and broad-minded investors. For the time being I’m very pleased with the response that MakeLoveNotPorn has received, both in terms of overall recognition of the issue and in getting to exactly the audience I wanted to get to.

Your talk and this project seem to convey the words and ideas of a very empowered woman. Do you consider yourself to be a feminist?

I consider myself a rampant feminist. I deplore the shying away that can go on, within women, from the term “feminist.” I am, absolutely, all about being a feminist. My personal cause and platform, if you like, is women’s rights and women’s issues. In the context of my other web venture IfWeRanTheWorld (MakeLoveNotPorn is my secondary venture), if I ran the world, I would help the cause of women everywhere. Unfortunately, that embraces a huge spectrum of problems and issues, a very fractional amount of which I donate money to at the moment and which, when IfWeRanTheWorld is up and operational, I absolutely want to address myself.

Also, I like to describe myself as a proudly visible member of the most invisible segments of our society — older women. I’m 49. I make an active point of telling people how old I am, as often as possible, because I’d like to confound expectations of what an older woman should be, look and act like. I say that because it’s taken me 49 years to feel this good about myself. As women, from the moment we are born, everything around us, from a socio-cultural perspective, conspires to make us feel insecure about absolutely everything to do with ourselves — our looks, our bodies, whether people like us, whether boys like us. In many ways, an overarching wish of mine is that, if I ran the world I would give every woman the confidence that she deserves, to feel empowered to live her life the way she wants to live it. The fact is that girls are massively constrained in other parts of the world, but are constrained in First World countries as well. That desire infuses an awful lot of what I do.

I absolutely get involved in women-specific areas within my industry. I work with Advertising Women of New York, with Girls in Tech. I provide advice and help on a regular basis to many, many women on their personal lives, career, business ventures, particularly younger women who, very flatteringly, see me as a role model. I do everything I can to help them. That is something that I feel very strongly about. I’m a rampant feminist and proud to call myself a feminist.

READ MORE: Gallop shares her secret to self-confidence, details her new project IfWeRanTheWorld, and gives the story of her evolution from lit major to top ad exec.On the topic of feminism, you seem very comfortable as a woman who talks about having a sex life, without being ashamed of that at all. What did you have to overcome psychologically and socially to get to that point?

That’s a very interesting question. I’ve never really analyzed that, but I think I would say, funnily enough, that where I’m at today, personally has a lot to do with the industry I’ve grown up in professionally, and that is advertising. The single best lesson that I’ve ever learnt was born out of the advertising industry: When you identify what your personal brand stands for, when you know what you believe in, what you value, what your personal philosophy of life is, it makes life so much easier. Life will still throw at you all the crap it always does, but you know exactly how to respond to it in any given situation, in a way that is true to you. And that has a tremendous role to play in building self-belief, self-empowerment and self-confidence.

I’ve done a lot of talks and given a lot of business advice on the future of advertising and marketing, and something that I say to people is that the new marketing reality today is complete transparency. Particularly with the Internet, everything that brands and companies do today is in the public domain. When I talk to brand marketers who are nervous about this, I say, “Interestingly, the answer to that is the same answer as it is for a person: When you have a very strong sense of who you are and what you stand for, and you always act from and operate on that basis, you have nothing to worry about in terms of wherever people encounter you, because you are simply being completely honest.” Authenticity, integrity, honesty means you don’t have to worry about what people think of you, because you are being true to yourself. It’s true of brands, and it’s true of people.

So, bizarrely enough, where I’ve arrived at personally has something to do with where I’ve come from professionally. I find that life’s so much easier when you’re straightforward and say, “Here I am. Take me as you find me. Are you with me, or are you not?” If you’re not, that’s fine. There will be enough people who are.

What about your current project, IfWeRanTheWorld. What is it all about, and where do you see it going?

First, I’d like to explain where the concept came from. It’s an idea that I had, kind of accidentally, two and a half years ago. When I had it, I just thought, “This is one of those ideas I have to make happen or die trying.” It comes out of two places. It comes out of the kind of person that I am and it comes out of the industry I work in. When I talk about the kind of person that I am, what I mean is that I’m someone who is enormously action-oriented. I’m all about making things happen, totally believe in being the change you want to see, and quite frankly, have a very low tolerance level for people who whinge and whine about stuff and never do anything to change it.

So, it was coming out of all that that I found myself thinking that arguably, the single biggest pool of untapped natural resource in this world is human good intentions that never translate into action. Even though I talk about myself as being action-oriented, I can be just as guilty of this as anybody else. After reading The New York Times, I’ll go, “Oh my God. That’s terrible. I must do something about that.” I’ll turn the page, and the moment’s gone. The intention was absolutely there, but it never got acted on. So I found myself thinking, if you could find a way to take all those good intentions that all of us have on a daily basis and somehow find a way to turn them, at the moment of intention, into action, you would then unleash a force of energy and power that could do extraordinary things in the world.

That was one half of my thinking, and the other half of my thinking was, it actually came out of 24 years working in marketing, brand-building and advertising. I happen to know there is another equally large, equally powerful, untapped resource, which is corporate good intentions. There is no shortage of companies, both large and small, who know that in order to earn the right to do business in the world today, they have to be “corporately socially responsible,” often have very large budgets dedicated to CSR, employ whole teams of people whose sole purpose in life is to find effective ways to spend this budget, but who nevertheless waste them taking out full-page ads in The Wall Street Journal saying, “Look how green we are,” that nobody reads. They are missing the opportunity of allowing their CSR agenda to support their business objective in a way that proves that you can do good and make money simultaneously. I’m trying to bring those two things together — human good intentions and corporate good intentions — and to transform them, collectively, into shared action and shared objectives that will produce shared, mutually beneficial end results. That’s the thinking behind IfWeRanTheWorld.

When I decided to do this, I was very aware, coming from the ad industry, that it’s never just what you do, it’s the way that you do it. And I’m very conscious of the fact that, sadly, for a lot of people and businesses, the idea of doing good is inherently very, very boring. When you go to the homepage of many a social endeavor or nonprofit, sadly, you are all too often met with an instant yawn factor, a part of the worthy but dull syndrome. Before you do anything, you feel, “Oh my God. I’m half-asleep already.” I’m trying to make doing good sexy as hell. Everything about IfWeRanTheWorld is crafted to ultimately achieve that effect. It’ll be launching in January 2010, which I think is perfect. January is always the month of good intentions — new year, new start.

You’ve really got a lot going on. How did you manage to get to this point — to move from English literature Oxford student to advertising force?

Without any conscious thought whatsoever. I actually fell very madly in love with theater at Oxford. It’s got a very thriving student drama scene. I wrote, I acted, I directed, I stage-managed and I essentially decided that all I wanted to do was work in theater for the rest of my life. I knew I wasn’t good enough to be an actress or a director, but one of the things that I always enjoyed doing at Oxford was selling shows. I used to design theater posters. I would do the publicity and information for them, and so I actually went into theater as a publicity and marketing officer for several theaters in the UK.

Then I started getting tired of the fact that I was working every hour God gave me, and earning chicken feed, which is what happens in theater. At that time, I was the marketing officer for the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, and part of my job was giving talks on the theater. So I gave a talk one afternoon to a group of women, and after the talk, one of them came up to me and she said, “Young lady, you could sell a fridge to an Eskimo.” And I thought, “Right. The universe has spoken. I think it’s time to sell out to the establishment and get into advertising.”

So I did. I applied to a very large number of ad agencies, because it wasn’t so easy to get into, particularly with no experience. I actually ended up going right back to the beginning again, and getting a job as an entry-level graduate trainee recruit at an ad agency in London. I worked at several advertising agencies. By the way, after working as an impoverished theater person, when I joined this agency in London, in the heyday of the ’80s, in the first month there I drank more champagne than I had in my entire life to date. I thought, “This is the industry for me!”

In ’89, I joined BBH in London. I realized when I joined them that this was a very special agency, but I had no idea how big they would be. First, I ran several pieces of big business for them out of London — Coca-Cola, Ray-Ban, Polaroid. In 1996, I moved to Singapore to help start and run BBH Asia Pacific, and worked as the number two person there. Then in 1998, I got my dream job, which I had put in a request for, which was to come here to New York and start BBH US. It literally began as me in a room with a phone, on my own, starting up an ad agency in the world’s toughest advertising marketplace. And my employee number two, after me, and my executive creative director, Ty Montague, who is now the chief creative officer at JWT, he had a great phrase in the early years. Whenever anybody asked us, “How’s it going?” he’d reply, “We’re having hard fun.” And that’s exactly what it was like starting up an agency in New York — hard fun. But it went very well and it was enormous fun running BBH here.

When I said earlier that I’d done all this with no thought whatsoever, in a way that’s deliberate. Very early on, I was invited to a big ad industry event. I remember looking around that hall, which was full of tables of all the big American agencies — JWT, Y&R, Grey, McCann — and I was sitting there, it was about three months after I’d moved to New York, we had a staff of about five, and I thought, “If I stop to think about what I’m trying to do here, which is launch the BBH brand into the American marketplace, if I look around at the advertising behemoths that dominate the marketplace, I’ll get so frightened, I’ll never do it.” So I thought I’d better not.

I used to say to my employees, “Our vision for BBH US is that we’re going to be the best agency in America.” Then I would think that if McCann could hear us, they’d be rolling around the floor in hysterics, laughing. But one should always have a big vision, and one should always strive to achieve it.