Professional Ballerina Turned Harte Hanks Chief Strategist Delves Into Human Behavior

Harte Hanks named Gretchen Ramsey senior vice president and the agency’s first chief strategy officer in July after she came on board from Omnicom in March as head of strategy.

“I’m going to get strategically geeky on you,” she said. “Strategists find insights … It’s our job, especially in this industry, to find collisions in the data. Inside the collisions in the data are beautiful human insights. Insight is just a paradox between what people say they do and what they actually do. I’m trying to uncover the paradoxes.”

Ramsey, a professional ballerina turned chief strategy officer, now oversees about 70 employees at the agency including strategy, analytics and creative teams. She takes responsibility for the company’s strategic offering and its proprietary methods and tools. 



Insights are her passion. She likes to figure things out, such as why people use TikTok more often rather than other platforms.

She held leadership roles at MRM/McCann and Publicis’s Blue 449, now Spark Foundry, and has guided strategy for brands such as Johnson & Johnson, the J.M. Smucker Company, MasterCard, The Coca-Cola Company, The Hershey Company, BMW, Procter & Gamble, eBay, Denny’s, Heineken, Pizza Hut, Bristol Myers Squibb and Novartis.

Search & Performance Marketing Daily (SPMD) caught up with Ramsey to talk about strategy, data and human behavior. What follows are snippets from the discussion.

Search & Performance Marketing Daily:  What did Thomas Hillhouse, digital marketing and technology lead, mean when he called you "not just 'a human,' but someone that truly understands humanity"?

Gretchen Ramsey:  We worked together for years at MRM/McCann. I grew up at McCann. I always drive toward understanding the raw hidden thing that’s behind why people do the things they do. I’m incredibly interested in behavior and defining human insight, but I do it in a gritty way. It’s almost like data anthropology.

SPMD:  When you were in grade school, did you want to grow up to be a chief strategy officer or was there another profession you had your sights on?

Ramsey:  When I was a child I wanted to be a ballerina. And I was. I was a professional ballerina before I went into advertising.

The interesting thing about the arts is, it teaches you to put storytelling and the human narrative above everything else. No matter the type of artist, whether a ballerina, a photographer, or a painter. It’s about unlocking that human narrative. I got very interested in literature while in the back of rehearsal studio.

I didn’t go to a normal school like other kids, because I went professional at fourteen. I would constantly read and research. I fell in love with narratives and understanding people and that’s how I ended up in this strategic field.  

SPMD:  Do you see other connections between being a ballerina and chief strategy officer?

Ramsey:  I’m not sure if you’ve ever known a ballerina, but we are obsessively detailed. It’s perfectionism at the highest level. You go every day into the studio three times a day to track the same movements. It’s pretty repetitive. The idea of understanding the minutiae of how you move through the world is applicable to my strategy for life. I live in the details.

SPMD:  What was it like to start your career at Harte Hanks during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Ramsey:  This is the best time to start a new position as a strategist because everything is shifting. Behavior is in a complete reset. The data is volatile. As a strategist to live in that world is very exciting.

SPMD:  What are your goals for the year?

Ramsey:  To be frank, Harte Hanks is a company in transition. It’s incredibly exciting to be part of something reformulating and rethinking how they should live in the market, pulling on its 97-year history.

The Harte Hanks Behavioral Index, a product birthed out of the pandemic, was created by the CEO Andrew Benett and I. One goal for the year is to continue to build on this index. It will help to understand people better than any other company.

We’re bringing on the best minds. We put together a behavioral advisory board. We brought in a former McKinsey global loyalty lead as an advisor, and the CEO of School Of Rock, and architect of CVS ExtraCare -- other beautiful brains diving into the projects.

SPMD:  What is the best piece of advice anyone gave you and who gave it to you?

Ramsey:  Eric Pakurar, a wonderful strategist, who founded Dirt Marketing, gave me an idea that I’ve carried with me. He said strategy is just about making choices. Those choices are formed based on art, science and instinct. It clarified a lot of what we do. It’s about being artistically selective.

SPMD:  You have a wonderful career and are married with three children, how do you do it all?

Ramsey:  It’s about making choices daily, where will you focus. We are doing something interesting at Harte Hanks. We’re partnering with the Healthy Minds Institute, a group of neuroscientists studying the way the brain works. We’re learning a lot about awareness and attention.

The idea of awareness and attention is about choosing what to focus on. If it’s your kid’s birthday, that’s your focus. Or if it’s a pitch for business, that’s the focus.

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