Early Takeaways from the Ad Council’s New STEM Diversity Campaign

Replacing a long-standing, single-client model with a broad-based coalition, the Ad Council’s new public service campaign aims to inspire girls to pursue STEM education and careers.
SWE Member Featured in #SheCanSTEM Campaign

By Jon Reisfeld, SWE Contributor

Recently, the Ad Council took a big step toward making middle schools the future breeding ground for new generations of women leaders in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). It launched “She Can STEM” — an ambitious, new public service campaign to make STEM cool and inspiring to girls.

In the process, the Ad Council abandoned the single-client business model that it had used for nearly three-quarters of a century to produce and distribute such iconic, game-changing campaigns as Smokey Bear, which helped the National Park Service reduce annual acres lost to wildfires from 22 million in 1944, to 8.5 million in 2000. Its famous “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste” campaign for the United Negro College Fund is another example. That effort helped raise $2.2 billion dollars to pay for more than 400,000 minority student college educations.

For “She Can STEM,” the Ad Council replaced that tried-and-true model with something completely new: a broad-based coalition of partners led, in this instance, by such top global tech brands as GE, Google, IBM, Microsoft, and Verizon.

It’s probably still too soon to tell whether the campaign’s creative is having its desired effect on the middle-school girls it targets. After all, the campaign launched barely a month ago. But, in at least one respect, it’s already a success: It looks like its new coalition- based organizing model is here to stay.

A More Unifying Approach to Bigger Issues

Michelle Hillman, chief campaign development officer for the Ad Council, says that’s really not a surprise. The coalition approach, she said, enables the Ad Council to “leverage the resources of the corporate and nonprofit communities to create something bigger, different, and more unifying than what any member of those groups could do on its own. We’re starting to see companies and partners throwing themselves into these bigger issues. They want to rally together with their peers, their competitors. It’s a nice model because you can bring together a lot of brands that normally compete but put their differences aside to be part of an Ad Council campaign for the greater good, that allows everyone to get more of a voice and more of an impact.”

Hillman said the Ad Council will continue to use the single-client model when and where appropriate. But she explained that the coalition approach is particularly well-suited for “big, ginormous issues that are harder to solve one nonprofit at a time. It requires a bigger collection of voices from the nonprofit community.”

At the beginning of the “She Can STEM” project, Hillman said, her team looked for a traditional, single nonprofit client to work with, only to learn that, while many nonprofits operate in the STEM diversity space, “it was hard to find one that could afford to fund the campaign.”

The Hard Truth about Hard Costs

Early Takeaways from the Ad Council’s New STEM Diversity CampaignShe explained that while much of the campaign costs are free — advertising agencies typically donate their creative services and media outlets often provide as much as $30 million a year collectively in free media exposure per campaign — hard campaign costs still exist. These can include such things as the setup and maintenance of websites and other online assets, content development, and costs associated with performing campaign activations.

Without a readily available, single nonprofit partner, the Ad Council decided to look elsewhere, in this case, to members of its marketing leadership board. “We put on a road show to see if we could bring some of them together around the issue,” Hillman said. “GE, Google, IBM, Microsoft, and Verizon all jumped at it, and we went from there.”

These big companies, she said, “all have their own STEM initiatives at the heart of what they do.” But they soon recognized that they could achieve greater overall impact and exposure if they worked together within the Ad Council’s initiative. They agreed to fund the campaign’s hard costs, which included promoting the campaign through their own channels and producing online and offline activations to support the campaign at launch and throughout its life cycle. The sheer size of their combined workforces, online presence, and followings meant that their online promotions would likely increase the campaign’s overall online visibility and social-media impact.

Nonprofit Outreach

With the brand partners signed up, the Ad Council next formed partnerships with eight nonprofit groups engaged in advancing women’s and girls’ causes. In addition to SWE, they included: Black Girls Code, ChickTech, Girls Inc., Girl Scouts, Girls Who Code, the National Center for Women and Information Technology, and The New York Academy of Sciences. The Ad Council approached them during the data-gathering phase of the campaign and sought their advice on the issues and the target audience. They also provided content and resources for distribution on the girls’ Instagram page and on the website for parents, partners, and teachers. Some helped the Ad Council establish speakers’ bureaus as well as other grassroots level programming and activities.

SWE has been promoting the campaign through its social media channels, encouraging members to serve as role models, both in the campaign and through SWE activations, and by making SWE programming and resources — such as “Invent It. Build It.” and the SWENext program — available online.

SWE's Enthusiastic Support

Karen Horting, CAE, SWE executive director and CEO, said she was excited to see that the Ad Council had taken the coalition-based approach to the campaign. “Any time you can use the collective impact model to drive change, you are going to be more successful,” she said. “I love the public/private partnership aspect of the campaign, and I love that the Ad Council has gotten employers involved in this effort. The corporate sponsors are well-respected, recognized brands. If they are going to have the future talent to drive innovation, they need to support early pipeline efforts like this.”

From Campaign to Movement

Horting said the Ad Council campaign, with its equivalent of $30 million in annual media buys, its broad-based coalition, and its unifying creative message, provides timely and much- needed visibility to all groups pushing to advance STEM diversity. “It’s very important,” she said. “The numbers for women in engineering are stubbornly stuck at just 12 percent of the workforce. We need to engage and encourage more young women to purse STEM careers. And one of the best ways to do that is through role models. You have to see it to be it. And you have to meet young women where they are, and social media is a great way to do that.”

The coalition-based model is relatively new. The Ad Council first used it in 2015 for its highly successful “Love Has No Labels” diversity and inclusion campaign. Because the Ad Council serves as the client in the coalition-based model and owns the creative, it can form working groups to help fund the project costs and then share use of the messaging with the working group. The video for “Love Has No Labels” became one of the 10 most-watched YouTube videos in 2015. The following year, it received the Emmy Award for best commercial. 

Hillman said the Ad Council, which has received interest from “a lot of government agencies and corporations other than the initial partners,” hopes to keep adding to its coalition. “We’re really hoping to create a movement for She Can STEM,” she said.

The plan, she explained, is to focus, first, on getting the campaign launched and taking care of “the people who have been in the inner circle of development” before branching out further. “From there,” she said, “it’s how can we expand, extend. We’re happy to do webinars. We’re happy to take prospective partners through the campaign and help figure out how to integrate it into their work-flow and make the assets available.”

The “She Can STEM” assets include a partner toolkit, a partner website (www. SheCanSTEM.com), the display ads, and 30-second spots featuring the female role models, as well as a unique STEM logo created by the McCann ad agency that contains all four STEM letters and can enlarge the ones that represent the individual STEM disciplines and skill sets mastered by each role model.

“We want to expand to others in the STEM diversity space, who are doing good and who want to join in and amplify our efforts,” Hillman said, adding that there are no limits. “For us, it’s the more the better.”

“She Can STEM” Encourages Girls to Make a Connection to Someone Amazing — Who’s Just Like You!

The McCann ad agency creative team behind the “She Can STEM” public service campaign had a lot to think about, including: How do you wow a modern-day, 11-year-old girl, who’s smart, thinks she’s 15, and can Google any information she needs with a few taps on her cell phone? Michelle Hillman, the Ad Council chief campaign development officer, who worked with the team, says its members focused on delivering “real stories about the achievements of seven inspiring and accomplished women to create a sense of relevance and connection.” The women were often presented in ways that made them seem cool and unexpected.

The team took great pains, Hillman said, to select women from a broad range of backgrounds who do work spanning the entire STEM spectrum. They came up with seven originals. One, Tiera Fletcher, is a structural analysis engineer with The Boeing Company whose work — designing massive components for a future Mars-bound spacecraft — truly is out of this world. Another, the unconventional Lucianne Walkowicz, Ph.D., is an astronomer at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium who currently sports pink hair. And Maya Gupta, Ph.D., in stark contrast to Dr. Walkowicz, is a soft- spoken, considerably more subdued Google Research scientist working in AI. The campaign is presented in a cool, earthy color palette full of warm browns, reds, and blues, geared to complement the taste of middle-school girls.

The campaign often uses the element of surprise to challenge any obsolete, self-limiting stereotypes the girls might harbor. Take, for instance, the 30-second spot in which a group of young girls meets Bonnie Ross, only to learn the young woman is head of development for Microsoft’s Halo Game Studio. Ross shows them a middle-school picture of herself and says, “I wasn’t a math genius, and I knew nothing about coding. But you guys do.” When one of the girls announces, “I want your job!” Ross smiles and says, “I want you to have my job!”

The next stop takes the girls to the campaign’s Instagram page, where they can explore resources or discover new women STEM role models.

Watch #SheCanSTEM videos on SWE's YouTube Channel.