In her new role as chief strategy officer of BBDO New York, Nicole Garnese has a bright new vision for planning at the agency, with a focus in the areas of innovation, data, connections, and cultural strategy.
She joins BBDO New York from the network's Worldwide team, where she has held strategy lead roles for The Home Depot and AT&T. Nicole has also held senior marketing positions at Samsung Mobile US, Haggar Clothing and Visa.
LBB spoke to Nicole about the steps that she and her team take on their path to 'strategic epiphany'.
LBB> What do you think is the difference between a strategist and a planner? Is there one?
Nicole> A great strategist directs a brand on WHAT to do and WHY it will help them achieve their goal. A great planner tells them HOW, WHERE, and WHEN to do it. The best people in our discipline are BOTH strategists and planners, which is probably why the words are used interchangeably.
LBB> We’re used to hearing about the best creative advertising campaigns, but what’s your favourite historic campaign from a strategic perspective? One that you feel demonstrates great strategy?
Nicole> When I see a great strategy, I am instantly jealous. And the strategies I am most jealous of are the ones that are elegantly simple, yet have an undeniably strong human insight. Some of my favourites include:
- Snickers ‘You're Not You When You’re Hungry’
- Progressive ‘No One Wants To Turn Into Their Parents’
- Pedigree ‘Dogs Bring Out the Good in People’
- McDonalds ‘Love is knowing someone’s order’
These strategies have all been the basis for long running, successful campaigns.
LBB> When you’re turning a business brief into something that can inform an inspiring creative campaign, do you find the most useful resource to draw on?
Nicole> Every good creative brief starts with a provocative question. The key to developing it is really understanding the core challenge in the business brief. You have to roll it over, dissect it and question it so you can understand the thing that is keeping the brand from achieving its goals. And then tie that fundamental business problem to the audience behaviour or perception change that will address it. That allows you to reframe how you can attack the real problem you’re solving for.
LBB> What part of your job do you enjoy the most?
Nicole> The moment we have a strategic ‘epiphany’ and all the pieces start to come together to solve the problem. Leading up to that moment, the struggle and stress is real, but the moment it clicks for the team is a magical feeling.
LBB> What strategic maxims, frameworks or principles do you find yourself going back to over and over again? Why are they so useful?
Nicole> At BBDO we believe that when creative work moves people, people move brands. ‘Works’ is our process for finding the cultural, audience, and brand truths we can use to inform a foundational creative idea that transforms a brand in the hearts and minds of consumers and creates experiences that move them to take action. People don’t want to be sold to, they want to be moved
I’m also a big believer in asking why. I guess I must have been an annoying kid. So, I still use the ‘Five Whys’ when I am trying to get to a deeper insight or to push teams to deepen our thinking. For brand positioning and personality work, I’ve always leaned into archetypes.
LBB> What sort of creatives do you like to work with? As a strategist, what do you want them to do with the information you give them?
Nicole> The best strategists are creative problem-solvers, and we know there’s more than one way to solve a problem or way into a brief. So, my favourite creatives are those that want to actively engage in the brief with us and debate a few insights until we figure out where the heat is. At BBDO, we make it a practice to bring in creative and production from the beginning of brief development. That sets the tone for collaboration across departments throughout the process. I personally love when creatives get energised by the rest of the team seeing the potential in an idea and then are open to continuing to to build out the idea collaboratively.
LBB> There’s a negative stereotype about strategy being used to validate creative ideas, rather than as a resource to inform them and make sure they’re effective. How do you make sure the agency gets this the right way round?
Nicole> Strategy has a significant role to play in getting to great creative work. We identify and set up the real challenge to solve, our insights light the spark, and we’ve typically got the research or data at our fingertips that negates the objections to a great idea. The key to making sure an agency fully leverages the power of strategy is to snag the best possible planners, empower them to be fierce collaborators working alongside our creatives, and make their success metric not just a great brief or strategic deck – but their impact on the work itself.
LBB> What have you found to be the most important consideration in recruiting and nurturing strategic talent?
Nicole> There are three critical things I look for and nurture in talent: Passion, persuasion and persistence.
- To do this job well, you have to be passionate about understanding how people think/feel and how advertising works to move people.
- You also have to be persuasive and able to sell your strategic ideas to clients and creatives. Often our deliverables are briefs and decks that inform the end product. We guide the creative work people ultimately see, but the strategy that goes into the shiny creative output is rarely seen.
- Great strategies and great creative ideas almost always face obstacles that require a tremendous amount of persistence. We can’t give up on strategies that we believe in. We need to be persistent in continuing to push for them even if it takes six months or years, countless conversations or ‘tests’ to make them happen.
LBB> In recent years it seems like effectiveness awards have grown in prestige and agencies have paid more attention to them. How do you think this has impacted on how strategists work and the way they are perceived?
Nicole> I began my career with a focus on digital, so I’ve always used metrics to determine campaign effectiveness, to optimise, and guide what’s next. I think an increased focus on effectiveness, including awards at even more creative environments like Cannes, is good. It's been proven many times over that the most creative work is the most effective work, so we should celebrate when a client wants to focus on effectiveness. In terms of the impact on strategists, I don’t think it’s changed how we’re perceived, but it has put us on the hook to understand and document all the ways our work is having success in the market.
LBB> Do you have any frustrations with planning/strategy as a discipline?
Nicole> There are a lot of stereotypes that exist within our discipline, for how a planner needs to ‘show up’. The expectation is we need to be bold, confident, provocative, ready to say something smart in an instant – I think feeling the need to live up to that keeps a lot of planners from really listening. We can’t solve problems if we don’t understand them, and understanding means really listening, having empathy for our clients and the audiences we’re trying to reach.
LBB> What advice would you give to anyone considering a career as a strategist/planner?
Nicole> Purposefully do things that push you outside your comfort zone. Go to a tractor pull and a Broadway show in the same week. Read a biography and a comic book. Play with every piece of new tech you can. We need to understand all types of people and all types of businesses – you won’t be able to do that if you stay in your comfort zone.