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Unequal Pay Settlement Rocks 'Fearless Girl.' Will She Emerge Unscathed?

By Published on .

Fearless Girl.
Fearless Girl. Credit: McCann New York/State Street Global Advisors

The tables have turned on Fearless Girl. The bronze statue that captured America's attention and a plethora of ad awards is now at the center of a controversy over the very practices she stands defiantly against. State Street Corp., the parent of the company that erected Fearless Girl, is settling with the U.S. Labor Department over allegations that it paid hundreds of female and black executives less than their male and white counterparts.

The seeming hypocrisy has news outlets buzzing and social media wags are having a field day. But ad industry insiders say that while this will test how fearless 'Fearless Girl' really is, she will likely escape untarnished.

"Great creative ideas mean taking risks, but sometimes you have to shoot the messenger to get the message right," says Lisen Stromberg, chief operating officer of the 3% Conference. "State Street and its agency, McCann, took a risk to challenge the status quo with Fearless Girl. Now she is a symbol that goes well beyond either of them." Stromberg adds that "fearless girls won" with the Labor Department settlement.

According to a settlement agreement released Wednesday, the bank will pay $5 million to 305 female executives and 15 black executives based on an audit from 2012.

McCann debuted Fearless Girl, who faces down the iconic Wall Street charging bull, on the morning of International Women's Day March 8, and ever since she's been a topic of worldwide conversation. Some commended the sculpture for being a symbol of female empowerment and others viewed it as a crass corporate stunt by State Street Global Advisors. Either way, McCann took home four Grand Prix Cannes Lions this June for the effort, as well as top honors at several other shows.

"The suit would not have caught this much attention – and maybe would not have been settled – had the schadenfreude of hypocrisy over the statue (now icon) not been an element," says Ken Robinson, partner of Ark Advisors. "If anything, Fearless Girl is more important than ever. She worked."

Technically, State Street Global Advisors, the asset management brand, created the campaign with McCann – not State Street Corp. Both have their own marketing and leadership teams. But because State Street Corp. is the asset manager's parent, the Fearless Girl maker is feeling the heat from the settlement.

In a statement, State Street said it "is committed to equal pay practices and evaluates on an ongoing basis our internal processes to be sure our compensation, hiring and promotions programs are nondiscriminatory. While we disagreed with the OFCCP's analysis and findings, which are based on 2010 and 2011 data in one State Street building, we have cooperated fully with them, and made a decision to bring this six year-old matter to resolution and move forward."

McCann deferred comment to its client.

MediaLink Founder and CEO Michael Kassan says the fact that State Street is paying up means that it's learning a lesson and doing something to move forward. "The creative genius that McCann demonstrated and the inspiration the statue gave the world should stand on its own," he says. "It should not be tarnished by this."

Says one female agency CEO: "Nobody's perfect, particularly giant institutions. But at least they did the right thing. And if you think sitting on the sidelines and throwing rocks at brands that are trying to drive positive change and make something better happen is the way to go, you can expect nothing good to ever happen."

She adds that if she was in McCann's shoes, she would consult with her client and maybe not wind up doing anything. "They never admitted they did anything wrong; just that they decided to settle to put the matter to rest. Sometimes you just have to ride it out."

Another industry executive who wished to remain anonymous says that the public likes the statue for what it stands for and "that does not change."

"The irony of it being paid for by a company who themselves were doing some of the stuff that the statue symbolizes as needing to change... oh well," the executive says. "In a way, perhaps having paid for that statue is part of their penance for their actions."

Diversity advocate Cindy Gallop, who is a consultant and founder of IfWeRanTheWorld, however, says that marketers need to be aware of their own situations before launching one of these campaigns. "This is a timely reminder for our industry that the way forward is not to do campaigns about diversity, panels about diversity, content about diversity, but to focus on hiring, promoting and including diversity. Don't talk diversity, be it."

Stromberg thinks this should motivate McCann and other agencies to learn from this and start "conducting wage audits to ensure they can walk the talk on wage equity."

Going forward, more companies, according to R3 Principal Greg Paull, are going to need to take the lead from companies like HP, "where diversity is now an open book."

Paull also says that McCann should use its own internal talents and tools to apply crisis-management disciplines to help State Street move forward.

So far, damage control seems to be what's needed most. The agency and brand has been a topic of conversation on Twitter, with some people calling for McCann to return its Cannes Lions. Representatives from Cannes Lions declined to comment and McCann has not yet responded to any of the tweets. Check out a few below.

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