How rebranding feminism changed my view on everything

An advertising executive comes clean


As one of the youngest Executive Creative Directors in Advertising, Alex Holder works with clients such as Budweiser, YouTube, Universal Music and Procter&Gamble. She’s also been responsible for a string of viral sensations such as reproducing Mills and Boon covers.  Then, last year, ELLE tasked Alex and her team to ‘rebrand’ feminism. Confronting the gender inequalities she had perpetuated was career and life-changing...


by Alex Holder

I once wrote an advert in which Neanderthal women throw a party after discovering stilettos. I’ve sat in meetings where I’ve agreed that the actress is too old for a yoghurt advert. I’ve chosen men to do voiceovers on adverts because they seem more generically 'human' than a woman. I’ve cast hot women to be married to remarkably ordinary men, but never the other way round.

I call myself a feminist. But I am a complete contradiction.


Every day I become more aware of the ridiculous inequalities I’ve perpetuated. In the past (I can’t believe I’m admitting this) I’ve agreed we shouldn’t cast a woman as a boss/dentist/doctor as it makes you think about the character too much. What was I thinking? That a woman being anything other than a beautiful prop will confuse people?

Working in advertising means I do things that compromise my feminist ideals everyday. I guess this also means that I have to ask myself: can I come out fighting for equality when I’m part of the problem? Many people would say no. But what if the best place to change things is from the inside?

In 2013, ELLE came to the agency I was working at and asked the team - myself and fellow creatives, Katie McKay and Liam Fay-Fright, to rebrand feminism.

Previously, I’d not really engaged with the word. But the brief made me look at lots of things I’d just accepted without question: the lack of female bosses (I’d had one wonderful female creative director – one!); the funny roles I’d written just for men; the fact that I dressed like a man for important meetings, for fear that a skirt would lose me some credibility.

There was a moment of realisation – I needed feminism. Not just the definition, but the word, too, because the word gives us something to rally behind.

So we started to discuss how we’d ever answer the brief. It wasn’t lost on the group, which consisted of men and women, young and old, that a fashion magazine and an advertising agency coming together to rebrand a complex political and social ideology might feel slightly disingenuous. But every single person in that room, men included, described themselves as a feminist.

If you look hard at the opportunity, a magazine with mass appeal and an agency whose core skill is changing people’s behaviour, you have a potent mix that could make a real world difference. The fact that the brief came from ELLE really appealed to me. I dye my hair blonde, I wear fake tan, I was not (what I thought of as) a feminist poster girl. Yet, am I any less of a feminist when wearing eyeliner? I don’t think so. But for many years, the word feminist came with a whole load of baggage.


Our Make Them Pay campaign, which encouraged women to ask their male colleagues what they earned, highlighted the gender pay gap. It gave women an actual reason for needing feminism.

And it worked. Minister For Women And Equalities Jo Swinson MP sided with us and David Cameron made a statement in support of the campaign. Who says women’s magazines are useless?

Being a feminist and believing in gender equality should be the default. The word is now being widely adopted and, thankfully, in just a year, the original brief ‘to rebrand feminism’ has come to feel outdated.

This autumn, there's another thing to tackle. We want to get men identifying as feminists. Just as Emma Watson highlighted with her UN #HeForShe campaign, gender stereotypes don’t just affect girls. Feminism is about equality, which affects everyone, not just men or women. The pay gap prevents men from being stay-at-home fathers, just as much as it forces women to stay at home with their children.

So we invented #mydadthefeminist. My dad was the first person to point out to me how sexist fairytales and traditional wedding ceremonies are. He sewed and cooked while my mum took rubbish to the tip. Jobs and responsibilities were never divided by gender in our family.

Getting women thinking about their dads, and getting men (especially new fathers) thinking about their daughters through the lens of feminism, will hopefully make people realise that feminism is not just a female issue. Men and women live in the same world, and equality will only happen when everybody wants it (and yoghurt ads stop portraying women as excitable puppies obsessed with firefighters and low fat dessert).

After opening up the word to more women, we wanted to create a campaign that opened up it up to men and to different generations. For some, identifying as a feminist can feel divisive. But it’s different, and perhaps easier, to celebrate a family member or a friend as one. A friend described the campaign as 'nice', (usually a bland term) but in this case they're right. There are different ways of provoking debate around feminism, some more forceful than others. For this campaign, however, we wanted to gently get people thinking about equality across genders.

So these are just two campaigns in a sea of ads I’ve written for brands. In no way do they balance out the bad. I know that. But the more I work for feminism, the more I’m aware of the times I’ve worked against it.

Together ELLE’s Rebranding Feminism project and the December Feminism Issue have reached over 300 million people.

I believe they’ve been part of the turning tide of feminism – more people are identifying with the word, Google searches of the definition are up 300% on last year. Hopefully we’re moving towards feminism being the default stance, rather than something you have to fight for.

I know working on these campaigns has definitely changed how I do things. When I’m next casting for the part of a chief executive, I will think of what #mydadthefeminist would say, and how he would scoff if I unthinkingly went for a man.

I promise not to write ads where young women are ecstatic about a low calorie yoghurt. I promise not to save all the funny roles for boys. I promise not to think of women simply as beautiful props. I promise to make my work place a place where every human – male or female – is treated with equality. 

Alex Holder is Executive Creative Director at Anomaly London

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