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Lead strategist at top ad firm: Pitch intelligence to men

Veda Partalo, lead strategist, Droga5

Paul McGeiver/Droga5

Men often find it soul-sapping to watch TV ads constantly mocking them and their XY-chromosome compatriots. Veda Partalo, a 29-year-old lead strategist with the New York office of ad agency Droga5, says there's another way.

At age 13, you spent a year and a half in a Hungarian refugee camp after your family fled post-war Bosnia. What's it like being a refugee?

Every day, it's very monotonous–there's no school, there's no reading, there's no games, there's really nothing. So, when I came out of the camp, I had picked up two skills: One was this insatiable curiosity to find out everything about anything; and the other one was, I became really, really good at chess. In high school, I was actually on the chess team–as if being an immigrant wasn't awkward enough.

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And a chess-playing girl, too! Does being a woman give you an advantage in handling male brands like Cadillac or Porsche?

An advantage? I would say no. But it does give me a different point of view. I think women by nature tend to be more collaborative. I tend to be more collaborative. It kind of enables a whole team to come on a journey together, and to make decisions.

I think as women, we have an approach that doesn't alienate others, and that invites collaboration.

How about in the ads themselves? When I look at a lot of advertising directed at men, we come off as totally pathetic.

I feel it doesn't have to be that way. I worked on Porsche, and the most obvious way to go to men with that would be, like, "Sports car! Cool guy!" And it could have been this, like, crisis brand for men who are unsure of themselves.

It's not? So, I shouldn't buy one?

It is not a crisis brand! The tone of voice we kept in that campaign when I worked on it was all about [the customer's] intelligence. Treating men who are buying these cars–why they were looking at them–they were looking at the heritage behind them, at the build of the machine. There are plenty of brands that try to make every man seem like a forgetful dad who can't put his socks on without the wife yelling at him, but I don't think that's what we're all about. And as a strategic planner, your job is to present that audience in the right light.

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You lead strategy for Droga5 on Puma's advertising. What is the audience for that work?

Puma is unique in the [lifestyle] category, because it's not just about that competitive struggle–yes, it embraces competition, but it also embraces teammates, so anything Puma does is going to be about creating and encouraging joy in sport.

What led Puma to adopt the brand positioning of "joy"?

In 2009, our research for Puma uncovered a surprising trend–kids were increasingly disinterested in organized sports, preferring activities with no "rules"–skateboarding, dancing–over competitive, team-based sports. As pressure [to perform] became higher and higher with younger and younger kids, it became hard to find the joy, the "play,"

in sport. So, we sought to return joy to sports. While others talk about blood, sweat and tears, Puma recognizes that those cannot be the only rewards.

Usain Bolt is one of Puma's highest-profile spokespeople. After the Tiger Woods debacle in 2009, didn't we all become more skeptical of celebrities?

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That's a challenging question. Are people skeptical now when they're faced with Tiger Woods? Sure, but do people still need athletes to aspire to, athletes to embrace, to love, to follow, to cheer for? Absolutely. So, I don't think we've moved on from people of substance who are doing something substantial. I think we just learned to move away from people who lack that substance.

You're working on campaigns that won't be out until 2014. Is it weird to be living 18 months ahead?

We're a bit like mutants, as strategists, because we're always forced to think quite a few steps ahead and figure out different strategies and ways of approaching things, should the marketplace change, or should the competition do something different. Weirdly, now that I'm talking to you about it, it connects back to chess a lot, and being able to know what your next move is going to be, regardless of what happens on the board. I remember once, in 2006, I had written a huge white paper on what the state of the economy was going to be in 2010.

Ha. How did that turn out?

Believe it or not, I had some of it right. I had the housing crisis correct, and I had the discouraging difference between the wealthiest Americans and the poorest Americans right.

So, based on your hunch about housing, did you short any stocks? You could have made a killing.

I was, like, 24 at the time. If I only had stocks!

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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