Editor’s Note: The following interview features a GreenBook Future List honoree, Gracie McKinstry-Smith. The GreenBook Future List recognizes leadership, professional growth, personal integrity, passion, and excellence in the next generation of consumer insights and marketing professionals within the first 10 years of their careers.
Introducing Gracie McKinstry-Smith
Gracie is a Senior Manager in Marketing Insights at Target. In her role, she leads innovative research projects that play an essential role in championing the guest voice, empowering enterprise leaders to make guest-first business decisions. Some of her most impactful projects include testing concepts for new brands, facilitating immersive sessions, and running the “Seasonal Guest Mindset”, a major initiative that captured how consumers, think, behave, and shop throughout a full calendar year. She has also co-founded a Generation Z advisory council to act as a sounding board for senior leadership and served as the president of a marketing non-profit. Gracie aspires to be a leader who continues to make an impact at the intersection of marketing, business, and creativity.
What is something you’ve recently learned from insights?
In my role at Target as a Senior Manager in Insights, I’ve had the opportunity to lead impactful research projects that play an essential role in championing the consumer voice. My work has empowered enterprise leaders across marketing and merchandising to make consumer-first business decisions.
I love what I do, because I learn new things from research respondents, secondary sources, and broader culture every single day. Over time, I’ve learned that every human wants to be heard and seen. Listening to and building empathy with consumers and learning about their unique life experiences helps one understand the deeper ‘why’ behind their behaviors, feelings, and ultimately, shopping patterns. When empathy is a core part of the decision-making process, marketing and business outcomes are at their best.
What would you like the insights industry to understand about marketers, and what marketers are looking for?
Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to work on both sides of the business – from leading large-scope research projects to working on marketing and brand strategy. My experience in marketing has allowed me to understand what is most important to marketers and what they’re looking for from their research partners.
While it’s easy to get lost in fantastic insights or captivating data, insights professionals must remember to balance that with actionable implications. To be a true insights partner, one should shoulder accountability for the research, strategy, and results jointly. I try to ask a lot of questions and put myself in the shoes of my marketing counterparts, even proactively sharing thought capital that might be most helpful to them as they learn about a particular topic of interest for their business.
If you could go back in time to when you first started your career, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Looking back on my career, two key pieces of advice have really helped me grow and advance.
Firstly, gain as many experiences as possible across the entire marketing and research landscape. This includes working across various channels, teams, categories, and more, to be the most well-rounded marketer you can be. Jump in and work on a business or category you’ve never supported, experiment with new research methodologies, and work with agencies that push your thinking. At Target, for example, we have the opportunity to take on projects with other teams to learn new roles. Leveraging this program, I proactively raised my hand to support a campaign marketing team, which helped me learn a lot about how we create marketing campaigns internally.
Secondly, be your own career champion. Plot a meaningful roadmap with learning experiences that garner the skills that most interest you. In my career, wanting to learn more about the intricacies of the advertising and agency world, I spent a significant amount of time volunteering for the Advertising Federation of Minnesota (AdFed). I eventually served as the President of Ad 2, where I led a board of 20 people to support young marketing and advertising professionals across Minnesota.
If you’re looking for a career experience that doesn’t already exist, create it! This can include starting initiatives within your company or even starting things outside of work. For example, in 2019, I co-founded Sip & Solve – a social enterprise that encourages fun, skills-based volunteering that supports local non-profits in solving business challenges using design thinking principles. This initiative has taught me so many skills that I’ve been able to bring back into my ‘day job’.
By making these two focal points a priority, you’ll be well-equipped to accelerate your career progress.
What do you consider to be key characteristics or qualities of a leader? How does this play into market research?
When I think about the qualities of the most impactful leaders that have influenced me, each one exhibits empathy, authenticity, and integrity in both their work and how they interact with others.
Great leaders have deep empathy for both consumers and the people that they work with, caring greatly about their unique life experiences and well-being. They show up authentically as their fullest selves and empower others to be true to who they are. They also act with integrity, always doing what is right for their people, the business, and the world.
Whether they work in research, marketing, strategy, or beyond, exceptional leaders are just that – exceptional. In market research specifically, one differentiator would be the ability to balance great qualitative and quantitative research with the ability to think strategically and turn insights into business growth and innovation.
What is something you’ve built or launched that you’re proud of?
Last year, I had the opportunity to meet Maya Kantak, a Manager of Consumer Insights for Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products and fellow GreenBook Future List honoree. As we got to know each other, we discussed how hard it can be to meet and learn from other corporate researchers. We decided to make a list of aspirational brands and set out to find the best of the best corporate researchers via LinkedIn, recruiting them to join a one-hour peer networking event. What started as an initial idea and one-time meet-up blossomed into a full-blown monthly roundtable: Emerging Professionals in Corporate Insights (EPIC Insights).
Today, EPIC Insights hosts monthly meetings with attendees from brands such as Google, Whole Foods, Mattel, Peloton, and more, and we discuss everything from career advice to industry learnings (though nothing confidential, of course). I’m so proud of the close community we’ve cultivated and grateful to have a network of research peers, advocates, and friends to who I can turn throughout my career journey. I look forward to seeing how the group grows during its second year.