In Clear Focus this week: Bigeye’s senior strategist Dana Cassell joins host Adrian Tennant to discuss the role that strategy plays within a marketing and communications agency. Dana offers case studies highlighting how consumer insights and audience research can be applied to differentiate brands from their competition, plus practical tips and career advice for anyone seeking to enter the advertising industry.
Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, a unique perspective on the business of advertising produced by Bigeye. I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of insights at Bigeye. For those of you who don’t know us, Bigeye is an audience-focused, creative-driven, full-service advertising agency. We’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Providing audience research, branding, creative, media, and analytics services. Thank you for choosing to spend time with us today. For this episode, it’s my pleasure to be joined by Dana Cassell, Bigeye’s senior strategist. Dana has been with Bigeye almost a decade and focuses on consumer behavior, interpreting the results of findings from primary and secondary research. Dana synthesizes data into actionable insights that help Bigeye’s clients build strategically differentiated brands. Welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS, Dana.
Dana Cassell: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Adrian Tennant: What does your role as senior strategist at Bigeye look like? Describe a day in the life, if you will.
Dana Cassell: I love that question, “What does a day in the life look like?” I spend a lot of time on-site with clients in a discovery meeting. So, generally at the beginning of an engagement with a client, we have an on-site day where we have the leadership team in the room and our team in the room. And the first half of that discovery is a strategic discovery and we’re working on things like a SWOT analysis, key messages, understanding of the target current state of affairs. So I’m generally leading that conversation. I like to think of myself as a client advocate, so I’m basically trying to get myself up to speed and understand where they are in the business, what they’re trying to do. So I do a lot of that and I like a lot of that. I’m also on calls with clients a lot catching up on those types of items. And then the kind of other half of what I do is staring at the computer screen, blinking cursor by myself because I do a lot of documentation. So if we have a strategic engagement, I’m going to be documenting that entire discovery process and setting forth the strategic plan to move forward. So I’m either kind of with everybody or by myself. I like both of those pieces.
Adrian Tennant: So what are some of the most common challenges you see clients facing today?
Dana Cassell: I think differentiation is a challenge. In the, in the global economy, you know, there’s just not really a new idea anymore. So a lot of our clients have a solid product, they have a great internal organization and they’ve just either lost market share or other newer competitors have come on the scene and they’re having trouble differentiating. We also see a lot of lack of understanding of the audience. So maybe an organization, a client might have known their audience 10 years ago. They did a lot of research, they had a better understanding and they’ve just grown and changed since then. So they just haven’t, not a modern understanding of their audience. So I think that’s a challenge a lot of people see. Another one I see is our clients having trouble getting to a place where they can be more strategic rather than reactive. And that’s generally in my assessment, kind of – it’s like a legacy problem. So the organization just runs a certain way and the marketing team can’t catch up and get far enough ahead that they have time to breathe and be strategic. So it’s like the weight of the organization is forcing them to be reactive. It’s not that they’re not strategic thinkers, they are, they just don’t have permission internally to push pause on being reactive and move into a more strategic place. And I think often we help in those engagements because we can come into the room with the C-suite and make the case for why reactivity is not the best marketing strategy.
Adrian Tennant: So that being said, if you’re a new challenger brand, I’m looking to gain market share in a category with an established brand leader, how can strategy help?
Dana Cassell: I think the audience understanding and insight is, is a key piece of that game. There are industries where the leading brand is taking their position for granted and they don’t really have deepened relationships with their consumers. And that’s always an area of opportunity. I think we’ll probably also talk, I’m hoping we’ll talk about direct-to-consumer today. That’s another great example of ways that challenger brands are gaining market share sort of by a really deep specific understanding of their audience and an extremely clear focus. So I think new challengers that really get the audience have a singular focus and do that thing well, have a great opportunity to gain some market share.
Adrian Tennant: Great answer. Strategy can seem a bit abstract. What do tangible deliverables from strategy planning typically look like?
Dana Cassell: That’s a great question. So target market analysis is often one that we’ll deliver and this is related to audience and audience insights. So we’ll work with a client to understand primary, secondary, tertiary audiences. We’ll develop brand personas, key messages for those targets, where we find them in media, what their consumer behaviors like. So we kind of blowout a big profile of those target markets. So that kind of analysis is a real actionable deliverable. Often key messages is a piece of that. So I really like the kind of four-by-four model where we have four things that we like to say about the brand over and over maybe four words long that everybody in the organization can get behind. These are like little memorable key nuggets about a brand that we can work into. Public relations interviews we can use in social content we might use in our email signature. I love helping a brand kind of come up with these key messages that are like part of their identity, something everybody can understand and start to be a driver for a brand. So I often like to work in key messages. We’ll also make key messages as part of that target market strategy. So what are the key messages that resonate most with each message, each segment of that target market? Sometimes a platform analysis is a good one too. So we’ll have clients that are involved in a variety of social media and this is something I love to do as a strategist. So we’ll get a client that is doing a lot of social media and none of it beautifully. And I get the opportunity to kind of go in and consume all of that data, all that content they’ve been putting out over the years and understand what’s been working and resonating. I love looking at the data behind social platforms and coming back and being able to say, “the good news is you’ve been doing too much and we have an opportunity to narrow your focus and then really do what you’re doing well.” So platform analysis as a tangible deliverable. And then content planning is another one that happens often we’ll see organizations that are they know strategically what they need to be doing, but then the tactics of how to execute that strategy. So often one of my strategic deliverables will be a plan for creating and deploying content. So strategic recommendations on what types of categories are going to work best on their different platforms. So what should their blog focus over the next year be? What should their outbound marketing focuses be? So that content planning roadmap, that happens a lot too.
Adrian Tennant: I’m really interested to know how you get up to speed on a new client industry. Have you got a particular process that you’d like to share with us?
Dana Cassell: Sure. I’m just an avid consumer of that brand. I just try to think of myself as obsessed, kind of brand obsessed, and I’ll just literally sit at my computer and absorb everything I can find about them online. And then I do that for any brand that thinks they’re a competitor or any brand that they think is a competitor. And then also aspirational brands. So this is a question I love to ask clients. What are brands that you think are similar to yours that are killing it? And it might not be in their same market and might not be in their same service, but a brand that it’s like, I really like the way they do business, so then I’ll go absorb everything I can about those brands. And if they don’t have an idea of who those are, I probably have an idea of who this might be for them. So I like doing that. And then I’m also a data nerd at heart, which I would encourage anybody who wants to be a strategist to become a data nerd at heart. I love to go look at whatever data they want to give us. So one of my favorite places to start is with good old Google Analytics to understand what’s happening on their digital platforms. Sales data. I don’t know, I just, I like to… Annual reports, gosh, I love annual reports. Am I the only one maybe?
Adrian Tennant: I think you might be, Dana.
Dana Cassell: I love a good annual report. So I just consume all of the data, you know, and then I do a lot of listening so I love to read and then I love to hear from them. That’s kinda how I get up to speed. I also like to read things like job descriptions to learn how the brand thinks about the people they want working with them. So that’s a little hacks to learn how the brand thinks about themselves.
Adrian Tennant: Some really good strategic tips there, I liked them. Thank you. Dana, what brands do you most admire – and why?
Dana Cassell: This is a great question. I love this. I feel like I can answer in lots of different ways. So I like to think of Southwest Airlines and Publix as the same brand in my head and they’re kind of big ones and obvious ones that a lot of people love. So it’s maybe a bit of a cliche answer, but the things that I love about them are, I believe them and I believe in authenticity and transparency. I just don’t think there’s a way in 2019, 2020 to live in a non-transparent way for long. So these are brands that I think have been being super transparent for a long time. They have people who are happy to work there, which I think is a real key to long-term success is internal culture. So I think they’re doing that really well. And I also think they are trying to be exactly who they are. So they’re in a growth mindset as a brand. Neither of them are giving up market share anywhere, but they’re also not trying to be something that they’re not. So I love that about them. They’re authentic, they have happy customers, they know who they are and they’re living into that identity. So I really liked that about those brands.
Adrian Tennant: I should just explain for any listeners that are not based in the Southeast of the United States, Publix Supermarkets, the leading supermarket for sure in our region, privately held, and a Fortune 100 company.
Dana Cassell: Right. And originally a Floridian brand, now found widely across the Southeast and likely in a Northern market near you soon because like I said, they have a growth mindset.
Adrian Tennant: That’s meant to be a secret, I think. Not really, worst-kept secret now.
Dana Cassell: I love the Grocery Wars. Honestly, what’s happening in the grocery stores is great. We were talking about this for banking yesterday, following the way that grocery stores are moving Northern brands to the South, Southern brands to the North, and then expansion into the Midwest is a great case study for any industry that is looking to gain market share in a volatile environment. Because grocery is about loyalty. It’s grossly about consumer behavior. And it’s just a really fascinating idea to watch how grocery stores move into markets where they’re, they’re not, they’re markets of origin. I love groceries.
Adrian Tennant: Excellent. So what do you think about the success of direct-to-consumer brands, such as Dollar Shave Club, StitchFix, Casper, Warby Parker, Barkbox… there are many, many, many to choose from. What do you think about them?
Dana Cassell: I love it. This why, I love it. So it’s not, it’s not dissimilar from the Southwest and Publix idea. These brands are singularly focused on doing one thing really well. Warby Parker is going to deliver glasses that you’ll love, that you have control over the experience. I love that Casper mattresses, it’s a focused effort. They know who they are, they know what they’re going to do well and they’re not going to do anything beyond that until they can do it well. So that’s not to say that DTC can’t expand and grow their service line. They can, but they’re doing it in a way that feels authentic to the brand. And also all of these brands that you’re mentioning are obsessed with consumer experience and I think that’s been the key to their success. So the whole idea that there’s this user-generated content library of people unboxing mattresses, this is like watching paint dry! I mean unboxing a mattress theoretically couldn’t be a more boring thing! This has taken over the Internet. I think it’s amazing, but they’ve created a user experience that is engaging people in a category I don’t think anybody would have predicted. So I love that they also have streamlined billing. I think this is really important, now in our mobile environment, in our Apple pay environment, that the billing process is smooth and simple and transparent and these brands are doing that really well. They’re also giving people choice and control. So any sort of subscription direct-to-consumer brand that cannot be customized or that you feel like you’re going to lose control of your credit card or you’re going to be billed in a month. “I didn’t know I was going to be built. Oh, you know, I’m frustrated.” It doesn’t last. You know, that will work for a few months until somebody realizes that charges recurring and then they’re not only quitting, they’re also not a brand advocate. So what I love about these brands that you mentioned, Dollar Shave Club, you’re getting an email every month that says, “Hey, your box is about to ship. Do you wanna make any changes? Do you need this box?” And if you don’t skip a month or skip three months, they’re giving control to the consumer. And I think that’s just building trust and loyalty.
Adrian Tennant: So these are all great lessons that we can learn from DTC brands.
Dana Cassell: Yeah. And simplify, you know, they’re all, that’s what I was starting with the idea of being focused, knowing who you are, knowing what you’re doing. If the business is complicated and you’re on the inside, imagine how that feels from the outside.
Adrian Tennant: That’s a great point. Well, let’s change gears. Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you get to where you are today?
Dana Cassell: Hmm. Okay. So, um, I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and I don’t know when this started, but I think I always wanted to be an advertising because I really can’t remember a time that I didn’t. I have this four-H project from third grade, I’m left-handed. And it was called living in a right-handed world and it was an advocacy base about the challenges of being left-handed. Scissors can openers, it’s a right handed world. So I had this presentation that I loved and it was just this like little piece, understanding the way that it feels to be in the world and being a consumer of right-handed things as a left-handed person. And I look back and think that might’ve been my first piece of consumer research. So I think I was kind of always into it. And then I was looking for universities that had advertising as a field of study and I was not impressed with an advertising school that would send their materials in a white envelope that laid on my dining room table with all the other college envelopes. And then SMU – that’s Southern Methodist in Dallas – sent me their piece and it was what I wanted it to be. It was shiny and brilliant and well done. And it looked totally different when we threw it on the table. And my parents had drawn this radius on the map of two-hour flights and Dallas was right on the edge of the two-hour flight line. So I thought we should do it. So I went to school in Dallas at the Timberland Institute and had a wonderful time there. They have a relationship with The Richards Group, which was amazing as a student. And then graduate school in Austin studying consumer behavior where I had the opportunity to work on a team that was rebranding the university. They ask a few grad students in the ad program to help rebrand the university. And we came up with that tagline, “What starts here changes the world,” which was first recorded by Walter Cronkite, which was just an amazing experience and still can be found on football sometimes today. My dad calls when he hears it. So that was neat and I was able to document that process as my thesis. So that was a really fun experience and just kind of confirmed my love of advertising and branding. And then I always worked then, so that was 2004 when I graduated. It was kind of the boom of monetizing the dotcom. So I worked for a local newspaper as they were trying to figure out how to make money on their dotcom and got some really cool opportunities to collaborate with sales and technology and really start to understand the data that drives websites and how you can translate that data into sales and also leverage audience understanding and the use of a website to target advertising. So that was a very cool time to be in that world and it wasn’t as big then as it is now. So I was in analytics and I got a crash course in analytics, loved that and then moved into strategy after that. I think strategy and digital analytics are very closely linked. It’s a just a great place to start when you don’t know where else to start. So that’s been kind of my journey. I’ve been in analytics and consumer behavior and strategy since then.
Adrian Tennant: So as you know, we have a very active intern program at Bigeye. What advice would you give someone wanting to pursue a career in brand planning or strategy?
Dana Cassell: I think to have a growth mindset is really important because it’s always changing. The entire field is always changing. And to be somebody who is interested in learning every day and as much as there are common elements among our clients for strategic difficulty, everything is unique. Every client need and strategy is new. So to be able to grow and change except what you don’t know and go figure out what you need to know, I think that’s really important. So growth mindset, obsession with data. I’ve said it a few times. It’s my experience that some people, and there are even some holdovers in academics, that advertising is a creative endeavor and that means it’s an artistic endeavor and that that’s sort of like not congruent with data analysis, math. And I think that’s totally inaccurate. And I think data is creative and I think it’s really, really important to understand. And I think our creative team here would tell you that a data-driven creative approach is central to our philosophy. So obsession with data, growth mindset. Also, I think a solid business background. A lot of what I end up doing could be business consulting work. And I love that. You know, I love the Bigeye wants to get their hands in that. It’s not like, Oh, that’s not proper advertising. We’re not interested. Marketing and operations are closely linked, although I will say every day of my life, great marketing can’t fix operational challenges. We have to get the operations intact. By being able to understand that as a strategist is really important. So I think a little bit of business background is helpful and to enjoy problem solving. I’m a gameplayer. I love solving problems, doing puzzles, riddles. If somebody tell me a “knock, knock” joke and doesn’t give me time to try to figure it out, it makes me crazy. It’s like holding in a sneeze. So, you know, I think being a problem solver as another piece of that.
Adrian Tennant: So again, thinking about our interns at Bigeye, what kinds of resources would you point them towards to help them?
Dana Cassell: People. I was thinking about this. I had an amazing copywriter professor in undergrad who wrote the GI Joe “Real American Hero” jingle and also, “What would you do for a Klondike bar?” So he was a really neat professor who inspired me and gave me a different way to think about advertising. And I can think about my first boss that gave me permission to understand the Internet and the way that it worked and how that impacted advertising. That was a lot, that was a lot. There was a time where being on social media at work was not a thing, you know, and so to have offices that understood that while it didn’t seem like the right thing to do at might be. And then I can also think about people in the industry who inspired me to think differently about strategy. So I really think the best resources that I’ve had have been people and that is also like a life strategy of my own to find someone who’s a step ahead of me that I really admire. Look, aspirational brand – I do it in my personal life and understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it and just seek their wisdom. So yeah – people.
Adrian Tennant: Excellent. You’re so on-brand – your own brand!
Dana Cassell: Thank you!
Adrian Tennant: So what is one common myth about working in advertising that really needs to be debunked?
Dana Cassell: Yeah, so I think this one is that it’s super cut-throat, and every man for themselves, and unbelievably competitive, and it can’t be trusted. I think there’s this idea that it’s kind of all one big kind of battlefield in a way. I have not experienced that in 18 years of working in the industry. Obviously, there are some places that feel that way, but for me the best work I’ve ever done has been highly collaborative, very team-oriented. I have a personal philosophy that it’s very hard for me to work with people if I don’t have a connection. You know, I like to have a personal connection with the people I’m making these big decisions for brands with. So I have never been in an environment in advertising and done great work and that be the case. So I find advertising very collaborative, friendly, helpful – you know, the best work happens when there’s somebody from research, planning, creative, digital, everybody at the table working together.
Adrian Tennant: That’s great. So what have you read or listened to recently that really inspired you?
Dana Cassell: I’m an avid podcast consumer, so I listen all the time and I have this wide variety of podcasts I listen to. But I think something recently that inspired me was Tal Ben-Shahar on “Armchair Expert,” which is Dax Shepherd’s podcast. So Dax is married to Kristen Bell and he, I mean in his own right, was Crosby on “Parenthood.” He’s done lots of wonderful things, but he has this really interesting background in anthropology and psychology. And so he has this podcast about a year-and-a-half old and Tal Ben-Shahar was on recently. So he is a PhD-educated, Harvard-educated lecturer and just intellectual thought-leader. And he famously held the record for having the two largest classes in the history of Harvard at one point. And they’re all on positive psychology and happiness and leadership. And I love this because it’s data-driven approach because it’s a PhD style of learning and it’s about the impact of positivity on life and on the bottom line. So I really love this about him and I just found his time with Dax really inspiring because he just talks a lot about organizational leadership. And it’s like a data-driven approach to happiness, which I think there’s so much in the zeitgeist about positive affirmation. I love all of that, but I also love that there’s like data behind this idea of the power of happiness for economic success, like corporate kind of branding success. I don’t know. I really liked him.
Adrian Tennant: Excellent. Well, I’ll make sure that we include a link to that podcast in the show notes. (NOTE: the podcast Dana referred to can be accessed directly at: https://armchairexpertpod.com/pods/tal-ben-shahar)
Dana Cassell: Okay. I can’t be held responsible for everything Dax says, okay?
Adrian Tennant: Understood.
Dana Cassell: Okay.
Adrian Tennant: So finally, Dana, what does having a CLEAR FOCUS mean to you?
Dana Cassell: Having a CLEAR FOCUS to me means knowing who you are because I don’t think it’s a given that we all know where we’re going next. I think it’s really important that if we know who we are, we can figure out where we’re headed.
Adrian Tennant: Deep…
Dana Cassell: Maybe?
Adrian Tennant: Dana, it’s been a real pleasure. Thank you to our guest, Dana Cassell, senior strategist at Bigeye. You’ve been listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, a unique perspective on the business of advertising. Produced by Bigeye. If you have questions about the content of today’s show, please contact us at email@example.com. You’ll also find a transcript of today’s show on our website at bigeyeagency.com. I’m Adrian Tennant. Thank you for listening. Until next time, goodbye.