Planning for the Best: Ross Garner on Why the Best Insights Are Grounded in Human Truths
Ross currently spends his days as a VP, planning director at Jack Morton’s Detroit office. He started his career working for an inspirational products company (yes, really) and has since taken a strange path through the worlds of social media, experiential, sponsorship, and integrated marketing.
Ross has been lucky enough to work for world-class brands like General Motors, Kellogg’s, LEGO, and Samsung, and has picked up some hardware along the way, including Webby and Ex Awards, to help justify his career choices to his parents.
When he’s not working on developing insights to help fuel more impactful, emotionally resonant ideas, Ross is a self-professed “coffee snob,” and is happy to tell you more than you want to know about the subject.
LBB> What do you think is the difference between a strategist and a planner? Is there one?
Ross> This is a hot topic in experiential because 'planner' often gets confused with 'event planner'. My take is that strategy is a discipline with multiple specialisations – and brand planning is one of these. If anyone wants to set up some kind of global meeting to settle this once and for all, I’m in.
LBB> And which description do you think suits the way you work best?
Ross> Setting my title aside, I like to use strategist because I feel like it’s the more universally understood term. Brand planning is an important aspect of what I do, but it’s not everything.
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?
Ross> I’m going to blame this on dad brain, but the first one that comes to mind is a case study from when experiential was starting to get a lot of buzz in the industry. There was this stroller brand (Contours) that had the insight that parents buy strollers based on a pretty limited set of information – because babies can’t really tell us anything about their experience with the product (the ride quality, etc.). The end result was a test-ride for adults in these ridiculously large strollers, which was both hilarious and a really effective way to generate earned media.
LBB> When you’re turning a business brief into something that can inform an inspiring creative campaign, what do you find the most useful resource to draw on?
Ross> Syndicated data is great, but you can only get so far looking at generalized behaviors and trend reports. I like to try to find verbatims – what are real people saying about a subject in interviews or even on forums like Reddit? The best insights are grounded in human truths, and it’s important to balance data with humanity.
LBB> What part of your job/the strategic process do you enjoy the most?
Ross> I enjoy “the hunt.” The search for a killer insight that creatives can sink their teeth into, or the feeling you get when you’re setting up your audience for a big reveal. There’s this moment when you know you’ve done your job – you can see it in the body language or smiles around the room, and that can be really rewarding.
LBB> What strategic maxims, frameworks or principles do you find yourself going back to over and over again? Why are they so useful?
Ross> If you’ve ever taken a Business 101 class, you’ve probably heard this quote from Harvard Professor Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
I like this quote because it’s a good reminder that a key part of the job is being able to differentiate between what’s essential, what’s interesting, and what’s fluff. I think the ability to filter (your own work, the thinking that gets brought to clients, etc.) is just as important as being able to craft compelling insights.
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?
Ross> I think the relationship between creative and strategy should be a true partnership, based on trust and a mutual willingness to push if something isn’t quite hitting the mark. If an insight or a strategy just isn’t working out, I’m not precious about it – let’s talk it through and get to a place we both feel good about.
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?
Ross> Part of this is process, and part of it goes back to partnership. If strategy is being brought in after ideas are baked, something got missed. Either the process needs to be reinforced, or there’s some relationship building that needs to be done.
Strategy should be seen as a value-add at every part of the process: as the starting point for stronger ideas, an essential part of getting them sold to clients, and the foundation for an effective campaign when it hits the market.
LBB> What have you found to be the most important consideration in recruiting and nurturing strategic talent? And how has Covid changed the way you think about this?
Ross> It sounds simple, but curiosity is one of the most important things we look for when we’re considering new talent. In fact, one of my go-to interview questions is, “What’s something you found interesting recently?”
This hasn’t really changed with Covid; if anything, the pandemic has reinforced the importance of staying plugged in to culture, trends, and human behaviour.
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 how strategists work and the way they are perceived?
Ross> I don’t know that this has led to a wide scale re-evaluation of strategy or the work that we do; if anything, it just reinforces the importance of staying true to client business objectives at every part of the process.
LBB> Do you have any frustrations with planning/strategy as a discipline?
Ross> I think we can fall in love with complexity – new methods or schemas or strategy shapes, etc. – which is one of the frustration points that Creatives sometimes have with Strategy overall. Good Strategy should add clarity and focus, and sometimes I think we get in our own way.
LBB> What advice would you give to anyone considering a career as a strategist/planner?
Ross> Three closing thoughts:
- Reach out to some strategists to get their perspective on the job! Even in the agency world, there are multiple roles that carry the title “Strategist” or “Planner,” but the day-to-day work may vary widely from agency to agency.
- I love what I do because it enables me to use both the creative and analytical parts of my brain; if that describes you as well, then Strategy might be a great fit.
- If you want to grow, ask for and offer help. Strategy works best in close collaboration with other teams – Account, Creative, Analytics, etc. – and each of those relationships can be mutually beneficial if you invest the time and effort.