Joan London proves the power of diverse thinkers

Joan London’s Tom Ghiden and Kirsty Hathaway on why culture is the new viral video, the power of reality TV and the danger of forgettable advertising

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


On the 7th of November last year, Joan London and Luna Daily projected the word ‘Vulva’ onto The Tate Modern’s chimney. In an industry in which a new agency launch has for too long been accompanied by a photo of a bunch of men on any given London stairwell, the campaign was a statement of intent that Joan London was not about empty promises. The mantra of doing things differently was clearly about more than just a positioning document.

Joan is a female-founded agency. The fact that even in 2024 that makes it different is proof of the ongoing say-do gap when it comes to building an inclusive industry. The truth remains that the female lens is still a rarity. Joan’s founders Lisa Clunie and Jaime Robinson have built the agency's reputation on two of the most powerful words in the English language: ‘Why Not?’

While the UK agency is adamant it is not simply a carbon copy of the NY office, a commitment to creating culture has successfully crossed the Atlantic. Notably with the ‘Vulva Therapy’ campaign the team also needed to navigate the barriers in the way of the campaign. Namely that some media channels simply refused to run it. 

The campaign was inspired by Luna Daily’s research which found that people felt more embarrassed talking about their vulva than they do talking about their sex life or how much they earn. Such squeamishness is directly causing health issues, meaning that one in three women is not attending routine cervical screenings, citing embarrassment as the reason.

Kirsty Hathaway, Executive Creative Director at Joan London, explained that the pandemic brought with it a genuine change in how to connect with people and the way in which brands can really challenge the status quo.

“The pandemic saw community building and customer acquisition in a way that really hasn’t been seen before,” she explains.

While some trend commentators have been quick to declare the death of direct-to-consumer brands, Hathaway takes a more nuanced approach. “There is a genuine ambition amongst brands to have a digital conversation in different spaces,” she explains.

It is an audience-first approach which underpins Joan London’s offering. Hathaway brings an editorial lens to the business, as a former Vice President of Creative at Refinery29. Tom Ghiden, who was previously Head of Business Leadership at McCann London, took on the role of Managing Director. Ghiden, who has worked at agencies including AMV BBDO, Grey Group and Saatchi & Saatchi New York, credits Hathaway’s editorial-first approach.

“We were so excited to launch in the UK because we can make some really exciting work here and bring that independent point of view,” explains Ghiden.

So much money has gone into creating work that is completely unmemorable.

Kirsty Hathaway, Executive Creative Director at Joan London

Beyond the backlash

Yet Joan’s arrival on the London creative scene comes at a challenging and contradictory time for the industry. From the ongoing pressure of the cost of living crisis to brands’ concerns over cancel culture, creative bravery isn’t easy.

Ghiden agrees that fear of backlash is holding brands back creatively. “How brands show up is so important and we are definitely seeing more concerns over backlash.”

Indeed online toxicity and bullying were tackled head-on by Joan London in a campaign for The Cybersmile Foundation. The campaign ‘Modern Witch Trials’ aimed to raise awareness of online harassment and start conversations about how to deal with toxic behaviour.

For Hathaway, the most important thing for brands to recognise is that a fear of backlash is leading to bland work. She points to research from System 1 showing that almost half (48%) of consumer responses to ads were completely neutral. “So much money has gone into creating work that is completely unmemorable.”

“If you are creating completely unmemorable work, you are spending money to have no impact. The question is how do we get the bravery to stand out in any given sector and how do you really show that audience-first approach.”

An audience-first approach

For Ghiden an audience-first approach comes hand in hand with a genuine respect for that audience rather than the status quo of marketing and media.

“Lisa and Jaime started Joan to break systems and [the agency] comes from a place of rebellion, particularly when it comes to the way in which you capture attention,” says Ghiden.

It is quickly clear that this audience-first approach is not just about grabbing an unfair share of attention, it is equally rooted in a genuine respect and understanding for people. Ghiden points to research from Accenture which shows that 70% of people want to see brands take a stand on issues they care about.

“The thing about Joan is that we have a real belief in diversity of thought. Of course, that means we are diverse in race, sexuality and gender. As one of the only female-founded agencies, diversity is at the heart of what we do. That lived experience matters,” explains Ghiden.

Pointing to the ‘very different perspective’ that Hathaway brings with her editorial lens, he credits their partnership with pushing each other and brands in different directions. That creative conflict is crucial to success. “Audiences are different, they engage differently. We are not a homogenous group where we all live in Wimbledon and have the same experiences. We have that real sense of difference,” he explains.

Connecting with culture has become the new ‘create a viral video’ moment in marketing.

Tom Ghiden, Managing Director of Joan London

Leaning out of an unforgettable loop

It is the loop of sameness that Joan London is so passionate about breaking. “The big point is just how much advertising is forgettable. We are living in a world where people are actively looking to avoid advertising,” says Hathaway.

It’s an ecosystem which goes some way to explain the industry-wide focus on brands connecting with culture. Yet are parts of the industry guilty of adopting the language of culture, while continuing to uphold status quo broadcast marketing messaging?

“Connecting with culture has become the new ‘create a viral video’ moment in marketing,” explains Ghiden. “There are clearly concerns with the industry’s one-size-fits-all approach to culture, the truth is culture is constantly changing and that is the challenge,” he adds.

Ghiden says that in this fast-changing ecosystem, the challenge for both big brands and big agency networks alike is to embrace a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach to culture.

When cultural conversations can change so quickly Hathaway believes it is important for brands and agencies alike to recognise that culture is not a blanket term. “The pandemic has shown that overnight the world can change completely. That is why it is important to recognise the fragility of culture and recognise that having the right ears to the ground is vital,” says Hathaway.

For Ghiden this means that brands should beware of embracing what he describes as ‘culture with a capital C’. “When you are thinking about culture what you are really looking at is the audience and the brand consistency with that audience. That needs attention.”

It's a continual focus and curiosity that is about more than just a data point. “We are very data-driven today, more so than any other time in our collective history,” explains Hathaway. She notes that while this data can provide understanding it is vital to recognise that it is historical data. In this way, brands relying on data alone to create a cultural roadmap are in danger of asking the past for a blueprint to the future.

“It is our job to understand the next iteration of that data. To use our knowledge, our instincts and our gut. That is why diversity of thought is so important,” adds Hathaway.

She continues: “There are so many whitepapers you can read. It is about conversations, curiosity and real life.”  

This curiosity is core to the agency’s ethos and culture. While Hathaway is never not listening to a new podcast Ghiden is passionate about leading with human conversations and learning from sectors outside of advertising. He points to the narrative arc and human connection of reality TV as one such example.

When Joan is in the business of ‘creating modern legends’ it is refreshing that the full diversity of culture is included in that lens. As Hathaway explains; 'Curiosity is about real life.’ Because, it’s in those real moments, whether a reality TV show or the chimney of the Tate Modern, that you can make the kind of meaningful connections that create genuine change.

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