The Real Winners at Cannes: The Women (and Men) of the Girls' Lounge

By Tara Walpert Levy WomenAdvancing Archives

The Girls’ Lounge made my trip to Cannes this year.  I got to exchange tips on public board experience with NBCU’s Chairman of Advertising Sales and Client Partnerships, Linda Yaccarino, and Alicia Hatch, CMO of Deloitte Digital.  I connected in a relaxed environment with CMOs of several companies with whom we were experiencing particular challenges.  I was blown away by the authenticity, vulnerability and action orientation of leaders ranging from Halle Berry to IPG’s Michael Roth to Lara Balaz, the Head of NA Marketing for Visa, and inspired to bring new diversity efforts and leaders back to Google.  I helped lead a Fast Forward coaching session with Lisa McCarthy that resulted in numerous young women approaching me in the airport to share the significant impact the experience had had on them.  I shook my head in amazement as I watched leaders from two great brands, Marc Pritchard and Keith Weed, get on the same page –- at least on the importance of diversity and inclusion.  And as a bonus, I got my hair and makeup done.

I’ve been going to the Girls’ Lounge since 2014 and have seen many flashes of founder Shelley Zalis’s brilliance.  What made it magical here in Cannes is how four key elements came together.  It’s this unique combination of traits that helps the Girls’ Lounge make a difference: to create community, elevate key conversations, drive action and provide new opportunities for women.

1. It’s pragmatic

The Girls’ Lounge is the home for women at industry conferences where women have authentic, unplugged conversations and engage in activities ranging from brainstorming industry change to confidence coaching to professional styling.  I’m not ashamed to say hair and makeup were the reason I originally came to the Girls’ Lounge, though it’s not why I stayed.  And I will bet a lot of rosé that that is what brought many of my fellow executives in the door the first time, too.  The Girls’ Lounge has saved me who knows how much time and money while also making better use of my time based on whom I’m sitting next to or sometimes just the availability of high quality wi-fi!  More importantly, it’s engendered a community of women in our industry, focused on driving the connections and focus to make meaningful change around diversity and inclusion, and that is what prompted me to join the board last year.

2. It’s personal

In order to address the challenges of gender diversity in our workplace, study after study has shown we have to enable women to bring their whole selves to work.  That happens in the Girls’ Lounge.  Whether it’s because of the open, inclusive environment Shelley sets up, the fact that you have to be a little vulnerable to let your hair down in public (pun intended), or the carefully curated content Shelley and her team put together, conversations in the Girls’ Lounge are more real and move our industry forward more quickly and succinctly than almost any environment I’ve ever seen.  The signature CMO Power panel included Meredith Verdone, CMO of Bank of America; Karin Timpone, CMO of Marriott, and Antonio Lucio, CMO of HP, who quickly got to the heart of key opportunities and obstacles for advancing equality in the workplace -- both for individuals and for teams and corporations.  I loved Karin’s connection to her day job: “The first rule of hospitality is to make other people comfortable.”

3. It’s provocative

The Girls' Lounge laid down the gauntlet for advancing equality in the workplace with the Modern Guide to Equality, the second volume of which was released at Cannes.  The guide addresses the issue holistically, bringing together generational insights, workplace trends and interviews with industry leaders, and a toolkit that enables next step actions and changes.  I enjoyed watching Shelley challenge Halle Berry live to really identify where she felt vulnerable.  She shared how uncertain she felt at tables like ours where she didn’t entirely know what she was doing.  The Girls’ Lounge rallied to give her “The Skimm” version of modern-day advertising -- and many tips for the launch and growth of her app, Hallewood.  We also suggested she leave her heels in her bag while she walked the Croisette as the rest of the industry does.  I think she appreciated all the tips equally.

4. It’s productive

Here’s the thing: At the end of the day, whether you like the style of the Girls’ Lounge or not, whether you enjoy the intimacy and openness of the community or not, whether you think the content agenda is groundbreaking or not, you cannot argue with the results.  As I mentioned above, its importance is in developing and growing a community of women, elevating critical conversations about diversity and inclusion, driving action to promote equality in the workplace and beyond, and providing new visibility and opportunity for it’s many enthusiasts.  Meredith Levien says she would not have made it to the role of COO of the New York Times if not for the inspiration, push and learning she got from the Girls’ Lounge.  As a result of the Girls’ Lounge, Gail Tifford, Vice President of Media and Innovation at Unilever, co-founded with Shelley the #SeeHer movement, which along with the support of the White House and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) is helping to fight bias against women in media and advertising.

The Girls’ Lounge has had a profound impact on me, too.  It opened my eyes to why so much effort has to be put into addressing the boys’ club because I saw for the first time the power of a girls’ club.  It inspired me to get involved in community efforts and events that otherwise I would have let pass me by.  And what means the most to me is it’s introduced me to some really amazing women.  Women who are clients and board colleagues and fellow wine drinkers and friends -- but most importantly women whose wise counsel and shared experiences continually lift me up and make me confident that this industry we all love is going to lead the way on diversity and inclusion.

When we do that, we will lead on results as well.  From my vantage point, that’s worth a Cannes Grand Prix.

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