More With Less: Ryan Brown, Chief Strategy Officer, New Honor Society

by Dasha Ovsyannikova

Ryan Brown
Chief Strategy Officer New Honor Society

New Honor Society
Full Service
St. Louis, United States
See Profile

Tell us a bit about yourself and your current role?

I’m a designer at heart, but I never considered “design” as just a critical eye for aesthetics. I grew up with an anthropologist and have an unquenchable curiosity so am sort of a fountain of waiting-for-use knowledge. My coming of age in advertising coincided with the dramatic shift to digital, then social, then CX. Through all of it, I was labeled a creative, either operating as an art director, creative director and eventually as Creative Strategist (as I took on brand strategy, content strategy, innovation strategy, media strategy and even business strategy). Recently, I banked hard into strategic planning over creative execution, finding joy in the hunt for insights and the storytelling that can inspire, rationalize and sell good ideas. I got my creative kicks out of the T-up instead of the physical making. This is how I found New Honor Society, an advertising agency with a craft brew approach and big beer scaling power that is all about soul over sell. We’re purpose-built to deliver “more with less” and my role is crucial in that. I’m helping crack the code to ideas that inherently earn their reach, delivering more exponential value than we take in payment.


How did you get your start as a strategist? What led you to pursue it as a career?

I would actually credit it to the fact I always found the most exciting work, culture and challenger brands/clients at small, “digital” agencies where I served in the role as CD. The numerous hats one wears at a small agency and the fact that inbound briefs were less precise on deliverable meant each day was a bit like that scene out of Apollo 13… You know the one where ground crew had to kludge together a hi-pressure solution out of found objects for survival in the cosmos. The approach was always a thrill. I realized my passion wasn’t just the development of ideas, but the dissection of what leads to or led to them—culturally, behaviorally, statistically—to sell and prove they would work. I was resourceful and kept refining my ways leading to happy clients, awarded work and new business. When I arrived at my first traditionally structured large agency I pivoted, took up formal ranks as a strategist and adapted or remixed the established tools, processes and methodologies for planning. All the while, I never fully withdrew foot from the creative camp, making me a tough critic of how well ideas match insights.  

What set of skills do you believe it takes for a strategist to thrive in the current advertising landscape?

Fundamentally before skills, you need to have extreme curiosity that is not limited to any one subject matter… a sort of deep-down desire to understand ‘how the world works.’ And you can’t get there without also possessing humility that you’ll never know everything, and you naturally bring a personal bias to your observation, a realization that translates into empathy for others and their cultural perspective. You can imagine with these traits the many trillions of possibilities in what you chose to absorb, the vantage you select, the micro-insights at your disposal. Here enter the skills: the ability to edit and distill, the ability to simplify, and to communicate and effectively present. At the end of the day you have to wrestle a whole lot with yourself and know when your personal behaviors or beliefs may be challenging your path to an insight that may be very real to others. As the current advertising landscape continues to splinter and evolve at a relentless rate of change, the wrestling happens more, and “others” take on even more niche a definition or identity that is essential to understand. Nuance is everything.


What’s the most challenging aspect of the job? What helps keep the work interesting for you?

The clock. It’s both the challenge and the interest. Moving at the speed of culture I imagine is difficult for any planner who wants to really take in all evidence and then crack the case. It requires rumination, stewing, and time to focus and calculate that’s rarely had (or at least designated within the business day). It means in nowadays environment you can’t separate the planning mind at work from the living one grocery shopping with kids or binging on Netflix. Instead you’re constantly analyzing, sourcing and forming hypotheses (iphone notes is my go-to journal). And if you’re not careful you tip the balance from being an interesting conversationalist to someone who is exhausting to talk to because of a certain connectedness you bring to all issues. But like the Apollo 13 reference before, the rate of innovation and a deadline is what makes it interesting, even if it is ASAP. It’s a thrill to deliver just-in-time awesome and see it snowball.



Is there a part of the role that you feel is often misunderstood?

That by being a member of the planning team means you’re the ONLY strategic players, or the ones with all the insights because of industry conditioning or because “strategy” happens to be in the titles. I don’t like to think of the capability I lead as a strategic lynchpin. The insights we offer are never the only insights. Just as often a new perspective opens a new angle to research, test, and validate and in a fast-moving diverse world my hope is to hear and empathize with perspectives, sometimes challenge or debate them to align on truth. The process should be a short-cut for an otherwise long and aimless game of watching creative teams try and pin the tail on the donkey. But there’s still a blindfold meaning anything can happen.


Do you have any advice for those looking to work in a similar role? 

Curiosity, a keen eye of observation and energy are your greatest qualifications. If you don’t have them and are change adverse, maybe consider an alternate path.


How do you keep your finger on the pulse of culture? Where do you look for inspiration?

Nothing beats travel, just walking the streets and observing. I’m a big believer in the adjacent possible to spark new ideas and, from the dawn of man, it’s been brushing shoulders with people that has been the driving force of creativity. Our digitally connected world has meant this shoulder brushing can be virtual too. For that I lean on slew of tools and sources, the usual planning tools I’ll let you imagine. The best sources external to industry for me are a combination of Reddit, Muzli 2 plug-in for Chrome, Product Hunt, TikTok, Highsnobiety, Apple News, The Outline and Bored Panda.