Fender: an interview about Fender Play, Fender Undiscovered and being a female Director in MI


Hi all, Alice here! Last week, I spent some time with the lovely people of Fender Musical Instruments Corporation. As a newbie to the industry, I had little experience with the entire breadth of a musical instrument business, so they kindly gave me a taster of each department; from HR, Planning and Finance, to Marketing, Events and Artist Relations. It really gave me some context and helped me to see what exactly the MIA strive to promote, protect and support.

A highlight was getting to meet Nieve Cavanagh, who is the Marketing Director of Europe, Middle East and Africa. We talked about the ins and outs of our complex industry, and soon found that we were just as passionate as each other about the lack of female involvement that we face.

Nieve is one of the only females working in the MI industry that is in a Director role. She doesn’t come from a musical background. She had some very interesting thoughts, so I decided to interview her, for you to get an insight…

So here we go!

A: What was it like coming into the industry from a non-MI background?            

N: It was fascinating, as I’ve never worked in MI and I’d come from the Toy industry previously. It felt much more gender balanced in that industry, with probably about 50% of the management and Directors being female.

But before I joined Toys, I was in Tech, which as you can imagine was veeery masculine. I was working for Asian – Japanese and Korean – brands, where all of the senior positions were occupied by men. I was very used to being the ‘token Marketing girl’ within a sales organisation, but it was all I knew, so I never particularly challenged it.

When I moved into Toys, it was a revelation, like ‘Oh my gosh, this is genuinely inspiring’ – there were lots of incredibly capable and powerful women doing the jobs that I’d only ever previously seen done by men.

I remember going to a Disney showcase, it was their most important showcase of the year where they presented all their brands and strategies and the work that they were doing to their key partners. Every single speaker that day was a woman. I thought to myself that if a massive brand like Disney can do this, then why can’t everyone? Not that it should be ALL women, but it shouldn’t be noteworthy to have an all-woman line-up. That day it just really struck me as different that women were standing up and representing the business; but that shouldn’t be unusual!

When I joined Fender, it did feel like a step back from a women’s representation perspective. I think MI is a very sales focused environment, it does very much feel to me like tech did 10 years ago.

I’ve had an insight into various businesses across the industry since joining Fender, and I’m yet to meet any women at my level of seniority within a retailer, a supplier, a magazine or a manufacturer. While that’s quite disappointing, it also presents opportunity. If I look at the team that I’ve built here at Fender, a lot of the people that I’ve brought in have been women, and they’re very very good at what they do. I would also actively encourage the establishment of panels within our business and the wider industry to make sure women’s voices are heard.

So yeah, when I joined Fender it did feel a little bit like I was going back in time. I don’t want that to sound negative, because it’s an incredible company to work for, but it was just so different to the organisation that I’d come from immediately beforehand.

A: The MIA and the Music for All charity are really supportive of the Fender Play initiative as it focuses around making more musicians – why is it important to you?

N: Exactly that! It’s about creating environments that people feel most comfortable to learn in, if people are comfortable learning, they’re more likely to stick with it.

The Fender mission is to make sure that we support players at every stage of their playing career, so right the way through from them picking up a guitar for the first time, to them learning the riffs from their favourite songs.

If we can support them at every stage, we hope we’ll be the go-to brand when it comes to them investing in a guitar or an amplifier, or even just changing their strings. It’s about building relationships with people; people are naturally very passionate about music, and guitarists are especially passionate as their guitar itself is the tool of their trade. The more depth we can give that relationship and the more meaningful we can make it, the more long term customers we’ll create.

A: What has been your favourite marketing strategy or campaign you’ve created/executed so far?

N: It has to be the Fender Undiscovered project that we’ve run here in the UK. Supporting and fuelling the next generation of players is incredibly important to Fender as a brand, and especially to us in the UK.

The Fender Undiscovered programme is about giving a platform to undiscovered talent, and there is soooo much undiscovered talent out there. We actually had over 650 applicants that we had to whittle down to just 8 semi-finalists, and that was from an entry phase of just 3 weeks. The standard was INSANE – really fantastically good.

It’s something that we have driven exclusively in the UK – we’ve managed everything locally. I’m incredibly proud of what the team has achieved and delivered with the project. It really is a very exciting thing to be part of, we see it becoming a permanent fixture in the annual calendar. We want the Fender Undiscovered Artist of the Year to be something that’s coveted by aspiring musicians, so that’s what we’re working towards.

A: How does it feel to be one of the only female Directors/senior roles in the industry?

N: In all honesty, it’s not something that I’ve given a great deal of thought to. I guess I wouldn’t be where I am if I couldn’t hold myself in a male dominated environment. I hope things change, and I hope that in a few years I will be seeing more women across the table who are operating at the same level. I have every faith that could happen, there’s a huge amount of talent in the industry. It’s just a case of time.

But yeah, it’s not something that keeps me awake at night – I just crack on and do my thing!

A: What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?

N: Wow… That’s a really good question…

A: Or are there any barriers?

N: There are absolutely barriers, there’s no question, because otherwise we’d be looking at a 50/50 landscape.

There are barriers that are not exclusive to the MI industry. I mean the US is yet to have a female President, we’ve only had 2 female Prime Ministers.

There is no question that there are barriers to leadership across the board– they’re countless.

One important factor is the fact that women tend to be the primary care givers to children, so if you take a few years out for the sake of your family it can stunt your career prospects. I am hopeful that the new rules in relation to parental leave will start to bring about change in this area.

Some of it is down to role models – I’m a child of the 80’s, so when I was growing up the Prime Minister was Margaret Thatcher. She totally normalised female leadership for me. I didn’t ever think for a minute that I couldn’t be Prime Minister if I wanted to be. Say what you like about her and her policies – that’s one thing, but having a person you can identify with simply because they’re the same sex as you is incredibly powerful.

I think that there’s an absence of really good role models and that is partly because we still live in a male dominated world.. Things are changing, but the  sort of cultural shift we’re looking for is going to take time. We’ve been living with the patriarchy for centuries. It wasn’t until well into the twentieth century that things started to change. You can’t undo hundreds of years of cultural norms and completely change the distribution of power in a decade; it is going to take time.

There are industries where the balance is very different, there are some incredibly powerful role models out there that are becoming very important and influential.

I’d love to get us to a point where your gender is not a relevant prefix to your job. We shouldn’t be talking about female Presidents, female Doctors, female Astronauts, it should just president, doctor or Astronaut, end of. The fact that someone is a woman shouldn’t be relevant. It should be that the best person got the job, it could be a man, or it could be a woman. It doesn’t matter.

A: Your marketing team are a talented bunch of both males and females – with a pretty equal amount of both genders. When recruiting, do you consider the importance of getting more females involved in the industry, or are you always looking for the best person for the job?

N: Both. I do honestly do want the best person for the job and my decisions have reflected that. I am just very lucky that I work for an incredibly powerful brand that attracts a lot of different people. Lots of people want to work for us. I have actively wanted more women in a team, no question about it, it’s been an important part. But I give the best person the job, it just happens to have been a good few women since I joined.