Going places! Gracie McKinstry-Smith

So great to catch up with Gracie McKinstry-Smith who is a Senior Analyst in the Consumer Insights team at Target and who recently won the Quirks Young Researcher of the Year Award! We chatted about her journey so far, her advice for junior researchers in lockdown, and in general, and how agencies might make even more of an impression on their clients.

Hi Gracie, congrats on your award! Lovely to catch up with you. Let’s dive right in shall we? So, how did you get into the industry, and can you take us through how you got to this point?

When I was younger, like so many others, I was confronted with the question of, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” While I think the answer to that question changes many times in a person’s life, for me, it became readily apparent when I started networking with marketing and advertising professionals all the way back in high school. Even at that age, I was a creative by nature, but as I continued on with my education, I fell in love with strategy. As I moved into my professional life, I found that Marketing, Advertising, and Research married the best of both of those worlds.

While I was deeply fascinated by all that I was learning about marketing in school, I was most energized by my work experiences in the industry. Through the six internships I completed across marketing, advertising, social media, and PR (including a London-based agency), I was able to really zero in on landing a coveted role at a top retailer’s marketing associate program, at Target Corporation.

Today, in my current role on the consumer insights team, I’ve gained a deep appreciation for the importance of understanding what drives customers. I believe that this understanding plays an essential role in helping leaders make business decisions that drive growth and shape company strategies. I strongly believe that research is the ultimate foundation for any career in marketing or business. I also believe that the demand for great research and consumer advocacy will only grow stronger in years to come.

And if you had to distil everything you’ve achieved right down to its bare essence, what would you say are three secrets to your success so far?

I don’t know that I have any secret sauce per se, but I can say that there are three specific behaviors that I look to exhibit that have helped me create value for the projects I’ve worked on.

The first behavior is being bold and embracing the excitement that comes with starting new things. I find that I am constantly looking for novel ways to solve problems. For example, I identified that Target had a distinct opportunity to develop a deeper, durable connection with younger consumers – specifically, Generation Z. Identifying this need, I co-founded a Generation Z advisory board within Target, recruiting over seventy young employees to act as a sounding board and research hub for senior leadership. The group has now completed over sixty projects, authoring research case studies and hosting workshops on the Generation Z segment.

The second behavior is curiosity. I absolutely love to learn and make time every day to do so: from reading marketing, business, and leadership content, to learning from brilliant minds on Skillshare and Masterclass. Being a lifelong learner not only makes you a better researcher, but also helps you connect the dots in ways you might not have ever thought of. Once example for this behavior was me being curious about the ways that Target could make an impact on the community via the skills of our employees. After recognizing that our team’s research skills could make a real difference helping one of the nation’s largest food banks, I assembled a team who worked with the nonprofit for three to six months. By utilizing the same research methodologies we employ in our everyday projects, we narrowed in on core insights to design a better, volunteer centric experience that would have volunteers coming back again and again. No matter your experience level, don’t underestimate your ability to recognize an opportunity space and be the leader that takes initiative.

The third behavior is connecting and networking. I started doing formal informational interviews as a sophomore in high school, initially using them as an opportunity try and determine what I wanted to study in college. Years later, I still meet with people every week, setting up ‘get to know you’ conversations with people all across the industry and beyond to learn more about their career journeys. I always end each conversation by asking each person if there is anyone else they suggest I meet with. This has led me to some incredible conversations with people at top brands all across the world, including Spotify, General Mills, Google, Facebook, Starbucks, and many more. This year, to take advantage of the world having gone more virtual, I pulled together a roundtable of emerging corporate insights professionals in conjunction with someone at Disney to keep up the momentum.

Zeroing in on the behaviors you want to exhibit helps ensure that you lean into the right opportunities, which eventually lead to your own professional advancement.

Not being in the office and around colleagues, it is incredibly challenging, for younger researchers to stand out. What advice do you have for a junior researcher, working from home in lockdown, on how they can best stand out and impress their teams?

COVID has certainly been an extremely difficult time for everyone. Interestingly, I’ve found that is has actually accelerated the speed of business in some regards: technology has removed many of the barriers, where co-working is not limited by geography. This presents several unique opportunities to take advantage of, perhaps using the time that would have otherwise been spent commuting, to become a better researcher.

For example, my advice to young researchers would be that now is a great time to learn a new skill or find time to become well-versed in a new topic.

Taking what you’ve learned back to your team to be a resource for others is a great way to show off your initiative. If you want to supercharge your learning via experiences, now is a great time to ask a co-worker if you can shadow them on a project – jumping in to shadow a meeting is now easier than ever.

Most importantly, I want young researchers to remember: if you need a break, take one! Taking care of yourself during a difficult time like this helps you be the best you can be at work.

And thinking more long term now, what two things should junior researchers focus on as they progress in their careers?

Being in the first decade of my career myself, my focus is on two key things, which have helped me deliver results for my business partners.

Firstly, get as many experiences as possible across the entire marketing 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 ability to take on projects with other teams to learn new roles. To take advantage of this program, I raised my hand to support a campaign marketing team, to learn more about how we create marketing campaigns internally.

Secondly, be your own career advocate. 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), eventually serving as the President of Ad 2, where I led a board of 20 people to support young marketing and advertising professionals across Minnesota.

In this same vein, if you see that something doesn’t exist, create it!

This can include starting initiatives within your company (as with the advisory board), 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 solve 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.

You’re on the client side, can you bring to life things that you think agencies could really focus on to make even more of an impact?

In my eyes, strong agencies that I turn to time and time again are those that strike a great balance between listening to the client, but also not being afraid to push us with their own point of view. These agencies are thought leaders in research and innovation and they offer trainings and learning experiences to our team that ‘wow’ us and make us better researchers.

Another dimension I look into when I consider working with an agency, is how well they represent the lived experiences of the diverse customers that shop our stores.

It is so important for the agency to be able to speak with those voices; I encourage agencies to increase the diversity of their teams.

Beyond being the right thing to do, it makes for the best experience possible for our customers.

Completely agree!

This advert is in pro-bono support of the in-person, face-to-face research sector.

And finally, do you have anyone who has helped your career so far that you’d like to acknowledge and say thanks or give a shout out to?

There are so many people for me to thank and acknowledge!

From the woman who taught me about marketing and advertising when I was a young high school student (thank you, Maggie!); to my first mentor at Target (thank you, Steph!); to my current leaders who advocate for me every day (thank you, Steve & Tisha!); to every person who ever accepted a coffee request that I placed on their calendar over the years; I am grateful to everyone who spent time telling me about their own career journey or supporting me in mine. Target has been an exceptional place to work and I am so grateful for the time I have spent here so far. Truly, there are so many exceptional people to list.

Knowing that so many people have helped and supported me over the years, I take purposeful time to pay it forward. Each week, I meet with and speak to students and professionals who are interested in the marketing, advertising and research industries and I look forward to continuing to give back to others over the course of my career.