The Luckie 7: A sit-down with Gavin Johnston, VP/Brand Planning

by Luckie Newsdesk


With 19 years of experience in brand consulting, strategic planning and consumer research, it’s safe to say Gavin understands brands, because he understands people. Here at Luckie, Gavin’s expertise helps bring the human experience to the heart of our marketing and advertising. That’s why we chose to pick his brain for our latest Luckie 7 to get insight on how brand planning can help uncover a deeper human truth.

How is brand planning done differently in a human experience agency?

I tend to think of it as uncovering the deeper human truth at the intersection of data, culture and psychology. The goal is to uncover the why behind what people think, say and do. Traditionally, advertising focuses on a single need – the advertising is often very clever, but it has a tendency to address only surface-level meanings. Our intent is to discern the totality of the human experience from the sum total of information available to us (data, culture, semiotics, etc.) and distill a single vision that speaks to a deeper human truth. I think a fundamental aspect to bringing that to life is unorthodox thinking.

What is the role of data in creating effective brand strategies?

Data sets the stage. It provides you with a grounding for asking why something is happening. Data is fundamental in developing a groundwork for where, when and how you communicate with people. Additionally, I think it serves to tell you where to go as your brand evolves. If we’ve done our jobs right, we should effect change. Data allows you to pinpoint where change has occurred and evolve your marketing in a systematic, predictable way.

“If we’ve done our jobs right, we should effect change.”

What’s the biggest misconception about what you do?

I would say brand planners are sometimes seen either as data hounds/researchers or people just making it up as we go along. Neither could be further from the truth. Planners are defined, in my mind, as people driven by curiosity with a talent for finding patterns that are often overlooked. That talent is partly a reflection of how we’re hard-wired, but it’s also accompanied by years of study in social sciences, statistics and analytics. A good planner is someone who is constantly pulling in information from every possible source, filtering through a series of analytical models and refining the outcomes into something that is useful, meaningful and true.

How do you ensure that strategy remains a key element throughout every step of a project (user experience, design, creative, development, etc.)?

We stay involved. Many companies (including many agencies) operate in a very siloed way. A strategy is built, insight is delivered, the research project is concluded, and then it’s handed off to the next group of people. I think that’s not only an antiquated approach, but also a dangerous one. So, briefings and kickoffs become working sessions rather than recitations of facts, collaboration is fostered by daily meetings, and people – regardless of their discipline – are encouraged to have a public shared space to post ideas and information as a project unfolds. The result is that there are more points of interaction between team members along the way, ensuring that we all stay true to the strategic vision driving the outcomes.


How do you brief the various teams to inspire human experiences rather than ads?

I think inspiration comes from a very primal, very fundamental place: storytelling. Stories have been an essential driver of change throughout human history. Storytelling has been the buzzword off and on since advertising became a thing, but there’s deep human truth to the principle that people need something that moves them at the core of their being. Good stories surprise us and make us think and feel. They stick in our minds and help us remember ideas and concepts in a way that numbers and text on a slide with a bar graph don’t.

What area of your field are you most curious to learn more about?

Symbolic triggers, which no doubt sounds strange. We have so much data and information available to us that it opens up rich new fields of exploration into why people do what they do. And with the explosion of content and technology, we make subconscious choices about brands that go well beyond functional benefits. If we can weave the pattern together, by aligning the right symbolic cues with the right message, media and technology, the end result will be brands that people don’t just like, but rather brands they fall in love with and curate for years.

What is your favorite tool or resource for developing strategic solutions for clients?

I would have to say direct fieldwork. If you want to have a real impact and a deep understanding of what makes people tick, you have to look beyond the problem to the world in which that problem exists. If you want to understand the opportunities for your product or service, then you need to think about how it fits into the bigger picture of peoples’ lives. Getting out and experiencing what people do in context provides a real-world way of looking at a problem or opportunity and applying social and cultural understanding to the topic. What you learn provides a wide range of answers that, if analyzed properly, go well beyond the tactical, the sensational and the superficial. When that type of understanding is paired with data, you can start to see the entire picture and develop a solid plan for communicating with people. You can drive action.

“The Luckie 7” is an interview series in which we sit down with people at Luckie to talk about areas of expertise and what it means to be part of a human experience agency. Want more from #LuckieHumans? Follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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