The story behind Fearless Girl

Fearless Girl appeared with no warning on Wall Street in New York on March 7 this year, the day before International Women’s Day. The diminutive sculpture was positioned deliberately in juxtaposition with the iconic Charging Bull sculpture, itself a piece of guerilla art, placed within New York’s financial centre by the artist Arturo Di Modica in 1989. The Fearless Girl is shown squaring up to the bull, in a clear act of strength and defiance.

Unlike the bull, however, Fearless Girl began life as a marketing campaign. It was created by McCann New York for asset management company State Street Global Advisors, which is the third largest asset management firm in the world. Speaking at a talk at the Facebook Beach at this year’s Cannes Lions, alongside McCann New York Managing Director Devika Bulchandani and Global Creative Chairman Rob Reilly, State Street’s CMO Stephen Tisdale explained the work’s relevance to the firm.

“We have a very interesting dilemma, because we are unknown but we have a lot of amazing things that we do that we’ve not been very good at communicating,” he explained.

Among these is a policy to promote gender diversity on the boards of the companies State Street owns on behalf of investors and a product, SHE, which invests in companies where a significant majority of the leadership are women, at senior levels or on the board. “Because organisations that have diverse leadership outperform organisations that don’t, that’s a proven fact,” says Tisdale.

Fearless Girl

The brief to McCann New York was to articulate this product in a way that would be relevant in the wider world. The agency’s response was Fearless Girl. It was a radical solution but, somewhat to Bulchandani’s surprise, proved easy to sell in to the company, at least to Tisdale.

“It took him 30 seconds to say ‘we’re doing it’,” she explained. “To do these kinds of things you need bravery on the client side and you need the trust.”

The job of persuading the rest of State Street to back the idea then became Tisdale’s. Despite his enthusiasm for it, he met with some initial resistance and concern. “There was a lot of concern about ‘are we really the poster child for this?’,” he said. “Even though we have this rock solid foundation that’s there, we’re going to be putting it out there and there’s going to be a lot of people who are going to be very cynical.”

Bulchandani stresses that the agency would never have suggested the idea unless the firm was already addressing gender diversity in its work. “It’s really important when you’re talking about issues to actually have something from the client to back it up with as opposed to just something fuzzy,” she said.

Reilly also made the point that State Street aren’t trying to ‘own’ feminism in the financial industry, but merely begin a long-overdue conversation about it. “It wasn’t State Street saying ‘hey industry, you need to be more gender diverse’,” he said. “It was ‘no, we need to be more diverse’…. Finally someone is starting this and we have to start somewhere.”

Once State Street was on board, the most pressing challenge was finding an artist that could deliver an appropriate statue in bronze in the few months before International Women’s Day. Everyone in the team felt this needed to be a woman, and luckily they found Kristen Visbal, who, perhaps unsurprisingly, responded with a “hell yeah” when asked if she would take on the challenge.

Fearless Girl
Fearless Girl

The details of the sculpture were seen as crucial to its effectiveness. “It had to be in bronze,” explained Reilly. “There were discussions, because of the timing, to maybe just use resin … but resin was going to be horrible. Then the patina – we went to the foundry who did the bull, and it’s the exact same patina. The same foundry did the girl, it was really important that it looked exactly the same.”

Another challenge was the naming of the sculpture, which was debated up to a few days before Fearless Girl went live. “I think the original name was the ‘SHE Makes The Difference’ statue,” said Reilly. “I was like ‘that doesn’t seem that sticky’ … and it was really designed to live in social. We designed her to be mimicked, so little girls could easily mimic this, and her name was important – it was easily hashtagged. These things were done very specifically…. I said, ‘people are going to name her anyway, so we better name her’. She’s have ended up becoming bronze girl, or Wall Street Girl.”

The agency had to get a permit to install her, a process that was complicated by a last minute decision to place her on the street on March 7, the day before International Women’s Day, after a strike by women on March 8 was announced. Initially the permit only allowed her to be in place for two weeks though this was extended before it then got accepted into the art programme at the Department of Transportation in NYC, meaning it will stay in place for at least a year.

“The goal was to keep it up forever but what’s interesting was if we’d tried to get it up forever [from the start], it would have come down within a week,” said Reilly. “I say good luck taking her down now after a year.”

The response to the arrival of Fearless Girl was immediate and intense. Opportunities for selfies were swiftly taken up by tourists, and its feminist message was largely understood and accepted.

The work had its critics, however. Complaints included scepticism around State Street’s connection, both to the artwork and to wider ideas of feminism, and others expressed frustration that the sculpture depicted a small girl rather than a grown woman.

Its largest detractor though was Arturo Di Modica, the artist behind the bull, who complained that Visbal’s work had hijacked and violated his sculpture and called it an “advertising trick”. This is an important point: while few would argue against the powerful message of diversity within the work, its connection to a brand does undoubtedly complicate the message. For a period, a plaque explaining Fearless Girl’s link to State Street and the product SHE was displayed next to the sculpture but this has now been removed, raising the question of how many visitors will realise its origins as a piece of branding at all.

When the question of Di Modica’s complaints was raised at the talk, Bulchandani felt it was a missed opportunity for him to engage with the work and its message of contemporary feminism in a changing world. “I think he had a great opportunity to say that when he put the bull down 30 years ago, America was a different place, corporate America was a different place. Women have a role today in that world so Fearless Girl is part of that story but a new part of that American success story.”

“That was our view as well,” said Tisdale. “The girl’s not shaking her fist at the bull. The bull has always represented a growing market but we’re now in a day and age where that market is going to expand exponentially when you get more participation, greater gender diversity…. We always felt it was really a continuation and an expansion of the statement around the can-do spirit of America.”

Whether future viewers of the work will remember that Fearless Girl was connected to a Wall Street firm could be said to be a moot point, however. According to Tisdale, the company has benefitted hugely from her already, both in terms of internal attitudes towards diversity and in the brand’s wider perception. The brand and McCann New York say they have further plans for her, though Reilly is also keen for her to always remain in her place on Wall Street, squaring up to the bull.

If she does, it seems most likely that she will go on to be co-opted by New York as a much-loved piece of public art, with her advertising origins consigned to an entry on Wikipedia.

Fearless Girl has won Grand Prix awards in PR, Glass Lions and Outdoor at Cannes Lions so far; Photograph top by Federica Valabrega, courtesy of State Street Advisors

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