Women in Business Q&A: Abigail Posner, Head of Strategic Planning, Google

19/02/2016 15:26 | Updated 19 February 2016

Abigail Posner

Abigail Posner is the Head of Strategic Planning at the ZOO, Google's creative think tank for agencies and brands. As a thought leader, author, manager and corporate executive, Abigail has spent her life catalyzing change and ensuring impact. Whether it is leading brands at DDB and Publicis to new strategic spaces; guiding teams to reinvent themselves with new tools and practices at Google; stimulating organizations to adopt new cultures and modes of behavior; challenging the cultural conversations around beauty; or motivating audiences to reexamine themselves, Abigail sees it her quest to spark novel thinking and lead people to take action on it. Thanks to her degree in Social Anthropology from Harvard University, Abigail shines a unique, humanistic lense on culture, business and technology that brings fresh perspective to corporate culture, product development, branding and marketing.

Nearly four years ago, Abigail joined Google to create the Strategic Planning Practice. She and her team works closely with the advertising and marketing communities to help develop their strategic and creative efforts for the digital space. While at Google, she has also launched an industry-first thought leadership series on human beings deep, emotional relationships with the digital space: Humanizing Digital. This research decodes technology in an inspiring and useful way. And she has created and teaches an inspirational "culture of insights" program & toolkit for internal both Google audiences and key marketers "Behold the Aha: from Data to Insight."

Prior to joining Google, Abigail was Executive Vice President, Strategy Director at Publicis New York, where she directed strategic planning efforts for major new business pitches and provided thought leadership to key global clients, including L'Oreal, Nestlé and Coca-Cola. Before that, Abigail spent 11 years at DDB New York. There, she co-directed the strategic planning department and directed strategic efforts for a range of clients, from PepsiCo and Unilever to Hertz.

Abigail has spoken at key conferences including: PSFK, APG, SXSW, eMerge, MAD, CDX Forum, Yale & Columbia Business Schools and C2MTL.

Abigail has sat on World Design Capital Selection Committee, The Disruptor Foundation, Jay Chiat Awards Judging committee 2014, and on the boards of FAWN, Michelle Phan's lifestyle company; Disruptor Foundation, Global Diversity Leadership Exchange Advisory Council and TheSocialArchitects.

She blogs regularly on beauty in our culture at and has published the following articles: Memes Matter: Three Lessons for Brands (B&T --Australia's Leading publication for advertising & media, April 2014); The Ads Worth Spreading that Really Did Spread (Think with Google, March 2014) The Memes With Meaning: Why We Create and Share Cat Videos and Why it Matters to People and Brands (Fast Company, June 2013); The Meaning of Mobile (Think with Google 2012) Why Beauty Matters Today (Retail Online, September, 2011), Why Packaged-Goods Companies Should Market to Men (Advertising, February, 2009), Brand Management and Its Greater Purpose (Ad Map, November Issue 2007) and Why Your Mission Matters (Advertising Age, July, 2007).

Abigail graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor's degree in social anthropology. She lives in NYC with her Husband and 3 children.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Growing up the youngest of 3 children, I realized early on that I had to create my own, unique story. To stand out from my highly successful siblings, I had to have something different to say and some unique talents to point to. Given my brother and sister inherited my parents' math and science genes, I would often hear: "Oh, knowing your family you'll need to go on the math team (ah, not quite) ... must be a skilled test taker (hardly!) ... and are sure to become a doctor (no way)."

Thankfully, I knew early on that I had a passion for understanding not just what people do but why human beings do what they do -- why certain cultures eat what they eat, believe in what they believe, or organize their societies the way they do -- how they find meaning in their lives. So, I fell in love with the subject of social anthropology.

I realized that this passion had relevance to so many other aspects of life, from academics to commerce. Not everyone in the business world saw the link from anthropology to business. I got a lot of raised eyebrows in my job interviews, believe me! Eventually, I found two industries that saw the connection: in advertising and then at Google. Why? In order for us to understand how to sell something to someone or make something for someone, we have to understand what motivates them and why they would care.

Finding my story early on opened doors to worlds I never dreamed of, and keeps my passion for whatever I'm doing alive each and every day. And now, when it comes to my team, I urge everyone to cultivate his or her own story, too.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Google?
One of the many things that I have taken from my former work life is to navigate within messiness. In advertising, the creative process eventually arrives at a communications strategy. The process is very circuitous and chaotic, but we always land in a magical place. It can be scary at times because we're never quite sure if we'll actually find a solution in the end, but in the end, we always do.

Bringing this non-linear type of thinking into to Google has brought a totally different type of energy and creativity, especially to the engineering and sales cultures.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Google?
Our job as strategic planners is to make connections among seemingly unrelated pieces of data. We apply these themes to the development of digital solutions for brands -- from videos to new technologies.

We are hard-wired to be very lateral, intuitive thinkers, and in an environment like Google, it's both invigorating and frustrating at the same time. It's fun to be the ones with a different way of thinking and looking at the world, especially when we can truly help our colleagues arrive at an unusual solution.

But we have a very specialized skill, and not everyone embraces our world view. Maybe they haven't been exposed to our way of thinking or problem solving before. In the end, this difference can be a good thing for us, too. We must learn to see ourselves and our worlds in a new way in order for our thinking to make sense to others.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
While there's still a gap between the number of men and women in my industry, I actually see it as a great opportunity for us. At Google we recognize the value of diversity. True creativity and innovation can only happen when we have diversity of insights. So women are not only a welcome addition to the mix, but our experiences and unique ways of thinking are highly valued.

I'm not saying that it's all perfect. But the beauty of working at an innovation company is constant change. We believe every thing can be improved, adapted and made better. We take feedback seriously and use it to improve technology and culture.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Networking! I know this sounds cliché, but let's be honest -- most us don't really do it. I used to think networking was a "nice to have" vs. a "must have." I was so focused on being a good soldier and acing the job at hand. Don't get me wrong, working hard and continually raising my game is always a goal. But connecting with people is key. Whether it's networking with colleagues at work, with my social media contacts, or people with similar (or, even better, different) interests -- all of it is so important.

I'm now also a big believer in serendipity. I didn't learn this lesson until later on, but I'm trying to make up for it now. The more we keep ourselves open to newness -- new people and thinking -- the more magic we can create. By networking we open our minds to new ideas. We become more sensitive to others. And in the end, we get more things done. It's really an age-old approach. When we are connected to people, we are more likely to help them and vice versa. So, my advice to all people -- my team , my friends, and others is to "get out there." You never know!

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
The key is not to look for some holy grail or idealized version of work/life balance. You just do what you need to do for that day to make it all work.

Balance can change at every stage of life. When my kids were younger, I had to tackle the gamut of issues with my family and at work, so I just tried to offer my best depending on what/who needed my attention. There would be a day when my child would be sick so he or she would need my full-on attention. And there there would be another day when I had a major new business pitch, so that's where I would focus my energy.

The work/life question is one that women get asked often compared with our male counterparts. Why should that be? My husband, for example, is just as much, if not more, involved in caring for our family. Lucky for me, my husband and I are true partners and focus and refocus our energies from hour to hour depending on who has more or less time to devote to work, kids, volunteering, our home, or whatever comes up. Net net, balance is whatever you make of it and however it feels right for any given moment on any given day.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
There's no question mentorship is extremely valuable, yet I don't have 1 or 2 people I can point to and say these were/are my mentors. Instead, there were many people who served as "mini-mentors" over the years. I got bits of wisdom from so many people. I'm always open to receiving bite-sized pieces of mentorship from wherever it may come. The key is to really listen -- to the brilliance people have to offer us, sometimes when we least expect it.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are so many types of female leaders out there that I admire, like Meryl Streep, Katie Couric, and Anne-Marie Slaughter. They bust their butts and pushed themselves to great heights in their careers and lives. And when the chips were down, they persevered. They thrive in the messiness of family and work life, they have courage, and they even manage to look pretty damned good too!

But I also have to point to my mother as a leader. She is a pioneer scientist in a very male-oriented world and paved the way for so many young female scientists. She raised 3 children, published umpteen whitepapers, and even managed to be my style icon.

What do you want to accomplish in the next year?
Growth! I want to help my team grow and achieve their goals. I want my kids to move that much closer to recognizing achieving their potential. And I want to feel like I've made a difference and impact. Given how ever-changing my world is, my tangible goals can take different shape in a moment's notice. But despite all that, I want to know that I've grown -- spiritually, intellectually, socially and professionally.