POV: Interview with John Roberts, Chief Strategy Officer, Partners + Napier

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



Welcome to The Agency Post. Tell us about yourself.

Hello, I’m John Roberts. I’m the chief strategy officer at an agency that has never been the same thing for more than two minutes. And that’s a very good thing because invention matters more than reproduction. Of course, I’m a stereotypical agency Brit who wears black and moved here eight years ago because:

a) All English planners have to emigrate. Otherwise, the accent doesn’t work.

b) USA is an adolescent nation in age and attitude, which is fertile ground for planners who need to share that innate entrepreneurial optimism.

c) My wife is a horse-a-holic, so we live in horse country.

d) All of the above.

Tell us about Partners + Napier. How does it differentiate itself in the industry?

We are engagement creators. We don’t start with that old “advertising first” perspective, instead, what excites us is doing whatever it takes to create truly meaningful brand experiences that inspire people to participate. So we’re odd in that we’ve been able to help clients define and articulate their brands, create new products and, sometimes, make them shelf wobblers.

What have been some of your favorite projects produced by Partners + Napier?

I will always have a little space in my heart for the work we did across many different facets of business for Kodak. Odd choice, right? Kodak is an iconic brand that’s in Chapter 11, but that’s a harsh reality of where our role as an agency sometimes sits. We do the best that we can and recognize that sometimes our best efforts can have a specific impact without addressing more significant business issues.

In the “Real Kodak Moments” campaign, there was such a simple, profound truth to the work. For too long the prevailing message had been that Kodak helps people capture and print photos. Yes, that’s true, but it is not as deep and meaningful as understanding why people want to share their pictures. In today’s hyper-connected, ADHD world, sharing is the currency of bonding.


Sometimes, simple isn’t so simple. I love coffee. I hate iced coffee. I’ve been told many times this is because I don’t make it right. And I’m not alone — that’s a simple but potentially crippling problem facing our client Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. I love the way our team approached the challenge of promoting the right way to make iced coffee using gamification. They turned a potentially tricky ‘‘doh-dummy’’ message into a truly engaging customer experience.


And my favorite project hasn’t happened yet…

What really excites me is not looking backward but looking forward. Planners must have an irrepressible optimism and hope. People tell me hope isn’t a strategy. Well that’s true, but without hope, you don’t have a strategy.

What is the problem with many planners’ approach to research? What is your philosophy?

The problem is not only with planners. The problem is broader: Research tends to be used as an alibi, not a stimulant. There’s way too much money and not enough sense being spent on “tried-and-tested” methodologies and PowerPoints.

I believe in provocative research, or research that stimulates thought and action. And more and more, I’m seeing valuable insights coming from the fringes — inventive qualitative and quantitative research that finds ways to dig deeper. Recently we’ve worked with people like Brain Juicer and BrandKeys, and I love their smarts in helping us understand and measure the strength of emotional equity. I just wish it wasn’t so hard to get clients to buy into a new way of discovering.

How has the relationship between the advertiser and consumer changed? What type of advertising is successful today?

We’re seeing more transactional relationships where clients offer short-term projects, and yet we still enjoy the strength of longer-term partnerships where clients can tap into our years of expertise. Frankly, I love both as long as the intention is clear: to deliver the best work.

I think that the best work today is truth well told — insight into what really matters coupled with the craft and genius of the creative idea. We want to be agents for change, not the company that tweaks last year’s work.

Can advertising still solve clients’ business problems? How do agencies need to evolve to remain relevant?

Yes and no. As much as we love to tell ourselves how critical we are, just as we discovered with Kodak, the sharpest strategy and amazing creative can only achieve so much. The business needs to be run well at a profit. Agencies tend to promote their uniqueness until they become successful, and then they operationalize everything and lose what made them great in the first place. Agencies need to become smaller to think bigger. They need to be more nimble and devoted to the problem to create genuine ideas and not focus on process and execution.

What skills does a successful planner need?

Same as ever:

  • Boundless curiosity, because the only way we learn is by doing, exploring and asking.
  • A thick skin coupled with short-term memory loss because you’re going to come back tomorrow and try all over again.
  • A deep, ironbound stubbornness to stand up for what you feel is right.
  • Astonishing perception to know what is right.
  • Humility to counter that brilliance because as soon as you think you’re the smartest person in the room, the room will be empty.
  • Storytelling that makes people want to listen and agree.

How is the emphasis from brands and CMOs on ROI and data changing your role or the way you approach your work?

On a bad day, it’s that rational alibi. On a good day, it’s allowing us to look forward, not backward, and to become better at creating genuine change. Too often there’s a rift between a CMO’s demand for ROI and the more junior marketer (who changes jobs every 18 months) and is measured more on deadlines and keeping costs down.

What does the future of the account planner look like?

The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades (thank you Timbuk3 and 1980s one-hit wonders). The world is changing faster than ever before, so there’s so much to learn. And planners thrive on ignorance to create understanding.

What inspires you?




Every other planner on the planet

Must-read book: “Vanity Fair.” I mean the novel without a hero, not the overblown glossy magazine. No, really. Get through the 19th-century vernacular, overlook the number of pages, and you’ll find an amazingly sharp, witty, bleak and optimistic insight into human nature.

“The world is a looking glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice.”

Failing that, read something that makes you wish at least three times you’d been smart enough to write it.

You can find me on LinkedIn and, occasionally, at Monty’s Corner for beer fridays at 5 p.m. You can also try to tweet me @samjackroberts, but I am not much of a Tweeter. I still have this antiquated belief: When publishing, make it smart. I hope this interview passed that test. Tell me.

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