Cindy Gallop on not giving a damn what other people think

Cindy Gallop is an entrepreneur who runs two start-ups: Make Love Not Porn and If We Ran The World. Upon leaving university she followed her passion into the world of theatre before beginning her illustrious advertising career. For more than 15 years she grew the BBH business and expanded the agency into Asia-Pacific and the US. In 2005 – on her 45th birthday – she exited the company in a quest to try something new. What followed has been a fruitful journey into the start-up world. In 2009 Cindy launched Make Love Not Porn ( TED and it was one of the most talked about speeches at the conference. She's a staunch activist for changing the ratio of women in the workforce and at Cannes in 2015 launched the Glass Lion – an award recognizing work that addresses issues of gender inequality or prejudice, through the conscious representation of gender in advertising. She's a woman on a mission, an inspiration and an incredible role model to everyone.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
All the usual things that little girls want to be: a ballerina, an artist and a writer. I adored fragrance advertising and contemplated working in fragrances. I did also want to work in advertising. So at some point in my youth I was mildly prescient about where I might end up.

Cindy in her apartment.  Photo Credit: Matthew Williams

Cindy in her apartment. Photo Credit: Matthew Williams

Who would you most like to be stuck on a desert island with?
Any man with whom I'm having fantastic mind-blowing sex.

What single book has had the greatest impact on you? Why?
If you look around you will see I'm a bit of a book fan and I couldn’t possibly name a single book. I have always been a voracious reader. In fact I'm rather fortunate because I can speed read, which I taught myself to do when I was very young. My father fed my voraciousness by letting me read very adult stuff and I somehow taught myself to read incredibly fast. Even my father got suspicious. He would test me by giving me newspaper articles to read and then take them away and grill me on the contents, because he didn't believe I could be taking in all the information, but I did. So I scan, which has been very useful obviously at university and subsequently at work.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
It entirely depends on how jet lagged I am. Which given the fact I travel a great deal for speaking engagements means I spend a lot of my time being jet lagged. I guess on average, if my routine is normal, I go to bed around 11pm and get up between 7 and 8am. 

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
It was a total accident. I never consciously set out to do anything I found myself doing.

I read English Literature at Oxford and fell madly in love with theatre because Oxford has a thriving student drama scene. I was President of the Somerville Drama Society and did everything from writing, acting, directing and stage-managing. I was so passionate about it and decided all I wanted to do was work in theater for the rest of my life.

However, I knew I wasn't good enough to be an actress or director and I used to draw a lot when I was younger so my friends at Oxford would ask me to design theater posters for plays they were putting on. From there I got sucked into helping promote those shows which I really enjoyed doing. This led me to becoming a Theater Publicity Marketing Officer. I worked at several theaters in the UK for several years until I got completely fed up with working every hour god gave me and earning chicken feed.

At the time I was the Marketing Officer at a theater in Liverpool called The Everyman Theatre. Part of my job involved giving talks to groups of people about the theater. I gave a talk to a group of women and on this particular occasion, one of them came up to me afterwards and said "Young lady, you could sell a fridge to an Eskimo!" I saw this as the universe telling me something and decided it was time to go into advertising. So I did.

I worked in various ad agencies in London including Ted Bates, J Walter Thompson and GGT. Then in 1989 I joined Bartle Bogle Hegarty and soon came to realize I'd found a very special agency, one I was going to want to stay at for a while. I had no idea how long that would eventually turn out to be.

I worked for them in London and ran big global pieces of business for the likes of Coca-Cola, Ray-Ban and Polaroid. In 1996 I moved to Singapore to help start up and run BBH Asia-Pacific and two years later I moved to New York to start up BBH New York. I ran that for a number of years.

In 2005 I turned 45 and had my very own mid-life crisis. I do believe that 45 is kind of a mid-life point and one's 45th birthday is a good moment to pause, take stock, reflect and review where you’ve been and where you want to go. So I duly did that on February 1 2005, my birthday, and thought, "Oh my god, I've just worked 16 years for the same advertising agency." Don't get me wrong, it was a wonderful agency, I love them to death and can't say enough nice things about BBH, but I suddenly took stock and decided it was time to do something else.

Then the problem was I hadn't the faintest idea what to do next. After vast amounts of thought and angst, I eventually concluded that if I wanted to review every possible option open to me, for what would be effectively the second half of my life, maybe the best thing to do was to put myself on the market very publicly and go “here I am, what have you got?” and see what comes.

So I took a massive leap into the unknown and resigned as Chairman of BBH in the summer of 2005 without a job to go to. It was the best bloody thing I ever did because I could not be happier doing what I'm doing now. I'm reinventing myself in every possible way, including financially. I love being in charge of my own destiny. I love having ideas that I can make happen in the way that I want to make them happen. I am evangelical about working for oneself, which is what I think everybody should ultimately end up doing. That's how I ended up where I am now.

These days I am an entrepreneur. I have two early stage startups: If We Ran The World, which is my attempt to redesign the future of business, and Make Love Not Porn, which is my attempt to redesign the future of sex. They are both early stage so to support myself I work as a paid consultant and public speaker. I will speak anywhere in the world that anyone will pay me to and I'm lucky because people do pay me to speak in very interesting places.

I consult very selectively only for clients and brands that want to change the game in their particular sector. So people come to me for the radical, innovative, ground breaking and transformative. I don't do status quo. I sum up my consultancy approach as: I like to blow shit up. I'm the Michael Bay of business. That is not a bit of whimsy or creative fun, I do that entirely deliberately. I do it because I'm a great believer in "Be Your Own Filter". When I characterize what I do in that way, it attracts to me the people who want what I do and it repels the ones who don't. I sure as hell want to repel the ones who don't because they're a waste of time, effort and money.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your career or industry?
The biggest obstacle I'm dealing with at the moment continues to be the biggest obstacle I've ever encountered which is the path I'm on with Make Love Not Porn. I didn't plan to have two start-ups, they're both accidental but the second one was particularly an accident and to some extent, Make Love Not Porn found me. It's a start up the world asked for.

In scaling and growing that as a business, the single biggest obstacle that I'm encountering with a sex-tech venture is the social dynamic that I call Fear of what other people will think. It is never about what the person I'm talking to thinks. When you understand what we're doing and why we're doing it, nobody can argue with it. It is always their fear of what other people will think which operates around sex more than any other area.

Fear of what other people will think is the single most paralyzing dynamic in business and in life. You will never own the future if you care what other people think. It’s the biggest obstacle that I've been facing for sometime now and it's also the biggest obstacle that, to some extent, I've had to overcome in my life because the best moment in my life, and this was a gradual realization, was the day I realized I no longer give a damn what anybody thinks and that is the only way to live your life. 

What motivates you?
The dynamic that I call I'm going to fucking well show you. You tell me it can't be done; I'm going to fucking well show you. You put an obstacle in my path; I'm going to fucking well show you. 

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career?
I wish I'd thought about doing my own thing and working for myself a great deal earlier. I don't regret anything about my career because my experiences have shaped who I am and what I'm doing today but I would have liked to have known how wonderful working for yourself is. 

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My greatest achievement to date is what I said to my Make Love Not Porn team at the end of last year, which is, "We're still here". We fight a battle every single day to build that business essentially because every piece of business infrastructure any other start up can at least take for granted. We can't because the small print always says "No Adult Content". Every obstacle an entrepreneur or tech start up encounters, a sex-tech start up triples them. So I said to the team we should be really proud of the fact that we're still here. 

In saying that, I don't feel I've had a greatest achievement as yet. My greatest achievements will be with my two start-ups. If with If We Ran The World I can get more businesses to take on the business model of the future: shared values plus shared action equals shared profit (financial and social) and if with Make Love Not Porn we can change the way the world has sex for the better, those will be achievements I'll be really proud of.

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
I don't feel I've been successful because I'm still in it and I'm still striving. So there's no key to anything really. Initially working very hard, being absolutely determined and more recently, having the confidence to be true to myself and do what I believe is right.

What is your life motto?
The only person who can make things happen for you, is you.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Get more sleep. 

Who do you most admire in business? Why?
I admire anybody in business who has been true to themselves and made their own way. I don't believe in singling people out partly because, it's like books, there are too many. People are wonderful and I’m fortunate to encounter people all the time who have so much to admire about them.

What do you believe is the secret to rising up to the top?
It all depends on your definition of the top. I make this point a lot in the work I do to champion gender equality because when at the top of every industry is a closed loop of white guys talking to white guys about other white guys, it is entirely understandable that women and minority groups drop out before they ever reach the top. It has nothing to do with the mommy-track, the family-track or anything like that. It is everything to do with women looking at the top of industries and companies and thinking, "Who the fuck would want to work like that?"

Until we have gender-equal leadership teams at the top, we have not redesigned business to make women want to rise to the top of that particular business because life is so deeply shitty up there for many reasons. So it depends on the definition of the top. I am ferociously ambitious – many women are – and I say, design the industry you want to work in, design the company you want to work for, go and start it and get to the top of that. Only then can it be your definition of success and the top.

The top, in many ways, while it continues to be male dominated, is a deeply unpleasant, highly aggravating, very irritating, utterly ridiculous place to be and nobody should want to get to the top of it just for the sake of it.

Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
I have wonderful, very close friends that I can bare my soul to and that's absolutely who I unburden myself to when things get tough. Everyone should have those.

Do you think there are particular personality traits of women in business that should be applauded?
Yes, many, but I find it an odd question because it's a bit like asking if there are personality traits of men that should be applauded, of which I think there are too.

The syndrome of women competing with women is entirely the product of male dominated environments that are subject to what I call Highlander Syndrome, as in there can be only one. At the top of companies, the women who get up there, where the air is very rarefied, are perfectly aware there's only room for one of them.

Some years back there was an article in the Harvard Business Review about a study that was done to examine what the optimum number of women that needed to be on boards, to make a difference to the way of doing business. What this study identified was that tokenism, one woman, is useless. Nothing happens because the alien organism has to adapt to the culture around it. That one woman has no choice. She has to become like the white men around her.

Two women is not enough either and in fact there's a very entertaining story in this article about a board where there were two women and in the course of the board meeting one woman made a very good observation but at the end of the meeting, the male chairman thanked the other woman for it because we look so much alike.

What this study identified was that three or more women on a board or leadership team is the optimum towards critical mass whereby those women feel supported and flanked by each other, able to articulate their own opinions, able to make a difference. Boards with three or more women on them both the women and the men on the board reported a better quality of discussion, better business decision-making and better business outcomes.

One of the things that I advise people to do to get to gender-equality, is to bulk buy. Hire groups not individuals. Literally focus on changing the numbers significantly in one fell swoop because that's how you drive change. 

I really hesitate about generalizing about traits women have versus men but there are absolutely ways in which women tend to work more effectively than men that are desperately needed in the new world order. Collaboration and consensus building are just a start. Yes, there are "softer" values but there's also the fact that women bring a more innovative and creative approach. When you are a closed loop of white guys you get ‘same-old’ very quickly. It's my point about women challenging the status quo because we are never it. What women bring to the workplace is innovative thinking because it's different from everyone else’s thinking and we approach things differently; we have different mindsets, different insights, different world views. I say to people, if you want to do one thing right now, straight away that will instantly set your company on a more innovative path, it's very simple. Take a long hard look at your company, identify all areas within it that are all male dominated and change that. Just by changing that one thing will set you on a more innovative path. 

At the same time, I really applaud what are generally perceived to be more masculine traits in women. I had a business conversation towards the end of last year with a female friend who is a venture capitalist. I was thinking after she left what a great conversation it was. She wanted to help me find investors for Make Love Not Porn and so she was throwing out a bunch of ideas about things I could do. I have to say that I've been fighting this battle for so long that I get asked the same things all the time. So I was pushing back quite strongly with her, saying no, here's why we're not doing that, here's why that won't work. What I loved about this conversation was that when I said "no we're not doing that" she had what I suppose what might be described as a thick skin but it was just that we had an entirely business-like conversation where she put up ideas, I gave a reason why they didn't work and she went "okay fine, on to the next one".

I really appreciated being able to have that conversation with another woman in a way that men do, because men don't take things personally. It might be a sweeping generalization but men are really good at it. There are absolutely women who can do that as well. I hesitate to generalize but I would say, women who feel free to be themselves and operate in their own style within the workplace just bring a huge amount to the table whatever those styles and approaches are.

It's not about women bringing "softer" values and men bringing "harder" values. Women are just a huge asset to any company and they will bring a whole range of different skills, traits and dynamics that are enormously beneficial.

What's next?
I have a single-minded focus on raising funding for Make Love Not Porn so that we can scale and grow the business to the billion-dollar venture I know it can be. So if anybody reads this who is an open-minded investor, hit me up:


As told to Caroline Hugall at Cindy's apartment in Chelsea, New York on Thursday 4th June 2015.
Cindy's main page Portrait Photo Credit: Kevin Abosch