In one corner of a luxury suite in Orlando, Fla.'s Rosen Shingle Creek resort, several women are perusing clothing and jewelry. Across the room, two more women are debating nail polish colors, two are chatting while having their makeup done and one is getting a back massage. Another group of women lounge on plush couches talking quietly. Such is networking in the Ipsos Girls' Lounge.
Founded two years ago by Shelley Zalis, CEO of research company Ipsos OTX, the Girls' Lounge has become a fixture at events where major marketers, media companies and agencies gather and a haven for women from C-suite veterans to junior staffers. In Orlando, the lounge was available for the duration of the Masters of Marketing conference held by the Association of National Advertisers, a group whose members collectively spend more than $250 billion annually on marketing.
Complimentary hair, makeup, nail and massage services are always available, while other perks vary. At the ANA conference, for example, there was live entertainment, a headshot service and "The Sisterhood Closet," where women could shop for clothing and accessories.
Some feminists would certainly bristle at the sea of pink, the slumber-party vibe and the embrace of the word "girls" to describe grown women. But Ms. Zalis, a "girls' girl," says that's intentional.
"I want women to bring their femininity to the table, bring female intuition to the table," Ms. Zalis said. "A woman who wants to be a man is a waste of a woman."
Plenty of companies want to be part of the movement. Ipsos, for one, is firmly behind Ms. Zalis, who now has about 10 full-time staffers, including hair and makeup artists, dedicated to the Girls' Lounge.
"Like anything 'new,' this was met with lots of support but also some skepticism -- myself included," said Elys Roberts, CEO of Ipsos Marketing Practices U.S. "I did not take it too seriously at first, but I soon saw the positive impact it was having, and it changed my perceptions completely."
Business deals evolve organically and intimate friendships take root, Mr. Roberts said. He has clients who are "devotees" of the lounge -- and that's certainly good for business, though he says the lounge isn't necessarily a business endeavor for Ipsos. "There are a lot of benefits for our bottom line, but honestly, we don't even track ROI as it relates to the lounge," Mr. Roberts said. "Quite simply, we know that championing and supporting women in business is the right thing to do. We're all in."
Companies from Tumblr (headshots) and Atlantic Records (live music) to Hershey (chocolate) and Tequila Avión (liquor) sponsor the lounge and "give with love services that will help other women," Ms. Zalis said, but you won't see any branding.
And that seems to be a big part of the magic. In the lounge, name tags are shed, business cards are tucked away and, regardless of the budget you wield, you're just one of the girls. "There's no hierarchy. Everyone who enters is instantly part of the sisterhood, regardless of age or title," said Marjorie Schussel, corporate marketing director at Toyota. "The Girls' Lounge allows us to motivate each other and network without a predetermined agenda or sales pitch."
The Girls' Lounge has a presence at nine annual industry events, including CES, SXSW Interactive and the Cannes Lions, as well as the 4A's and ARF. In the coming months, a portable "Girls' Lounge in a box" will launch. Ms. Zalis said she plans to take the box to between 10 and 12 college and corporate campuses annually.
Ms. Zalis, the self-described "grandmother of online research," said that though she knew plenty of women in business, she didn't have a "girls' network" when she was rising the ranks. Now that she's in a position of power, she's looking to give back -- and to shine a light on important conversations like pay equality, the need for "gender intelligence" and what she likes to call "work-life styling" (noting that "balance" is overrated).
Each Girls' Lounge features a "Power Conversation," where women and sometimes men discuss those hot topics. At the ANA meeting, Dana Anderson, CMO at Mondelez; Andrew Essex, vice chairman at Droga5; Gail Tifford, senior director-media and engagement strategy at Unilever North America; and Ms. Schussel, among others, discussed broadly "the good life at work." The conversation was frank and the participants blunt. Women perched on any available surface and many took off their shoes and got comfortable on the floor.
Ms. Tifford said it's critical that women support each other as they navigate both family life and boardrooms full of men while staying on the career fast track. "If I can mentor, champion or empower other women … but be part of a bigger movement, I truly believe it can make an impact," she said, noting that Unilever is getting involved with the Girls' Lounge as part of its commitment to having a gender-balanced, engaged workforce."
It is up to us as female leaders to pave the way for the next generation of marketers. We grew up in a male-dominated industry where we often felt we had to conform or hold back to fit in," Ms. Schussel said. "It is up to us to inspire confidence in and create new rules for our own teams and future leaders, female or male."