5 Minutes with… Laura Janness
What’s the key to knowing if a career move is right for you? For Laura Janness, Chief Strategy Officer at Barton F Graf, it’s intimidation. If you feel intimidated by a challenge then it’s the right one to undertake. That philosophy has lead Laura’s career to some of the US West Coast’s finest agencies, including Deutsch and Goodby Silverstein & Partners, before heading Eastside to join Google’s Creative Lab and oversee the launch of Google Chrome. Laura’s spell at Google turned out to be fairly brief – but for good reason. The call came through from Barton F Graf founder – and one of the most lauded creatives in the business – Gerry Graf, and, driven by frustrations borne out of being client-side and Gerry’s approach to strategy, she immediately knew she wanted to join the newly formed agency. Five years on, LBB’s Addison Capper thought it was about time for a catch-up.
LBB> How did you get into advertising? Was it more of an accident or something you always wanted to do?
LJ> It was a bit of an accident to be honest. I was living back home in Michigan after graduating college and I knew I wanted to do something creative but apply my business background, as that’s what I’d just studied. Then I just… fell into it.
I went for an interview, and back then companies had the money to invest in different programmes, and I got enrolled in one. It was called the PDP - the professional development programme - and it allowed me to rotate through every department of an agency. One afternoon there was a birthday celebration and I made a wisecrack - I can’t even remember what it was! - but the head of strategy looked at me and said, ‘I want you to come and work in the department’. I’ve been in strategy ever since.
LBB> Do you think you had any childhood traits which might have signalled you’d grow up to work in strategy and creative?
LJ> Definitely. No one has ever asked me that question, but it’s true! I was terrible at sports - still am, always will be. I always ended up going to art camp, pottery class, finger drawing class. I spent a lot of time by myself as a child, but also a lot of time with adults in the art world. I loved it. I was always inventing; I spent a tonne of time in my room just drawing and painting and coming up with crazy ideas. But I loved spending time alone *laughs*.
LBB> Where did your career take you prior to working at Barton F Graf?
LJ> I spent a few years at Leo Burnett Detroit but I could see what was happening to the city and I wanted to get out. I wanted to see the world too; I had spent my entire life in Michigan and it was just time to go.
I was lucky enough to land an interview with Jeffrey Blish, the head of planning at Deutsch in LA. He was the only person who would meet with me, and he extended a job offer. I had my bags packed, ready to go.
I worked there for a few years and that’s where I really began to learn how to be a great strategist, I learned so much from Jeffrey. He’s an incredible mentor and thinker. He also really gave his department a lot of freedom to find their voice. I actually have a really great example of that too, I’ll never forget it. We were working on the United Healthcare business and he was moderating a bunch of focus groups and he walked into the back room and said, “ok kid, you’re up next”. I looked at him and said, “What do you mean? I’ve never done this before”. “Well you’re doing it now,” he said, so I went in and moderated my first focus group. That was his style and I thrived under that.
Then my husband accepted a job up in San Francisco, and I went to quit Deutsch but Jeffrey and the agency offered to pay for my apartment in LA and to fly me back and forth between the two cities. I would work out of the Deutsch office a few days a week. It sounded brilliant at the time. But really I have to be in it all the time to be really fulfilled. So I ended up quitting and heading to Goodby Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco. There was a planning department of probably 40 people, and it was awesome. Best group of planners I’ll probably ever work with, who have all gone on to do amazing things.
LBB> And then what happened?
LJ> I started to get a little bored but Chuck McBride was looking for a head of planning at Cutwater. I thought that sounded interesting and hard and different. So I went to work with Chuck and a guy named Alasdair Lloyd-Jones, who’s a fantastic human being.
We failed miserably, and I lost my job. I think my biggest fear was losing my job and I was facing it. I decided to fly to New York to meet with a few shops because I thought that maybe it was time to leave the West Coast. I received a good amount of job offers but the one that was the most intriguing to me was Google. It felt different. I was intimidated by that job. That’s what has driven my career; if I felt scared of an opportunity, I always knew that was the right one. I didn’t spend a tonne of time at Google but I learned a lot.
LBB> What tempted you back to adland and, specifically, what was it about Barton F Graf that tempted you away from Google?
LJ> I think when I started working with the other advertising agencies in New York City [while at Google], I just wasn’t impressed with what I was seeing in terms of the thinking and creativity, and also how slow they were in responding to feedback. I realised that I’m not the type of person who enjoys giving feedback and then walking away. I love being in it all the time. I’m not a pass-the-baton type of person.
Another frustration I had at Google was when agencies would separate digital out from traditional. I thought it was ridiculous. Why am I paying for two separate groups of people? Things like that were just chipping away at me and I thought things needed to be done differently. So when the call from Gerry [Graf, CCO of Barton F Graf] and Barney [Robinson, CEO of Barton F Graf], it immediately intrigued me.
I met with Gerry and instinctively knew he would be a great partner. He really believed in strategy and we shared the same vision for the company. I told him my frustrations and how I didn’t want to repeat them, and he was completely on board with it. I already knew I’d work really well with Barney because I was actually his client with Google when he was at BBH, one of the agencies I worked primarily with.
When you start a company, if you don’t have shared values and pure chemistry, you have nothing. I knew it was there, and that’s rare. There was an opportunity to create something different, I had a vision for what that was, these guys shared it, and I knew they were good dudes who would work their asses off with me. That doesn’t come around everyday and I accepted the offer within 24 hours. Thank God I did because five years’ later it has been an incredible experience. This is the one job where I never get bored, and I can never imagine getting bored or feeling unchallenged. I’m intimidated by working there everyday, it’s wonderful.
LBB> What are the most memorable projects you’ve worked on since being at the agency?
LJ> Some of the hardest experiences are the most memorable, actually. Really early on at the agency, we were pitching for the Little Caesars account. It’s a funny story actually. Little Caesars reached out to Gerry, offering to let us into the pitch… and it went into his spam folder so we never saw it. They eventually called up asking if we’re interested and we had no idea what they were talking about. They couldn’t change the time of it so all of a sudden we had a week to prepare instead of three.
We were squatting in a space on the West Side Highway that was kind of rough, and we worked like dogs for a week. We showed up at Little Caesars in Detroit and they had reserved a gigantic conference room for us. We were standing outside with un-tucked shirts, coffee stains on our presentation… we looked like a ragtag operation, but we were confident in our ideas. And then out walks Saatchi & Saatchi, and it looked like the Mötley Crüe road show. They had speaker systems, briefcases, they were dressed to the nines, and there were so many of them. The three of us just looked at each other as if to say, “we are screwed”. It was a classic David & Goliath moment.
We went in, gave it our all and won the business. It was a real proof point that great ideas can win and that we could compete with the resources that we didn’t have.
I had zero dollars to spend on a new business pitch - that’s where my Google experience came in because I knew how to work the research and analytics. I could bring in a different level of thinking that was almost scrappy and basic but which clients were really responding to.
LBB> Let’s talk about Clash of Clans - this year’s spot with Christoph Waltz and James Corden received 7 million views in its first 24 hours, and the 2015 campaign with Liam Neeson was that year’s most watched Super Bowl ad. Why do you think the work proves so popular?
LJ> First of all, Supercell makes the best mobile games - and I’m not just saying that because they’re my client. I think there’s such an attention to detail and character development that hadn’t really existed in the world of mobile games before. That’s the foundation we were building off. When we first started playing Clash we could feel such a connection to the characters right away. That surprised us. The whole category at the time was so focused on gameplay and it felt so much bigger than that. That was our first thought. It was quite provocative because we went in and challenged the brief and said we need to blow out this world and the characters, and give them the voice they deserve.
Our team actually picked up on some character attributes that the developers really had in mind when they were creating them. So there was a connection over that right away. I think the game team really appreciated that we understood that level of detail. That’s really where Clash was born.
The Liam Neeson spot is a little bit different because at that point in time of the game’s lifecycle we were in retention mode. That spot was really for the players. It was very specifically built around retaining current players and making them feel proud. The simple act of validating that platform is really important to the people who are spending a lot of time on it. Validation and celebration like that tends to go a really long way with the gaming community.
LBB> Which other pieces of work that you’ve worked on recently have you particularly enjoyed and why?
LJ> The Dr. T work for Boom Beach (another Supercell game). Boom Beach was also in retention mode. I love that as a strategist because I have to understand a true gamer. That is one of the most difficult audiences to really wrap your head around because you have to get it right. You have to know what they know or they will sniff you out, they’re quite brutal. So any retention job we get is one of the greatest challenges because you have to speak a different language or you’re not deemed authentic and it’s ultimately bad.
The whole campaign was really integrated and we were truly talking the language of the gamer. I think our agency doesn’t get enough credit for how integrated our thinking is. Gerry tends to get a lot of credit for doing funny videos but there is much more depth to our capabilities and how we approach campaigns. And that’s a really good example.
LBB> In the age of big data, quantitative research is really having its time. But, in your opinion as a strategist, where does qualitative research sit now?
LJ> Maybe I’m just old school but I love it. It humanises the numbers. I love it when it’s done right. What I mean by that is you don’t just end up with the creative piece of content without the entire process being creative as well.
I think it’s a way to approach research that’s more interesting, involves asking more provocative questions, getting people to think more creatively too. They’re capable of doing it, they enjoy it; we don’t give people enough credit for that. For me, taking the numbers but then humanising them is so important to the creative process. I also think that often when you look at data, it tends to beg a lot of questions that can’t be answered unless you sit down and talk to somebody about it. It’s a really important part of our process.
LBB> And how do you feel the role of strategists is evolving?
LJ> I can’t speak for other agencies, I really can’t - I think it’s so contingent on the relationship with the lead creative at the agency. I think the CCO tends to set the precedent of what that discipline ends up becoming. With Barton, I would have never joined had I not known that it was really important. Gerry craves information and he also loves debate, so the role of the strategist - and Gerry would say this too - is “to make me feel old and stupid”.
Our goal is to come to the table with a tonne of information and deep clarity, and to be able to rigorously debate ideas and get to the best place for the piece of business we’re working on.
LBB> What do you like to get up to outside of work to unwind and keep yourself invigorated?
LJ> Starting this business has sucked up so much of my personal time, so I’m usually exhausted by the end of pretty much every day. Five years in, I still feel exhausted a lot of the time, but I actually love that feeling so it’s not negative. A lot of my free time involves a lot of recovery.
But I love New York City. I love it. There’s something wrong with me how much I love it. Even in the summer, the smell of garbage, hot pavements and no trees. Everyone is in the Hamptons but I’m staying, I’m staying here. I love exploring the city.