Jessica Navas of Erwin Penland: “Staying Open-Minded is Everything”

By WomenAdvancing Archives
Cover image for  article: Jessica Navas of Erwin Penland: “Staying Open-Minded is Everything”

Jessica Navas, Chief Planning Officer for Erwin Penland, is a polymath who studied communications, French and psychology in college. Her career in advertising started with a job as receptionist at Chiat Day. “I began my career in advertising not knowing which area I wanted to go into,” she says. “It wasn’t until I started working with planners that I truly understood what they did, and I realized I’d actually been a planner my entire life!”  Luckily she was taken under the wing of her idol, Jane Newman, who was at the time President of Chiat Day and, later, a founder of Merkley, Newman and Harty -- and who was affectionately known as “the mother of account planning.” Navas recently talked with me about what she learned from the legendary Newman, how she identified opportunities for career growth, the advice she gives to college students today and how industry veterans can learn from young people.

Charlene Weisler: Jessica, describe your planning and marketing journey.

Jessica Navas: I learned the rigors of strategic planning from Jane Newman in a very pure way. And while it’s fascinating to see how planning’s application has evolved, the essential core of the discipline still holds true: identifying the real business challenges and creating an authentic and compelling brand platform that can help to take on those challenges. Though account planning was pioneered in the U.K., I’m also an impatient, pragmatic American, so I was well-trained in hunting, gathering and analyzing insights while also being very much in the camp of uncovering news I can use. Ultimately my training at Merkley Newman Harty was terrific, and the work I helped create was solid, but after a few years I was looking for new challenges.

My next stop was Cliff Freeman & Partners. In the late ‘90s, early 2000s, the agency was a hotbed of creativity and served as a finishing school for me: “Here, take your strategic chops and now here’s how to refine and put them into action.” I worked with some of the smartest creative brains in the business.  They truly challenged my strategic thinking and we all arrived at a better place because of it. Plus, I think Cliff Freeman the man is one of the unsung heroes of our business.

Eventually, at that point in my career, having been at small agencies, I wanted to experience a larger agency with big brands and global impact, so I went to JWT, where I worked on JetBlue, Lean Cuisine, Rolex, T.Rowe Price and Puma.  Around us, the media landscape was exploding and many of our clients had several agencies on their roster, each with their own lane of responsibility.

While we created work in a variety of channels for our brands, I was often envious of the opportunities smaller agencies were given. Shops that were kind of reinventing themselves intrigued me, defying expectations of being a “traditional agency.”  A former co-worker had moved to Erwin Penland, which I’d never heard of, but then when I checked them out, I was blown away.  Yes, they are an up-and-coming agency but more like this ninja brand that came out of nowhere, doing all sorts of interesting things -- clever brand communications and experiences in every channel. Not to mention they are social media dynamos.

Charlene: Do you use data for analytics and if so how?

Jessica: We’re constantly gathering data; of course we always have, but now there’s so much more, with so much based on real world behavior rather than “reported,” so it’s more truthful.  And of course, there’s data about everything: consumer behavior, media usage, brand perceptions. We have never had more tools and inputs, and everything happens simultaneously. Today we need to find ways to connect the dots, to uncover stories that serve not just our brands, but also our consumers, helping to bring them closer to how they view and ultimately brand themselves. There is a great quote our social media director always uses: “People don’t buy your product because they like the product. They buy the product because they like themselves.” It’s true! We are humble and explore how our brands can be in service of what consumers want for themselves.

Charlene: How do you achieve work/life balance?

Jessica: I think the word “balance” is overused and not necessarily at the core of what makes people happy, so I don’t really hold it up as a goal. Do what makes you feel good and excited and alive, which could be “unbalanced” living, but who cares? I don’t have children but we all have our own juggling to do. I have strong relationships, friendships; I get involved in charity and volunteering. How much energy do we have to give? Certainly like everyone, there are times when I feel out of balance and need to take a breath. If you don’t feel good and centered, you won’t have much to offer. I feel grateful that my female and male co-workers are very supportive of balance, meaning the pursuit of whatever makes me feel most energized.

Charlene: What are your views on mentorship?

Jessica: I feel very lucky that I’ve had great mentors throughout my career -- both female and male role models who have always been great supporters and champions. I love that they help me feel confident and I try to pass that on to my team. I want to help them shine by supporting them and pushing them forward. I also believe that we learn from the next generation.  I have 20-plus years of experience, but I also learn from the kids every day. It is important to learn both up and down. There is a Malcolm Gladwell quote I love: “Change your mind about something important every day.”  For me, staying open minded is everything.

Charlene: What advice would you give a college student interested in a career in media?

Jessica: Know yourself. Of course I look for someone who is studied, but also open and receptive to the world. The most critical thing is curiosity. I always want to know what they read, listen to and watch -- what intrigues them. I want someone who understands where we’ve been and is fascinated how that impacts what is happening now and how it may impact us in the future. Curiosity is key.

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