The Importance of Being Earnest


Yesterday, I was honored to be inducted into Beta Gamma Sigma, the international honor society for business colleges and universities. I was awarded the national Medallion of Entrepreneurship by the Saint Joseph’s University chapter, my alma mater. And I am proud and grateful.

For lots of reasons. First, I was never in a sorority, let alone a fraternity (could I have been?), so even though this one doesn’t come with parties or the ability to get pinned, it’s really cool. (And there’s no hazing that I know of.) Second, it was great to be saluted as an entrepreneur. As I said in my remarks, I wasn’t the 8 year old in my neighborhood with a super successful lemonade stand. I’m a corporate refugee who was looking to build a life and work that I’d love to live in. So, being honored for what our company has become was especially sweet, especially on the brink of our 10th anniversary of Just Ask a Woman.

But the best part of all was learning that the award was given to someone who demonstrated honor, wisdom and earnestness. I’ll leave the first two for their kind words, but I have to speak up about earnestness. I love that. I’ve been wearing my heart on my sleeve my entire career and this is the first time anyone said it was a good idea. To me, earnestness is wholeheartedly throwing your best intentions and actions against what you do. And I’ve been trying my darndest to do that my whole life. So, Beta Gamma Sigma and Saint Joe’s, thanks for saying it’s good to take business personally. Feels so nice!

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LAUGH in the face of fear


Today The Wall Street Journal featured some plucky entrepenours who are making money by selling creative, recession wares.  Picture Lance Armstrong bracelets that say LAID OFF NEED A JOB.  Or a beer mug that says “This beer is going down like the stock market.” Call me sick but I find this kind of humor HI-larious.

A few weeks ago I swore that I was going to edit my life of negative people who act like Chicken Little (so glad I’m avoiding them now as they are in a tizzy about swine flu!) and now I can replace them with perfectly sarcastic voices of reason.  My favorite Tweets are from and I wish I could go have a cocktail with those writers! You know someone who writes “Allow me to take some pressure off of your job search, no one is hiring” has to be a lot of fun.   I also like for saying what we mean. 

 OUTSIDE: Get well soon.

INSIDE: My patience for your condition is starting to wane.

While I don’t have the guts to send their cards out I love that they take a stab at the traditional Hallmark sentiment (usually insincere anyway).

This kind of humor is tricky though and I worry about marketers who try to copy the wit in their own advertising.  Usually backfires.  I’m particularly fond of Saturn’s new ad that pokes fun at car companies that promise to take back  your car if you lose your job.  The Saturn ad points out that it would really stink to lose  your job AND your car so they promise to help with your car payments until you get on your feet.

What makes you laugh (even when  you aren’t supposed to)?

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Gender Screw Up: PostScript to The Lady or the Spaniel

Last night I asked my husband Joe, a fellow dog lover, if he had looked at my just posted blog about Stump. And he read it and said, “Stump’s not a girl.” After the embarrassment of realizing I had heard the Westminster announcer wrong, and just blogged away without doing the backup research, I decided to pull down the post.

But then I thought, in an era when even US presidents can admit “I screwed up” about picking tax evading Cabinet members, I would ‘fess up to my mistake here.

But you know why I thought Stump was female? Because she, I mean he, has the steadfast characteristics that I associate with women. My friend Nancy, when told that Stump was a boy, wrote, “Too funny and a shame. Just assumed Stump was a female because of (her) persistence and stamina.”

So, I wonder, as women, are we guilty of seeing women in a more positive light? But if that’s so, why am I giving pretty Bar such a hard time?

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*Results Not Typical

As women across America are forced to make hard choices on where to spend their money, struggle financially and emotionally (the number of middle class families heading to food banks is on the rise), and look for ways to cut fat out of the budget, they are hoping that the decisions they make are the best ones for themselves and their family.

So given these circumstances and thinking about tightening my own belt, I found myself angered by a recent Jenny Craig commercial.   Valerie Bertinelli introduces an average woman and shows off how much weight she lost. The message was strong and inspiring with promises of “you can do it too” but then I was hit with the asterisk at the bottom of the screen *RESULTS NOT TYPICAL. And in further investigation, I found that each of the success stories on their website came with an asterisk as well.  

Now I know we’ve seen this legal super before but if there were ever a time for honesty, now is it. Women don’t have the funds to waste on products that won’t deliver. In fact, in these economic times, women will become even more vigilante when products don’t work.


On the flip side, in a commercial with Alli’s new spokeswoman, Wynonna Judd tells audiences that she is not where she wants to be yet but she is much farther along from where she was…that’s trust you can bank on and honesty  you can win her over with, even in the toughest of times.

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I was wrong in 2002


When clients asked me in 2002 about communities online I was bold enough to say “communities are crap.”  I was very, very, very wrong. 

In February of 2006, I found out I was pregnant with twins.  I found myself at  looking for other women in my boat.  I found a message board for women expecting multiples in October and started to post about my morning sickness, potential names, cravings … These women (roughly 75 at one point) became my resources for everything. Along the way, one woman caught my attention with her candidness, wisdom and humor.  Her name is Jessica Kate (JK) and her twins were born on October 11 just three weeks after mine.  They were welcomed by their two older brothers and their great father Charley. 

Since 2006 the message board (now a private Yahoo group) has remained an everyday part of my life.  When I travel for work, I try to meet up with some of the women on it and I feel so lucky to call this motley crew my friends.  When I was in Denver this summer I got to meet JK and we had a fantastic girl’s night out including margaritas and lots of laughing. Even though we had met online she was someone that I would have picked out of a crowd to be my friend.

Just a few weeks after I visited, one of her twins, Tuesday, became ill and went to the hospital.  She was diagnosed with Stage 4 Neuroblastoma and she went through more than 30 procedures (surgeries, chemo …).  It looked like she had kicked the cancer until suddenly a new and agressive tumor appeared.  This tumor took her life last night while she was at home with her loving family.  My heart is broken that she lost this battle against cancer.  It isn’t fair.  It isn’t fair that a family should have to bury their 2 year old.  She didn’t get enough time on this earth and she will be missed by so many people.

The one shining star of this experience has been how online communities, blogs and generous hearts have shown their strength.  Within minutes of the diagnosis, the women on my board mobilized to raise money and awareness.  T-shirts were made and sold, auctions for bracelets and artwork were held, artists from made custom jewelry as a fundraiser.  We each volunteered to send a package to the family on a different Tuesday.  Her friends in Denver used an amazing site called  to organize meals and visitors.  My friend JK kept us all posted with her poignant blog and wrote beautiful stories about her family and about what this experience was teaching them.  Strangers started to follow their journey and in less than 24 hours after Tuesday died there were more than 500 comments posted to the family’s blog.  Many of the posters strangers who found their way to her blog through other people’s blogs or Facebook status. 

So for anyone who sat in a meeting with me in the early 2000s and I said community is crap. I was wrong. Very wrong.

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Now We Know Why it Works!

We’re big fans of Tim Manners’ because it gives us our daily dose of marketing inspiration. But this piece really hit home. Tim writes about a new book by Dacher Keltner called “Born to be Good,” which reveals the power of touching and of sharing emotions. Manners quotes a review by Janet Maslin of The New York Times, “that laughing, blushing, touching, teasing, loving, empathizing and other not-very-scientific-seeming subjects can be methodically analyzed in terms of their importance to our survival.”  She continues that “A professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Dacher’s methods include elements of social science, neuroscience and clinical psychology.” Dacher explains, for example, “that touching … is a physiological way of encouraging cooperative behavior (and) that embarrassment is a way to deflect combat.”

At Just Ask a Woman, we all breathed a collective “ahh”. For the past ten years, we’ve been the kind of touchers and the empathizers that add up to a marketing research traditionalist’s worst nightmare. Not a session with women goes by without a LOL from Jen, a sympathetic nod from Tracy or a hug from me. While it might seem more Oprah than Einstein, we’ve intuitively found that women open up to those who open up to them. It’s only natural. I’ll tell you about losing my dog when I realize it happened to you, too. I’ll admit that I took a bite out of a coffee cart donut, (a freebie from my favorite purveyor Nazir) and then you’ll tell me you ate an extra roll at dinner. Leading the witness? I don’t think so. Feeling her pain, regarding her dreams, reaching for what she’s hidden from someone else? That’s the way women work. Glad to know that science is catching up!

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Just Listen…

As anyone who studies women (or who is a woman) knows, there’s a huge subculture of women (and some men) who like to pass along inspirational videos or emails, either as wholesale ‘feel good’s’ to their email address book or as cheeky ways to break up a busy day. Often they are rife with kittens and angels, sometimes they just issue warnings about when not to stop for a cop.  But occasionally they touch the heart of what friendship and being a woman is all about.

A week ago, my friend Mary Lynn sent me this Youtube poem written and delivered by author Kelly Corrigan, who wrote The Middle Place about the joy and heartache of being a daughter and a mother simultaneously. This poem is called “Transcendence; Words on Women and Strength.”  I watched it and had two reactions.

One was that it was something every company should watch if they are wondering what makes women tick. It’s a beautiful weaving of all the ways women talk and share, the secret bonds of sisters and girlfriends, mothers and daughters, the funny and the sad, but most of all, the very real fabric of women’s lives. If you only watch part of it, and figure, ‘yeah, yeah, I get it’….then maybe you ought to consider 2009 as the year you vow to really, really listen to women. Their stories take time, they sometimes wander and weave, they connect the past to what’s next and they get very, very personal. It takes a tough and tender marketer to do it right. But it’s worth it.

The other reaction I had when I watched this was to think of Jen and Tracy, Lily and Jean, all of us partners in Just Ask a Woman. We take our work personally, and our client relationships, as deep-felt trusts. We are so happy to be working together. And we send a special thank you out to the thousands of women we’ve listened to over this past year. They shared the best of themselves with us. What more could a woman ask? Happiest Holiday!

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Wal-Mart Women

In a recent New York Times article, Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen suggests that to defeat John McCain, Barack Obama needs to warm up to “Wal-Mart women.” The article didn’t explain just what he meant, whether they were women who loved to shop in Wal-Mart because of the low prices or were forced to, thanks to their income. The point is that he figured we all knew what he meant—a female voter either proud to be in Wal-Mart or stuck there, harboring doubts about someone who isn’t. 

Politicians love to pigeonhole women. After elections swung by soccer moms and red-staters, this one’s got Hillraisers, chardonnay sippers and GenY feminists. Marketers are no different. We like finding ways to collapse all mothers into Alpha Moms or all boomers into Empty Nesters, even if the moms are very Beta and the boomers never had nestlings.  

It’s easier to think of target customers as the same, or worse, as a better version of ourselves. How else would creative briefs have the nerve to describe buyers in specifics that can only be wishful thinking: “confident, optimistic, charismatic, fashion-forward, has a Puggle and is a huge fan of Mad Men.” Perhaps female marketers are really intimating, “She’s just like me on a good day” or their male counterparts, “She’s someone I wish I’d dated.” 

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about women over the years, it’s that they always surprise us. The sweater and pearls girl from Customer Central Casting is a screamer. The quiet, overweight woman is bubbling with fabulous secrets. The minute we blob women into “the target,” we risk force-fitting a handle and closing out the possibilities for unexpected insights –something we’d never want done to ourselves. Maybe the next convenient political ‘hook’ needs a re-look before we bite.

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Retail Therapy Comes Home


I don’t usually burst out laughing while reading The Wall St. Journal, but today’s “Excuse Me, Do you Work Here? No, I Just Need to Fold Clothes” gave me a well-needed belly laugh. Writer Jennifer Saranow reveals that an entire generation of Americans who worked stints at The Gap, now channel their obsessive folding skills to neaten up everyone else’s lives.

Saranow cites U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics counting store clerks at clothing and accessory stores at an annual high of 1.3million. She writes, “The Gap Inc… has trained ‘hundreds of thousands’… in the art of folding since the late 1980s.”

These proudly obsessive neatniks can’t keep themselves from folding everybody else’s stuff, even ‘straining marriages…and straightening up sloppy displays while shopping.”

Are all the former Wal-Mart greeters welcoming people home on their front porches? At dinner, are the McDonald refugees asking the kids, “Fries with that?”

I started to consider my own leftover habits and asked my Just Ask a Woman colleagues to weigh in. Thanks to four years as a bank teller, I count bills like a card shark, ordering denominations big to small, all facing in the same direction.  Jen’s haunted by an early pharmacy job to “turn the labels of all of my products in my medicine cabinet or fridge forward like they would be on a shelf.”  She also confides that she knows how to jump a too-long prescription line. “It is probably illegal, but if you write Dr. in front of your name on the RX, they usually will fill you first.” (I guess I used to know how to rob a bank, but I’ve unfortunately forgotten.)

Lily is obsessive about the way she slices fruit and dries glasses from her bartending gigs, and Tracy can’t help straightening the Hallmark card displays. “It drives me crazy when they’re out of order,” she says.  “I’ve even been asked for help because they think I work there.” 

Perhaps there are millions of women who now bring their oddball service quirks to daily life. Maybe there’s something calming about taking control or we use the excuse of “the way it should be done” to neaten life’s sloppy edges. Or maybe, we are just creating a little fantasy corner of calm. Jean, who hopes to work in retail someday (not too soon, I hope) uses her closet as her make-believe store. “I hang all my clothes and fill my drawers by type then category, then color,” she says. “Same with shoes. If they’re not in order, I can’t go to sleep at night!” 

Seems like retail therapy goes even farther than we think.

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October 18, 2021
by Mary Lou Quinlan

A look at an early production of WORK


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The God Box Goes Global!

“The God Box” has grown to include an app, audio book, philanthropic venture and solo show performed by Mary Lou across the US. Now The God Box Project goes global to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
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