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Q&A: Carmen Graf, GSD&M

It’s getting hot in here. Warming up a great conversation is an industry icon straight from Austin, Texas. Carmen Graf is SVP, Executive Media Director at GSD&M. Named 2016 Adweek Media All-Star, she shares her perspective on today’s advertising industry. We are excited to chat with her, as she is considered one of the known trailblazing media executives in the business.

As an agency veteran, what trend has had the biggest impact on the advertising industry?
Most definitely the availability of data, along with the ability for greater personalized and customized messaging, instantly. A close second is the proliferation of media choices and the amount of fragmentation. We hear a lot about this, of course, however I’m a big believer that fragmentation can be your friend if you do the due diligence to understand the audience. You simply marry the data, consumer media usage, and creative platform, and then let the magic happen. With today’s tools, we can continually measure and optimize while delivering a greater impact without the waste. What’s not to love about that?

You’ve been at GSDM for most of your career. How has your role changed throughout the years?
I’ve seen the number of media channels explode, the use of data incorporating deeper analytics and personalized messaging, and the need to lead a team of multi-faceted skillsets. What hasn’t changed is the need to tie everything back to the business goals, while having a holistic view of the communication plan – including media, messaging, and of course, business results. It’s imperative that we are able to see the forest for the trees. We have to be creative minded as a media team, while also balancing the importance of being analytical marketers. I call it the genius of the “&”.

My time at GSD&M has flown by and I’m probably having more fun today than any other point in time. I’ve had great mentors in Roy Spence and Judy Trabulsi, have worked on very different yet extraordinary clients from Walmart to BMW to the US Air Force, and I get to work hand in hand with the creative teams, strategy, decision sciences, production and the account teams to bring ideas to life that make a difference for our clients, every single day. With the merging of media, creative and data, there is a resurgence of having an integrated team and we’ve remained an integrated agency from day one. We learned early on that we are stronger together.

The industry is constantly evolving. What keeps you up at night?
Good question. Several things keep me up at night. First, we have so much real time data at our fingertips that it is imperative that we uncover the most meaningful insights. Data doesn’t start to get interesting until you start connecting it back to the heart of a brand. Second, we are always looking at ways to work smarter for our clients. There are new technology offerings coming out all the time – we must stay ahead and ensure we are building the skillsets that are relevant for today while keeping an eye toward tomorrow. And third, I want to ensure we are good partners to our media vendors, without exception. Regardless how fast we are all going, at the core, we are in the relationship business.

What are the biggest priorities for agencies these days? What should media and data partners know?
Unequivocally, it is agency-client relationships. We must continue to earn the trust of our clients to be more than advertising partners – we must be business partners, especially as data and analytics have become increasingly more powerful in decision making and results can be determined in real time. I like to think of our team as a group of Media Marketers rather than Media Planners or Buyers. The way that data and media partners will win is by understanding our goals and bringing customized solutions to the table, based on the brief and KPIs we share with them. It’s as simple as that. That’s why ensuring we are good partners to them is genuinely important. They understand their brand better than anyone – we need to be able to leverage their insight, talent, tools, and resources to be able to solve a business challenge.

How do you guys prepare and/or survive ‘planning season’?
Truth be told, there isn’t a true planning season anymore. That’s why it is really important for each of us to genuinely love what we do. We do the hard work upfront to understand the challenge we have to solve, and then we solve it courageously. We are always on!