Jess Weiner on the Future of Influence

As a young girl, Jess Weiner never felt as though she was represented in the advertising and media surrounding her. That’s why she started Talk to Jess, a consultancy that educates corporations on how to shape their conversations around women. As a self esteem expert, writer, and educator, she’s hopeful about the power individuals have in the palms of their hands as media producers and is excited about the systemic shifts taking place that will result in more authentic marketing for both women and girls. She anticipates a future that is much more inclusive, diverse, and shaped by consumers, rather than corporations.

How did you get started as a self-esteem expert and brand consultant?

I’ve been a social entrepreneur for 22 years, and my work focus has always been around women, girls, and confidence. I came to be interested organically from my own experience as a girl growing up, loving media and advertisements, but never really seeing myself, or what I looked like, or the stories I told, or the friends that I had represented. I remember that having an impact on me as a young girl, so as I grew up I became really interested in:

Who makes those decisions? Who decides what to tell in each story? How do those stories get shared with others?

This eventually lead me to the path of media and marketing and advertising, but my area of expertise has always been in the conversations that women and girls have with each other and about ourselves, and the conversations that culture has. Now, I can bring my voice and many other women’s voices to the table to help shape products and messaging and campaigns. I’m still shaping and moving conversations around women, but I’m doing it within the existence of very large partners who have very large platforms.

How do you take the messages of confidence and self love and translate them into something actionable that a brand can use?

Something I’ve always been really good at is drilling the macro down to the micro. As a writer, as a speaker, and as an educator, I like to take very large, heady concepts and break them down into actions. So when I work with brands, I help them look at large concepts like women’s ideals of beauty and break them down into an ecosystem of what’s really going on for the woman in question. It’s not just that women wake up one day and don’t like their bodies and don’t feel pretty enough. There’s a full system in place that trains them to have a specific mindset that comes from their family, friends, culture, or the media they consume.

There are so many touchpoints that can impact what a woman thinks and feels about her beauty.

One of things that I maintain with all my clients is that not every brand or business is designed to take on a direct conversation with women and girls. You have to come from a place where you’re either really ready to do the work and make the change, or I think you just shouldn’t do it.

There’s nothing worse than an empty, zero-calorie message for women. We smell it, we’re very savvy.

How do you break through those empty messages and shape meaningful narratives?

We have to remember that most companies, in general – unless they’re a triple bottom line business or specifically dedicated to helping women – are selling their own products or services. So they work in a vacuum and have their own marketing teams, but their job isn’t to survey culture in the broadest sense or listen to fringe conversations and activist groups and follow emerging trends. Maybe businesses should do that, but the reality is they’re so busy selling or making their own product. So where we come in as an ally or a partner is that we help translate the trends that are happening in culture.

Jess Weiner

For example, moms care about the messages being sent to their daughters. So when moms are upset about a specific character or product being hyperseuxalized or artificial, they might respond by doing a petition or boycott, but the company – although they’re on the receiving end of it – won’t necessarily understand the “why.” They’ll just want to get into PR reaction to stay safe. So we come in to translate for them and tell them why a certain thing is striking such a nerve. And then we look at their business objectives and work to meet and match them.

Do you think there’s a shift happening in how companies are going to be approaching these issues?

100%. A lot of things are changing. Firstly, every person sits on their own media empire both collectively and individually. Oftentimes, consumers have more of a following on social media than most brands do because everyday they’re the media and content creators. This is what’s changing things so dramatically. Before, advertising had a lot more control over where their messages went and how they were received – but now we have a lot of people as the messenger. There’s an empowerment shift that’s happening, and this can be very powerful in business, but they need to figure out how to get ahead of that. It’s also a very powerful player in how the conversation can change – other people can now have voices and bring those voices to the table.

What we have to be careful about, though, is the uptick in “go girl marketing” and branded campaigns that are focused on empowering women. And while I would prefer those campaigns over any that are overly sexualized or demote women in any way, they can be equally as dangerous, because when it’s hollow and empty, it can be what I call SFSN – sound fabulous, but signify nothing. I worry that, for younger generations, while they’re digital natives, they may not have enough media literacy to decipher some of the messaging that’s coming their way. I hope it doesn’t become an easy out to just slap a “go girl” message on a campaign and send it out the door.

As we focus on the next 20-50 years, how do you think girls and women will be influenced in the future? What will be their resources?

I hope we see that, in the next 20 years, we don’t have to see our marketing as divided so sharply between boys, girls, women, and men. What that has produced, despite having doubled the marketplace, is a marginalization of the genders and stereotypes around gender that don’t need to exist, especially at a young age.

I’m hoping that one of the trends that turns out to be a new pathway for business is a more gender neutral approach to promoting or advertising products based on the attributes that a user might need, want, or be connected to, and rely less on overly sexual or gender-based stereotypes.

So a girl can dream! We have a long way to go because we don’t have enough women in creative director roles and advertising C-suites who are behind the content, but we are moving toward that. Leadership is changing in general. An emotional connection and emotional intelligence is becoming more and more central. It’s really moving from a kind of dictatorship to a social kind of community building, a reflection of how connected we are 24/7 with our communities online. I’m incredibly excited about the entrepreneurial boom that women have been leading and will continue to lead. When women get funding and the right access, there’s a lot of innovation that can happen and a different way of doing business.

With this hyper-connected world that we’re living in, where do you see the media going by 2040?

We’ll see the complete disintegration of the monopoly in media and we’ll see a massive democratization in who is telling the story.

There is still a tremendous disparity in the media that we consume.

We still predominantly see caucasian faces and thin bodies and males in lead roles. The stories have been told through a single lens for so long that, when I look at 2040, or even 2020 and 2025, I see an incredible broadening of story happening.

Our world is shifting demographically. By 2042, the majority in the United States will no longer be caucasian. We’ll have physically different looking people around us, and this will change the way we tell stories. Our handheld devices and the way we are quickly able to produce content will continue to impact the media landscape. We make fun of the younger generations and their obsessions with things like Snapchat, but these kinds of platforms will be key to media production in the future.

Is there anything else you want to add to our feature, “The Future According to Women”?

I think “The Future According to Women” will focus on the idea of generosity, but not in the stereotypical way that women are always seen as givers. I think women can heal the world. There’s a great generosity that comes with female leadership and a different kind of compassion. Especially right now in a world that’s so divisive, I’m hoping women are able to herald more generous communication, business practices, and a more balanced lifestyle. Women have a lot to share with regards to balancing work and family life and rethinking the workday and what it means to be a leader and a woman. I hope we continue to cultivate that kind of experience.

I’m an activist at heart, so I’ll always continue to work on the ground with women and girls because that’s what feeds my soul. I’m so excited to see the storytellers of tomorrow, and we have to change the systems of today in order to ensure that these girls are fully heard and fully represented.

the author

Mira Blumenthal

Mira Blumenthal is lead editor, communications at MISC.