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Planning for the Best: Smart Strategy with CJ Gaffney


Partners + Napier's VP group strategy director on being confident with 'invisible wins', the importance of clarity and the 10 minute after pitching high

Planning for the Best: Smart Strategy with CJ Gaffney

CJ oversees brand, business, and consumer strategy at Partners + Napier, working in concert with account, creative, and media to deliver impactful audience-led campaigns. Beyond being an incredible storyteller and culture junkie, CJ has a gift for simplifying the complex and cutting to the core of a brand’s purpose.

An expert in uncovering audience insights that fuel great creative ideas, CJ specializes in helping brands find ownable space in crowded categories. His strategic leadership has sparked some of our clients’ most successful efforts to date — such as delivering an average 4:1 ROI for four years running for a top health insurance brand, or a national restaurant chain’s nearly 20 percent increase in franchise sales and best sales week in years.

CJ previously oversaw marketing at A+E Networks and led brand-building campaigns for Applebee’s, Jack Daniels, Wegmans, L’Oreal Paris, and Dyson at Universal McCann.



LBB> What do you think is the difference between a strategist and a planner? Is there one?

CJ> Not a huge difference. I’d say, 'planner' is to painter as 'strategist' is to artist. Meaning the distinction lies somewhere between context and one’s own self-importance.

Describing yourself as an artist may be accurate, but it feels more open for interpretation and slightly more pretentious than just calling yourself a painter.


LBB> And which description do you think suits the way you work best?

CJ> Honestly, I’d much rather hear: 'that’s a smart strategy' than “ok, sounds like a plan.”

Does that make me sound pretentious? (see above)


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?

CJ> Halo Top’s 'Ice Cream for Adults' stands out for me. I’m a big fan of focus and a sucker for any brand willing to draw lines in the sand. Committing to  being exclusive (even playfully) is so much more interesting than desperately trying to appeal to everyone. I don’t know if that was the actual brief, but the crispness of that POV gives creatives so much room to play.


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?

CJ> 1) Stand-up comedy.

The way great comedians dissect the familiar and exhaust it for a new perspective is always what I’m striving for. Luckily, I don’t have the pressure to entertain or be “funny” with that truth, but how they go about crafting and editing the language so not a word is wasted is just as important if you want to make creatives feel something and get their wheels turning. 

2) Children’s books.

I have three kids under the age of six and am regularly struck by how kid’s books so sharply package dense subject matter in ways that can both disarm and challenge conventional thinking. 

LBB> What part of your job/the strategic process do you enjoy the most?

CJ> The 10-minute high after a final pitch.

The process itself is hard work, which is inherently satisfying (after the fact), but from a pure 'enjoyment' standpoint - nothing beats walking out of a room with your team members knowing we gave them a good show!


LBB> What strategic maxims, frameworks or principles do you find yourself going back to over and over again? Why are they so useful?

CJ> Whitespace maps are a go-to for me. They seem to get people aligned and help to avoid wasting time on any crowded or dead-end creative territory. I find it helps the most to draw parallels from unrelated industries.

Also, no matter how you dress it up, you’ve got to exhaust the 4C’s (Consumer, Category, Company, Culture). It’s unavoidable.


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?

CJ> Self-confident creatives.

The more confident they are in their own abilities, the less they sweat where an idea came from. They’re far too interested in making the final version 10x better than wherever it may have started. 

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?

CJ> That type of retrofitting is the result of bringing people in too late. Our creative leadership invites strategy (and media leads) into early reviews to ensure we’re not just rationalising ideas that are fully baked, but are able to pressure test and modify the recipe before sticking anything in the oven.

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?

CJ> My biggest consideration is ensuring they’re not me.  

I place a huge premium on being able to draw from different perspectives. One silver lining to Covid was that I began hiring out of market for remote-based roles. My team now has personalities that are drastically different from mine, with the added bonus of having them stationed around the country – bringing the influence(s) of their cities and surroundings into our team conversations each week.


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?

CJ> I’m all for it (but Partners + Napier has always leaned that way, so I’m biased). 

As a planner, there’s no question I’ve benefited from having to write and judge Effie submissions over the years. It has forced me to ask better questions at the onset of a project and be far more critical when writing my own briefs.


LBB> Do you have any frustrations with planning/strategy as a discipline?

CJ> A lack of clarity or true definition can sometimes be frustrating.  

While I’d probably hate it in real life, I sometimes fantasize about being a specialist who is the best in the biz at one specific job. That degree of predictability sounds insanely comforting at times. Rather, planners on the other hand are regularly asked to figure it out (regardless of having ever done something before), which has the tendency to prey on one’s sense of 'imposter syndrome.' 

LBB> What advice would you give to anyone considering a career as a strategist/planner?

CJ> Be comfortable with 'invisible wins.' 

It’s not to say there’s no glory in strategy, it’s just typically harder to trace a straight line back to any one thing you did. More often, it’s the by product of many ongoing conversations, careful listening, writing, rewriting, internalizing, influencing and contributing to healthy debate that breeds success in the role. 

But mainly, just be sure to wear cool glasses in meetings so people think you’re smart.

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Partners + Napier, Wed, 01 Dec 2021 14:09:36 GMT