Mcgarrybowen's Chief Strategist on Drones, Data, and Diving Boards for Brands

By Dentsu InSites Archives
Cover image for  article: Mcgarrybowen's Chief Strategist on Drones, Data, and Diving Boards for Brands

In Episode 41 of Insider InSites, I learned why mcgarrybowen's global chief strategic officer, Jennifer Zimmerman, (pictured above right) does crossword puzzles religiously and, more important, about the genesis of the agency's Big Organizing Idea platform, which sparked new creative for American Express and drone-dropping hotdogs for Oscar Mayer.

Zimmerman, who was employee number eight of the sole creative shop within the Dentsu Aegis Network holding company, also described the agency's focus on diversity and the elevation of women leaders, how strategy is the diving board and a creative idea is the dive in to the pool, and why, just as every story needs an enemy, so does every brand. But does she think data is the enemy of creativity?

The following topline highlights of the full discussion make for one of the most compelling conversations I've had recently and is a must-listen for anyone seeking to understand the imperative basics of solid strategic thinking to grow a brand.

The following has been edited for clarity and length, so listen here to the complete podcast for all the goods – including the genesis of her passion for shoes! And, subscribe to MediaVillage's Insider InSites (recently cited as a top podcast for digital advertising professionals!) on any platform — Stitcher, Spotify, iHeartRadio, GooglePodcasts, Apple, TuneIn, and YouTube.

E.B. Moss: Jennifer, you were mcgarrybowen employee number eight, but also the first female executive, right?

Jennifer Zimmerman: John McGarry and Gordon Bowen founded mcgarrybowen with an intent to create something new, with a 'gentleman rebel' ethos, and looked for [people with] quality of thought, but also diversity of thought ... to really challenge the status quo out there in the marketplace.... I might've been the first female executive, but we are now an organization filled with them, [reflecting] the ongoing desire for the best and brightest, rather than a desire to specifically find female executives.

Moss: What drives the push for diversity and inclusion in the media world?

Zimmerman: Two factors: One, client organizations are looking at their diversity [within] their agency partners…. We work very closely with Verizon, for example, which has made it a priority — with a metric around it — to ensure that we have a diverse talent base that reflects their customer base. The second point is, if you're trying to persuade and compel people in the world ... you need to have people that look like the people in the world.

Moss: We celebrated Diego Scotti of Verizon for activism around [diversity] at our Advancing Diversity Honors last year. And you recently added another client to your roster, Hershey's, whose chief marketing officer, Jill Baskin, is being honored at this year's induction at CES. But speaking of CMOs, how do you distinguish between that role and the chief strategy officer role?

Zimmerman: Most CMOs are responsible for the brand in their category as a driver of their business strategy, laying out their vision and using the brand as an asset to drive the business forward with a very vertical orientation.... I have a broad context as an agency CSO. I work across any category; I have insights about people who love Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing or Hershey's chocolate. I know a little bit about technology through our work with Verizon and Intel, so [I] take a very broad perspective — what consumers are thinking as people in the world — and bring those insights to our clients. If you think of a creative idea as a dive, strategy is the diving board... it's how you get into the pool. It's really the strategic intent that underpins the creative executions that are brought to life in a compelling way.

Moss: This is what you call "Big Organizing Ideas"?

Zimmerman: Yes — "platform thinking" that helps galvanize a brand's point of view... [is] big in that it transcends the category, and organizing in that it helps a company understand how to behave through that lens.

A great example is the "powerful backing of American Express." Backing is the new strategy platform for American Express. Their strategic intent for the brand is to back their customers in proactive and meaningful ways in life and business. The creative expression of that is about the new essentiality. "Don't live life without it." "Backing" as a thought can transcend communications and help the company think about their policies, their new value propositions, even how they train their employees.

Moss: So, that facilitates the iterations needed across media and marketing. Once you have that platform, you can apply it everywhere it needs to go...?

Zimmerman: Absolutely. [The Big Organizing Idea is now] mission critical. As you spend time with CMOs, the number of channels, the number of actions and brand experiences that are proliferating in the world... has required a uniform point of view to create different articulations of that.

We always say, "If you know what you believe, you know how to behave." If you know you're a backing brand, then that can become the lens for all your behaviors in the marketplace. It feels like a shared brand experience without being sort of matching luggage....

Moss: You wrotea postsaying, "Every story and every brand needs an enemy ... like Jet Blue's 'jetting' versus flying." So, Jennifer, in your story as a strategist, what's your perception of the enemy?

Zimmerman: We're always telling brands that if you're going to stand up for something, by definition, you have to stand against something.... The tension, the interesting part of any story, is the villain. When you go to make creative, think of it like being a gondolier: You have to push off of something to create momentum. Our strategy framework is really born from storytelling convention — reframing the problem in an interesting way ... and the moral of the story is a statement of belief.

Moss: Do you think data is the enemy of creativity?

Zimmerman: I don't think so, but there's a natural tension between solving problems starting with data and solving problems starting with creativity. Many of our clients are data-driven or data-engaged [and we embrace the] power of data. But, like with seventh-grade math: If you do subtraction before you do division and exponents, you get a different or wrong answer. The order matters.... If you start with data first, like how much more efficiently can I find people and market and create improvements, I think you get a lot of head nods, but not a lot of heart nods. It's a very rational approach. Increasingly, the way to front the marketplace is to find ways to emotionalize some of these issues.

Moss: In a previous podcast episode I did with one of your clients, Clorox, then CMOEric Reynoldssaid, "You've got to make an idea that connects with the head and the heart, that's relevant for the category and the brand, but also the person." So, what's the process for a brand to find what you call their unfair advantage?

Zimmerman: The Clorox organization is a great example of a company that understands and insists on the power of creativity and, yet, uses data powerfully to create value. They're an and company, not an either/or. As Eric and most CMOs understand, having an idea that consumers can buy into, versus just a proposition that they can buy, is increasingly how you win in the marketplace. There's a lot of discussion about digital disruption. I actually [think] a more nefarious disruption out there is parity disruption because, increasingly, all brands or product offerings are the same; a uniformity in every category. I think figuring out what your point of view is, what you're advocating for, versus what's your point of difference, which is harder than ever to find and sustain, is really important.

Moss: On the head side, Dentsu Aegis Network also acquired Merkel and now has more strength in the data area. How are you interfacing with the other agencies in the family?

Zimmerman: Merkel is a really robust CRM and data company with a product called M1, which is a powerful asset — a database of individuals that are trackable, that are addressable. The way it's primarily used in the Dentsu Aegis Network today, given its association with the media buying and the CRM side, is to find people to target from a media perspective. If you ... look at that data through the lens of creativity, it can actually spawn a whole variety of wonderful insights. And, again, do creative people love data? No, not in its raw form. They find it intimidating and hard to digest. Do creative people love insights? Hell, yeah! Because it actually allows them to start to key their thinking off of something that's powerful and tangible and meaningful.

I think the key for us moving forward, and the big opportunity for a lot of brands, is to figure out how to put that data trove in the hands of creative people in a way that they can use it in service of the creation of ideas.

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